The deaths in custody of three ethnic Rakhine men in Myanmar and their secret cremation has provoked outrage, as separatist violence in troubled Rakhine State grows.
The Arakan Army (AA) is fighting for more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the impoverished western state already associated with the 2017 slaughter of Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese military.
Violence between the AA and military escalated in early January when separatists attacked police outposts.
The armed forces responded with artillery and air strikes displacing more than 20,000 people. It is one of Myanmar’s poorest states, largely because of its abundant natural resources, which are controlled by the military-controlled authorities in Nay Pyi Taw.
Earlier this month, Burmese soldiers raided the home of Maung Than Nu, 45, in Lak Ka village in Mrauk U Township.
He was arrested along with 22 other men on suspicion of AA membership.
This week officials in the state capital, Sittwe, confirmed rumours of his death.
“He was arrested without committing any crimes,” his widow Than Khin Kyi told the media. “My husband is not AA.”
Maung Than Nu died on April 22 of non-specific “heart failure”, according to the military-owned Myawady newspaper.
Two other men arrested in the raid have also died in custody.
Zaw Myo Htun, 22, and Thein Htun Sein, 40, were also reported dead.
Army spokesman Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun said Thein Htun Sein died because he was a drug addict.
“We arrested them because they had ties to the AA. We found documents about their organisational structure, along with a list of names. We have the records of their interrogations and they are [AA] members,” the brigadier told the Irrawaddy.
The families could not retrieve the bodies in Sittwe as they had already been cremated, sparking allegations that the authorities were removing evidence of torture.
Zaya Kyaw of a Yangon-based NGO said nearly 35,000 refugees were living in cramped conditions in several camps, and relief supplies were dwindling.
Nearly 300 civil society organisations called on combatants to avoid fighting near the spectacular ruins of Mrauk U (pictured), from where the Arakan empire was governed before the British invasion.
Much of Rakhine State is off-limits to international journalists and NGOs, making verification difficult.
The Arakan National Party MP for Mrauk U, Hla Saw, called the deaths and cremations “completely unacceptable”.
Mrauk U is an architectural gem surrounded by conflict. Picture credit: Asean Economist