Last Flights Out of Sittwe

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Last Flights Out of Sittwe

As resistance forces move within striking distance of the capital of Rakhine State, many of its inhabitants are seeking a way out.

Last Flights Out of Sittwe

A major road in Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar, as seen on September 5, 2016.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/mohigan

Abaung Sein* took brief pauses to chew betel as she recollected her family’s flight out of Sittwe, the regional capital of strife-torn Rakhine State in western Myanmar. The elderly Rakhine/Arakanese was enjoying her guilty pleasure as her family settled into a friend’s crowded Yangon flat. “We were lucky that we bought the tickets when we did,” she said. “Everybody is desperate to leave. I was worried that ‘they’ would ground the flights.”

Sensing a pause, Abaung Sein’s daughter chimed in. “Tickets were around 350,000 kyats ($100) but people at the airport were selling at 700,000 kyats or more,” she said. “If you were a few minutes late to check-in, the staff invalidated your ticket and sold them off to go-show passengers crowding outside the airport since dawn.”

Abaung Sein steered the conversation back to the situation in Sittwe, which for several months has been under siege by the Arakan Army (AA). “All our neighbors have left. All the rich people started fleeing in December. We heard there are already break-ins into some homes,” she said.

“I didn’t want to leave. I grew up in Sittwe. We were stocking up on food and water to ride it out. We survived Cyclone Mocha. But we heard ‘they’ (the Burmese military) shot dead a retired teacher left stranded in Pauktaw, and looted homes. And their planes and warships bomb everything. When the warships shelled Pauktaw, the whole of Sittwe shook. We decided it was best to leave.”

Sittwe and other communities in Rakhine have been on edge since late October, when the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA) launched the hugely successful Operation 1027 offensive in northern Shan State, at the opposite end of Myanmar. As a 3BHA member, the AA was involved in pitched battles in northern Shan State but did not immediately launch operations in its ethnic homeland.

This changed in mid-November, when the AA broke a tense ceasefire to launch an offensive aimed at capturing all of Rakhine and the much-coveted Paletwa township in Chin State, which links Rakhine to Northeastern India via the Kaladan River. As of writing, the AA has captured most of northern and central Rakhine, even shelling a naval base near the Chinese-built Kyaukphyu deep-sea port.

The military tightened its indiscriminate blockade of Rakhine, in place since 2019, in an attempt to suffocate the AA. It sealed off the three roads as well as all shipping routes into the coastal state, cutting off food, medicine, and fuel. Despite warnings from the AA’s leader Maj. Gen. Twan Mrat Naing that he would “send price gougers to ‘Buddhist Sunday School’,” prices of essential commodities skyrocketed. In Sittwe, Rohingya merchants sold vegetables grown in or around their internment camps but fish became scarce as the small fishing boats had little fuel to venture out. The regime also shut down telephone and mobile internet connections across northern Rakhine, with only military-owned Mytel functioning at patchy intervals. Barely a few months after the regime boasted of reestablishing the power supply in the wake of Cyclone Mocha, there is no electricity either.

As the AA’s offensive progressed down the Kaladan River valley, people from northern towns fled to Sittwe or elsewhere. Residents cited fear of the military’s indiscriminate bombardment as the main reason for fleeing. The destruction of Pauktaw, a town of 20,000 roughly 20 kilometers east of Sittwe, prompted more residents from other towns to head to the regional capital hoping it might be spared. Other towns in Rakhine such as Ponnagyun and Ramree have also been thoroughly destroyed in the fighting and regime bombardments.

Even as its mouthpieces have presented a façade of normalcy, the regime allegedly dynamited bridges leading into Sittwe in the hopes of delaying the AA’s advance. Desperate families turned to smugglers to enter or leave the city by boat, the going rate was reported to be at least 2 million kyats (around $600) per person.

With the AA closing in on the regional capital and fighting in Rakhine disconnected from the Chinese-brokered ceasefires between the junta and the 3BHA in Shan State, Sittwe residents started fleeing to Yangon and Mandalay by air in December. A drone attack on the city’s civilian airport, a message from India’s government urging citizens to evacuate the state, and the deadly shelling of a crowded downtown market and the Aung Mingalar Rohingya ghetto, both in the heart of Sittwe, fueled the desperation.

A frequently-mentioned estimate is that more than two-thirds of the city’s population of 140,000 have now fled, though it is unclear how many did so via the increasingly expensive flights that take months to book. Four different evacuees separately told the author that six to eight fully loaded planes have been departing Sittwe every morning since January.

The AA has also urged civilians to flee, inviting refugees to head to their recently captured towns. Pro-resistance media outlets claim that “hundreds of thousands” have chosen to flee Sittwe to “liberated areas,” though this is impossible to verify due to the communication blackouts. These tallies also do not include around 110,000 Rohingyas who live in squalid internment camps outside Sittwe and have nowhere to flee except into the sea.

Flight tickets into Rakhine State’s three main airports have also become nearly impossible to book, requiring special permissions and letters of support from the local authorities. Rumors have circulated that airport authorities and police were detaining passengers from Rakhine or that ward administrators in major cities were refusing to register people of Rakhine descent. Others claimed that junta officials have expelled Rakhine men of fighting age from Yangon or that they were prevented from entering Rakhine.

In mid-February, the AA delivered an ultimatum demanding that all junta bases in Rakhine surrender or face destruction. This was followed by rumors that the group was poised to seize Sittwe by the end of February. Just as the regime and 3BHA representatives met for another round of Chinese-brokered ceasefire talks, the AA’s spokesperson stated that the group would not stop until it had captured all of Rakhine. Social media chatter now says that the AA will seize Sittwe by Armed Forces Day on March 27. And although the military will face a humiliating defeat should the AA launch an assault on Sittwe, any surrender will probably come only after the city has been thoroughly pulverized.

Reflecting the hyper-partisan post-coup media landscape, resistance-aligned Burmese-language news sites have made few mentions of the exodus from Sittwe. More broadly, there is over-enthusiastic coverage of battlefield developments while the humanitarian impact of Operation 1027 and the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by the offensive are covered more as an afterthought or to highlight allegations against regime forces. In early March, the United Nations estimated that around 150,000 people have been displaced in Rakhine since November 2023 on top of around 64,000 displaced from the earlier conflict between the military and the AA. The AA cited a much higher figure of around 270,000 displaced since the beginning of its offensive.

There is also very little domestic attention to how the estimated 600,000 Rohingyas and 250,000 Chins living in Rakhine, as well as members of other small and isolated ethnic communities, are coping with the conflict and deprivation. The military is allegedly forcing Rohingyas and other Muslim men in Rakhine State to undergo military training under the newly enforced conscription law, something which the regime has denied. The AA and pro-resistance pages have also accused the military of arming and collaborating with Rohingya militant groups operating in Bangladesh.

Amid the intermittent internet connection, a Sittwe community leader appealed on social media for the city to be spared, only to be told by members of the diaspora to “understand the situation” and to “gracefully accept sacrifice.” Some netizens have even accused those fleeing Sittwe of being privileged elites and that “true Rakhines” would stay and welcome the AA with open arms.

The giddy triumphalism and social media grandstanding prevalent among the junta’s many detractors living far away from the carnage is nowhere to be found among the city’s panicked residents, who continue to fly out in droves. Flight suspensions between another regional capital, Myitkyina, and Yangon due to encroaching conflict does not augur well for those still hoping to leave. And with the AA now at the city’s doorstep and no peaceful settlement in sight, it is a morbid possibility that frantic scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975 might soon come to play out in Sittwe, whose name means “where war meets.”

Now in Yangon, whose colonial exonym Rangoon is derived from the Rakhine pronunciation of the city’s name, meaning the “End of Strife,” Abaung Sein and her family have respite from the conflict. They plan to wait out for at least six months to see how things unfold. But their worries are not yet over.

In early February, pro-military sock-puppet social media accounts posted claims that the AA had attacked navy barges evacuating military family members from Kyauktaw. They alleged that 700-900 passengers, mostly women and children, had drowned in the attack or were massacred by AA troops. The accounts also went on to criticize the regime and junta leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing for keeping quiet on the matter. The AA did sink three navy barges and rejected the allegations but then cryptically said that it was exterminating “every single one who did not surrender” and did not clarify when pressed for details.

Regardless, some pro-military accounts have fanned ethnic hatred in major cities, urging boycotts of businesses run by ethnic Rakhines and encouraging mobs to ransack such establishments. Abaung Sein now worries that ethnic Rakhines living in major cities, many of whom have faithfully worked in the civil service for decades, and evacuees like herself might soon be subject to a state-backed pogrom. She confided that she flew into Yangon clutching her jewelry in her handbag and keeps it wrapped up, ready to flee again.

“Just in case,” she said, as she started chewing another quid of betel.

*Name has been changed for security reasons.