Activists and journalists say decision to limit internet access in some parts of Rakhine is a violation of basic rights.
Amnesty International has called on the United Nations Security Council to take urgent action against Myanmar before the International Criminal Court, amid mounting evidence of military abuses, including indiscriminate firing at civilians in the continuing conflict with armed Arakan rebels.
In a report released on Monday, Amnesty said that first-hand testimony, photographs and video evidence obtained by the group show the Myanmar military’s “utter disregard for civilian suffering” in areas at the epicentre of the fighting.
“There are no signs of the conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military abating – and civilians continue to bear the brunt,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns.
Ming Yu Nah said the violations were growing “more shocking and brazen by the day”.
Several incidents involving civilians injured or killed by landmines and bombardments have been reported in Chin and Rakhine states in recent weeks.
One of the most recent instances was on September 18, when a 44-year-old Chin woman was killed after stepping on a landmine while collecting bamboo shoots near a Myanmar military base in Paletwa.
In another incident on September 8 in Rakhine, a worker in Myebon township reported hearing heavy fighting that killed his wife and their daughter.
Myanmar’s armed forces, also known as the Tatmadaw, have been battling the Arakan Army, a rebel group seeking greater autonomy for the country’s western region, including Rakhine and Chin states.
Rakhine is also home to tens of thousands of mostly Muslim Rohingya, many of whom were forced to flee to Bangladesh after a separate military crackdown in 2017.
The witness whose wife and child were killed in September told Amnesty that there were no Arakan Army rebels in the area where the attack took place. Villagers believe the heavy weaponry was fired from a Myanmar military base in a nearby town.
Three other ethnic Rakhine civilians were also killed, including two seven-year-old children.
By one local civil society group’s estimate, the number of civilians already killed in this conflict since December 2018 in Rakhine and Chin states stands at 289, with 641 injured, Amnesty said. Tens of thousands of others have been displaced.
Both the Myanmar military and the rebels use anti-personnel devices in the fighting, and as such, definitively establishing provenance of the attacks is not possible at all times, Amnesty noted.
Current restrictions on access also preclude on-the-ground documentation efforts, it added.
A mobile internet shutdown and government crackdown on media reporting also make it difficult to independently verify the claims of witnesses.
But according to Amnesty, in July 2020 it was able to document “indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling” by the military, which also left fatalities and injuries, including of minors.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had also told the Human Rights Council in recent months that in Rakhine State, civilians “appear to have been targeted or attacked indiscriminately, which may constitute further war crimes or even crimes against humanity”.
In yet another incident on September 11, the Myanmar military admitted that three of its soldiers had raped an ethnic Rakhine woman during operations in Rathedaung township in June.
In a statement on the incident, the military later publicly named the victim but not the perpetrators.
“Even when the Myanmar military are compelled to admit wrongdoing, their handling of this appalling sexual violence case shows a complete neglect for accountability,” said Ming Yu Hah of Amnesty.
“These shocking events speak volumes about the Tatmadaw, and how deep the assumption of impunity runs within its ranks.”
According to Amnesty, satellite analysis and new witness testimony also suggested that Myanmar soldiers burned a village in central Rakhine in early September.
One witness also told Amnesty that soldiers launched an assault on another village, Hpa Yar Paung in Rakhine, on September 3.
A spokesperson for the Myanmar military, Major General Zaw Min Tun, told journalists a police vehicle was attacked by the Arakan Army with a remotely detonated improvised explosive device (IED) near the village.
According to Amnesty, the military was also seen arresting two Rakhine men from the village that evening. Their bodies were later found near the river with gunshot wounds the next morning.
“The international community must raise the alarm about the situation in Rakhine state now, or face questions later about why they failed to act – again,” said Ming Yu Hah.