Mine blasts in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state killed two Rohingya children and injured another child as they picked mangoes in a deserted village on Wednesday, with the government military and the rebel Arakan Army blaming each other for the deadly explosions, locals said.
The blast highlighted the peril and instability in Rakhine as two U.N. agencies and Myanmar extended an agreement to work for the return from refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh of more than 740,000 Rohingya, who were expelled from Myanmar in what U.N. reports called an ethnic cleaning campaign in 2017.
“We have heard that there was a mine explosion in Charkay village of the Thayatpyin village tract, and that two Rohingya children were killed,” said a local resident who declined to be named out of fear for his safety.
“Only [ethnic] Rakhines live in Charkay, and the situation in that village is not so bad,” he added. “We don’t know who is responsible for this. We have heard that battles break out often there, so I don’t visit the place.”
Tun Aung Thein, a Rakhine state legislator from the Arakan National Party (ANP), who represents the Buthidaung township constituency, which includes the Thayatpyin village tract, said: “Two Muslim children, 15 and 10 years old, died, and another 10-year-old was injured and has been hospitalized.”
The administrator of Phone Nyo Leik village, a mostly Muslim community that is part of Thayatpyin village tract, said that the injured child is a resident of his village.
“The [other] two children died in the Thayatpyin village tract,” he said. “I don’t know the details because I was traveling.”
It remains unclear which army planted the mines in the area.
“If you ask the relatives of the dead children who is responsible for the mines, the truth might come to be known,” said Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun.
“The AA has a history of placing mines in the villages, and there was a previous incident in a nearby village,” he said. “They even had asked Muslim villagers to guard the mines and had a quarrel about it before.” RFA was unable to verify his statement.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said that there had been no recent battles in Buthidaung township, and that most Thayatpyin residents had deserted the area after their houses were burned down in a shelling attack in 2019.
“Muslim children went into the villages to pick mangoes, and they might have stepped on old mines left by the Myanmar Army,” he said. “The Myanmar Army has never cleared the mines.”
According to an RFA tally, 47 civilians have died and 88 have been injured since April amid the armed conflict between Myanmar and Arakan forces.
In November 2019, at least one Rohingya civilian was killed by a stray bullet and three others were wounded when mortar shells fell on Phone Nyo Leik village during a clash. Explosions from the shelling burned more than 30 homes, witnesses told RFA at the time.
UN MoU extended
The armed conflict between the Myanmar Army and the AA, which has raged for 16 months, has added to the devastation to northern Rakhine state caused by a violent military-led crackdown on Rohingya communities in August 2017 in response to deadly attacks on 30 police outposts and a military base by a Muslim militant group.
The crackdown left thousands of Rohingya dead and drove more than 740,000 others across the border and into Bangladesh where they now live in sprawling, overcrowded displacement camps.
U.N. investigators have described the military’s actions against the Rohingya as “genocide.”
On Monday, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) agreed with the Myanmar government to extend a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for activities in Rakhine state through June 2021, including the so far fruitless effort to convince fearful Rohingya to return to Myanmar.
The MoU said the parties aim to create a conducive environment for the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, as well as to support the recovery of Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung — the three townships most affected by the army’s scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya.
The parties signed the original MoU in June 2018 for the agencies to assist with the voluntary return and reintegration of displaced Rohingya. They also agreed to assess conditions in Rakhine state for those contemplating returns and to support programs benefiting all communities in the multiethnic state. The MoU was extended for the first time in May 2019.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement in November 2017 for the repatriation of the Rohingya who fled, but the program has been beset by problems.
So far, no Rohingya refugees have returned to Myanmar through official channels, and only a few hundred have returned of their own volition.
The Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh say they will not consider going back unless the Myanmar government guarantees their safety and grants them full citizenship rights and other basic freedoms.
Under the MoU, the two U.N. agencies have conducted assessments for infrastructure projects to improve water supplies, rehabilitated roads and schools, and provided skills training and income-generating projects.
The agencies said they are conducting more assessments in the area, but that the COVID-19 crisis has constrained efforts.
“While the environment in Rakhine state is not yet conducive to the voluntary repatriation of refugees, the MoU has allowed UNHCR and UNDP teams to assess the immediate needs in over 120 villages so far in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships,” said a statement issued Monday by the two agencies.
“We have consulted over 2,600 people on their communities’ priorities, ensuring that the projects will best meet their needs and serve to promote social cohesion between communities,” it said.
The UNDP and UNHCR also called on the Myanmar government to address the root causes of the refugee crisis and to work to resolve the religious and ethnic divisions in the unstable region, ensuring that the Rohingya have freedom of movement, citizenship rights, and increased access to public services and jobs.
Bangladesh welcomes move
Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen welcomed news of the extension of the MoU.
“This is a good development that the MoU has been extended further, and that Myanmar has been diplomatically engaged with the U.N. and other international agencies,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Wednesday.
“Now, the Myanmar government must work to take their people back,” he said, urging officials to work with the U.N. agencies to create a conducive atmosphere in Rakhine for the return of the Rohingya.
“The U.N. agencies should be more active in this regard,” Momen added.
Former Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Touhid Hossain said Myanmar has a responsibility to resolve the Rohingya crisis that it created.
“Myanmar forced the Rohingya people to leave their motherland in Rakhine, so they must resolve it,” he said.
“An insecure atmosphere in Myanmar still persists,” he said. “Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army has been going on even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Myanmar must create an environment that will build confidence in the Rohingya for their safe return.”
One Rohingya leader expressed skepticism about Myanmar’s decision to extend the MoU with the UNDP and UNHCR.
“We do not know to what extent the MoU will benefit us,” said Dil Mohammad, a leader of Rohingya refugees who live in the no-man’s land at the Naikhongchari border crossing point. “The Myanmar government extended the MoU possibly for its own convenience.”
“It seeks the assistance of the UNHCR and the UNDP whenever Myanmar requires their service,” he added.
Reported by RFA, an online news service affiliated with BenarNews. Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.