The Myanmar military’s recent clashes with the Arakan Army (AA) in northern Rakhine state, including shooting and shelling incidents in Mrauk-U township, were counter-insurgency measures against the rebel fighters, a three-member team of military spokesmen said Monday.
When asked about reports of Myanmar soldiers firing randomly into villages in historically and religiously significant Mrauk-U on March 18, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, secretary of the Myanmar military’s True News Information Team, said the army was returning fire from AA units that had ambushed government troops from positions in residential areas and Buddhist temples.
“Troops returning to Mrauk-U from a mission were fired upon from both sides, and some [of the firing] was from houses,” he said at a press conference in Naypyidaw. “At the same time, an army regimental headquarters in the town also came under fire from nearby temples and residential areas.”
In response to a question about plans to issue a curfew in Mrauk-U and charge civilians under Section 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a prison sentence for those who interact with an illegal group such as the AA, Major General Tun Tun Nyi, vice chairman of the information team, said that the matter is being handled by the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Myanmar military and the AA have clashed nearly 100 times in western Myanmar’s volatile Rakhine state since Arakan forces launched deadly attacks on police outposts in early January, killing 13 officers, said Major General Soe Naing Oo, head of the information team.
The information team did not mention the number of soldiers killed on both sides during the skirmishes while they discussed issues related to a temporary military's cease-fire in certain regions, the country’s peace process, and stability in Rakhine state.
In response to an RFA reporter’s question about whether the military’s offensive against the AA has increased support for the Arakan force among the ethnic Rakhine population, Tun Tun Nyi said that the Rakhine public is not allied with the AA.
The Myanmar government branded the AA a terrorist organization after the January attacks. A similar assault on another police outpost in early March killed nine officers.
The fighting, which flared up late last year, has so far claimed the lives of 24 civilians and 22 policemen and displaced more than 20,000 people, according to estimates by NGOs in Rakhine state, though the state government puts the number of displaced civilians at about 7,800.
Zaw Min Tun rejected a question from a reporter asking whether pressure from neighboring China led to the military’s declaration in December of a four-month unilateral cease-fire in five of its military command regions in a bid to breathe life into the country's teetering peace process. Rakhine state is not among the five regions, however.
Soe Naing Oo said Rakhine was previously regarded as a “white area,” a term for a non-insurgent active area, and as a result it was not included among the regions covered by the unilateral cease-fire.
Commenting about the AA, he said, “There are two options. One is anti-terrrorism, and another is the dialogue for peace. You’ve seen us working on both.”
When asked if the military might extend its cease-fire, which runs until April 30, Soe Naing Oo said, “Some ethnic armed groups should not act like children and demand the impossible while we’re considering it.”
The Myanmar government is trying to end seven decades of armed conflict in the country through a series of peace talks that have largely stalled as ethnic armies continue to fight government troops in certain ethnic regions of the country.
Government peace negotiators met last Thursday with delegates from ethnic armies that have not signed a nationwide-cease-fire agreement with the Myanmar military in an effort to get the peace process back on track.
Military representatives met separately with the groups on Friday.
Reported by Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.