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Mass Exodus from Capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State as Conflict Looms – Radio Free Asia

Thousands of residents have fled the capital of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in anticipation of a looming battle between the rebel ethnic Arakan Army and junta soldiers, local residents told Radio Free Asia.

Fighting in the fortified administrative and military hub of Sittwe is expected to be intense, and would come after close to three months of heightened conflict between the military and the Arakan Army, or AA.

In recent weeks, the AA has seized several junta military camps in the townships that encircle Sittwe, including Mrauk-U, Minbya, Kyauktaw and Rathedaung.

The military junta has blocked highways and waterways throughout Rakhine since November, making it hard for people to leave the state capital.

Those who have decided to stay are digging bunkers at their homes, placing sandbags nearby and otherwise searching for safe places or moving to nearby rural areas, local residents said.

“In Sittwe, you cannot use roads or waterways,” a resident of the state capital told RFA. “So, some leave for Yangon out of fear – and they have to go there by air.”

There are four flights a day with about 50 people on each flight, according to the resident, who did not want to be named for security reasons. Several local residents told RFA that plane tickets from Sittwe to Yangon are fully booked until the end of March, and some people are chartering planes to get out.

Sittwe’s population is over 120,000, including students from several universities, according to 2019 statistics from the general administration department. Some local residents estimated that as many as 30 percent of residents have already left.

Gaining ground

The AA and two other rebel groups make up the Three Brotherhood Alliance, which launched a campaign in October on junta forces in the northern and western parts of the country.

Last week, nearly 300 junta troops surrendered to the AA after it took control of two major military junta encampments in Kyauktaw. And on Wednesday, the Three Brotherhood Alliance said in a statement that the AA had won full control of Pauktaw, a port city just 16 miles (25 kilometers) east of Sittwe.

Landline and internet connections have been shut down in northern Rakhine’s townships, including Sittwe, residents said. In some areas, only the Mytel telecom network has been available.

Residents said they have had to wait one or two days to withdraw cash from banks in Sittwe and are also having difficulty buying basic commodities such as food and oil as prices rise.

Plane tickets to Yangon cost between 350,000 kyats (US$166) and 500,000 kyats (US$238), the Sittwe resident said.

“Impoverished individuals and people who can’t afford to buy airline tickets can’t run anywhere,” he said. “They can’t afford to live in Yangon. So there are many people who have to stay here.”

RFA couldn’t immediately reach Rakhine state’s junta spokesperson Hla Thein to ask about the steady stream of residents leaving Sittwe.

At a Jan. 20 meeting with state level departmental officials, junta-appointed Rakhine chief minister Htein Lin said security has become the administration’s top focus in the state.

The Sittwe resident who spoke to RFA about flights to Yangon said he and his family are also trying to travel to Myanmar’s biggest city.

“I’m worried about being unable to flee home if something happens. I have a family and children,” he said. “Battles can affect children emotionally. I don’t want to force them to live with such hardships.”

Translated by Htin Aung Kyaw. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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