Ethnic rebels seize airport in Myanmar beach town

The Arakan Army took control of the site in Rakhine state on Sunday after a month of attacks.
By RFA Burmese
2024.06.24
Ethnic rebels seize airport in Myanmar beach town Thandwe Airport, March 16, 2012.
Machalle Photos via Flickr

Ethnic rebels seized the airport that serves one of Myanmar’s premiere resort beaches in Rakhine state on Sunday, as thousands of civilians fled fighting between the military and rebel forces in embattled Thandwe township, according to residents.

The takeover is the latest win for the Arakan Army, or AA, since November, when it ended a peace treaty that had been in place since the military’s February 2021 coup d’etat and embarked on an offensive in Rakhine state.

The AA took control of the airport, which serves the Ngapali resort beach in Thandwe, after junta troops withdrew from the site, a township resident told RFA Burmese on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

"The junta troops stationed at the airport retreated and the AA took control,” he said. “Artillery fire can still be heard and fighter jets are flying over the area amidst the sound of bombing, but the targets remain unknown.”

The AA began attacking Thandwe on April 22 and have been trying to take the airport since early June. Armed conflict began about 32 kilometers (20 miles) north of the seat of Thandwe and is now within 8 kilometers (5 miles) of the urban center.

The military has responded by reinforcing its local battalion, the town and its prison, while using airstrikes and naval vessels to defend its positions.

ENG_BUR_THANDWE FIGHTING_06242024.2.JPG
A fisherman throws a net to catch fish, Oct. 15, 2015, in the shallow waters of Ngapali beach in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

Clashes are now underway near the military’s No. 566 Infantry Battalion, which is located near the airport, and the military’s No. 55 Light Infantry Battalion, some 3 kilometers (2 miles) away.

As of Monday, neither the AA or the junta had released any statement on the airport takeover. Attempts by RFA to reach AA spokesperson Khaing Thukha and junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun went unanswered.

Pro-junta channels on the social media network Telegram claimed that the airport was still under military control, but said fighting in the area remained intense on Monday.

‘Thousands’ of civilians flee

Meanwhile, “thousands” of civilians from Thandwe township have fled the fighting to Gwa township and other areas in neighboring Ayeyarwady region, said another Thandwe resident, who also declined to be named.

"The fighting is getting closer to the town [center] where we live and some locals have been trapped,” the resident said, adding that none of his family members had been able to leave. “We plan to flee 24-32 kilometers (15-20 miles) to the south of Thandwe township and do whatever we can to live normally."

Pe Than, a veteran ethnic Rakhine politician and former Lower House MP, told RFA that the Thandwe area is “the strategic key to controlling southern Rakhine state,” which is why the AA is trying to seize the entire township.

“The junta can no longer rely on its ground troops, while its navy vessels are too large to enter the creeks and rivers, so they can only fire ineffectively from a distance,” he said, adding that the military could be “totally removed” from Rakhine state “by the end of 2024.”

In the meantime, civilian casualties have increased in Thandwe amid the military’s use of artillery fire and airstrikes, residents told RFA.

At least 23 civilians were killed by airstrikes and artillery in Thandwe township in May, they said, while 22 civilians were killed and 32 injured since the start of June.

Translated by Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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