Myanmar’s upstart Arakan Army (AA) has intensified its insurgent operations in recent months, opening a new front of instability in the nation’s long-running ethnic civil wars.
The armed conflict has compounded volatility in Rakhine state, from where over 700,000 Muslim Rohingya have been expelled in government “clearance operations” beginning in 2017 the United Nations and others suggest may have had “genocidal intent.”
In January, over 300 AA troops raided four border posts in northern Rakhine state, underscoring the 10,000-strong armed group’s rising capabilities since its formation in 2009, with support among the state’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority.
The Myanmar government has doubled down in its tit-for-tat reprisals, classifying the group as a “terrorist organization” and threatening reporters who cover the AA’s side of the surging conflict with unlawful association, an anti-state criminal offense.
Asia Times spoke to the AA’s leader and founder General Tun Myat Naing in mid-April in Pangsang at the 30th anniversary celebrations of the United Wa State Army, another armed group which enjoys de facto statehood within Myanmar.
In a wide-ranging interview, Tun Myat Naing spoke to his ambition of achieving autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and what he and his fighters are willing to do to achieve it. Excerpts follow:
On the AA’s recent ascendancy:
Tun Myat Naing: Our people have been longing for this situation for many decades, it is no wonder they stand together with us. We’ve been building this for years now and we are getting experience in other places.
We have been undergoing an infiltration process for nearly a decade now, so we had to arrange everything systematically and properly, because the [Myanmar] government military is very experienced in handling rebel(s).
It is not just a recent surge, because [the Myanmar military] already had a plan to make the Arakan [Rakhine] region their main focus. That’s why they declared a ceasefire in five other military divisions. Then they dedicated themselves to increasing troop numbers and military capacity in the region.
This is the habit of the [Myanmar] army; it is not a new thing for them. But it is a new thing in Rakhine state. They have done a lot of similar things in other places. But in Rakhine state they are very pissed off because local people support the Arakan Army.
Every house has the Arakanese flag. This is the same Arakan [Rakhine] state flag which is recognized by the government. If they say that they can’t do this it is against the law. So people are just still there [flying the flag.]
And the reason is they have flags in front of houses is that they are so pissed off and that’s why [the Myanmar military] entered the town with the eight truckloads of soldiers and started shooting random civilians.
*Editor’s note: Local media reported Myanmar troops killed civilians in a recent firefight with AA fighters in the Rakhine state town of Mrauk-U.
On the international community’s response to Rakhine state’s crisis:
Tun Myat Naing: While the International Criminal Court is investigating evidence of ‘intent’ in relation to ‘genocide’ [of the Rohingya], the ethnic Arakan [Rakhine] feel they are being sidelined by the international community, their grievances and struggles not recognized.
They are saying that they value equal human rights. When Buddhists are being slaughtered [the international community] is not speaking out. As soon as the Muslim villages are being burnt, the US embassy and the UN issue statements.
This makes me wonder. What the hell is wrong with this world? Is this equal? Something is wrong here. It is very hypocritical. The UN is implementing the agenda of their donors. It’s not an equal organization. Come to look at the situation for yourself.
On the AA’s relations with the Rohingya:
Tun Myat Naing: They are more concerned about the security of the Rohingya people than the rights of Arakan Army. But we will treat them [the Rohingya] with due dignity.
Well, it is very interesting you know. Look when they have many Muslims entering into Bangladesh, they say it’s OK for them to flee into Bangladesh.
And then, leaders of the international community, they praise the leaders of Bangladesh. When non-Muslim people need to be helped out they are not quite willing or not interested in lending much help.
Well we [Rakhine Buddhists] do not have any other place to run away.
Look, when the Rohingya people are pushed out they have a Muslim brother country next to the border. So, for our people, there were a few months ago, in February, some Buddhist and Christians were close to the border area.
When [Myanmar troops] fired there, there were artilleries burning the village and it was destroyed, and they fled. They tried to enter to Bangladesh and Bangladeshi government did not accept them.
On foreign criticism of the AA’s insurgent tactics:
The AA reacted to remarks that they are using techniques of asymmetrical warfare, attacking police stations as a deliberate means to destabilize and confuse the [Myanmar] military.
We are not focused on police stations. If it is a real law enforcement police station, we won’t be doing that…The Interior ministry and border security ministry is under the army chief, and their minister is appointed by the army chief, so [the police] are doing the job of the military at the same time.
They are using the police stations as a garrison for artilleries. They have 120 millimeter mortars and a 122mm Howitzer, and are shelling to our positions from police station areas. So this is not police station anymore.
When they make a press release, they say the Arakan Army attacked the police station. Actually, we know that the artillery battalion commander [Capt. Chit Ko Ko] was killed in action in the incident last week, which confirms the position was more than a police station.
On the AA’s future vision of autonomy:
Tun Myat Naing: It is too early to predict outcomes. The government is using jets and bombing. It’s hard to predict. The use of excessive force will surely damage the union spirit of our people…
The [autonomous] Wa are carefree. They can defend their own land, they can create their own destiny with their own hands, what can be better than that? We look up to this situation.