Fighting Rages as Myanmar’s Rakhine Braces For Fallout From Terrorist Designation

2020-03-24
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Arakan Army soldiers gather at a camp in western Myanmar's Rakhine state in an undated photo.
Arakan Army soldiers gather at a camp in western Myanmar's Rakhine state in an undated photo.
RFA video screenshot

An airstrike following fierce fighting between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army killed a child and wounded 15 villagers in Rakhine state, hours after the government formally branded the AA a terrorist group — a move a local lawmaker said could lead to “endless fighting in the future.”

As hostilities raged on late Monday in Rakhine’s Minbya township, President Win Myint declared that the AA, its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), and affiliated groups and individuals “have constituted a danger to law and order, peace and stability of the country and public peace” and are unlawful under Section 15(2) of the Unlawful Associations Act.

“This is the time to secure the peace through political consultations, [but] now this move has inflamed the fire for more armed conflicts,” said Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker from the Arakan National Party.

“It is very concerning that the government has confirmed that it favors the military’s actions over negotiations,” he said. “We see the possibility of endless fighting in the future.”

“We see many more armed conflicts coming in northern Rakhine and Paletwa township of Chin state because the government has designed the AA a terrorist group,” said Whei Tin, a Chin state lawmaker from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

“I receive many phone calls from local people asking me how they can survive in the midst of endless battles,” added Whei Tin, who previously was kidnapped by the AA and held for three months.

After fighting ended Monday, the Myanmar military dropped bombs from a helicopter during an airstrike on Chaetung village in an apparent response to the AA’s earlier armed assault on a military training school, villagers told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

The mostly ethnic Chin community of about 170 households is among those that comprise Minbya’s Kanni village tract where the military training school is located and near to where the clashes took place.

“At first, the blasts didn't hit the village” said a Chaetung resident who declined to be named out of concern for his safety. “Later, they hit the village and burned the houses.”

“As the aircraft flew overhead, villagers hid beneath the houses, but when the houses were hit and burned, they got burned in the fire,” the resident said.

'Killed by other causes'

Among the 15 injured Chin civilians were seven students and a toddler who were taken to a hospital hours after the attack once permission for their transfer was granted, villagers said.

Maung Biden, a 10-year-old who was injured, died at Minbya Township Hospital Tuesday morning, while two others among the injured were transferred to Sittwe General Hospital, they said.

“We were able to leave the village early this morning around 6 a.m. for Minbya,” said a volunteer who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety. “The child had burns on his entire body.”

Myanmar forces denied responsibility for the destruction, with military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun saying there is no reason why bombs would be dropped on Chaetung village.

“These people must have been killed by other causes,” he told RFA. “It is impossible that bombs would fall into their village. Our strikes only target areas where the AA launches attacks against us.”

“Our targets are so far away from the villages,” he added. “We have already released information regarding the attacks and the routes they [the AA] used in the attack.”

The AA announced Monday that its soldiers had burned down a military training school building, killed about 20 Myanmar troops, and captured others along with ammunition during the area clash.

An announcement issued by the military commander-in-chief’s office the same day said 300 AA soldiers had attacked five target areas early Monday, but later retreated with heavy casualties. Myanmar forces captured the bodies of 15 AA soldiers and 15 different kinds of weapons, the office said.

An appeal to stop fighting

Salai Tun Hla Kyaw, chairman of Rakhine state’s Chin University Students Union issued an appeal to the armies to end the hostilities.

“We have learned that many children and students were injured during the armed fighting,” he said. “We would like to appeal the armed groups to fight away from civilian villages.”

“We also appeal them to avoid arresting, killing, and intimidating civilians,” he added.

AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the president’s statement “has shown that the government doesn’t have any policies to resolve the problems peacefully and justly.”

“We see that it wants to use military force as the only means of dealing with the problems,” he said.

Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said the AA deserved to be branded a terrorist organization.

“The government has designated the AA a terrorist group. What else should it be if it is not called terrorist group, given that it has engaged in terrorist acts?” he asked.

“It is reasonable,” he said. “We are determined to carry out counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations to eliminate terrorist groups.”

Thaung Aye, an ex-military officer and current lawmaker from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said the government’s designation of AA would benefit security forces in Rakhine state.

“It is good they have designated the AA a terrorist group,” he said. “Regardless, it is encouraging for the security forces who are undertaking the safeguarding of peace and stability in the state.”

‘Conflict will intensify’

Min Zaw Oo, founder of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, said the terrorist declaration showed that “both the government and the military have agreed on the need to use military force to resolve problems with the AA.”

“They have shown that they will not tolerate AA troops establishing footholds in northern Rakhine state and will not recognize these areas as AA territory.”

“Based on this, I’ve concluded that armed conflict in the region will intensify,” added Min Zaw Oo.

“Because the military has shown that it prefers to use only violence to resolve the problems, there will be more armed conflicts as a result,” he added.

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi labeled the AA a terrorist insurgent group in January 2019 and ordered government forces to crush it after rebel soldiers launched deadly attacks on four police outposts in the northern part of the state.

Reported by Min Thein Aung and Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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