The Myanmar military on Tuesday denied an accusation by the rebel Arakan Army that it has been using passenger buses and cars to transport its troops in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the two forces are fighting each other, a national army spokesman said.
The Arakan Army (AA) on Monday warned private bus companies in volatile Rakhine not to transport Myanmar soldiers, whom it said were using private vehicles along with military trucks to move personnel into conflict zones, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
The AA said in a statement that the Myanmar Army was also using civilian cars for hire to transport troops, supplies, and weapons, adding that the "unethical" arrangement put the lives of civilians in danger.
The AA demanded that private transportation companies operating in the region submit their daily passenger lists to it via email or the Viber mobile phone app, and said that those who failed to comply would do so at their own risk. It also warned passengers not to use bus services if soldiers were onboard.
“[The threat] is disruptive to the freedom of public commutes and transportation,” said Myanmar military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun. “Armed insurgency has emerged in this region very recently, but we've never before seen such statements by any armed group.”
RFA was unable to contact AA spokesman Khine Thukha for comment.
Some observers say that the AA’s demand could invite legal trouble for transportation companies, whose owners and operators risk being charged under Section 17(1) of Myanmar’s Unlawful Associations Act.
The law carries a three-year prison sentence for those who are members of or interact with an unlawful association, such as an ethnic armed group like the AA.
Rights groups accuse Myanmar authorities of using the act to intimidate and arrest ethnic minorities, especially those in turbulent regions where government troops are engaged in hostilities with ethnic armies.
“No matter who made the threats, people will be frightened so long as [soldiers] hold weapons,” said Htu May, an upper house lawmaker from the Arakan League for Democracy. “It’s [a threat] by armed people to people without arms, so in the long term, [people] will rely on leaders who will provide protection for them.”
Intensified hostilities between the AA and Myanmar Army have driven roughly about 6,000 civilians from their homes in Rakhine state and from neighboring Chin state since late November, according to local relief groups.
And at least 25 people in Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, and Buthidaung townships have been charged with violating the Unlawful Associations Act.
'Passengers want to travel'
So far, the AA’s statement doesn’t appear to have reached many bus owners.
“We don't know anything [about it],” a bus driver who declined to be named told RFA's Myanmar Service. “Drivers have to go with anyone who hires them. We travel to Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Sittwe the whole time, and we all need passengers who want to travel.”
Other drivers who go to Mrauk-U, Sittwe, and Rathedaung township said soldiers sometimes travel on civilian vehicles but carry no weapons.
Tun Aung Kyaw, spokesman for the Arakan National Party (ANP), and ANP vice chairwoman Aye Nu Sein refused to comment on the issue, because they said they were unaware of the AA’s statement.
The call by the AA came a day after it claimed responsibility for mine blasts involving two buses in Ponnagyun township, saying that they were transporting Myanmar forces from Sittwe to northern Rakhine state, The Irrawaddy reported.
Sources in the transportation business in Sittwe told the news outlet that the Myanmar Army had hired buses from two companies to use for military transport, and that one of the coaches hit an AA landmine in Ponnagyun en route to its destination.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.