A Rakhine political party said Wednesday that it will hold a meeting in Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe to discuss a warning by a central government spokesman this week against support for the region’s ethnic military force following deadly attacks it conducted on police outposts.
The Buddhist Arakan National Party (ANP) has invited other Rakhine-based political parties, civil society organizations, and locals to join in the talks, scheduled for Jan. 12. They will discuss remarks by President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay on Monday cautioning backers of the Arakan Army (AA) to no longer support the insurgent organization, said ANP vice chairperson Aye Nu Sein.
Specifically, the ANC has invited the Arakan League for Democracy and ethnic Mro and Daing-net political parties, she said.
Participants will also discuss the return home of thousands of civilians displaced by hostilities between the AA and Myanmar government forces that have intensified since December in the rebel army’s quest for greater autonomy for the Rakhine people, as well as prospects for peace in the troubled state.
The Myanmar government denounced the AA’s coordinated assaults on four police outposts in northern Rakhine last week, which killed 13 policemen and wounded nine others, and vowed to crush the insurgents.
Zaw Htay called the attacks a “stab in the back” by the AA and accused the army of having ties to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a shadowy Muslim militant group that in August 2017 launched deadly assaults on police outposts in the same region, triggering a brutal military crackdown that drove more than 725,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.
The ANP issued a statement on Tuesday, rejecting the comments.
Notable Rakhine figures and ordinary residents also denounced the accusations leveled by Zaw Htay.
Rakhine historian Aye Chan called on the government spokesman to prove the allegation that the AA, which represents the region’s Buddhist Rahkine ethnic group, has ties to ARSA, which purports to speak for Muslim Rohingyas.
“He said something like the AA and ARSA are allies, but he needs to prove it,” Aye Chan said. “He also warned the Rakhine people to stop supporting the AA. Whether the Rakhine people support the AA or not, he shouldn’t say something like this which can be read as a threat to people.”
Because the President’s Office is responsible for what Zaw Htay says publicly, President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and military chief Senor General Min Aung Hlaing should take responsibility for the accusations if they instructed him to make the comments, Aye Chan said.
Muslim leader Thar Aye said Zaw Htay presented no concrete proof that the AA is linked to ARSA.
“He can’t prove anything about the AA having ties to ARSA. … Instead of using his authority to give an order, he should try to see what is really going on, study what the root causes of the problem are, and talk with the relevant parties to find a solution.”
Difficult circumstances for villagers
Local relief groups estimate that the number of civilians displaced by recent armed clashes between the AA and Myanmar forces is now well over 5,000 in all of Rakhine state.
The skirmishes and the Myanmar Army’s restrictions on food supplies have caused an estimated 2,000 villagers from communities across Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township alone to flee to safety to other areas.
Government forces began restricting food supplies in the region on Dec. 28 following clashes with AA troops, one displaced resident told RFA in an earlier report.
“We had to leave everything — homes, farms, cattle and other animals,” said Maung Thwin, a resident of Nga Sarine Gaing village.
“The fighting needs to cease in order for us to return home so that we can make purchases of food supplies,” he said.
But even after they return home, the displaced villagers expect to face hunger and hardship because business owners in the community are afraid to open their shops and military restrictions on food supplies are still in place, he said.
The AA has accused the Myanmar military of using local police and security guards to cut off food supplies from flowing into areas where fighting is underway.
Area residents say Myanmar soldiers based in Kyauktaw’s Taung Min Kalar village are preventing civilians from transporting supplies of staple foods by water.
One villager who declined to be named told RFA that residents from the township’s Thalu Chaung village sought permission to carry a sack of rice for each household from Kan Sauk village after experiencing a food shortage, but the army denied them permission.
Instead, they were allowed to take only one small basket of rice for each household based on the recommendation of local administrative officials and police, he said.
A woman from Thalu Chaung village said families now have to live on porridge alone.
Displaced villager Maung Aye told RFA that he wants to return to his community because his family had to leave behind all their livestock and personal possessions when they fled.
Kyauktaw township lawmaker Maung Than Sein said the current circumstances present a very big problem for local Rakhines.
“The Rakhine region is tough to live in, while education levels are low,” he said. “Most people are daily wage earners as well. Under these circumstances, our lives will become very troublesome if the military operations are not stopped.”
Local authorities say restrictions on food supplies are aimed at cutting off supplies for the Arakan Army.
RFA could not reach Colonel Win Zaw Oo of Myanmar military’s Western Command, which oversees operations in Rakhine state, for comment.
Concerns about sickness
Aye Kywe Yee, a midwife who is helping displaced villagers, said she and others have been providing basic health care services to everyone, including children, pregnant women, and the elderly.
Aung Kyaw Nyunt, a clerk at the Wataung village administration office, expressed concern about displaced villagers becoming ill.
“It’s winter and very cold here,” he said. “Health issues can arise because they have to sleep on the ground on plastic sheets.”
Myanmar political observer Yan Myo Thein said the current crisis in Rakhine highlights the urgent need for stakeholders to find a political solution to the ongoing war.
The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, declared a four-month unilateral cease-fire in December in five military regions to try to revive the country's shaky peace process by enticing separatist ethnic armies to join talks with the central government. The cease-fire excludes Rakhine state, however.
“In my view, one of the causes [of the continuing conflict] may be the Tatmadaw’s unilateral cease-fire announcement that fails to cover the entire nation,” Yan Myo Thein said. “The nationwide cease-fire is much more important to achieve sustainable peace in the country.”
The escalating hostilities prompted Knut Ostby, the United Nations chief in Myanmar, on Tuesday to express shock over reports of the Jan. 4 attacks by the AA and the resultant loss of lives.
“The resident and humanitarian coordinator urges all sides to ensure the protection of all civilians and uphold their responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights law,” said a statement issued by the U.N.
Ostby appealed to all sides to step up efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis and to ensure humanitarian access to all people affected by the violence.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo, Kyaw Thu, and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.