Govt stirs Rakhine anger with warning about Arakan Army

Rakhine nationalists were outraged when the government warned them not to support the Rakhine armed group and accused it of colluding with Rohingya militants.

By MRATT KYAW THU | FRONTIER

THERE WERE angry reactions in Rakhine State last week after the government ordered the Tatmadaw to launch a crackdown against the increasingly brazen Arakan Army over fighting which is estimated to have claimed up to 100 lives on both sides in recent months.

The order, which emerged from a meeting attended by members of the National Defence and Security Council in Nay Pyi Taw on January 7, came after the AA killed 13 policemen in coordinated raids on police posts in northern Rakhine’s Buthidaung Township on January 4 as the nation celebrated Independence Day.

“The president’s office has instructed the military to launch an operation to crush the terrorists,” government spokesperson U Zaw Htay told a news conference after the meeting attended by President Win Myint, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the council’s other eight members.

“Unusually”, the meeting was also attended by four other ministers, as well as the chairman of the Peace Commission and the head of Military Affairs Security, the Tatmadaw’s intelligence wing, reported IHS Jane’s 360, a website devoted to military and security news and analysis.

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

Zaw Htay warned the Rakhine people not to support the AA, which is known to have many sympathisers in the troubled state who blame successive Union governments for the lack of development in one of the country’s poorest areas. AA leader Major-General Tun Myat Naing is the son-in-law of the Rakhine Hluttaw speaker U San Kyaw Hla (Ponnagyun-1, Arakan National Party).

“Do they want to see a cycle of violence lasting decades?” Zaw Htay said. “I want to tell the Rakhine people who are supporting [the AA]: Don’t think about yourself, but think about your next generation.”

In comments that incensed many Rakhine, he also accused the AA of collaborating with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group made up of Rohingya Muslims that launched coordinated attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine in August 2017, precipitating a massive military operation that sent more than 700,000 Muslims fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Zaw Htay said he believed AA’s attacks were the outcome of meetings between it and ARSA last July but offered no evidence to support the claim. He also accused the AA of working together with ARSA to smuggle drugs.

In an indication of the challenge the Union government faces to win the hearts and minds of the Rakhine people, prominent Rakhine activist U Tun Kyi was quoted as telling The Irrawaddy that “the AA is supported by more than 99 percent of the Arakanese [Rakhine] people”.

Analysts say many young Rakhine living in rural areas are attracted to the AA because of its objective of achieving self-determination for the state, site of the Arakan kingdom that was captured by the Bamar Konbaung dynasty in 1784, a lingering source of resentment.

The objective is outlined in the AA’s Arakan Dream 2020, under which Tun Myat Naing has said that the group “would take back Arakan by 2020”, an indication that hostilities are likely to intensify.

The AA is believed to have been established in Kachin State in 2009 with the support of the Kachin Independence Army and its troops have received training at the KIA’s headquarters at Laiza, near the border with China. 

According to the Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar, a think tank in Yangon, the AA has about 3,500 fighters and has been attracting more young Rakhine to its ranks since its attacks on Tatmadaw patrols stepped up late last year.

In December, three Rakhine youths travelling between the state and Yangon were detained under the Unlawful Associations Act after being accused of being in contact with the AA.

The AA has honed its fighting ability as a member of the Northern Alliance, a coalition that also includes the KIA, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, which has staged a series of attacks on security posts and other targets in northern Shan State since late 2017.

It seemed that the Tatmadaw and Aung San Suu Kyi may have underestimated the AA until the frequency of its attacks in remote southern Chin State and adjoining areas in northern Rakhine began increasing late last year. However, the high-level national security meeting on January 7 illustrated the rising level of concern about the AA.

Reports from northern Rakhine say Tatmadaw units have suffered heavy casualties in recent AA attacks.

In one response to the attacks, administrators in northern Rakhine’s Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships have ordered every Rakhine household to post a list of family members on the outer walls of their houses. In the event of checks, households with members absent would be required to account for their whereabouts.

The fighting is causing misery for civilians, with reports that the Tatmadaw was blocking some relief supplies to ensure it did not fall into the hands of the AA.

In a statement on January 9, the most senior United Nations official in Myanmar said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation in northern Rakhine, where fighting between the AA and the Tatmadaw has displaced about 4,500 civilians since December.

UN resident coordinator Mr Knut Ostby also urged “all sides to ensure the protection of all civilians” and “to ensure humanitarian access to all people affected by the violence”.

U Oo Hla Saw, secretary of the Arakan National Party, said he was unsure why the fighting had broken out now, but it was likely to continue until the political grievances were resolved.

“According to their [AA] statements, they want to solve problems through political negotiations and many people were happy about that but then later the clashes happened,” he said. “The fact is that the ethnic people who have weapons will fight, and the Tatmadaw will retaliate because they have weapons too.”

TOP PHOTO: A Border Guard Police officer guards a post in Buthidaung Township, Rakhine State, on January 7, three days after the Arakan Army attacked four BGP outposts in the township, leaving police officers dead. (AFP)

By Mratt Kyaw Thu

By Mratt Kyaw Thu

Mratt is a Senior Reporter at Frontier. He began his career at Unity Weekly Journal in 2010 and focuses on political reporting. In 2017 he won the Agence France-Presse Kate Webb prize for his coverage of ethnic strife in Myanmar.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Who gets to vote?
For Muslim communities in rural Mandalay Region, the right to vote is at the mercy of exclusionary laws and a bureaucracy steeped in discrimination.
Defaming democracy
If the government really wants to introduce a fair framework for defamation, it needs to overhaul or replace all six related laws.

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters

Our fortnightly magazine is available in print, digital, or a combination beginning at $80 a year

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar