Residents of northern Rakhine state fled their homes to hide in bunkers as several large explosions rocked a nearby military base on Monday, followed by gunfire and sightings of flames and smoke.
Villagers in Kyauk Yan Thazi, Rathedaung County, believed fighting had resumed between the army and the Arakan Army (AA) almost exactly one year after the two sides reached an unofficial ceasefire.
But a junta official reportedly said the explosions were caused by a fire. The base is located in the hills near the village of Manyintaung, about a mile north of Kyauk Yan Thazi.
“We heard five explosions and several gunshots and we saw that there was a fire on the military base,” said Kyauk resident Yan Thazi. “The fire started just after the first explosion. It was so brilliant.
There are several military bases in Manyintaung and in the surrounding hills, he added. Residents of Kyauk Yan Thazi packed their belongings and hid in bunkers that had been prepared during previous fighting between the military and AA.
After the blasts, a military official called a village administrator and told him artillery shells at the base exploded after the place where they were stored caught fire, according to a resident of Pyeintaw village, who said. is also a mile and a half from the base.
“We heard that the soldiers called the administrator of Konetan village, located north of Manyintaung, to tell them not to be afraid and that it was only a house fire, and that the shells from the base exploded after catching fire, ”said the Pyeintaw resident.
“People did not calm down until after the military called the administrators,” he added.
Guard soldiers on the other side of the base appear to have been surprised by the explosions and have started firing shots, residents said.
The hills around Manyintaung were the scene of intense fighting before the ceasefire last year.
In August last year, a three-year-old was among five civilians injured in shelling in Kyauk Yan Thazi. Residents said the army shelled the village even though there had been no fighting with AA at the time.
The residents of Manyintaung have been displaced by the fighting and have not returned home despite the ceasefire due to the presence of the military base.
“The army has been stationed inside the village since the villagers fled. The soldiers destroyed the houses and did the right thing there, ”said the Paindaw resident.
Locals live in fear of more fighting despite the relative peace of the past year, he added. “We expect more battles.”
More than 200,000 people in Rakhine and southern Chin State have been displaced by nearly two years of fighting that began in early 2019, while hundreds have been killed or tortured by the military for alleged links with AA.
About half of the displaced people were unable to return to their homes due to the presence of Burmese military soldiers in or near their villages, or due to unexploded bombs and landmines.
While much of the rest of the country has descended into violence since the February coup, the AA has refrained from fighting junta forces, choosing instead to strengthen its political influence over Rakhine.
In response, the army decided to step up its forces in northern Rakhine in August, raising fears of another erupting conflict in the region.