One evening, while Ma Nway * and her family were having dinner, soldiers from the Myanmar Armed Forces, known as Tatmadaw, came to her home and asked for her husband. According to her account, they blindfolded her, drew their weapons and beat her in front of her.
“At the time, I could only cry,” said Ma Nway, an Arakanese from Rakhine State, the westernmost part of Myanmar, who prefers not to reveal her identity for fear of reprisals. “I was afraid they would shoot me, so I held my tongue… I felt like they were the most brutal people in the world.”
It was March 16, 2020 and the last time she saw her husband. He is one of 18 people from the neighboring villages of Tinma Thit and Tinma Gyi, in northern Kyauktaw County, Rakhine state, who were arrested in March and have not been seen since. Their families’ relentless search for information was met with silence, rejection and threats. Ten months later, they’re still looking for answers – and justice.
Three witnesses, whose testimonies matched those published by other media, told Al Jazeera that on March 13 and 16, soldiers in uniform wearing the badge of Tatmadaw’s No.55 Light Infantry Division did so. door-to-door arresting dozens of men suspected of having links. to the Arakan army, an ethnic armed group in search of autonomy.
Most of those arrested were released the same day, but 18 were not. The missing include a 16-year-old, three people over 65 and a deaf person. Al Jazeera used pseudonyms for the three witnesses to protect them from possible reprisals.
On March 18, four bodies were seen floating in the Kaladan River near the villages. One of the bodies has been identified by family members as part of the missing villagers. The family told local media that soldiers shot them as they approached the body, which the US government-funded television station Radio Free Asia said was riddled with bullets. The other three bodies have never been identified.
All of the missing are Arakanese, also known as Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group believed to constitute the majority in the state. Frustrated by political marginalization and perceived domination under Myanmar’s Bamar ethnic majority, growing numbers of Arakanis have joined the Arakan army (AA) in recent years. Since the conflict escalated at the end of 2018, nearly 1,000 civilians have been killed or seriously injured in violence, including indiscriminate airstrikes, gunfire and landmines, and more than 230,000 have fled their homes.
‘House to house’
The arrests at Tinma Gyi and Tinma Thit came after two weeks of intense clashes near villages. “Tatmadaw’s soldiers went from house to house, calling for the men,” said Tun Hla *, who was among those arrested and released. “I don’t know why we were arrested by the Tatmadaw. At the time, the soldiers gave no reason… 10 people were tied up and beaten with guns in front of me.
A few days later, the villagers fled.
Zaw Win, a local lawyer who helps families of the disappeared seek justice, told Al Jazeera that three elderly men remained in Tinma Gyi to watch over the monastery and have not been seen since either. Shortly after the villages were deserted, the houses were razed to the ground. The villagers blame the Tatmadaw, who denied any responsibility.
Myanmar police forces are under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, which is under the jurisdiction of the Tatmadaw. On March 23, a group of family members of the missing, now dispersed in various IDP camps, lodged a complaint about the disappearances with the township police. Letters were also sent to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and the offices of the Commander-in-Chief, President and State Councilor, calling for an investigation.
No update was made until June, when a spokesperson for Tatmadaw denied that anyone had been arrested in the two villages. Five more months of silence followed. On November 27, Tatmadaw’s spokesperson announced that the families could open a case at the relevant police station and that if the police reported suspicious information, the Tatmadaw would decide to conduct its own investigation.
The families returned to the township police station on December 8, but Ma Nway told Al Jazeera that duty officers warned them against opening a case. “Regarding the original case, the police told us their papers were missing,” she said. “Then they threatened us repeatedly that we could be detained and sent to jail.
“They said that this case did not concern them and that we should go to Tatmadaw station to investigate,” added lawyer Zaw Win, who accompanied the villagers to the police station. “When we replied that the police were responsible for seeking justice, they said they could immediately detain us and send us to jail.”
Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission, which has been criticized for not intervening in other high-profile cases, has also done little to support the villagers of Tinma.
Kyauktaw Township lawmaker Tun Win, who submitted the request to investigate the case, told Al Jazeera that the commission responded in November that the villagers of Tinma were not being held by the Tatmadaw. Its chairman told local media on December 30 that the pandemic prevented an on-site investigation and that the commission closed the case after inquiring with the Defense Ministry, which denied the Tatmadaw’s involvement.
A police investigation finally began on December 29, when district police in the nearby town of Mrauk-U called the villagers for questioning. My Nway stayed behind out of fear. “I feel like my children and I are not safe since my husband disappeared. I am really worried that we could be attacked because we have filed a complaint, ”she said. According to Radio Free Asia, the police took statements from 15 people.
The next day, Tatmadaw’s spokesperson said those concerned could file reports and present credible evidence to the local military division office or regional military commanders.
Al Jazeera’s appeals to Tatmadaw’s spokesperson, commune and district police stations, Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and Rakhine State government spokesperson remained without answer. Media are only allowed to report from Rakhine with permission and official escorts, and the government has restricted mobile internet services in conflict-affected towns, including Kyauktaw, since June 2019.
Local lawyer Zaw Win told Al Jazeera he was frustrated by an apparent lack of political will to deal with the case. “All authorities must assume their responsibilities,” he said. “Those in power must know the situation, respect human rights standards and demand justice.”
History of impunity
The Tatmadaw is known to have committed human rights violations with impunity, including following a brutal crackdown in 2017 against the Muslim-majority Rohingya in Rakhine state, which sent 740,000 people to flee to Bangladesh. An independent United Nations international fact-finding mission said in a September 2019 report that Myanmar was failing in its obligation to prevent, investigate or enact effective legislation criminalizing and punishing genocide in connection with its treatment of the Rohingya. .
The fact-finding mission also identified, in an August 2018 report, enforced disappearances among crimes against humanity committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states for which Myanmar’s top military generals are expected to address. subject to investigation and prosecution.
The cases of the villagers of Tinma are not the only enforced disappearances to have taken place in Rakhine State since the publication of the report. Between January and June 2020, at least 30 civilians disappeared in the state after being arrested by the Tatmadaw, according to a count by the Rakhine-based Development Media Group. As of October, Radio Free Asia had another 32 people who died after being placed in Tatmadaw’s custody from early 2019 until October 12.
In April 2020, UN human rights expert Yanghee Lee said accountability was key to ending the conflict between AA and Tatmadaw. “Having faced no responsibility, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity,” she said in a statement. “They are now targeting all civilians in the conflict zone … Their alleged crimes must be investigated according to international standards, with perpetrators held to account.”
Myo Myat Hein, chairman of the Arakan Lawyers Council, which provides legal aid to families of missing villagers in Tinma, also stressed the importance of accountability. “It is not acceptable to say that the villagers are missing because several people saw the Tatmadaw detain them,” he told Al Jazeera. “Conflict actors need to build trust beyond just talking about the national peace process.”
Since mid-November, fighting between AA and Tatmadaw has abated and an informal ceasefire is in place.
The dialogue is now taking place for the first time since December 2019. Tun Win, the Kyauktaw Township lawmaker, stresses the urgency of bringing justice to the villagers of Tinma and others affected by human rights violations in the ‘State. “I welcome the peace negotiations,” he said. “But if the perpetrators go unpunished, it will be difficult to achieve lasting peace.”
For the families of the missing, the current absence of clashes offers little comfort. “Although AA and Tatmadaw have stopped fighting for two months, we have heard nothing about our villagers,” said Bo Aung *, whose son is among the missing.
Ma Nway said she slept sleepless at night, worrying about her husband and fearing for herself and the safety and survival of her children. They have not been able to harvest their rice fields this season and live on 15,000 kyat ($ 11) per month in food aid. Ma Nway wants to go home but still fears the soldiers stationed near her village. “As long as they stay there, we won’t be safe,” she said.
* Pseudonyms have been used to protect the security of witnesses.