LAIZA, Kachin State—A little-known rebel group of Buddhist soldiers from western Burma are fighting alongside mostly Christian Kachin soldiers in the country’s far north, as a war with the government’s army for greater autonomy and basic rights continues to escalate.
“We are the Arakan Army,” says Dr. Nyo Twan Awng, the militia’s second-in-command.
The rebel group from Arakan State in the country’s west comprises “400 to 500 soldiers,” says the doctor, of which over half have trained or fought in Burma’s northern Kachin State since the group’s founding in 2008 and the resumption of war in Kachin in mid-2011.
Right now Nyo Twan Awng and nine colleagues are staying in territory held by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Burma’s largest ethnic minority militias.
The KIA is currently fighting the Burma Army at scattered outposts across the rugged northern region, mostly in areas close to the Burma-China frontier, in a war that casts a pall over the much-lauded political and economic reforms undertaken by the Burmese government.
“The government is the same as before,” contends Nyo Twan Awng. “The generals just change their uniforms to suits to look civilian.”
The Arakan Army (AA) has fought “on the front line” since the collapse of ceasefire between the KIA and the government army in June 2011, says Nyo Twan Awng. “We have a common enemy, and the KIA are our friends.”
With his arms folded, 32-year-old Nyo Twan Awng, a Rangoon-trained medical doctor, displays the AA logo, an osprey half-covered with a red seven-pointed star, with two NATO logo-like four-pointed stars on either side.
“The four points represent the historic Arakan dynasties,” says Nyo Twan Awng. The last such kingdom fell to an invading Burmese imperial force in 1784. Since then, Arakan has been ruled by either British colonialists or Burmese.
Asked why the AA was established—if it sought greater autonomy for Arakan State or even independence—Nyo Twan Awng says the organization’s purpose is “to protect our Arakan people, and to establish peace and justice and freedom and development.”
“As for the political status of Arakan, that is for the Arakan people to decide,” he adds.
Asked his opinion of the reforms in Burma, he wrinkles his brow. “You know my thoughts about this government,” he says.
And when it comes to Burma’s best-known politician, he is dismissive. “Aung San Suu Kyi is Burmese, she doesn’t know about the ethnic people,” he says. “She speaks many words but does nothing.”
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not addressing the war in Kachin State, and for giving evasive-sounding replies when asked her views on the riots and pogroms in Arakan State, where since June tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Rohingya Muslims, have been driven from their homes in communal violence.
Suu Kyi has received criticism from Arakanese politicians—notably the Rakhine Nationalalities Development Party (RNDP)—for not taking a harsh enough line against the Rohingya.
Burma’s government says the Rohingya are not entitled to citizenship, according to a 1982 law, and many Burmese view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“It is a complicated issue,” Nyo Twan Awng says of the recent violence in Arakan State and the position of Rohingya in Burmese society.
In July, President Thein Sein floated a controversial idea that the Rohingya be resettled en masse to third countries.
“It should be done something like this, yes,” Nyo Twan Awng says, nodding in agreement.
Asked about the AA’s future plans, he says, “We have members scattered all along the Thailand, India and Bangladesh borders,” but does not say if or when the group will coalesce in Arakan State.