UPDATED at 5:00 P.M. EST on 2019-01-18
Myanmar’s leaders on Monday vowed to “put down” an insurgency in western Rakhine state by the Arakan Army (AA), demanding that ethnic Rakhines end support for the armed group that killed 13 policeman in coordinated attacks during the country’s Independence Day last week.
Zaw Htay, director general of President Win Myint's office, said Myanmar’s de facto leader State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi discussed the AA’s attacks during a meeting on national security held with the president, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and other cabinet members.
“The President’s Office has instructed the military to launch an operation to to put down the insurgents,” he told a news conference in the capital Naypyidaw.
Zaw Htay also said that the AA’s attacks were a “stab in the back” and that political differences divisions should be resolved through discussion.
On Friday, Myanmar’s Independence Day, members of the AA used both light and heavy weapons to attack four police outposts in Buthidaung township, killing 13 officers and injuring nine others.
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 that killed thousands and drove more than 725,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.
“We have had information about ARSA, and we learned earlier that the AA would attack police posts,” he said. “We reviewed why our police posts were attacked and have discussed some plans to work on in the region, but we can’t give you the details now.”
Zaw Htay said he believes the attacks are the outcome of meetings between the AA and ARSA in July, but he did not offer any evidence of such contacts between the two mutually hostile groups.
The AA represents the state's Buddhist Rahkine ethnic group, while ARSA is a militant group that purports to speak for Muslim Rohingyas.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said his group does not have any connections to ARSA and that Zaw Htay’s statements during Monday’s press conference were an attempt by the government and the military to brand the Arakan group a terrorist organization.
Zaw Htay also urged Rakhine lawmakers, youth, and civil society organizations to stop supporting AA rebels for sake of the state’s development.
“Do they want to see a cycle of violence lasting decades?” he asked at the press conference. “I want to tell the Rakhine people who are supporting AA, please don’t think about yourself, but think about your next generation.”
Army urged to listen to locals
Rakhine representatives appeared to be lukewarm to the appeal and called on the central government to listen to local concerns in the state.
Htu May, an Arakan National Party (ANP) lawmaker in the upper house of Rakhine state's parliament, said that the central government and Tatmadaw, as the national military is called, should consider the position of ethnic Rakhine people living in the region to prevent such attacks from recurring.
“I myself as an ethnic Rakhine would like to add that regarding the attacks on Independence Day, the sentiments of ethnic minorities should be taken into account by the Union government and the Tatmadaw,” he said.
“Then, there could be discussions and a solution,” he said. “Incidents like the Independence Day attack could be reduced once the discussions began.”
Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary of the ANP, said the party was questioning whether the attack on Independence Day was appropriate.
“For warring parties, if one is not an ally, he may be considered an enemy,” he said. “Maybe that’s the reason they launched an attack. We can’t say for sure.”
The AA, which is fighting the Myanmar military for greater autonomy in Rakhine state, attacked the outposts because the government army is using the police for military operations, and the police have threatened area villagers, Khine Thukha told RFA on Friday.
He also said that Arakan soldiers did not intentionally choose Independence Day to carry out the violence.
“We just did what we had to do,” he said. “We didn’t choose Independence Day. It was just a coincidence. There’s no Independence Day for us.”
The Myanmar military declared a four-month unilateral cease-fire on Dec. 21 in five military regions, but it excluded Rakhine state.
Statements by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) and ultranationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha on Sunday said the attacks by the AA constituted an act of terrorism.
MNHRC member Yu Lwin Aung pointed out that the armed assaults were deliberately launched during a flag-raising event “to disgrace the nation.”
“If the other side retaliates, then the people will become victims and lose their basic rights,” he said. “It is difficult to stay calm and not fight back. Such violent acts can lead to human rights violations of local ethnics. That’s why we condemn such acts of terrorism.”
Ma Ba Tha’s statement expressed sorrow for the dead and injured policemen and urged the government to take full responsibility for law and order and protect the local population.
Clashes between the Myanmar military and the AA in Kyauktaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Ponnagyun townships have forced more than 5,000 local residents to leave their homes, according to estimates by locals and the United Nations.
The rebel group reported that a fresh clash with the military occurred around noon on Monday near Doechaung Wa village in Paletwa township in Chin state, which abuts Rakhine state.
Warning letter and bullet
A member of the AA, meanwhile, has sent a warning letter along with a bullet to police officer Kyaw Hla, commander of the Tain Nyo police station in Rakhine’s Mrauk-U township, according to AA spokesman Khine Thukha.
“It could be AA’s lower-level commanders who sent the bullet along with the warning letter to this police officer because he is known as the one who has oppressed local residents,” he said.
RFA contacted Kyaw Kyaw Hla who confirmed that he received the threat and the bullet, but said he could not comment further on the incident because he was busy.
The letter warns him not to disrupt the AA’s Rakhine national affairs activities.
Someone in the AA also sent similar threats to Chit Shar Aung, police chief of Nwa Yone Taung village, and two locals named Nyan Lin and Sit Sit on Dec. 21.
Meanwhile, groups of journalists from domestic and international news outlets have been visiting the areas where the attacks by the AA took place on a Myanmar government-sponsored trip since Jan. 5.
On Monday, a group that included reporters from RFA, Voice of America, Democratic Voice of Burma, Mizzima, and the Myanmar Times traveled by helicopter to Maungdaw township, which borders Buthidaung, 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.
Government officials comforted policemen and their families who were attacked by the AA and offered them money before having a closed-door meeting at Maungdaw district’s General Administrative Office.
“We will not remain silent on these attacks which are a stab in the back,” Aung Win Oo told the police officers. “The Police Force will do what we should together with the military.”
After the meeting, Police Brigadier General Myint Toe, the commander of Border Guard Police Force No. 1, told the reporters about the AA’s attacks on Jan. 4.
The reporters also visited police outposts in Kahtee Hla and Gotepi villages and the No. 3 Border Guard Police Force in Buthidaung, but government authorities didn’t take them to the Kyaung Taung and Nga Myin Taw police posts for security reasons.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report contained incorrect English translations of the words for "put down" and insurgents in the quotes by Zaw Htay, director general of President Win Myint's office.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Win Ko Ko Latt, and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.