Voluntary rescuers: Unsung heroes in conflict-ridden Myanmar

LASHIO, Myanmar

In a rare move to show solidarity with voluntary rescuers, who brave bullets to save lives during the times of conflict, about a thousand people of different races and religions attended the funeral of a Muslim man in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan state.

Tun Myint, 58, who served as chairman of the Lashio Youth Social Support Association, was killed on Aug. 17 when a rescue vehicle he was driving came under attack on a major trade highway outside Lashio city. His two colleagues were also injured as the ambulance turned turtle after the assault.

“It was a rescue mission. Someone informed him [Tun Myint] people needed help as a fight had broken out in a nearby village,” his wife Tin Tin Aye told Anadolu Agency.

“I thought he would be home anyway after saving people there, as he had done in previous rescue missions,” she said.

“I didn’t expect it would be the last time I saw him alive,” said the woman, wiping off her tear.

Tun Myint was a respected community leader in Lashio, a town that saw communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in May 2013. At least one person was killed and several others were injured as a mob of Buddhist rioters burned down Muslim religious buildings and shops in two days of violence.

He was actively involved in efforts to bringing harmony between the two communities after the 2013 riot, according to a prominent Muslim community leader in the town.

“We worked together to heal the wounds [after the 2013 riot],” said Tin Aung, who runs a leading private hospital in Lashio.

“It shows there is a level of religious harmony again in our town,” he told Anadolu Agency, referring to inter-faith participation at the funeral.

“This is partially because of him. He worked tirelessly to reunite the town,” he said.

Who kills civilians?

Myanmar’s largest state Shan has been long plagued by armed conflicts as it is home to more than a dozen ethnic rebel groups fighting the military and central government for greater autonomy for decades.

Fighting escalated in the northern part of Shan state after a collation of four ethnic rebel groups, called Northern Alliance, launched synchronized attacks in May 2018 on security forces and a trade zone along the major highway that is vital for Myanmar-China border trade.

During the conflict, civilians became subject of rights abuses committed by both military and ethnic rebel groups, according to human rights advocacy groups.

In its report published in October, Amnesty International said military and members of Northern Alliance were found to have abducted civilians, subjecting civilians to forced labor, and “widespread torture, killing and extortion”.

According to compiled data from United Nations and local civil society groups, the conflicts killed at least 32 civilians and injured dozens, and displaced over 46,000 people in Shan state in 2018 and 2019.

The victims include Buddhist monks, villagers, truck drivers and voluntary rescuers. However, none of the conflicting sides takes responsible for the attacks on civilians.

“Military and rebel groups blame each other for these kinds of attacks,” said Sai Han from the Tai Youth Organization, a civil society group based in Lashio as well as in Shan state’s capital Taunggyi.

“We have never gotten clear answers on who kills innocent people,” he told Anadolu Agency by phone.

“The region has become a land of impunity for those who are armed,” he said.

Growing attacks on urban areas

Some 91 local civil society groups and two individuals earlier this month demanded the conflicting parties to avoid targeting civilians in Shan state.

The joint statement came after six artillery shells, four of which exploded, were fired at the military headquarters and civilian areas at the airport in Lashio on Nov. 16. A woman was reportedly injured.

Military said it was fired by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), a Northern Alliance member group.

TNLA spokesperson Mai Aik Kyaw however denied it, saying the group is still investigating who is responsible for the attacks.

“We are fighting for our ethnic people. We have no reason to carry out attacks on our people,” he told Anadolu Agency by phone.

Despite the denial, many including local voluntary groups said it is believed to have been fired by an ethnic rebel group.

“We don’t mind that they fight each other. We don’t care because it is the way they choose and they never listen to us,” said Mai Mai, representative of a local relief network based in Kutkai town in the region.

“But we care about how the fight affects civilians,” she told Anadolu Agency.

“Growing numbers of incidents show civilians becoming target in recent months,” she said, adding at least five civilians were killed and over 30 others injured by the fighting since October in the area.

“The victims include religious leaders and students,” she said.

She added that 71 female students were evacuated after two artilleries hit a voluntary school providing free education near Kutkai town a few days before the groups issued statement.

“It was a miracle that no one got hurt or killed [although the school was directly hit by the shells],” she said.

For Tin Tin Aye, justice and accountability for her husband’s death is something she cannot afford to demand, at least for now, given the current complex situations.

“There is no way we can verify who killed him,” she said.

“I, however, hope the truth will be revealed one day.”
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