The Arakan Army has released a video of an ethnic Rakhine soldier who joined the rebel force after defecting from the Myanmar military, in which he alleges that the government army routinely discriminates against minority soldiers among its ranks and abuses Rakhine civilians.
The man who identifies himself as Corporal Aung Naing in the AA’s video says he served in the Myanmar military for 27 years. The video, which is more than seven minutes long, was conducted in the Rakhine language and subtitled in Burmese. The AA released it on Oct. 10.
In the video, Aung Naing says he was accused of meeting an AA soldier when he went to visit his brother in a village amid troop activities in Rakhine state.
When the captain of his unit summoned Aung Naing about the visit, he verbally abused him with ethnic slurs, slapped him in the face, and beat him when he talked back, the former Myanmar Army corporal said.
In response, Aung Naing shot the captain from KhaLaYa-202 Infantry Battalion three times before he deserted and joined the Arakan force, he said. The wounded officer’s fate is unknown.
Ethnic Rakhines comprise the majority of soldiers who serve in the Myanmar Army in Rakhine state, where the AA has been engaged in heightened armed conflict this year with government forces in a quest for greater autonomy in the region.
Aung Naing urged ethnic Rakhines serving in the military to desert their positions and join the AA, bringing with them their Myanmar Army-issued weapons, to avoid being discriminated against as he said he was.
RFA was unable to reach AA spokesman Khine Thukha for comment on theh video.
Aung Naing also said that as an ethnic Rakhine, he was saddened to see military soldiers committing rights abuses against, cursing at, and beating Rakhine civilians on a daily basis to try to get information from them about the AA’s activities in their villages.
“As we mobilized across the state, they interrogated ethnic Rakhines they encountered,” he said. “If they suspected someone, they’d tie him up and beat him.”
“Besides, they used them as human shields in combat areas,” he said. “As we entered Rakhine villages, I saw them detaining local villagers and committing all kinds of torture during the interrogations.”
'We treat them equally'
The Myanmar military could not confirm that Aung Naing had been one of its soldiers, nor did it have information about the officer he said he shot.
With regard to the former soldier’s accusations, Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Myanmar military’s Western Command, denied any discrimination against ethnic minority soldiers.
“We don’t commit anything like torture or discrimination against our lower-ranking soldiers,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We treat them equally.”
“But if they have repeatedly failed to comply with the announced regulations and orders, we will have to punish them according to the existing laws,” he said. “We never allow beatings and discriminatory behavior, though.”
Win Zaw Oo also called the video and Aung Naing’s comments “propaganda.”
“This is the rationalization: They intend to destroy the dignity of the military. It is propaganda to incite racial hatred.”
Similarly, on Aug. 2, the AA released a video of Major Aung Myint Soe, an ethnic Rakhine man who served in the military for 17 years and then defected to AA.
Concern over Mrauk-U
In a related development, archaeologists in Rakhine’s Mrauk-U township have asked the AA and government forces to refrain from clashes near heritage buildings in a historically significant area, following reports that officials submitted a draft application to have the area listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Officials from the U.N.’s scientific and cultural organization are expected to visit Mrauk-U, capital of the Arakan Kingdom from 1433 to 1784, in September 2020 to speak with local civilians, scholars, and government officials, local media have reported.
“We are currently working on negotiating with both sides to prevent further damage of the archeological sites,” said Aung Kyaw from Mrauk-U’s Archaeological Research Department.
“Both sides are part of our national ethnic groups, and both of them are responsible for preserving our archeological heritage,” he said. “I view the [current conflict] as a temporary disagreement [between them]. I would like to appeal to both sides not to let their disagreements affect the heritage sites.”
In response to the archaeologists’ appeal, Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Western Command said Myanmar soldiers must fight the AA no matter where they are in the region.
“For us, our job is to secure stability, development, and the rule of law in the region,” he said. “As long as AA troops are present in the region, the fighting will continue. If AA troops are actively present in the Mrauk-U zone, and we don’t clear them out, then what are we here for?”
“We will keep doing what we are supposed to do as our job, whether they work with us or not,” he said. “Whoever tries to affect regional security, rule of law, and the effectiveness of government administrative bodies, we will fight them.”
AA officials were not immediately available for comment.
Efforts could ‘fall flat’
Archaeologists and residents say they are now worried that Mrauk-U will be disqualified as a heritage site due to ongoing clashes in the area.
“I don’t know what will happen if the battles continue,” said Khin Than, chairwoman of the Mrauk-U Heritage Trust. “It’s hard for me to comment as it is something to do with the government. I am very much concerned.”
“If UNESCO disqualifies Mrauk-U as a heritage site due to the ongoing conflict, all of our efforts will fall flat,” she said. “I want all the fighting to stop.”
Mrauk-U resident Wai Hla Aung said government officials should ramp up efforts to end the hostilities.
“We have worked hard to have Mrauk-U recognized as a UNESCO heritage site, but there are actions only the government can take [such as] pressuring [the two sides] or negotiating to stop the fighting.”
“For now, it is questionable as to whether Mrauk-U will be accepted as a UNESCO site as the fighting continues,” he said. “I am concerned about that.”
Some ancient buildings and temples in Mrauk-U were damaged by shelling earlier this year when the Myanmar Army and AA engaged in skirmishes inside the designated heritage zone.
The Rakhine state parliament appealed to the state government on May 6 to do more to prevent clashes in Mrauk-U.
Officials meanwhile are trying to raise awareness among the civilian population about the importance of preserving the historic area.
“We are currently trying to educate local citizens to raise their awareness,” Khin Than said. “We are working on plans to educate people from villages in the zone and schools in the city on a monthly basis. Whether the armed conflict stops or not, we will keep doing our job.”
After UNESCO officials complete their assessment of Mrauk-U’s historic zone, they will vote on whether to designate the area as a World Heritage Site at a conference in China in June 2021.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.