An alliance of ethnic armed groups launched attacks in five locations in Myanmar’s Mandalay region and northern Shan state early Thursday, leaving at least 11 people confirmed dead and several others injured, in retaliation for government army offenses in Shan and Rakhine states, sources in the areas hit said.
In a development that appeared to raise hostilities between rebel armies and national forces to an unprecedented level, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) fired heavy artillery at the Myanmar military’s Defense Services Technology Academy and a toll gate in Mandalay’s Pyin Oo Lwin township, according to an announcement by the government armed forces.
The rebels from three militaries of the Northern Alliance of ethnic forces also attacked a police outpost at the Gote Twin Bridge, a toll gate, and a military regimental command in Shan state’s Nawngkhio township.
All three armies have been engaged in hostilities with Myanmar forces, with the AA fighting government troops in a quest for greater autonomy in Rakhine state, and the TNLA and MNDAA fighting over territory and lucrative resources in northern Shan state.
Battles have ensued in Shan state despite a temporary unilateral cease-fire by the Myanmar military that covers five of its command regions. The cease-fire, which excludes Rakhine state, expires at the end of August.
Though rebel forces put the number killed in the attacks at 11, the Myanmar military acknowledged that 10 had died in the bridge assault. Figures cited by news wire agencies put the number of casualties at at least 14, while the online journal The Irrawaddy said that at least 15 had died and three were injured in the coordinated attacks.
RFA could not independently confirm the death toll, which could be higher than initial reports.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service that 10 soldiers and policemen who rushed to the Gote Twin Bridge as reinforcements during the armed assault lost their lives.
Zaw Min Tun said the rebel armies fired heavy weapons at the targets.
“During these attacks, they fired heavy weapons from a distance,” he said.
“All in all, an attack on places like the military technological academy and the military unit in Nawngkhio are a clear disruption [to peace],” he said.
Ko Myo from Philanthropists Without Borders Association, a humanitarian group based in Lashio in northern Shan state, which assisted those injured in the bridge assault, said members of his group had retrieved 11 bodies.
“We are going to transport them to Nawngkhio and Kyaukme,” he said. “There are the bodies of seven military members, three policemen, and a driver. I didn’t see any other dead bodies on the way here, though we heard many gunshots. As we moved farther away, we didn’t hear any more [shots].”
‘A brazen attack’
The attacks came three days after the ethnic armies issued a joint statement Monday calling on Myanmar forces to stop waging armed assaults on soldiers in their respective territories or “bear the consequences.”
“The military has increased its offensives in our controlled territory” said TNLA spokesman Major Mai Aik Kyaw. “At the same time, the clashes with the military are getting more intense in Rakhine state.”
“Nothing has changed after the announcement,” he added. “That’s why we have launched these attacks as a defense strategy.”
Mai Aik Kyaw said it was unclear which side had caused a civilian death during a firefight at the toll gate in Nawngkhio township.
The Myanmar military said the rebel fighters carried out the attacks in retaliation for its seizure of 16 billion kyats (U.S. $10.1 million) worth of narcotic drugs and equipment in Shan state’s Kutkai township on July 25, the recent seizure of 5 billion kyats (U.S. $ 3.2 million) worth of ammunition in Rakhine’s Rathedaung township, and the increasing death toll of AA members in the Rakhine conflict.
The government military also said it would respond to the attacks accordingly because it has a duty to safeguard governing bodies, transportation, and civilian lives.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said that the military’s statements about the attacks were akin to disinformation.
“Whenever their outposts have been attacked, they have said that the facilities are intended for regional security,” he said. “They always use that excuse. Now, they are doing the same thing telling the sad stories to the public.”
Myanmar’s former information minister Ye Htut said the armed forces must respond to the attacks because the assault on the military academy in the country’s heartland in Mandalay has damaged the military’s pride and its ability to provide security.
“This is a brazen attack which challenges the military,” he said.
Ye Htut also said that damage to the Gote Twin Bridge would affect trading with China on which Myanmar’s economy greatly depends.
“It will cause an economic crisis for the ruling government,” he said.
The attacks could also seriously affect the government's long-stalled series of peace talks, known as the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, spearheaded by State Counselor Aung San Su Kyi to end decades of civil wars in Myanmar, the former minister said.
“The government cannot ignore these attacks, saying it has no impact on the peace process,” he said. “The attacks will make State Counselor Daw [honorific] Aung San Su Kyi’s Panglong peace efforts a lot more difficult.”
Chin group takes aim at AA
In a related development, a statement issued Monday by an ethnic Chin rights group about several people who have gone missing amid clashes between Myanmar soldiers and the AA in the state’s Paletwa township, provoked a sharp denial by the ethnic army that it was behind the abductions.
The statement by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) cited a village administrator's reportsaid eight villagers from Baung Wa, Yat Chaung, and Than Htaung villages had gone missing in July and August. The group, however, did not accuse either the AA or the Myanmar military for the abductions in the statement.
One villager reported seeing AA troops take away a Than Htaung resident, while others said the AA is the only armed organization active near Baung Wa, The Irrawaddy reported.
The CHRO noted the disappearance of three other township villagers since October 2018 and accused Arakan soldiers of extorting money from local boat passengers and robbing them of food.
The AA denied that it had arbitrarily detained any Chin civilians, denounced the CHRO, and said that the Chin media lacks accountability.
“We issued the statement in response to such fake news and false allegations,” said AA spokesman Khine Thukha.
“Chin human rights groups’ accusations against us are baseless, and we’ve also seen baseless accusations on social media by so-called Chin media groups,” he said.
“Creating baseless news for the public tends to create a misunderstanding of our organization by the international community, so we urge them to withdraw their accusations,” he said.
CHRO spokesman Salai Tayra said the group's reports have been based on what locals have reported to have seen.
“We have evidence and witnesses,” he said. “We presented what had really happened in the region. They [the AA] are lying if they denied that.”
In early August, the AA released 52 ethnic Khumi villagers from Chin state detained for six months in a border camp after soldiers took them from their community following a battle with government troops. Two others it had detained escaped.
The AA, however, denied that it had abducted the villagers and said it had taken them to a safe place after the clash.
“Their activities in Paletwa township raise questions of whether they constitute human rights violations,” said Kyaw Nyein, chairman of the Khumi Affairs Coordination Committee.”
“Their encroaching is causing regional instability,” he added.
The armed conflict between Myanmar forces and the AA has displaced tens of thousands of civilians in Chin and neighboring Rakhine states since hostilities escalated in late 2018.
Reported by Zarni Htun and Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.