UPDATED at 10:25 A.M. EST on 2019-04-02
The Myanmar military on Sunday cautioned the public not to believe “false and fabricated information and propaganda” spread by the Arakan Army (AA), whose soldiers it accused of disguising themselves as local residents of areas where government forces are fighting the rebel group in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The AA swiftly reject the assertions as psychological warfare by the military.
The army’s True News Information Team also urged the public to inform authorities if they come across any AA soldiers as the Myanmar army aims to maintain stability in Rakhine state by eliminating the Arakan force.
“AA insurgents taking positions in urban wards and villages as cover committed terror acts such as opening fire and committing mine attacks [on] Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] columns which were on security duty,” said a statement issued by the information team.
Following skirmishes near villages and wards, AA insurgents disguised themselves as villagers and fabricated information while they ordered local Rakhine ethnics from wards and villages under their threats to spread the fake news, it said.
“Then, they posted such fabricated information on the social network and websites as attempts to propagate fabricated news for causing misunderstanding among the people,” the statement said.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, secretary of the Myanmar military’s True News Information Team, said villagers residing in areas near to where the AA insurgents are positioned fear the rebel force.
“Battles recently took place near villages,” he said. “Forces maintaining security came under attack when they passed near villages, and they fled into the villages. The incidents looked like setups with reports of causalities.”
“We tried to help as much as we could as we followed through,” he said. “Locals fear the nearest sword [enemy]. The AA sent envelops with bullets and threats [to village authorities]. There were killings as an example. [Locals] were told what to say, so we have to announce [this] to prevent more false stories.”
The Myanmar Army will take action against online "propaganda" by the AA and its supporters that is meant to mislead the public, Zaw Min Tun said.
The information team’s statement concluded by urging locals not to believe “false and fabricated information and propaganda” by AA insurgents disguised as villagers and “to inform relevant administrative bodies and security forces about [their] acts.”
By way of example, the information team said writer Nwe Thargi, who participated in the fabricated talks during a live broadcast on social networks attempted to cause “misunderstanding between the people and the Tatmadaw” when she commented on the shooting death of the head of Teinnyo police outpost in Mrauk-U township on March 23.
An investigation found that Nwe Thargi, a Rakhine ethnic, does not live in Rakhine state, but in Lashio, the largest town in northern Shan state, the information team’s statement said, adding that a lawsuit has been filed to take action against her under Myanmar law.
The military also said that fabricated news on social networks and websites indicated that its soldiers deliberately opened fire without cause during a clash in Teinnyo and Aukthakan villages on March 29, killing some local residents and injuring others.
Following that incident, AA spokesman Khine Thukha said Arakan soldiers had not engaged in hostilities with the Myanmar Army in the area and accused government forces of concocting the story.
RFA could not independently verify whether the shooting was reciprocal.
‘Doing it as usual’
Khine Thukha dismissed the military information team's latest statement.
“The psychological warfare department [of the Myanmar Army] is doing it as usual,” he said. “If the Myanmar Army believes it is protecting the people, then hold a referendum in Rakhine state. A clear answer will come out whether the people support the Tatmadaw or the Arakan Army. The international community and the public will know [the answer].”
Khin Saw Wai, a lower house lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents Rakhine’s Rathedaung constituency, said it is true that the AA sent envelopes with bullets inside them.
“There were confessions that they sent those envelopes,” she said.
Khin Saw Wai also said she has visited some conflict areas in Rakhine and has observed the situation of an estimated 6,000-some displaced villagers who fled their homes in Mrauk-U township during random shooting incidents reportedly by Myanmar forces, who in turn claimed that they were firing during a counterinsurgency against AA soldiers on March 18.
Following the shooting, the Myanmar military accused the AA of using human shields and attacking their positions in residential areas and heritage sites in Mrauk-U.
“In reality, not many people have fled because of fighting between the two sides, and we were told that most attacks were by the military,” Khin Saw Wai said. “The truth needs to be disclosed. Both sides — the Tatmadaw and the AA — are now denying it and blaming each other.”
‘We don’t have a say’
Fighting between Myanmar forces and the AA, an ethnic Rakhine army seeking greater autonomy in the state, escalated in early January, following AA attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine that killed 13 officers.
In response, the Myanmar government labeled the AA a terrorist group and instructed its forces to crush the ethnic army.
Since the deadly Jan. 4 assaults, the two armies have clashed more than 100 times, killing 58 AA soldiers, 27 policemen, and 12 civilians. The Myanmar military has yet to reveal its casualties.
Though the government has put the total number of displaced persons at more than 17,000, local relief and disaster management workers have estimated it to be as high as 22,000 with about 16,000 housed in temporary camps across the region.
One displaced villager in Buthidaung township who read the Myanmar military’s latest statement on the AA, said, “We don’t have a say about the statements of the Tatmadaw or the AA.”
“It’s up to them [the Myanmar Army] to regard the AA as an insurgent group,” he said. “People can’t take sides.”
The AA has called the Myanmar military’s attacks against civilians “war crimes” and said that it will try to have those responsible prosecuted by The Hague-based International Criminal Court.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.