Q&A with Arakan Army commander

By Htet Khaung Linn

LAIZA, Kachin State (Myanmar Now) – The Arakan Army (AA) was formed in 2009 in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) stronghold of Laiza, on Myanmar’s northern border with China, where the Arakan ethnic rebels received training and arms.

They have fought alongside the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDAA) in Kachin and Shan states.

In March 2015, AA forces first clashed with the Myanmar army in Rakhine, their western home state, where they have considerable popular support. Fighting has since spread throughout the townships of Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung and Mrauk-U, where some 2,000 civilians have fled.

Myanmar’s powerful military demands the AA, TNLA and MNDAA disarm before they can participate in the nationwide ceasefire process, but all rebels say a ceasefire should be inclusive and begin without such conditions.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) government has been handed the difficult task of bringing all sides on board for a much-touted “21st Century Panlong Agreement” within the next few months. Its lead negotiators have reached out to various rebel groups.

AA leader Brigadier-General Tun Myat Naing spoke to Myanmar Now reporter Htet Khaung Linn in Laiza and discussed the Arakan fighting, the ceasefire process and the NLD government’s actions so far.

Question: Can you tell us about the current conflict situation in Rakhine State?

Answer: Clashes have stopped at the moment, despite some fighting earlier this month. We have ordered our troops to avoid further complicating the situation of the displaced people during the rainy season. But the army frequently launches offensives. So, we fought against each other… some injuries occurred on both sides.

Q: Is the AA invited to join the 21st Century Panlong conference?

A: Not yet, but it was informally proposed (by lead negotiators). The army insists we give up our weapons. This is a major obstacle for us to join the peace talk – it’s totally impossible. We need to address this problem first before we can go forward to the next phase.

Q: Rakhine people protested recently to call for a halt to fighting in the region. Who should respond to their demand, the military or AA?

A: Recently, there were between 70 and 80 armed clashes in Rakhine. We started the fighting in less than 10 cases. Most offensives were initiated by the military. We don’t want to say we are not responsible for these fights, but we retain a right to defend ourselves.

Q: The new NLD government has pledged to secure a nationwide ceasefire accord. How does the AA view this process?

A: Although the NLD promises peace, we have some opposing views between us. The government peace negotiators are asking us to abandon all our weapons before the peace talks start, but we demand that political dialogue should come first. There is also some confusion over (the content of) a ceasefire deal.

Q: Some ethnic leaders believe peace talks can be successful during the Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD government. What is your opinion?

A: We are cautious about believing in a peace deal during her government, as the military’s influence continues to play a crucial role in the peace process.

Moreover, currently the central government is not managing the states in a federal manner. I am referring to the (NLD) government’s ways of controlling the peace and development initiatives in Rakhine State. (The NLD angered the Arakan National Party, which has most Rakhine parliament seats, by appointing its own state chief minister.)

We see such missing points with the NLD government. So, we are not fully confident that a peace deal could be signed during the term of this government.

Q: Why is the AA preparing for peace talks and fighting at the same time?

A: We still have some doubts about the peace talks. Although we had many (ceasefire) discussions (under the former administration), in the end some ethnic armed groups fell into the trap set by the previous government. After learning lessons from this process, we are very cautious about our steps during the ceasefire process. (Eight groups in the Southeast, including the Karen National Union, signed a joint ceasefire with the government last year.)

Q: Amending the Constitution to grant more powers to states and regions under a federal union could be difficult given the militarys veto powers in parliament. Do you think this will remain a problem?

A: That is right. … The previous government send a message through their state-owned media raising the possibility of amending the Constitution in parliament but they never followed up on their promise. So our doubts (about constitutional reform) became stronger from this experience.

Q:  What role can the military play in the future of Myanmar?

A: The military commander-in-chief must be under the authority of the Minister of Defence. The country’s president must have total authority over the military. The current Constitution should not in every discussion refer to the military as holding the highest authority and allowing it to serve its own interest. The Constitution is totally unfair and we do not accept it.

Q: Can ethnic groups and the military have successful discussions on key issues?

A: We cannot imagine this change of attitude (of the army). While they are asking for peace, they also insist on the total clearing of all ethnic forces. The NLD government should be aware of this. The military may want to fight every ethnic rebel that exists. So hopes for reaching a ceasefire for our people are not very high.

Q: What do you think of the achievements of the NLD so far?

A: We expected more from NLD by now, maybe we had too high expectations. They tried the best in their first 100 days in office. However, they need to make more politics changes to please the public. Reform processes inside government projects only cannot cure chronic problems. The 100 day period is too short to judge things… (but) they need to develop effective policies for the long term.

Q: What will be the most important task for the Rakhine State government?

A: The NLD government should try to understand the Bengali (Rohingya Muslims) issue better. The 1982 Citizenship Law is held up as the norm to solve this problem (of Rohingya’s citizenship status). It will not be easy to please all stakeholders. But they need to be open to proper ideas in seeking an appropriate solution. The government must take responsibility and accountability for this.

This story was published in Myanmar Now on June 24, 2016

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