Arakan Army leader Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)
Arakan Army leader Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)
Founded in 2009 in northern Kachin State, far from their homeland, the Arakan Army (AA) were trained and supported by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and joined the KIA and the Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), in skirmishes with the Burma Army in the country’s northeast last year.
In March 2015, the first clashes between the AA and the Burma Army were recorded in Arakan State itself. This quickly receded, but clashes resumed in December 2015, acquiring a new intensity and prolonging into the term of the new government. The violence has spread beyond Kyauktaw Township to Buthidaung, Mrauk-U, Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships of central and northern Arakan State. More than 1,700 local residents have been displaced this year by the fighting.
Although lawmakers of the Arakan National Party (ANP), the dominant ethnic party in the state, have called for the AA’s involvement in Burma’s peace process, the Arakanese armed group were excluded from signing the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October last year and remain outside of formal peace negotiations. The Burma Army publicly vowed to “eliminate” the AA in January.
Amid escalating clashes, Arakanese lawmakers last week urged the government to take steps to bring the clashes in Arakan State to an end. Burma’s defence minister responded by calling on the Arakan Army to disarm and accused them of deliberately compromising the new government.
The Irrawaddy interviewed Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing, the Arakan Army chief, about the causes of the ongoing clashes and prospects for peace in Arakan State.
What is the current situation of the conflict in Arakan State?
It is quite tense, although clashes are currently few and far between. But with lots of troop movement and activity, clashes could recur at any time.
Is it true that the AA has opened fire to provoke fresh clashes?
Yes, we did fire first. But it was not us who acted provocatively. [The Burma Army] came into areas covered by our outposts with military operations commands 5, 15 and 9, together with all the battalions under the Sittwe Regional Operations Command. So, if we had not run into the [Burma Army] column that we did, we would have run into another column. They came in large numbers and we saw them first, because it’s our area.
We heard that a ‘federal army’ backed AA in the fight. Why did they take part and who are the allies of the AA?
We have several allies, among the Kachin, the Ta’ang [also known as Palaung] and the Karen, including the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA). We enjoy cooperation across multiple regions. I don’t want to comment on which exact groups are backing us. Mainly, it is the AA’s operation [in Arakan State].
Clashes have grown intense recently in Arakan State. What is the military objective of the AA?
Our military objective is to perform the duties of a regular army—to protect the security of Arakan State and the Arakan people. Our military objective is that there must be an Arakan Army in Arakan State. We will fight like other armies. We will rise against slavery.
Do you think the hopes of the Arakan people are the same as those of the AA?
I absolutely believe that. That is why we have gained the support of the Arakan people and are able to join hands with them. For seven years now we have tried to realize [our hopes]. Our ancestors had tried before us. This is our historic duty and it is the path the Arakan people have to walk. Our hopes are the same [as theirs]. We are fulfilling the needs of the [Arakan] people, standing by them. We don’t look to our own interests but to those of our people.
Thousands of Arakanese people have been displaced by recent clashes. How are relations between the AA and the people in light of this?
No matter how much they have suffered, the Arakan people embrace, support and welcome the Arakan Army. This is a daily sight. The bad consequences of war are unavoidable. There will be displaced persons and civil society organizations have to take care of them to the best of their ability.
The United League of Arakan [ULA], our political wing, records problems faced by victims of the war, including human rights violations and extrajudicial killings in conflict zones. We will take action in cooperation with international organizations.
You said the Arakan people support the AA. Have the AA actively mobilized people to gain their support?
We don’t need to waste our time and effort [in this way]. The entire Arakan people support us because they have been denied their fundamental rights over decades. We work in line with the needs and desires of the entire Arakan people. A roadmap has been adopted for the Arakan people, which we call the ‘Rakhita Roadmap,’ referring to those who love, value and protect their own race. We will restore our robbed dignity. It is not strange that the Arakan people support the AA while a political solution still cannot be found.
Recently, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has talked about holding a ‘Panglong-style’ conference. How would the AA attend the conference? What is the political ambition of the AA?
We welcome all good political efforts, although we have to wait and see before taking proper action. We welcome the people’s government. We had pinned our hopes on it before it came to power, and we are willing to solve political problems together with the government. Our political ambition is that we, the Arakan people, must be able to determine our own future through self-determination.
On May 4, Defense Minister Lt-Gen Sein Win said in the Lower House of Parliament that the AA is acting against democracy. The military also rejected the [parliamentary] proposal to halt the clashes and invite the AA to political dialogue. What happened on May 4 has thrown the hope for a federal union into uncertainty.
Regarding the clashes, [the Burma Army] holds a grudge against us and even said that they would annihilate us. We have to defend ourselves as they conduct military operations.
The people’s representatives put forward the wishes of people in the Parliament to find a solution toward achieving peace, but it was rejected. It is now clear who is ‘warlike.’ Creating war means creating problems for the government. We have no reason to trouble the government, which is seeking a political solution toward building a federal union. Anyone with half a brain can guess which group is creating political trouble.
The defense minister stated that your relatives are now serving in government and urged you to disarm. What do you say to that?
We are fighting because it is necessary for our people. It is nothing to do with who our relatives might be. National concerns and interests are foremost in our beliefs.
[Editor’s Note: The current speaker of the Arakan State legislature, San Kyaw Hla of the ANP, is the father-in-law of Tun Myat Naing.]
The Burma Army and the news agencies they control have called the AA ‘insurgents’ and have not recognized them as an ethnic armed group. Any comment?
The word Tatmadaw is found in the Arakanese dictionary. Tat means fence in the Arakanese language. It is our own word and we haven’t loaned it from anyone. Whatever we are called, we will do what we have to do, in accordance with our political beliefs. We don’t want to argue over terminology.
Have you made any preparations for the peace process to be led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi?
I have made preparations, including for the worst outcomes, because I don’t think it will succeed easily. All the ethnic groups have negotiated so many times to find a political solution.
What is your message to displaced persons in Arakan State?
We are trying to fulfill the hopes of the people. They must not be downhearted. I feel very sorry that they have to suffer but it is unavoidable in a war. We will work together with international and ethnic friends to assist them. I am happy that civil society organizations are also trying to help. I think it would be better if more systematic teamwork could be established to protect the rights of those victims.