The Myanmar army is carrying out “almost daily air strikes and shelling” in the restive Rakhine and Chin states amid a surge in clashes with fighters, with reports of at least 32 civilians killed in recent weeks, according to the United Nations human rights office.
The Arakan Army, an armed group seeking greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people, has been battling government troops for more than a year.
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Addressing reporters in Geneva on Friday, UN human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said Myanmar’s military operations “in populated areas” had resulted “in at least 32 deaths and 71 injuries since March 23, the majority women and children, and they have also been destroying and burning schools and homes.”
He later said that the 32 were civilians.
Colville said it was “very difficult to get precise information from Rakhine”, noting that there had been an internet blackout in the area since June 2019.
“So as to whether the reported casualties are the result of targeting or were caught in the crossfire between the Arakan Army and Myanmar government army, it’s not entirely clear,” he said.
Myanmar army spokesman Major General Tun Tun Nyi told Reuters News Agency: “We published news of what happened there. You can find out by reading them. I don’t think I have to give any comment on it.”
After local officials and a resident told Reuters that shelling in Rakhine state’s Kyauk Seik village on Monday killed eight people, the army said such reports were fake.
A number of countries and members of the international community have called for an end to fighting in Rakhine, not least to help protect vulnerable communities from the coronavirus pandemic. Myanmar has reported 85 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths.
Rights groups have said that Tatmadaw, as the military is known, is doing little to end the ethnic conflicts in Myanmar’s border states, where some armed groups have called for a ceasefire to focus on the battle against coronavirus.
“While the country is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the military is escalating its offensives against ethnic armed groups in Rakhine, Chin, Karen and northern Shan state,” Naw Hser Hser, general-secretary of the Women’s League of Burma told Al Jazeera.
“This needs to stop,” said the Hpa-an based activist. “We need to work together. Nobody can do it alone.”
The Arakan Army declared a month-long ceasefire for April along with two other ethnic armed groups, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
The military rejected the ceasefire, with a spokesman saying a previous truce declared by the government went unheeded by armed groups.