Arakan Army Says It Is Holding 11 Myanmar Soldiers After Fierce Weekend Fighting

The Arakan Army (AA) has taken 11 Myanmar Army soldiers prisoner and seized their weapons following a weekend clash in Chin state’s Paletwa township, which abuts volatile Rakhine state where hostilities have intensified between the two sides since late last year, an AA official said Tuesday.

The AA, a Buddhist Rakhine army fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state, captured the men along with arms and ammunition after it had overrun a strategic hill controlled by the government army on March 9 near Pyan So village in Paletwa's Pee Chaung area, said AA spokesman Khine Thukha.

The soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 563 based in Rakhine’s Gwa township had been stationed in Paletwa under the command of Light Infantry Division 5, he said.

“The base, under the command of Light Infantry Battalion 563 based in Gwa had fired on [our positions] with heavy weapons,” Khine Thukha said. “It is about 5.5 kilometers [3.4 miles] from Pyan So village in Paletwa township.”

“The base under the tactical commander has been attacking us from that hill with heavy artillery, so we had to clear it,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We were even able to seize backhoes they might use for mechanical equipment,” he said.

The AA said in a statement that its fighters seized 16 backhoe excavators, a dump truck, three computers, a drone, and small and heavy weapons.

The ethnic military also said that the detained soldiers are being treated well and that its central command will determine their fate.

RFA was unable to reach Myanmar Army spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun or Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the military’s Western Command for comment on the AA’s statement.

The rebels’ statement said that the March 9 battle was the most intense one it had engaged in so far this month and that the post it seized was under the supervision of an acting tactical commander.

Kan Tin, a local lawmaker representing Paletwa township, said locals had not heard about the captures.

“Maybe it’s just a rumor,” he told RFA. “It’s impossible that would happen without our knowledge.”

“People from Pee Chaung frequently come to Paletwa, but there is no access for phone communication, so this news can’t be confirmed,” he added. “We hear reports of on-and-off clashes; we’ve heard about brief clashes, but nothing from the Pee Chaung area.”

A growing concern

Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Myanmar’s President’s Office, told reporters on Tuesday after a meeting in Naypyidaw with representatives of another ethnic armed group, that the Rakhine crisis is a growing concern in terms of security, development, and the transition to democracy not only for the state itself, but also for the entire nation.

He also said the AA is welcome to sign the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), a truce with the Myanmar military that 10 other ethnic armies have signed, even though the government has excluded the Arakan force from inking the truce in the past because of its ongoing hostilities with the national army.

The Myanmar military in December declared a four-month unilateral cease-fire in five of its command regions, excluding Rakhine state, in an attempt to jump-start the country’s stalled peace process with the ethnic armed groups that have not signed the peace accord.

Matters were made worse in early January in Rakhine state when the AA attacked police outposts in Buthidaung township killing 13 officers and wounding nine others, and compelling the government to order thousands of its troops into the region to “crush” the “terrorist” organization.

The AA then killed nine police officers and injured two others on March 9 during an attack on a police outpost in Yoetayoke village in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township — the second-deadliest assault by Arakan fighters since the hostilities broke out anew in 2018.

Zaw Htay noted that the deadly attack came while AA representatives were discussing the signing of the NCA.

“So the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] and the government reviewed the situation and concluded that the cease-fire and a peace pledge are necessary,” he said.

The Myanmar Peace Commission (MPC), led by General Khin Zaw Oo, who serves as its secretary, has said the same, he added.

“So, they [the AA] have to promise to join and go the way of the NCA,” Zaw Htay said.

In response to the spokesman’s comments, Khine Thukha told RFA that the government has said that the AA and two other armed groups fighting the Myanmar military must give up their arms before participating in peace talks.

He noted that the AA had participated in the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), a group set up in 2013 to represent its member ethnic armed organizations in talks with the government peace negotiation team, the Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC), and to hammer out terms of the NCA.

Though the government has barred the AA, Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) from participating in the peace process, the MPC met with the trio for the first time in September 2018 to discuss ways to end the fighting.

“They are the ones changing their minds,” Khine Thukha said about the government’s peace negotiators. “They are insincere, and who doesn’t want peace?”

“It’s impossible to hold talks when they wield a stick,” he said. “If they want peace in the name of the spirit of brotherhood, they have to stop their rooting-out [policy]. Then we can continue real peace talks.”

An appeal by Yanghee Lee

The growing violence in Rakhine state prompted Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, to express concern in her latest report for the thousands of civilians who have been displaced by fighting in Rakhine and Shan states.

“Allegations exist of fighters dressing as civilians and using civilian vehicles, landmine use, forced recruitment and forced portering, and arrest and detention of civilians suspected of being associates or sympathizers of the Arakan Army,” she said about the Rakhine crisis in an address to the U.N. Human Rights Council during a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday.

“It does not appear that the situation will improve in the immediate future,” she said. “I repeat my call to all parties to conflicts around the country to protect civilians and take precautions, and to end hostilities.”

Lee said that up to 10,000 civilians have fled their homes since late 2018 as a result of the violence.

But local and official sources in Rakhine have estimated that more than 12,000 people have left their homes and are living in displaced persons camps where they face shortages of humanitarian aid.

Lee, who is banned by Myanmar’s government from visiting the country, also raised concerns about the implementation of Myanmar’s new land-use law and its detrimental effects on locals by failing to recognize shared land ownership practices and unattended land belonging to displaced people and refugees of conflict.

She also appealed to the U.N. Security Council to refer alleged human rights atrocities in Myanmar, particularly those committed against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and recommended a hybrid national/international mechanism to hold the country accountable.

Thousands of Rohingya died in a brutal military crackdown in northern Rakhine state in 2017, while others were subjected to sexual assaults, torture, and the burning of their communities. The violence — which Myanmar has largely denied — drove more than 740,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh, according to U.N. estimates.

ICC staff are visiting Bangladesh this week as part of an initial probe of whether prosecutors can bring a case against Myanmar over what the court calls the forced deportation of the Rohingya during the crackdown.

Though Myanmar has argued that it cannot be prosecuted because is not a member of the international tribunal, Bangladesh is an ICC member.

“I am pleased that this is moving forward. However, I still firmly believe that the situation in Myanmar must be referred to the ICC by the Security Council, or a state party or group of states parties,” Lee said in her remarks in Geneva.

“Victims must not be forced to wait in the purgatory of international inaction. If it is not possible to refer the situation to the ICC, the international community should consider establishing an independent tribunal,” she said.

Appeal unacceptable

Khin Ohmar, who attended the meeting on behalf of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, echoed Lee’s call for the ongoing situation in Myanmar to be referred to the ICC.

She said the international tribunal should handle the matter because Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have no prospect for voluntary repatriation.

Though Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement for the return of the refugees to Rakhine state, the program has failed to get underway, with many Rohingya fearful that they will not be safe in Myanmar where they are deemed illegal immigrants, denied citizenship, and subject to systematic discrimination.

Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s ambassador to United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, called Lee’s appeal to refer his country to the ICC unacceptable and said that the Hague-based court has “no jurisdiction over Myanmar whatsoever.”

He pointed out that the government established an independent inquiry commission last July to investigate alleged human rights violations and atrocities in Rakhine state.

That commission, comprised of two international experts and two domestic ones, will deliver its report to the Myanmar government later this year.

Reported by Kyaw Thu and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.