Battered, empty Myanmar town shows price of victory against junta

Pauktaw, Myanmar town devastated by civil war, residents fear junta’s heavy artillery attacks, forced to flee, hope for freedom

Updated - June 01, 2024 12:06 pm IST

Published - June 01, 2024 05:05 am IST - Pauktaw

Fighting has rocked Myanmar’s western Rakhine state since the Arakan Army (AA) attacked the junta there in November last year, and according to the UN more than 100,000 people have been displaced by conflict in the state since then.

Fighting has rocked Myanmar’s western Rakhine state since the Arakan Army (AA) attacked the junta there in November last year, and according to the UN more than 100,000 people have been displaced by conflict in the state since then. | Photo Credit: AFP

Gutted buildings, vacant windows and blocks bombed to rubble show the price paid by the western Myanmar town of Pauktaw for victory against the junta in the country's civil war.

Fighters from the Arakan Army (AA) ethnic minority armed group took control of the fishing port of 20,000 people in January, as the conflict sparked by the military's coup entered its fourth year.

Pauktaw was one of a string of losses suffered by the junta across the country at the time, leading many to hope its decades-long stranglehold over Myanmar's politics could be broken.

Four months later, the Arakan Army remains in control but Pauktaw is mostly empty of residents, who are living on the outskirts and fearful of a repeat of the junta's heavy artillery attacks on the town.

"We are frightened of them (the military)," one man told AFP from his temporary home just outside Pauktaw, asking for anonymity for security reasons.

"We don't know what will happen or what kind of weapon they will drop on us if we go and stay back at home in the town.

"We can't detect their air strikes or bombs and we will be killed if they attack."

Video taken by locals this month and obtained exclusively by AFP shows streets silent apart from birdsong and the sounds of AA soldiers sifting through piles of debris and sheets of corrugated iron.

Near a deserted market that once bustled with vendors buying and selling crabs and tiger shrimp, a ragged awning advertising a mobile phone carrier flutters above the doorway of a gutted shop.

Phone and internet services have been all but cut off.

The AA has fought an on-off war for years against the Myanmar military.

The AA has fought an on-off war for years against the Myanmar military. | Photo Credit: AFP

No chance

The AA has fought an on-off war for years against the Myanmar military, seeking more autonomy for the state's ethnic Rakhine population.

As the army has faced growing resistance to its rule, from multiple armed groups — some new, some long-established — the AA has stepped up its campaign.

As the junta has lost territory on the ground, it is increasingly calling on its air power to support its ground troops.

Rights groups accuse the junta of using the strikes to punish communities suspected of opposing its rule.

When a military helicopter hovered over Pauktaw and began shooting into the town last November, many fled in panic.

"There was no chance for us to take a single thing from our house," one woman now living outside the town told AFP.

"We had cooked a pot of rice and we were not able to eat it," she said, also asking for anonymity.

"We had no money when we fled. We only had some gold jewellery with us. We tried to pawn that but it wasn't easy. The interest was too high."

The fate of Pauktaw's residents reflects a nationwide tragedy. Across Myanmar, around 2.7 million have been forced to flee by the civil war.

Looting

The AA has not allowed residents to live back in Pauktaw, citing the danger of more air or artillery strikes on the town, although it does allow them to come and go to pick up items.

The man who spoke to AFP said he had returned to check on his house and found it partly in ruins, with the family statue of the Buddha fallen onto the floor.

His savings box — containing money for a Buddhist ritual for his children and for timber to repair a roof damaged by a cyclone last year — was gone, he said.

"I have lost all of that money," he said.

"Everything in our house got stolen... my father's fishing nets were stolen," another woman said, also requesting anonymity.

"I am a tailor, and luckily, I managed to save my sewing machines."

During the fighting, both sides looted houses and damaged buildings, according to local reports.

In March, the AA said it would "investigate" any reports of looting by its members during the fighting.

'Decisive battle'

The AA's offensive has seized swathes of territory in Rakhine state and along the border with India and Bangladesh.

It has said it will capture the state capital Sittwe, 25 kilometres from Pauktaw and the last major town in northern Rakhine in the military's hands.

In April, the AA warned residents of the town, which is home to an India-backed deep sea port, to leave ahead of a "decisive" battle.

Sittwe residents contacted by AFP said the military was restricting travel out of the town by road and river and the prices of basic foods such as rice and eggs had doubled.

Those already displaced from Pauktaw fear further fighting nearby.

"I am sad that we have fled our own house and we can't live in it," one resident told AFP.

"I have pawned my necklace for 18 lakhs ($850) so we have money to live. I still hope I can claim it back."

Others said they wanted payback.

"I haven't joined the Arakan Army because I am worried about who will look after my child," one woman said.

"If I wasn't... I would join them and fight back. I will be satisfied only if I can take revenge."

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