The leader of the Arakan Army based in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state said Wednesday that the military had systematically planned to “crush” his group ahead of hostilities that escalated between the two sides in January, and denied official claims of its involvement in terrorism and drug trafficking.
Maj. Gen. Tun Myat Naing, commander in chief of the AA, told reporters in Wa state's Panghsang township that crack troops from Myanmar’s military received special training more than a year ahead of being deployed to Rakhine state, where they engaged with AA soldiers in early January, following AA attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine that killed 13 officers.
“More than 2,000 troops from Division 22 and other units were provided special combat training in [neighboring] Bago region’s Ottwin township beginning in November 2018,” he said on the sidelines of a ceremony in Panghsang commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the signing of a ceasefire between Communist United Wa State Army (UWSA) rebels and Myanmar’s military.
“They were then transferred by air to Rakhine state. So it appears that they responded with a massive offensive because we attacked the border guard posts, but surely they had planned it before.”
Tun Myat Naing said that Myanmar’s government had recently worked to improve bilateral relations with India, suggesting its intention is to request assistance from the Indian military to “crush” the AA if it retreats through Chin state and tries to cross the border into northeastern India.
“Once they launch an attack, the AA would have to withdraw to [the border area of] India, and then they will crush us with the help of Indian border troops blocking us from behind,” he said.
“This has been their military plan all along,” he added.
After the AA—an ethnic Rakhine army seeking greater autonomy in the state—attacked the police outposts on Jan. 4, Myanmar’s government labeled it a terrorist group and instructed its forces to destroy it.
Since then, the two sides have clashed more than 100 times, leaving some 60 AA soldiers, 30 policemen, and a dozen civilians dead. The Myanmar military has yet to reveal its casualties.
Tun Myat Naing defended the AA’s actions, saying Myanmar’s military sent battalions into villages in Rakhine state and “forced residents to stand out in the sun as a form of torture,” as well as committing “other abuses.”
“We had to respond to such actions in any way we could, as we are obligated to protect our people,” he said.
He also denied as “baseless” allegations by Myanmar’s military that the AA is a terrorist organization, and dismissed other claims that the group is involved in drug trafficking.
“This allegation clearly was aimed at wiping us out totally,” he said, adding that “drug trafficking in Rakhine state has been going on since before the army was formed.”
Tun Myat Naing invited reporters to come to Rakhine state to see the “situation on the ground,” saying he wants to “get the truth out.”
The army chief said that the military had “bitterly attacked” the AA, even as it offered to attend peace talks, which he condemned as inappropriate for a country that is working to become more democratic, and he urged the government to find a solution to the crisis in Rakhine state in a peaceful manner.
Tun Myat Naing’s comments came as UWSA commander Bao Youxiang marked the 30th anniversary of his 30,000-strong army’s ceasefire agreement by demanding that Myanmar’s government recognize Wa state as an autonomous region.
Speaking at the ceremony in Panghsang, which was attended by China’s special envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang and leaders of other ethnic armed groups, Bao said that the 600,000 residents of the state are not victims of armed conflict, but protected under Wa leadership and have the right to self-determination.
Zaw Htay, director general of President Win Myint’s office and Shan State Security and Border Affairs minister Hla Oo were also in attendance at Wednesday’s event, where thousands of China-armed and trained troops marched and tanks rolled by in a show of force.
While Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi did not join the ceremony, she sent a message urging Wa leaders to join the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in 2015 between the government and some of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armed groups, which she said would secure “permanent peace.”
Zaw Htay told attendees that Wa state had seen substantial development over the past three decades because of peace.
“It is true that stability and development are co-related, but the peace and stability in the region should be sustainable for the long term,” he said.
“In order to maintain peace and stability, it is important to take next step through political negotiation, as is mentioned in the State Counselor’s [Aung San Suu Kyi's] message.”
Sides at odds
Political analysts told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday that while the government is right to invite the UWSA to negotiations, it should not treat the army on the same level as other insurgent groups in the country.
Analyst Thiha Thway said Aung San Su Kyi’s message reveals a disconnect between the thinking of the government and that of the UWSA.
“Wa leaders want to show off their military strength, as well as the developments they have achieved,” he said.
“Now, they are prioritizing to recognition as an ethnic state, so it seems they intend to achieve peace in their own way. But the message clearly shows that the government wants them to be a part of the NCA.”
Retired military officer and political analyst Aung Myo noted that the Wa region is governed by an armed group which has a semi-autonomous status, and said they have no reason to accept an agreement that would place the region under central control.
“If they accept the NCA agreement, they will have to accept the Union government’s authority, but they will not do that—Wa leaders don’t want to be under anyone’s control,” he said.
Analyst Mya Aye said that the UWSA operates at a status that requires something beyond the NCA, but added that the NCA alone will not convince armed groups to lay down their weapons, because “while there are no equal rights, there will still be armed groups” in Myanmar.
“We need to be realistic on how to survive as a democracy, how to build the Union on a federal system, and how to create an environment where equality is guaranteed,” he said.
“It is good to send the invites. But it is time … to relax centralization.”
Reported by Khet Mar and Kyaw Lin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.