Myanmar’s military on Friday warned ethnic armed groups to end hostilities in five of its command regions around the country and to stop attempts to expand their territory during the temporary unilateral cease-fire that the armed forces imposed in December, or risk damaging the nation’s teetering peace process.
The Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are called in Myanmar, is determined to achieve peace in the war-torn country by 2020 and wants talks on national reconciliation and peace to be held in the near future, said a statement issued by the Myanmar military’s information team.
“[W]hile the EAOs [ethnic armed organizations] should be putting their efforts into peace negotiations during the truce, they have focused on building up strength, recruitment and boundary expansions” that have impacted civilian livelihoods, increased the number of people displaced by fighting, disrupted road transportation security, and affected the country’s peace process, the statement said.
Fighting between ethnic armed groups occurred 13 times from Dec. 21 and Jan. 24 between the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N) forces, as well as between the RCSS/SSA-S and Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization (PNLO), it said.
Ethnic armies operated outside their designated territories nearly 170 times, extorted money from civilians 10 times, recruited people 20 times, ambushed government troops 10 times, and conducted two mine attacks on vehicles, the statement said.
The Myanmar military also cautioned the TNLA, Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), whose troops all operate in northern Shan state, to adhere to a joint statement they issued on Dec. 12 to halt military operations and support the government's efforts for national reconciliation and nationwide peace.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service that ethnic armed groups that enter territory controlled by the military or by other rebel forces should withdraw by Feb. 12, the country’s Union Day, an annual holiday commemorating the date in 1947 when a pact on ethnic autonomy known as the Panglong Agreement was signed.
The agreement between the government under General Aung San — the country’s independence hero and father of current State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi — and ethnic Shan, Kachin, and Chin leaders granted autonomy in internal administration to the frontier regions.
If the ethnic armies fail to stop intruding into others’ territory, the Myanmar Army will take measures as necessary, Zaw Min Tun said.
The brigadier general also said that the doors are open for the AA, which is fighting government forces in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in a bid for greater autonomy for the state, to participate in the peace process.
Hostilities between the AA and the Myanmar military have intensified since late November 2018. Arakan fighters launched coordinated attacks on four police outposts in northern Rakhine in early January, killing 13 policemen and wounding nine others.
The government military is operating under a four-month cease-fire it declared in five command zones, excluding Rakhine state, from Dec. 21 through April 30 in an effort to open talks to armed rebel groups, including both signatories and non-signatories of the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA).
No talks yet
Colonel Khun Okkar of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) told RFA that the government military has yet to begin any talks since it announced its unilateral cease-fire.
“The team led by Lieutenant General Yar Pyae hasn’t started any talks since then, so I wonder if there are more efforts to be made [on the military side],” he said.
But he added that peace still may be achievable, with China pushing the rebel groups that operate in parts of Myanmar along its border to stop fighting.
“The prospects are good because every single group has their own interests, and China’s interests are even bigger,” Yar Pyae said. “Under the pressure of a country with great interest and influence, the [ethnic armed] organizations will have to get along [with the military].”
Colonel Tar Aik Kyaw, spokesman of the non-NCA signatory TNLA, confirmed that Myanmar forces have not yet engaged in any peace talks.
“They haven’t been able to hold talks with us despite the [cease-fire] announcement,” he said. “In addition, we don’t have any territorial arrangement or agreement, so they can’t say we have violated anything. It’s just a one-sided statement.”
The TNLA, however, is ready to hold negotiations with the government army, he said.
“But we can’t have the talks since they didn’t reach out to us,” Tar Aik Kyaw said. “They always set conditions whenever we have talks, and setting such conditions is an obstacle for talks.”
The colonel doubted the Myanmar military’s sincerity in calling for peace negotiations.
“They have yet to end the offensives, [so] I think the reason behind their statement is to have an excuse to launch military operations [against us],” he said.
Village administrator missing
The current most problematic region for government forces is conflict-ridden Rakhine state, which has seen an uptick in skirmishes between the AA and the national military in a handful of townships since late last November.
The Myanmar government has ordered its soldiers to “crush” the AA and has accused the rebel fighters of having links to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Muslim militant group responsible for deadly attacks on police outposts in August 2017 that sparked a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
The regional violence has been punctuated by the disappearances and murders of village heads and ordinary residents alike.
More than 40 village tract administrators in Kyauktaw township sent a letter to township administrator Thiha Zaw on Thursday, calling for an investigation into the disappearance of Tun Nu, administrator of Taung Min Kalar village, who was abducted on Jan. 19.
“We don’t know which group has taken the administrator of Taung Min Kalar village,” said Thin Khar Kyaw, administrator of Kanzauk village. “We don’t know exactly if it was the Tatmadaw or the AA, or why he was taken, so we jointly presented [our concerns].”
The 45 year-old ethnic Mro administrator was living in Than Chaung village with his family when he was abducted around 7 p.m. by an unknown armed group, his clerk Aung San Thein said.
“His wife told me that three men entered the house first, and two followed later,” Aung San Thein said. “They wore guerilla uniforms with black dots and armbands with a white star on a red background. They had guns. … He was asked to come out and then taken away.”
The family reported Thiha Zaw’s abduction to local police and the Myanmar Army, Kyauktaw township deputy administrator Myo Thein Zaw said.
“We’ve reported it [again] to the appropriate authorities since the incident occurred,” he said, but he declined to provide further details because his boss is on leave.
Local Myanmar soldiers denied that they were involved in the abduction, according to area residents, and the AA told RFA that it had nothing to do with the incident.
Human traffickers arrested
While Myanmar grapples with fighting, abductions, and occasional murders in Rakhine state, it has yet to begin repatriating some of the more than 725,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh after security forces unleashed a campaign of terror in 2017.
Some Rohingya living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and Muslim villages in Rakhine state, where they have been confined since 2012 as a result of communal violence between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, have sought to illegally leave and seek a better life in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
On Thursday, police arrested 18 Rohingya and two human traffickers on a beach in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe as they planned to leave by boat, a police officer who declined to be named told RFA.
The group of 16 women and four men, including the two traffickers, are in their late teens and early 20s, and the young women told police that they were going to Malaysia to marry men who are working there, he added.
The Rohingya from Sabara, Ohntaw Che, Ohntaw Gyi, and Thae Chaung villages in Sittwe township paid the traffickers 1.5 million kyats (U.S. $973) to transport them, he said.
They were arrested in an eggplant field near the coast on the west side of Sittwe as they prepared to leave, the policeman said.
They wanted to leave Sittwe because, as Rohingya considered by Myanmar to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they face daily hardships and restrictions on travel, the officer said.
The suspected traffickers — one woman and one man — have been charged under Section 367 of Myanmar’s Penal Code for abducting persons who may be put in danger of being subjected to injury or slavery, he said. The offense carries a punishment of up to 10 years in jail and a fine.
Authorities are still waiting to hear from their superiors about whether the Rohingya, who are detained at Myoma Police Station in Sittwe, will be charged, he added.
A Muslim from Sittwe who requested anonymity out of concern for his safety told RFA that more than 60 Rohingya had gathered in the field to be picked up and taken to neighboring countries, and that some of them escaped when police approached the area.
Hindu IDPs refuse to return
Meanwhile, dozens of Hindu IDPs displaced during ARSA’s deadly attacks on police outposts in 2017 crackdown in which the Muslim militants attacked their community have implored government officials not to force them to return to Maungdaw township because they are afraid of Rohingya extremists.
Nearly two dozen Hindu households ordered by authorities to return to their community sent a joint letter to Myanmar’s Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development on Jan. 21, asking officials not to send them back to the township where their entire village was destroyed by ARSA.
The 68 Hindus who have been staying at a temple in Sittwe say they are concerned about their safety if they return to northern Rakhine state where they had informed authorities about the massacre of their community by ARSA in August 2017.
“We know how much danger we will be in if we go back there as we spoke the truth about the August 2017 terrorist attacks,” said Hindu community leader Ni Maul.
Raku Nay Myint, a member of a Hindu assistance group in Sittwe, said, “They are afraid to go back to Maungdaw because they are the ones who told the government officials about what happened during the ARSA attacks. Their lives are at risk [if they return].”
The Hindus have received threatening phone calls from people they don’t know and are reluctant to return to the place where their family members were killed, he said.
“All our family members were killed,” said Hindu IDP Archi Koma. “All our belongings were taken, and our houses burned down by Muslim terrorists. Authorities haven’t found the Muslims who did this to us yet.”
“We don’t dare live in those places they are sending us to,” he said. “If there were no Muslims in Maungdaw, then we would go back, but it’s still full of Muslims.”
Another Hindu IDS, Sharaw Shawti, said she was the only one of her 23 family members who was not killed by the Muslim militants because she was visiting her mother’s house at the time of the attack.
“I was in total anguish at that time and couldn’t even eat or drink anything,” she said. “We had to run whenever we heard Muslims were coming. We don’t want to return to where our families were killed.”
Hau Do Suan, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said the Hindus should not be forced to return to Maungdaw unless their safety can be assured.
“The local government and authorities have to check to see if it’s safe for these Hindu refugees according to the current situation on the ground in the region,” he said. “If they cannot really live in that place safely, then the authorities shouldn’t send them back.”
Authorities and IDPs must discuss resettlements based on places that are secure for the Hindus and where they want to live voluntarily, he said.
“If they say this place is really not safe, then we have to consider another place for them,” said Rakhine state spokesman Win Myint.
Reported by Nandar Chann, Min Thein Aung, and Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.