Some 30 Myanmar policemen and soldiers are now believed to be in the hands of the rebel Arakan Army, captured since fighting with the government military intensified nearly a year ago in Rakhine state, according to estimates based on previous figures issued by the ethnic armed organization.
The Arakan Army (AA), which seeks greater autonomy in the state, has so far refused to disclose the exact number of police officers and troops it has taken captive, though it has offered a prisoner-of-war swap with Myanmar forces in exchange for the release of people detained by the military for alleged ties to the AA.
“I cannot tell you the exact number of prisoners for security reasons, but I can assure you that we have kept them nice and safe,” AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said the armed forces have not added up the potential number of prisoners held in detention by the AA.
But he confirmed to the online journal The Irrawaddy on Nov. 13 that 17 police officers and Myanmar soldiers were being held by the AA with no guarantee that they were still alive.
On Nov. 12, the AA announced that it was willing to exchange 17 POWs, including nine policemen, six soldiers, one prison department employee, and one military engineer.
The Myanmar government and military rejected the offer, with government spokesman Zaw Htay saying the administration would not negotiate a swap with the AA because the rebel army’s activities are illegal.
Zaw Htay also said that the government is working to take action against the abductors, and that those held by the AA are not classified as POWs.
On Tuesday, the AA announced that it had captured 13 Myanmar soldiers, including two officers, from the 313th Light Infantry Battalion under the 77th Light Infantry Division.
But Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Command, denied the veracity of the announcement and told RFA that the AA is distorting information based on incidents that occurred in 2017.
He also said the government has tried its best to free police and military personnel held by the AA through peace negotiations, Myanmar’s Peace Commission, and personal appeals by people who carry weight with the Arakan force.
In the meantime, the military will continue conducting clearance operations in Rakhine state conflict zones and try to rescue those who have been abducted, Win Zaw Oo added.
“When we clear the areas where they have kept the prisoners, we can rescue them,” he said. “We will make sure we can continue our clearance operations. This is our duty.”
On Oct. 26, the AA abducted 58 people, including policemen and soldiers, traveling on a ferry boat from Rakhine’s capital Sittwe to Buthidaung township. Myanmar forces freed 15 of them in an armed rescue operation. The AA later released 25 civilians, but has kept the remaining 18.
AA soldiers also detained 18 firefighter recruits and the deputy station chief of the state Fire Services Department on Oct. 11 as they traveled on a bus from central Myanmar’s Mandalay region to Sittwe, believing they were auxiliary soldiers of the national army.
The AA later released the firefighters as well as a dozen other passengers it had detained, including construction workers, after determining that they were civilians and had no connection to the Myanmar military.
‘Victims of the power struggle’
Maung Maung Ohn, the former chief minister of Rakhine state, suggested using mediators to get Myanmar forces and the government to agree to a prisoner swap with the AA.
“If there are mediators, it could make a difference,” he said. “For now, only one side has made a proposal, and the other side has rejected it. It’s been stuck here and difficult to move forward.”
“These prisoners are victims of the power struggle between two parties,” he added. “I hope this will be the last time that this happens. I appeal to everybody to act in a moderate manner.”
Myanmar political analyst and retired military officer Aung Myo said the prospect of a prisoner exchange occurring is very low because the government has designated the AA as a terrorist group.
“Since they are considered a terrorist group, the prisoner exchange will never occur,” he said. “But because the AA must take care of the detained people whenever they go, they will become a burden during their movements.”
“In the end, it is the victims who have to pay the price,” he added.
Reported by Nay Myo Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.