The Arakan Army on Tuesday denied that it is allied with a Rohingya Muslim militant group and objected to a Myanmar government spokesman’s warning to its supporters not to back the insurgent organization after it conducted deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine state last week.
Coordinated assaults by the AA on four police outposts in Buthidaung township on Jan. 4 left 13 policemen dead and injured nine others. The rebel army said it lost three of its soldiers in the violence.
At a news conference on Monday, President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay accused the AA of having ties to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group that in August 2017 launched deadly assaults on 30 police outposts and an army base in northern Rakhine state, triggering a brutal military crackdown during which thousands were killed and more than 725,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh.
In a statement on its website and Facebook page, the AA said Zaw Htay’s statements were inappropriate, viewing them as an attempt by the government and the military to stir up misunderstanding between the Arakan military group’s allies and ethnic Rakhine support base.
AA commander-in-chief Major General Tun Myat Naing also posted an online message that the AA does not have any connection to ARSA.
The AA, which is fighting the Myanmar military for greater autonomy in Rakhine state, represents the region’s Buddhist Rahkine ethnic group, while ARSA is a militant group that purports to speak for Muslim Rohingyas.
Rakhine ethnics said that it is impossible not to support the AA when all groups in the multiethnic but divided state want equality and the right to self-determination through military and politics means.
They also noted that Rakhine has been the poorest state in Myanmar long before AA attacked the police outposts, thereby negating Zaw Htay’s statement that the region’s development would suffer because of the Rakhine people’s backing of the AA.
Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker from the hard-line Buddhist Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents the Myebon township constituency, said that the Rakhine people did not believe Zaw Htay’s remark that the AA has links to ARSA.
“No Rakhine would accept the AA having ties to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, and it would never happen,” he said.
“If the AA tried to have ties with ARSA, only the AA would face negative consequences,” he said. “We don’t believe these rumors. We want both sides [the government and the AA] to move forward to achieve peace instead of blaming each other.”
‘A better way’
The AA is one of 11 ethnic armed groups that have not signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire accord of October 2015, an agreement inked by 10 other rebel armies to end decades of civil war in the developing country.
Fighting intensified between the AA and Myanmar Army in December after Arakan troops ambushed a military column conducting “area clearance operations” near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border on Monday, according to an account by the national forces. But the AA attributed the hostilities to an intrusion by the Myanmar military into an AA-controlled area to conduct operations.
Myanmar forces declared a four-month unilateral cease-fire on Dec. 21 in five military regions in a bid to breathe life into the country's teetering peace process by enticing separatist ethnic armies to join talks with the central government. The cease-fire excludes Rakhine state, however.
Ann Thar Gyi, chairman of the local civil society organization Thingaha Kanlat Rakhita Aid Association, said his group will support any organization or individuals if they work for development in Rakhine state.
“The government is talking about development in Rakhine only after having all this fighting in Rakhine,” he said. “It’s like they are saying just what they want to say without thinking about people’s interests.”
Hla Myint, spokesman for the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), another political party active in Rakhine state, said Zaw Htay’s comments at the press conference would drive people away from the government.
“I believe it would be better to find a better way to resolve the problem,” he said. “Local people in the rural areas have been afraid of both the military as well as of the AA all their lives.”
Kyaukphyu resident Tun Kyi told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he was disappointed with Zaw Htay’s words.
“We have not only the AA as an armed group, but also all other ethnic minorities have their armed groups in the country, and they have been fighting with government army,” he said.
“No ethnic minority will listen to government telling them not to support their armed groups,” he said. “People in Kachin state support the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], and people in Rakhine will support the Rakhine armed group, the AA.”
Visit by journalists
Meanwhile, a group of journalists on a government-sponsored trip to northern Rakhine on Monday talked to villagers and police officers about the deadly attacks by the AA.
Reporters from RFA, Voice of America, Democratic Voice of Burma, Mizzima and the Myanmar Times arrived in Maungdaw township, adjacent to Buthidaung, by military helicopter along with Lieutenant General Aung Win Oo, chief of the Myanmar Police Force, and Khin Maung Tin, deputy minister of the State Counselor’s Office.
A policeman from the Kahtee Hla police outpost, one of the four stations the AA attacked, told them that their barking dogs alerted police to the approaching insurgents.
“They opened fire with heavy weapons, and we responded with heavy weapons,” he said. “We were engaged in defense for three hours because they had more troops and better weapons. We were very afraid because we never experienced anything like this before.”
Police Sergeant Win Ko from the Kahtee Hla outpost said that some Rakhine villagers were seen with the AA troops during the attack.
“We serve here to protect the Rakhine people, but they helped the AA attack us,” he said, adding that villagers were definitely involved in assaults on the police outpost.
Police Brigadier General Myint Toe, commander of the Border Guard Police Force No. 1, told the reporters that police are now working with the military on ensuring stability in the restive region.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.