A battalion commander and 20 soldiers from the government army were killed during fresh fighting with an armed ethnic army in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state during hostilities that erupted three days ago, a spokesman for the rebel army said Tuesday.
The national army engaged in two ambush attacks against the Arakan Army (AA) in Ponnagyun township and an AA base near Lawmara Hill in Rathedaung township during the country’s New Year celebrations, said AA spokesman Khine Thukha.
“We have been fighting because Infantry 232 led by Commander Myo Min Tun came into the AA’s area,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“Commander Myo Min Tun and 20 soldiers were killed in the fighting in Ponnagyun township,” he said. “Some [soldiers] from the AA are injured, but no one was killed.”
The Myanmar military, which rarely discusses battle casualties, was not available for comment.
Following the attacks, additional government troops have arrived in Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw townships, according to a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma.
People living in the area where the clashes occurred are having difficulty getting to work or to their farms, according to a local state media report.
We’re finding it difficult to get food because the fighting is going on,” said a local resident who declined to give his name. “We are still hearing the sound of heavy weapons.”
The government army, which has occupied the AA’s camps and other buildings, has found handmade mines in the area, the report said.
Residents of the state told the online journal The Irrawaddy that tension has been growing between the ethnic Myanmar and Rakhine communities because of inflammatory posts on social media and unverified photos depicting violent acts.
Removing the insurgents
The new Myanmar government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party said on April 13 that the national army would try to remove “AA insurgencies” from the state’s Kyauktaw township, where fighting broke out at the end of last year and the beginning of 2016, the report said.
In January, Myanmar’s army under the previous government administration of Thein Sein vowed to eliminate the AA, accusing it of creating instability in the region.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also NLD chairwoman and minister of foreign affairs and the President’s Office, has made national peace and reconciliation the cornerstone of the new government that came into power at the beginning of the month.
She has pledged to hold peace talks with armed ethnic groups who were excluded from or opted not to sign a nationwide peace agreement last October under the previous administration.
Eight of the country’s more than 20 armed ethnic groups signed the pact, but the AA was one of a few rebel groups that were excluded because of ongoing hostilities with the government army.
Khine Thukka expressed skepticism that the continuation of such discussions would end the fighting in Rakhine.
“We think all problems we have now are political problems,” he said. “We have been asking for a long time to solve political problems in political ways, but the government army is eradicating us. If we can’t solve political problems with dialogue, we will never have peace and ethnic unity.”
“Now that we have the first civilian government in many years, which has said its priority is national reconciliation and peace, we have been expecting the best during the new government’s term, but we are getting ready to face the worst situation at the same time,” he said.
Nevertheless, he told The Irrawaddy that the AA would participate in talks with the government only if the other excluded groups were also invited.
Natural resource-sharing rights
Meanwhile, environmental activists in Rakhine began a campaign on Tuesday to collect signatures supporting natural resource-sharing rights in 17 townships, according to a resident of the coastal township Kyautphyu.
Organizers will send the lists of signatures to the national government during June, said Kyautphyu resident Tun Kyi.
“We have been asking for the issuance of laws on resource-sharing rights for five years, but the government hasn’t effectively done anything about it,” he told RFA. “That’s why we are collecting the signatures now.”
“The other thing we are asking for is to amend an article in the constitution that says the state owns all resources in the country, he said.”
Rakhine citizens called for the passage of laws on resource-sharing rights during the five-day Rakhine National Conference in April 2014 in Kyaukphyu to discuss peace, security and development in the impoverished, conflict-torn state.
Violence erupted between Rakhine Buddhists Muslim Rohingya in the state in 2012, leaving more than 200 dead and tens of thousands homeless. The Rohingya, who bore the brunt of the attacks, were later forced to live in squalid displacement camps.
About 120,000 Rohingya remain in the camps, while thousands of others have fled persecution in the Buddhist-dominated country on rickety boats to other Southeast Asian countries in recent years.
Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups advocate natural-resource sharing and greater autonomy through a federal political system.
The NLD government has pledged to “work to ensure a fair distribution across the country of the profits from natural resource extraction, in accordance with the principles of a federal union,” according to a recent report issued by the Natural Resource Governance Institute.
Regional and state leaders and several armed ethnic groups advocate the distribution of revenues from natural resources, such as copper, jade and other gemstones, as a key feature of fiscal decentralization and the peace process, the report said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.