UPDATED at 10:57 A.M. ET on 2020-01-02
The Arakan Army (AA) abducted 16 drivers traveling on a river ferry in western Myanmar’s war-ravaged Rakhine state Tuesday, capping a yearlong uptick in hostilities with government forces, local officials said.
Tuesday’s abductions — the second seizure of a passenger ferry in the region in recent months — came as the AA announced it is setting up a “Rakhine Peoples’ Authority” to collect taxes from businesses in areas of the state it has taken control of to fund the armed force and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA).
The Myanmar military and the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party swiftly rejected the new taxation plan as unacceptable and vowed to continue its fight against the rebel group.
Tuesday’s abduction unfolded when workers from the Road Transport Administration Department traveled on a ferry between Rakhine’s capital Sittwe and Buthidaung township in the northern part of the state, said Aung Lin, the officer in charge of the Rakhine state office of the Inland Water Transport Department.
“Of the 18 employees on board, 16 were abducted,” he said, adding that AA soldiers seized the vessel in the afternoon. “All are drivers from the Road Transport Department. These employees bought tickets to go to Buthidaung.”
The ferry, named Aung Tagon, had stopped at a site between Sapho Kyun and Oakpho villages in Rathedaung township, he said.
Soe Aung, head of the administration department in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw district, said the drivers were hired to transport returning Rohingya refugees to a reception center in Maungdaw that operates under the direction of the Office of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD).
“These employees will drive the vehicles to transport repatriated refugees,” he said.
The government says it plans to bring to their villages of origin some of the more than 740,000 Rohingya who fled northern Rakhine during a brutal crackdown in 2017 and sought safety in Bangladesh. Few Rohingya have agreed to return without policy changes that Myanmar has rejected.
Soe Aung said one of the drivers contacted him before the abduction to tell him that the ferry had almost arrived, and that he should come to pick them up.
“I said we would fetch them to take them to the camps where they would be working,” he said, referring to the transit camps near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border where returning refugees are to be processed and temporarily held.
“As far as I know, 18 employees were on board,” he added. “They said the ferry had departed from the site of the abduction. I don’t know how many will be left on board. I will check once they arrive.”
Soe Aung lost contact with the ferry around 1 p.m., and by evening, it was on its way to Buthidaung, he said.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said that about 70 AA soldiers then arrived on seven boats to stop the ferry and abducted the employees.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said he did not have any reports about the incident.
“But it is possible that our troops on the ground are detaining them to interrogate them for security purposes since they are a group of strangers in the conflict area,” he said.
Rakhine tax collections
The AA meanwhile is setting up a Rakhine Peoples’ Authority to collect taxes from businesses in its newly controlled areas of the state to fund its operations and the ULA.
Khine Thukha told RFA on Dec. 12 that the formation of the agency is legitimate because it will initiate a new form of government in a bid to reestablish the historic Arakan nation that existed in the past.
Rakhine state, known as the powerful maritime kingdom of Arakan on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal from the 15th to the late 18th century, was a sovereign state until 1784 when it was invaded and annexed by the Burmese empire.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said the Rakhine Peoples' Authority is not a new idea.
“The people’s authority group the AA announced is not a new idea,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We saw the Burmese Communist Party use a similar model in the past. It means they have their territory under their control.”
“The AA’s primary goal is to replace the government’s administration with that of their own,” he said. “In a way, it’s a coup d’état. With regard to that, we are conducting counterinsurgency operations in the area. We will strive at all costs to safeguard the government’s authority and regional security as the duties of the military.”
NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt said the government is willing to hold discussions with the AA, despite its latest move.
“We are ready to talk about their proposal if their initiatives do not cross the boundary of our intended democratic federal union,” he said, referring to Myanmar’s goal of ending internal armed conflict and forging a federal union in the country.
“If they want to go beyond that, or if it could cause the disintegration of the Union, we will not accept that,” he added.
No solid achievements
In response to Myo Nyunt’s comments, AA spokesman Khine Thukha pointed out that government leaders have yet to achieve any breakthrough in their efforts to end Myanmar’s civil wars and to create a federal union.
“As we review their performance from the inauguration [in 2016] until the end of 2019, they haven’t accomplished any solid achievements in establishing the said federal union,” he said.
The “only striking act” has been State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s order that government forces eradicate the AA and ULA, he said, referring to the Myanmar leader’s directive following deadly attacks by rebel soldiers on four police outposts in Rakhine in early January.
“So far, we haven’t seen any actions to gain the trust of national ethnic groups, so we are pretty doubtful about the government’s stated goal of establishing a federal union,” Khine Thukha said.
RFA was unable to reach Win Myint, Rakhine state’s minister of municipal affairs, for comment.
Former Burmese Communist Party member Maung Maung Soe, who is now an analyst of ethnic and military affairs, said other ethnic armies have taken steps to set up their own government administrations in the country.
“It is not unusual that an armed group has tried to establish its own administration after it has secured control of a region,” he said.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), whose armed wing has engaged in fighting with Myanmar forces in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, set up the Kachin Independence Council (KIC) to govern the region, he said by way of example.
“In a similar model, the AA was established as an armed group and the ULA as a political organization,” Maung Maung Soe said.
“Now, after they have secured control in some areas, they are forming a local administration,” he said. “Other armed groups are also doing the same thing.”
Hostilities between the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine AA and Myanmar forces escalated about a year ago, with the Arakan force fighting for greater autonomy in the state. The fighting has left dozens dead and displaced tens of thousands of civilians. Both sides routinely detain civilians suspected of having connections to the enemy.
In late October, the AA abducted 58 people, including policemen and soldiers, as they traveled by ferry from Sittwe to Buthidaung, though Myanmar forces freed 15 of them in an armed rescue operation. The AA later released 25 civilians, but kept the remainder.
That same month, the AA detained 18 firefighter recruits and the deputy station chief of the state Fire Services Department as they traveled on a bus from central Myanmar’s Mandalay region to Sittwe, believing that they were auxiliary soldiers of the national army. The AA released them in early November.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.