The Arakan Army said Tuesday that its forces killed a Myanmar Army officer and about 20 government soldiers late last week in ongoing clashes between the two militaries in western Myanmar's embattled Rakhine state, a casualty count for which the secretive government military offered a rare confirmation.
The announcement by the AA initially said that a dozen government soldiers, including a captain, died on the morning of April 5 during a clash between the AA and the government’s 150-strong Light Infantry Battalion No. 373 near War Nat Yone village in Buthidaung township.
But AA spokesman Khine Thukha later told RFA's Myanmar Service that as many as 20 Myanmar troops had been killed.
“It was Light Infantry Division No. 373 based in Ann township,” he said. “It clashed with AA troops, which resulted in heavy losses that day. Information that came later put the death toll at as many as 20, so I would say there were nearly 20 deaths, including a military officer.”
The AA’s announcement also said that its soldiers seized assorted weapons, including a pistol and other military equipment, from the government troops.
In a rare disclosure of Myanmar Army casualties, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the military’s information team told RFA that one officer and “some soldiers” were killed in the April 5 battle.
“A military officer was killed,” he said. “It was posted on his personal [Facebook] account. He was not of a major rank. There were also some deaths and injuries in the other ranks as well, but this is not an official account of the death toll from the military.”
Social media and obituary pages in state-owned newspapers said the deceased officer was Captain Chit Ko Ko from Light Infantry Division No. 373, who graduated in the 49th class from Myanmar’s Military Academy.
Neither the Myanmar military nor state-owned media have made any official announcements about the clash during which the officer and other soldiers died. The AA’s reported numbers would make that day the most deadly one for the army since the conflict heated up early this year.
Zaw Min Tun also said that so far this week the Myanmar Army had fought heavy battles with AA troops in Mrauk-U township and had captured two hilltops where enemy troops were based.
“There were clashes in Mrauk-U region yesterday and two days ago,” he said. “In Mrauk-U, we captured two of AA’s temporary bases.”
But AA spokesman Khine Thukha denied the report.
“There were no such clashes,” he told RFA. “We don’t have any bases as they mentioned. I don’t know which bases they have captured. We don’t have any bases in that area.”
More than 100 civilians, AA soldiers, Myanmar Army troops, and policemen have died during fighting since early January, when the hostilities escalated after Arakan fighters carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine.
Rakhine state’s Disaster Management Department has estimated than more than 31,000 villagers have been displaced by the clashes.
Still in detention
Meanwhile, the AA told RFA that eight construction workers it apprehended on March 30 on suspicion of being spies for the Myanmar Army are still in detention and have not been killed according to rumors circulating in Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh.
The AA accused the workers from the Su Htoo San Company, which is building the Paletwa-Mizoram highway to connect Myanmar and India, of being former military intelligence agents who were gathering information about the Arakan force for the Myanmar Army, though the government military denied it.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said that the rumors that all eight men have been murdered are not true.
“This is totally wrong,” he said. “We never commit arbitrary killings. These are just rumors.”
“The men are being detained in dignity and in good conditions,” he added. “We are only conducting necessary questioning for security. We haven’t committed any lawless killings.”
But Khine Thukha refused to reveal evidence to back up his claim that the detainees are military intelligence agents, citing security reasons.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that the Myanmar military investigated the men and determined that they are not former military intelligence personnel.
“We have investigated these people as much as we needed to,” he said. “They are ordinary civilians and private company employees. They are not even government staff. ”
The Myanmar military has seen the same rumors that the men are dead spreading in Bangladesh, he added.
“We are still trying to confirm it because the news sources are not reliable,” he said. “They are written in Bengali script, so they appear to be released from the Bangladeshi side, but I can’t say this for sure.”
Rakhine committee begins work
In a related development, the Rakhine State Peace and Stability Supporting Committee held its first meeting in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Monday nearly a month after its formation, members of the panel said.
The committee was formed by President Win Myint on March 14 to prevent provocations that could cause further instability in the violence-ridden state. The panel is required to report its findings to the president's office each month.
Led by chairman Aye Thar Aung, deputy speaker of Myanmar’s upper house of parliament, the committee has begun conducting field studies on peace and stability in Rakhine, consulting with stakeholders, and offering suggestions on short-term and long-term projects to forge stability.
Myanmar Information Minister Pe Myint and Rakhine state Chief Minister Nyi Pu serve as its two vice chairmen.
In his opening address at the first meeting, Aye Thar Aung said the committee will hold talks with local authorities and work towards reducing conflicts in Rakhine state, the official Global New Light of Myanmar said.
On Tuesday, the panel members met with Yangon-based Rakhine political parties and civil society organizations (CSOs) at the Yangon regional government office.
Yangon region’s Rakhine Affairs Minister Zaw Aye Maung said the Rakhine Thahara Association, Rakhine Literature and Culture Organization, Rakhine Women's Organization, Arakan National Party (ANP), and Arakan Liberation Party attended the session and provided suggestions for peace and stability
“We are going to help the IDPs [internally displaced persons],” he said. “As the rainy season is coming soon, IDPs need to have proper shelter. Although the government is trying to help them, it cannot reach every IDP.”
Two committee members — Rakhine lawmaker Oo Hla Saw, who represents Mrauk-U in Myanmar’s lower house of parliament and is an ANP leader, and Htu May, a prominent female Rakhine politician and upper house lawmaker from Rakhine state constituency No. 11— refused to attend, saying that they were assigned to the meetings without their prior consent.
“It is not the job of a member of parliament to explain government policies to people,” Htu May said. “An MP’s job is to serve as a check on the government. It is also not an MP’s mission. I am not going to do something that won’t deliver any benefits to the Rakhine people.”
Tun Aung Kyaw, chairman of the ANP, the most influential party in Rakhine state, said he is interested in seeing how Aye Thar Aung and Pe Myint — two ethnic Rakhines — will use their positions on the committee to stop the fighting in the state.
“We are interested in how they will control this committee to bring a stop to more fighting and suffering for people in Rakhine state,” he said. “What is the country’s policy [on Rakhine’s problems]? If this committee cannot stop the fighting in Rakhine, there is no significance in forming this committee.”
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe wrote in the Mrauk-U Review that it is difficult to estimate how much authority the committee has to resolve Rakhine’s problems.
“If the committee members don’t discuss details about what they will discuss when they meet with Rakhine leaders, it won’t be successful,” he wrote. “There are about 14 committees and commissions, and only forming a committee or commission cannot resolve the problem.”
On Wednesday, the committee will meet with political parties and CSOs in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, Zaw Aye Maung said.
‘Zero tolerance’ border policy
Delegations of officials from Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and the Myanmar Police Force who are meeting in Naypyidaw to discuss border-related issues have agreed on 11 points, including fighting terrorism, preventing illegal border crossings, and reducing illegal drug trafficking into Bangladesh, according to an announcement they issued Tuesday.
Both countries pledged to comply with a “zero tolerance” policy on terrorism and reaffirmed that the Bangladeshi government will not allow any terrorist organizations to use its territory, the announcement said.
Major General Md Shafeenul Islam, director general of BGB, said the two countries agreed to jointly prevent terrorist attacks from occurring along their common border area and discussed the repatriation of those who cross the border illegally.
Soe Aung, head administrator of northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw district, said the agreements will be beneficial for border security.
“This meeting is mainly about security,” he said. “It is very helpful for security because both sides agreed to eliminate terrorist groups like the AA and ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army].”
The Rohingya militant group ARSA carried out deadly attacks on Myanmar border guard posts in August 2017 that sparked a brutal military-led crackdown targeting the country’s Rohingya Muslims, which left thousands dead and drove 740,000 others across the border to Bangladesh.
On Monday, Md Shafeenul Islam appealed to his Myanmar counterparts to stop random shootings along the border to prevent civilians from being killed.
Other agreements reached during the meeting included the sharing of real-time information about cross-border crimes, including the activities of terrorist groups.
The next meeting between senior-level Bangladeshi and Myanmar border officials will take place in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka in October.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo, Kyaw Thu, and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.