The government of Myanmar on Friday authorized the use of helicopters in combat by the country’s military in war-torn Rakhine state, at the same time cautioning the army to conduct its operations “with great care” to avoid civilian deaths.
Speaking at a press conference held in the capital Naypyidaw, Zaw Htay, director general of the Office of the President, said that the country’s leaders have directed the military to “conduct effective counterinsurgency operations” against the ethnic Arakan Army in Rakhine.
“The president’s office has instructed the office of the military chief to use all necessary force, including the use of helicopters,” Zaw Htay said.
Instructions given previously with regard to military operations in Rakhine still apply, though, Zaw Htay said.
“First, these must be conducted in accordance with the law. Secondly, the military must avoid human rights violations. And thirdly, the operations must be carried out with great care,” he said.
On April 3, Myanmar’s military used helicopters to prevent armed Arakan separatists from launching an offensive, killing six Rohingya Muslim civilians who the army later claimed had been working with the Arakan Army (AA).
Hostilities between the government army and the AA, which is battling Myanmar forces in several Rakhine townships for greater autonomy in the state, reignited in December 2018 and exploded in early January after AA soldiers carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine.
In response to the attacks, the Myanmar government branded the AA a terrorist organization and instructed its forces to crush it.
Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government is now trying to secure a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the AA and allied armed groups in order to halt the fighting and achieve peace through dialogue, Zaw Htun said.
A meeting has been agreed in principle, but a location for the talks remains unsettled, and the government is pushing to make the meeting happen this month, he said.
Preference for armed struggle
Rakhine political leaders and civil society organizations meanwhile voiced concern over a lack of public interest and support in Rakhine for a political solution to the conflict.
Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service on Friday, Tun Aung Kyaw—a member of the Arakan National Party’s Leading Policy Committee—said that many in Rakhine now feel they can work effectively for the people in their state only as members of armed groups.
“Rakhine people think that they can’t do anything for their state or in the interests of its people by working in political parties, and this makes us very worried and sad,” he said. “Extremism is not good for the ethnic people of Rakhine.”
“But the destruction of our villages and homes, and the terrible experiences we have had in this region, have affected our people’s thinking, especially the thinking of the young,” he said.
'Not easy to control'
Also speaking to RFA, Arakan League for Democracy general secretary Myo Kyaw said that because of limited job opportunities in Rakhine, the men in Rakhine would often work for the government army in the past.
“But nowadays the government army’s image has gotten bad, and the Arakan Army has been formed. And there still aren’t many opportunities for work in Rakhine, so many of the men have now joined the AA,” he said.
“The AA is now more powerful than any political party in Rakhine,” agreed Tun Kyi, head of the Kyaukpyu Rural Development Organization. “This wave is not easy to control, and will not be calmed any time soon.”
Myanmar authorities must hold a peace conference as soon as possible, including everyone in its talks, he said.
Since December 2018, more than 50 civilians have been killed, with over 100 injured and more than 40,000 displaced, because of fighting between the AA and government forces.
Reported by Thiha Tun and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.