Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Govt Should Give the Media Unrestricted Access’

By The Irrawaddy 10 December 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. Irrawaddy reporters Ko Lawi Weng and Ko Moe Myint have just arrived back from covering clashes in northern Shan State and Arakan State’s Maungdaw Township. They will recount their experiences of the situation on the ground. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ko Moe Myint, problems in Arakan State have been escalating regarding the Rohingya—or Bengali or Muslim community, in the government’s words. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak himself led a protest last week. And Burma-Malaysia relations have been strained because of this. Chairman of the Arakan State Advisory Commission Kofi Annan, as well as the Malaysian commander-in-chief, have come to Burma to discuss the issue. What is your take on the situation?

Moe Myint: There have been serious accusations on the ground in Maungdaw. Both Arakanese and Muslim communities, as well as Hindu communities caught between these two groups, are suffering from the negative impacts of this conflict. For example, when the Burma Army carried out a manhunt for the perpetrators, it blocked waterways, and locals could not fish [which they depend on for their livelihood]. They have grievously suffered the consequences since the commodities that flow into the town have been disrupted. Muslims have been hit harder. Rohingya communities in the north of Maungdaw are largely illiterate and extremely poor. They flee once a stranger enters their villages. I visited Maung Nama and Wa Peik villages in northern Maungdaw. I went to those villages alone by motorcycle. In one case, I got off my bike and walked to a village, bringing a camera. All the villagers there were women; there were no men. I was about to ask a woman questions but as soon as I took out my camera, they all fled. No one was left and no one would answer me. I was not holding a gun, only a camera. But they ran away when they saw a stranger coming. This hints at the extent of the fear on the ground.

KZM: Which side are they afraid of? Because there have been clearance operations by security forces following the militants’ attack on border police, I hear that villagers fear both sides. Did the military really commit violence against them and force them from homes? What did the other side do to them?

MM: I would like to note certain things regarding the nature of the conflict in northern Maungdaw. Most of the people in major towns like us are rational in cases of conflict. But in northern Maungdaw, things are different. There, whatever a spiritual leader says, villagers believe. Rumors fuel their fear and so does hearsay. There are rumors that soldiers are killing villagers. So when weapon-wielding security forces search villages, all the villagers run away. I talked to Muslim communities, and they claimed that there were cases of the military arresting Muslims whether they were involved in the attacks or not. But it is difficult for me to provide evidence of that.

KZM: The Malaysian commander-in-chief spoke with President U Htin Kyaw and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, and both of them said that there was growing misunderstanding because of the spread of misinformation about the government’s response to the Muangdaw attacks. There were accusations of security forces raping Rohingya women, but none of this could be confirmed. What is your overall impression about these accusations after speaking to villagers?

MM: There are shortcomings in the response of the government. Reports about the incidents were only published by state-run media. No one will believe this. Even Burmese citizens do not trust state-run media. Rather than denying allegations [of human rights abuses] when it has no evidence to disprove these allegations, the government should at least give the local media access to the area. Only then can we investigate the accusations.

KZM: Ko Lawi, you also went to Maungdaw in the aftermath of the attacks. What restrictions did local authorities impose on media during that time?

Lawi Weng: They—the army—were quite perverse. Government officials, administrative authorities, and even the police seemed to be willing to give access to the media. We arrived in Kyikanpyin village, and a general staff officer grade-2 denied us access even though the police seemed willing to work with us. Ko Moe Myint made a good point. There are accusations from both sides, and it is difficult to verify them. So the best thing would be to give the media unrestricted access to the area.

KZM: So that the truth can be reported.

LW: Yes, so that people will know if these accusations are right or wrong.

KZM: Speaking of the conflict in Arakan State, there are so many things to discuss. Another important thing is that there have been continuous clashes between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups in northern Shan State. You went there. What happened on the ground in northern Shan State, including Muse? How bad is the situation there?

LW: I spoke with Col Tar Bong Kyaw [of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, or TNLA] about Mong Ko. He said the town was held by a number of ethnic armed groups. The army came and attacked with choppers. Civilians were hit and buildings and churches were damaged. Ethnic armed groups said they had withdrawn from the area given safety concerns for civilians. Their strategy was not to hold the town for long. They said they had only agreed to launch attacks, not to take control of a town. Clashes between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups are likely to deescalate a bit. We’ll wait and see.

According to my experience on the frontline, clashes were fierce. They broke out on Nov. 20. I went to the area that day. I left Lashio on Nov. 21. The road was blocked the evening of Nov. 21 in a Kachin State village called Nang Pha Lon. I have never had such an experience. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) stopped us. Nang Pha Lon is a long village. I didn’t know how many gates they had set up. At the first gate, I saw three men tied up with rope. On my return, that place had been burned, as we’d seen in newspaper reports about burned cars. I think they had obtained intelligence about which cars were carrying Burma Army officials and that at least one of the three tied there was a military official. They extorted money as well as hand phones. It was quite frightening. Clashes broke out around 7 p.m. We were stuck with as many as 300 other vehicles.

KZM: Civilians were killed and injured during the northern alliance offensives?

LW: Yes, they were. But the northern alliance had warned people not to use that route and to exercise caution if they did use it. Still, it is the most common route, and people had to use it. It was quite dangerous to have gotten stuck in the clashes.

KZM: What is the situation now? They launched offensives and they have deescalated. What is their latest proposal, given that they’ve recently released a statement?

LW: They have released a statement calling on the Burma Army to withdraw its troops from ethnic regions, to stop offensives and for the government to declare a nationwide ceasefire. They also want China to participate in peace negotiations. They are mainly demanding inclusion in the peace process. As they have withdrawn from Mong Ko now, clashes have deescalated. What will happen depends on if the government, particularly the military, is willing to accept inclusion.

KZM: The alliance consists of four ethnic armed groups: the KIA, TNLA, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army [MNDAA], and Arakan Army [AA]. What is interesting to note is that the Burma Army usually does not mention the AA in talking about the clashes. Ko Moe Myint, you have been covering Arakan State issues. Why do you think the Burma Army does not mention the AA?

MM: The Burma Army does not recognize the AA as an ethnic armed group because it was only formed after 2010. But the government, led by the National League for Democracy [NLD], and the Burma Army have different views. Myawaddy Daily, which is owned by the Burma Army, as well as army statements, call those groups insurgents, and they don’t mention the AA. But statements released by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s State Counselor’s Office call the AA, KIA, TNLA, and MNDAA ethnic armed groups. They seem to have different views.

KZM: Those clashes and conflicts are big challenges to the new government, which is just eight or nine months old. Some people call the Arakan State issue a cancer that is difficult to cure. But regarding the clashes in the northern area, I think the problem can be solved if the two sides agree to be all-inclusive. Ko Lawi, what should is the solution?

LW: It is not that complicated. They stated that it was a limited war, since they launched an offensive. They said they would stop once they reached their objective, which was all-inclusion. But nothing is certain yet. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi talked about inclusion at the Panglong Conference. But the military did not agree. That’s why these clashes happened. It is simple. As soon as the peace process is all-inclusive, our country will achieve peace. Wars will cease.

KZM: They will come to the negotiation table?

LW: Yes, they will. And then we will achieve peace.

KZM: Ko Moe Myint, is there any good solution to the Arakan State issue?

It will be exceedingly difficult, more difficult than the northern Shan State issue. These two problems are different in nature. Again, the Arakan conflict is different from the first conflict that happened there in 2012.

KZM: The latest one includes violence and attacks.

MM: Yes, as you said, the Malaysian Prime Minister held protests, and Bangladesh has also held protests, in which thousands of people have said they would immediately march to the border to help their brothers. I am concerned that the militant attacks will turn into communal conflicts similar to the ones in 2012. If that happens, the problem will only get worse.

KZM: As far as I know, six government bodies have been formed to address the Arakan issue. Among them are a commission chaired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as well as committees and the Arakan State Advisory Commission, headed by Kofi Annan. How effective have these actions been?

MM: There is a political crisis regarding the commissions. The Arakan National Party (ANP), which is involved in these issues on the ground, is totally against these commissions. It is a real crisis for the government.

KZM: By “against,” you mean they won’t cooperate with the commissions?

MM: Yes, it is real problem that there is no cooperation. It is a challenge for the Kofi Annan-led Commission and for the Arakan State Stability and Development Commission headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

KZM: Ko Moe Myint, Ko Lawi, thank you for your contributions.