The intensified conflict between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Arakan Army (AA) in war-ravaged Rakhine state could now spread to towns and cities amid an atmosphere of growing lawlessness following a knife attack on a government army officer and the abduction of another soldier in an urban area, political analysts said Friday.
The forecast comes as the 17-month conflict in northern Rakhine state and in Paletwa township of neighboring Chin state shows no signs of letting up.
The situation is expected to grow worse following the AA's demand on May 29 that all government administrative offices and military armed groups immediately leave the state, where the predominantly Buddhist force seeks greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people.
The knife attack on the military officer by an unknown assailant occurred Thursday morning at a market in Ponnagyun town. Both soldiers were dressed in plainclothes.
Myanmar forces said that the injured officer was being treated at a hospital, while the soldier with him had been abducted. They also said that the AA or civilians with links to the outlawed group could be responsible.
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe noted that similar attacks on government soldiers have taken place in the Rakhine towns of Mrauk-U, Maei, and Kyauktaw.
“In Mrauk-U, there has been more than one shooting incident in the city,’ he added. “The AA has launched these kinds of combat attacks to intimidate the military forces and limit their movements in the area.”
On Wednesday evening, four unknown men robbed a Kanbawza Bank branch in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, stealing 180 millions kyats (U.S. $127,000), according to state authorities, in another sign of the deterioration in rule of law in the volatile state.
Officials from the bank told RFA that they are reviewing CCTV footage of the robbery and working with local police to identify the assailants.
Oo Hla Saw, a lawmaker who represents the Mrauk-U township constituency, said incidents such as random violence attacks and major theft are not new in Rakhine state and will continue in the future.
“These kinds of incidents are happening every month, and they frighten the local people,” he said. “There will be more crimes like this in the future.”
One problem is that civil administrative bodies and law enforcement officers are not responsive and are avoiding dealing with such crimes when they do occur to ensure their own safety, Oo Hla Saw said.
“We will see more horrifying crimes occurring, regardless of political or personal reasons,” he added.
Kyaw Zaw Oo, a state lawmaker and spokesman for the Rakhine Leading Party, said civilians do not appear bothered by horrifying attacks and other incidents in towns in northern Rakhine state.
“I don’t think these situations are very concerning for ordinary working-class people in cities like Sittwe,” he said. “They might be concerning for the authorities, with regards to the AA’s announcement on May 29. … But civilians are not very concerned about the AA.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha had no comment on the knife attack and abduction in Ponnagyun, but blamed the deterioration of rule of law on the government army.
“The deteriorating condition in Rakhine state has been caused by military troops firing on Rakhine civilian villages and increased anxiety among city dwellers,” he said.
He also said that Myanmar soldiers could be robbing banks in towns.
“The military could be responsible for the robberies of private banks because they are located in government-controlled areas,” Khine Thukha said, adding that government troops recently had committed similar break-ins and thefts of mobile phone shops at the Ponnagyun market.
The Myanmar military is creating instability in the state on purpose so it can impose martial law there, he said.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, however, raised the possibility that the AA was responsible for the robbery of the Kanbawza Bank branch in Sittwe.
“We cannot tell for sure if AA troops were involved in the Kanbawza Bank robbery, but we are certain that the AA is responsible for the attack and the abduction at the Ponnagyun market,” he said.
He also said that the Arakan force was trying to undermine rule of law in Rakhine because it had announced its intention of replacing the current state administration with that of its own.
In late May, the AA conducted a retaliatory attack on a border guard outpost in Rakhine state, killing four policemen and capturing six others. The AA also seized three family members of officers stationed there, but later released them.
AA soldiers ambushed the outpost to strike back at government soldiers for an attack on its troops in Paletwa township, which the ethnic army also claims as its territory.
The fighting, most of which has taken place near villages outside urban areas, left more than 250 civilians dead and injured 570 others during the period from December 2018 to May of this year, according to figures compiled by RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The armed conflict also has displaced more than 160,000 civilians, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local relief group.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.