The rebel Arakan Army fighting the national army in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state has “very little chance” to join the country’s struggling peace process now that the government has designated the 11-year-old force an unlawful, terrorist organization, a military spokesman said Thursday.
The mostly ethnic Rakhine Buddhist force has been engaged in intensified hostilities with Myanmar soldiers in northern Rakhine state since late 2018 and early January 2019, when its troops killed 13 policemen and injured nine others in attacks on four police outposts.
The 15-month conflict so far has killed dozens of civilians and displaced 140,000 villagers, disrupting life and commerce in a state still reeling from the army’s violent expulsion of 750,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.
“They have shown that they don’t want peace,” Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the military’s information committee told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They have repeatedly engaged in terrorist activities although they have been repeatedly warned.”
“Now that they have been declared a terrorist group, in legal sense, they have very little chance of participating in peace process,” he said.
The military spokesman made the comments in response to statements by AA officials in the wake of the government’s designation on Monday of the AA and its political arm as terrorist group saying that the government’s decision would hurt any peace process.
The peace process to end Myanmar’s armed conflicts that leader Aung San Suu Kyi has made the cornerstone of her four-year-old government has been stymied by ongoing fighting between Myanmar forces and rebel armies in outlying ethnic regions.
Only 10 of Myanmar’s 20-odd ethnic armies have signed a 2015 national cease-fire agreement (NCA) with the government. The AA, which seeks greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhines in Rakhine state, has not signed the pact.
AA officials also have said that the government’s designation could worsen the situation of ethnic Rakhines accused of having connections to the AA and charged under the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law.
But Zaw Min Tun countered that the government’s designation will protect civilians who are not involved with the rebel army in Rakhine state.
“Now that we have officially designated them under the Counter-Terrorism Law, we can strengthen our actions against them,” he said. “For those who are innocent, we can give them better protection. But for those who are dishonest and are abetting AA activities, it will be harsher.”
Zaw Min Tun said that the Myanmar military has conducted educational campaigns for the local people not to engage with AA members, and warned the Arakan forces to avoid staging battles near civilian villages or taking cover in them during armed conflicts.
The AA has accused Myanmar forces of continuing to fight amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus epidemic which so far has infected three people in the country. Zaw Min Tun said the Arakan force is being hypocritical since it has continued its attacks.
An AA assault on a Myanmar military training school in Rakhine’s Minbya township prompted fighting between the two armies in at least three nearby locations with fatalities on both sides. Recent fighting in the township has displaced roughly 1,000 civilians.
The AA has claimed that attacks by Myanmar forces will bode worse for them in a case before the International Court of Justice, where the West African country Gambia has filed genocide-related charges over the military’s atrocities against Rohingya Muslims during a 2017 crackdown in northern Rakhine state
Zaw Min Tun brushed aside that assessment and suggested that the military can level similar accusations against the AA.
“Legally designating the AA as a terrorist group means the government can take a stronger stance on this issue internationally,” he said.
“The U.S. has designated al-Qaeda as terrorist group although it is located outside its sovereign territory, so that the U.S. can take action against it legally, both in terms of national law and international law,” he said. “This is the right and the authority of a sovereign state.”
Zaw Htay, spokesman for President Win Myint’s office, declined to comment, saying he does not do interviews by phone.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.