Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis Unfolding in Rakhine State

Thousands of residents in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have fled the capital of Sittwe, the administrative and military hub, due to a looming battle between the rebel ethnic Arakan Army and junta soldiers. The fighting is expected to be intense and comes after three months of heightened conflict between the military and the Arakan Army.

The military junta has blocked highways and waterways throughout Rakhine since November, making it difficult for people to leave the state capital. Residents are digging bunkers at their homes, placing sandbags nearby, searching for safe places, or moving to nearby rural areas.

Some residents have left for Yangon out of fear, with four flights a day with about 50 people on each flight. Plane tickets from Sittwe to Yangon are fully booked until the end of March, and some people are chartering planes to get out. Sittwe is home to over 120,000 people, including students from various universities.

The Three Brotherhood Alliance (AA) and two other rebel groups have gained ground in northern Rakhine, capturing control of two major military junta encampments in Kyauktaw and Pauktaw. The AA has also claimed full control of Pauktaw, a port city just 16 miles east of Sittwe.

Residents in northern Rakhine have reported that landline and internet connections have been shut down, and they have had to wait for cash withdrawals from banks. As prices rise, basic commodities like food and oil are becoming more difficult to buy. Plane tickets to Yangon cost between 350,000 kyats (US$166) and 500,000 kyats (US$238), forcing many impoverished individuals and those unable to afford them to live in the city.

Rakhine state’s junta spokesperson Hla Thein has not been contacted about the increasing number of residents leaving Sittwe. Security has been the top priority for the administration, according to junta-appointed Rakhine chief minister Htein Lin. A resident from Sittwe expressed concern about being unable to return home if something happens, as battles can emotionally impact children. He aims to avoid forcing them to endure hardships.

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