Thousands flee in expectation of Myanmar military operation

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Ethnic Rakhine villagers arrive at a temporary monastery camp with their belongings, Monday, June 29, 2020, in Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar. Thousands of people in an area of western Myanmar where there have been clashes between the government and ethnic rebels have been fleeing from their villages after an evacuation order from officials, despite being revoked several days ago. (AP Photo)

YANGON – Thousands of people in an area of western Myanmar where there have been clashes between the government and ethnic rebels have been fleeing from their villages over the past week after an evacuation order from officials.

The Rakhine state government in an order last Tuesday instructed village administrators in Rathedaung township to tell residents to stay away from their homes due to military plans to conduct a “clearance operation” against the rebels. “Clearance operation” is Myanmar military parlance for counterinsurgency action.

The exodus from more than 40 villages is continuing almost a week later, even though the order was revoked last Friday Rakhine state’s security and border affairs minister.

“Since the day the order was issued, more than 10,000 people from the operation area fled their villages,” Khin Maung Latt, an upper house member of parliament for Rathedaung township, said Monday.

The government has been embroiled for more than a year in an intermittent conflict with the Arakan Army, a well-trained and well-armed guerrilla force representing members of the area’s Rakhine ethnic group.

The guerrilla force is posing the strongest military challenge to the central government of the many ethnic minority groups who for decades have sought greater autonomy.

Human rights advocates have accused Myanmar's army of using undue force and targeting civilians in their operations fighting the guerrillas.

In Rakhine in 2017, the military carried out counterinsurgency operations against insurgents from the Muslim Rohingya minority, but critics charge they employed a campaign of terror to drive the Rohingya out of the country. An estimated 740,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain in refugee camps.