Hostilities between the Arakan Army (AA), a Buddhist Rakhine military fighting for autonomy in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and the government military erupted anew late last year and have continued into 2019. The government branded the AA a terrorist organization after its soldiers carried out coordinated attacks on four police outposts near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh on Jan. 4, killing 13 officers injuring nine others. A similar assault on another police outpost in Ponnakyun township’s Yoetayoke village in early March killed nine officers. The government has also accused the AA of having ties to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim military group that carried out deadly raids on police outposts in northern Rakhine state in August 2017, prompting a brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. In an exclusive interview with reporter Elizabeth Jangma of RFA’s Myanmar Service, Brigadier General Nyo Tun Aung, the AA’s deputy commander-in-chief, discusses the deadly raids on police outposts, the government’s accusation that the AA is linked to ARSA, and what it will take to end the fighting in Rakhine state.
RFA: Do you think it was fair for the AA to launch deadly raids on police posts and kill policemen?
Nyo Tun Aung: We warned police first to do their own jobs. We released statements and then sent them warning letters. Most police officials are transferred from the military. One-third of the security guards are former soldiers. These so-called police who are mostly former soldiers arrested, persecuted, and charged our people whenever they wanted, mostly under Section 17 (1) [of Myanmar’s colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a prison sentence for those who interact with an illegal group, including ethnic armed organizations such as the AA]. Most people are talking about the AA’s attack on police posts on Jan. 4, but they don’t know what happened before Jan. 4. As we had many clashes and a lot of pressure, we had to do it as a military outlet. January 4 is [Myanmar’s] Independence Day, but there is no weekend or holiday in war. We can’t say, “Let’s stop fighting for a while because it is the weekend.” If we keep having this pressure — offensives and heavy weapons attacks by the [Myanmar miliary] — then we will strike back like we did on Jan. 4 and during the attack the Yoetayoke Police Station [in Ponnakyun township on March 9]. But I can say that we will not do anything to policemen who genuinely provide protection for people. Some Rakhine ethnics died during the Yoetayoke village police station attack, and we want to apologize to them.
RFA: What about the government’s accusation that the AA is connected to ARSA?
Nyo Tun Aung: We don’t have any connection to ARSA at all. We didn’t have any connection to it in the past and don’t have any now. The Myanmar government declared it a terrorist organization, and the world recognizes it as a terrorist organization as well. We know that we can be labelled terrorists if we work together with terrorists, so we are very careful not to get involved with ARSA. We have a policy that we can’t get involved with ARSA. The AA is member of the FPNCC [Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, a group of ethnic armed organizations that have proposed a confederate system in Myanmar which allows them to maintain their own armed forces]. If we get involved with ARSA, our other alliance FPNCC members can be named as terrorist groups. We won’t destroy our current political and military standards [by getting involved with ARSA].
RFA: The government army says that Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi instructed it to crush the AA. What’s your take on this?
Nyo Tun Aung: It would be like saying, “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” If she said this, we don’t need to say anything back. But we will have to do something to get what we want.”
RFA: When will the fighting in Rakhine state end?
Nyo Tun Aung: There will be no fighting when the government army leaves Rakhine state.
RFA: The AA’s commander-in-chief has talked about the formation of a confederation. Some people say that that would destroy the country. What kind of confederation does he mean?
Nyo Tun Aung: What we mean is something based on equality and the same treatment as other nationalities. Most ethnic armed groups want to have the same status as the Wa group [an ethnic group that has an autonomous self-administered division in Myanmar's Shan state]. Our FPNCC has policies, and if we can have this political standard, then we can say our expectations will be fulfilled to some extent.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Nyo Tun Aung: The AA has grown bigger and bigger within the past 10 years because we have focused on the military sector. The government army’s persecution is making us stronger. A revolution occurs because of persecution.
Reported by Elizabeth Jangma for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.