The chief of the Arakan Army (AA), Tun Myat Naing, recently spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint about his group’s policies and accusations by the President’s Office that it has ties to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
What is the situation like in Rakhine State’s Buthidaung [Township] after the President’s Office instructed the Tatmadaw to use aircraft against the AA?
We predicted this after [the Tatmadaw] declared [a unilateral ceasefire] on Dec. 21. But we didn’t expect that the President’s Office would also get involved. So we can see that the national reconciliation policy of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government has made great progress. We have seen [Tatmadaw] troop deployments both by air and by road. So it is very likely that future clashes will be fierce.
The government has said that the AA has turned its back on the peace process. Why did the AA launch attacks on four border police outposts when a ceasefire was about to be discussed?
You need to know what happened before our attacks and what role the border police were playing. Before Jan. 4, there were clashes in Rathaedaung, Buthidaung, Kyaktaw and Ponnagyn [townships]. At that time, large numbers of Tatmadaw troops came from Buthidaung and launched large-scale attacks on us in Rathaedaung and Kyauktaw. They cut off all the routes used for delivering food and put intense military pressures on us. They arrested villagers and made them surround their posts, I mean using them as a shield in case they come under attack.
In Paletwa Township, [the Tatmadaw] fired artillery even at night. And artillery fired by Navy vessels fell on places near the forests as well as other places. They fired because it is Rakhine State. But if it were a Bamar State, they would be very worried about killing a [Bamar] civilian in a Bamar village. This shows racial discrimination, the lack of Union spirit and cruelty, we believe. Our wish is that we don’t want police in attacks against us. So we warned them. But they were involved in implementing the “four cuts” strategy [cutting off access to food, funds, information and recruitment] on a large scale and in the persecution [of locals] in order to instill them with fear.
According to the structure of the border police, they have about 3,000 troops and are equipped with G3, G4 arms. Even their ammunition is strong. A police outpost has at least tens of thousands of bullets and grenades. And as many as 70 percent of them in each police battalion have combat experiences, and battalions are commanded by those transferred from the military. Their function, organizational structure and chain of command are like that of an army.
Before Jan. 4, Tatmadaw troops were putting pressures on our troops and using helicopters. And border guard police were also involved. So we did what was necessary according to the nature of war. And we believe that we are right in doing so. They said we have turned our back on peace just to put us into a tight political corner.
Why did the AA attack four police outposts?
For one thing, we don’t want them [police] to be involved [in military attacks against us]. And we won’t tolerate it if our Arakanese people are oppressed. We’ve recorded the battalions that made artillery strikes on our villages. We’ve also recorded in detail the police battalions and border guard police. We won’t forgive that. We’ll retaliate.
For another, it was a tactical decision. If they have gathered their forces in one place, we have to fight where they are absent. We are right tactically.
There are claims that civilians are being used in attacks. Does the AA have records of this?
We are making records in the places we can reach. At first there was no forced labor of local villagers. But recently we have seen cases of local villagers being used as human shields. [Tatmadaw troops] forced civilians to walk ahead of them and stand guard while they slept. [Tatmadaw troops] also opened artillery fire on villages, labeling them rebel villages. Recently there has been increased artillery fire. In Paletwa Township they opened artillery fire whenever they felt unsafe, even at night.
While the government has invited the AA to peace talks, the President’s Office has allowed attacks on the AA in Rakhine State. What will the AA do in response?
Peace is a word and a military operation is action. They talk about peace while carrying out military operations. So it can be said that they are saying one thing and doing another. [The Tatmadaw] issued a declaration on Dec. 21 and pretends to have a ceasefire in other places. But it hasn’t ceased fire in Rakhine State. The declaration in fact was a declaration of war on Rakhine State. We don’t view it as a declaration of peace. Because [the Tatmadaw] is not honest with its ceasefire declaration, it is unlikely that [the ceasefire] will be successful.
About 5,000 civilians have been displaced in just over a month of clashes. Has the AA made preparations to save civilians from being harmed in future clashes?
The financial status of our Arakanese people is not sufficient to feed the displaced people. We rely on donors and international agencies. We, the United League of Arakan/AA, will try. There are going to be more displaced people. Of course our Arakanese people are suffering. But what else can we do? We, the Arakanese people, have faced hardship for a long time. But this was discovered only after gunshots were heard.
The AA is attempting to establish bases in Rakhine State. If it has to choose between a ceasefire and [establishing] military bases, which will it choose?
We will have to choose both. We have always heard about [the correlation between] peace and development, and we have heard it more recently perhaps because of our revolution. Rakhine has never had them. Rakhine has never been developed. We didn’t fight while others [ethnic groups] fought. We will rely on ourselves rather than believe the words of others. This is the lesson we have learned from our experiences. And about the deployment of the AA, what we believe is that the existence of the AA directly relates to the existence and survival of Arakanese people. No one loves Rakhine State as much as the Arakanese do. The Myanmar Army says it loves Rakhine State because of its interests.
Despite the fact that we live in a strategic region, we can’t enjoy strategic benefits. But others enjoy them. Therefore, the Arakan Army must exist in Rakhine State. It would be good if there were no fighting. But the potential for such a situation will be strong only after a long series of political talks.
According to the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire declaration on Dec. 21, it doesn’t accept the presence of AA troops in Rakhine State. But your group is fighting for a base there. So will there be more clashes?
Yes, there will be. It doesn’t want to recognize the Arakan Army. It is natural for it [the Tatmadaw]. It doesn’t want to recognize the Kachin Army, either. It has to talk with us just because the situation forces it to. But its recognition or non-recognition is not important. We just need the recognition by the Arakanese people. It [the Tatmadaw] is stupid not to recognize us. The entire elephant is in the room and it is saying it doesn’t see it. So there is something wrong with it. We will do what we need to do.
Has the AA already built a stronghold in Rakhine State? Has it formed battalions and brigades? People also say that the AA’s headquarters have been moved to the Myanmar-India border. Is that true?
Taking lessons from the 70 years of civil war in Myanmar, we have changed our chain of command and our structure to ensure flexibility. I don’t want to comment on the location of our headquarters. But we have adopted a flexible command and control system. Some groups announce their battalions and brigades. But we don’t want to announce our formation; it could weaken our militarily. It is like giving your information to the enemy. Some time in the future, we will become an organization that can protect the security of Arakanese people. And only we will be able to control the racial conflicts in Rakhine State.
Do you mean your group will occupy a township in Rakhine State?
What I mean is broader than that. Because the Myanmar Army wants to stay in Rakhine State, it sows discord between Arakanese and Muslims. It created conflict. Because the political leadership is not yet strong, people are misled and swayed. It doesn’t just want to sow discord between Arakanese and Muslim in Rakhine State. It also wants to cause ill feelings between Arakanese and Mro, Arakanese and Khami. It paved the way for problems to create an excuse for its rule in certain places. This is what it does.
And I have heard various criticisms [from the Tatmadaw] about our presence [in Rakhine State], citing security issues and so on. It gives various excuses. If we had a big problem with Muslims, it would use it as an excuse with the international community in order to end our existence. But since we didn’t have problems with Muslim, it is attempting to label us terrorists who have links to ARSA. We will continue to do what we have to do.
Why has the AA sent warning letters and carried out assassinations in Rakhine State?
Letters packed with bullets are not just meant to be a threat. We mean it for real. We will do it [kill them] if they do not do as they are told. There are traitors and slave-minded people in a liberation movement. It would be good for them to listen to our warnings. If not, we have to do what we have to do.
What do you say to the Myanmar government’s accusation that your group has two outposts on the Bangladesh side of the border and that it has held meetings with ARSA?
We don’t have outposts in Bangladesh. We sometimes have to seek food supplies at the border. We don’t need to lie. No government would allow a rebel group from another country on its territory. This is just one of its accusations.
There are also allegations that your group has funded its operations through the illegal drug trade over the past nine years. Can you explain how you raise funds?
There are such accusations. Revolutionary groups raise funds by different means. We have many members and some individuals might do it [traffic drugs]. You can see in newspaper reports the arrest of many officers, majors and tactical commanders in connection with drug dealing. Can we say the Myanmar Tatmadaw is involved? And National League for Democracy members are also involved in drug cases in Rakhine State. Can we say the NLD is involved? I have to keep secret how and from where we get funds and arms. This is a matter of life and death. I can’t reveal this for the time being. But I will make it public if our revolution is successful and write it down for history.
We have marched on this journey with the support of the [Arakanese] people. Much remains to be done to reach our goal. Because the Tatmadaw has deployed its troops to launch attacks, we have to go through difficult times. We have informed our people that we have to go through the storm in 2019 and 2020. Only after going through the storm will we be able to enjoy the bright sunlight and breeze. We have told the Arakanese people to have mental strength and face the music while we go through the storm.
Can you elaborate on what your group calls the 2020 Arakan Dream?
Each and every Arakanese individual is very proud of his history. We believe we will at some point be free of the yoke of enslavement and of the life in which your destiny is determined by others. That belief is the Arakan Dream, and we have to realize it. We are performing the role that our Arakanese history has assigned to us. We are trying collectively to stop other people from determining our fate. By 2020 our group will be 10 years old, and by that time the political beliefs of the United League of Arakan will have been widely disseminated among the Arakanese people. We have made a clarion call to Arakanese people from all walks of life and all places to rebuild our country with unity and to shoulder the responsibility for the collapsing Arakanese society.
It is not true that we will secede from Myanmar in 2020. We have never said that we would secede from Myanmar.
The Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee [FPNCC] consists of different ethnic groups that have different objectives. Can the FPNCC be productive collectively or will members work separately to achieve their objectives?
Yes, there are some differences within the FPNCC. But we have to work based on our common interests. The FPNCC is interested in the bilateral [truces] proposed by the government, because some of the FPNCC members have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements [with the government] at the Union level. But four groups clashing [with the Tatmadaw] have not signed. This is the cause of the ongoing clashes. Only after signing it, and when there is no more bloody fighting, will the peace [process] be more realistic. We have such hopes.
The FPNCC is not very happy with the way the NCA mingles ceasefires and politics. If there is a strong truce, it will be easier to find a political answer.
Has the AA negotiated with the Tatmadaw to sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement?
Not yet. We have to continue talking with it. But it appears we have to try with great patience in the face of the current crisis and under threats.
Will the Arakanese people see more negative impacts from fighting in the months to come? What are the prospects for peace?
For my part, it is difficult to say. If the government continues its offensive, the clashes will go on. I heard [government and Tatmadaw officials] say that Rakhine will be completely ruined in the next 10 years or so and that Rakhine will meet the same fate as Syria. So I believe that if they want to destroy our land [Rakhine State], we should destroy their [the Bamars’] land. If they offer peace, we will welcome it as warmly as we can. And we will work actively. If they are to tear our land apart militarily, we will have to do the same to them.
Does the AA have plans to establish its own controlled areas, like its allies?
We wish to. But we can do it only when the circumstances allow. Much remains to be done. We have yet to try very much.
Is the political goal of the AA to have a federal state or a confederate status like the United Wa State Army?
We wish to keep the sovereignty of our state in our hands. We prefer [a confederation of states] like Wa State, which has a larger share of power in line with the Constitution. And we think it is more suited to the history of Rakhine State and the hopes of the Arakanese people. If there is sharing of power and Union rights, every race will be happy with the unity of the Union.
Do you mean the AA idolizes the UWSA regarding its political objective?
Yes, I do. It would be better if we had confederate status. It is what we want.
As your group tries to establish strongholds on the border, what have China and India said to your group?
So, they have not told us to do this and not to do that. They want the problem to be solved peacefully. We will be the ones who make the decisions.
What is India’s opinion of the AA’s operations on the Myanmar-India border? Has the AA built good ties with the Indian government?
We can’t say we have good ties. But we try to make India understand why we are fighting. We said we welcomed its projects. We justified our military objectives and said we are fighting for our rights as an ethnic group and that our cause is just. And we explained that our existence and our stance do not go against its interests.
If the AA were to hold talks on politics and a ceasefire with the government in the future, would it uphold the general policy of the UWSA [of an alternative to the NCA]?
We have decided to stick to that policy in collaboration with our allies in discussing those issues.
It was only recently that [the Tatmadaw] accepted federalism. Do you think the demand for a confederation of states is realistic?
It will take time to build trust. If there are deep doubts between the two sides, it will be difficult to move forward. There must be honesty to build trust. [State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] once said that ethnic groups should not only make demands but think about what they can give in return. We are not asking for things owned by others. We are just claiming back what is ours. There is a need to see the objective reality. When somebody has borrowed money for so long, he thinks that money is his. This is what we talk about with other ethnic groups.
So you mean the AA will fight until the AA obtains confederate status?
Fighting happens only because the situation forces us. The best approach is for us to keep trying politically as well.
There are countries in which self-determination is obtained only through fighting, and in some countries it is obtained without the need to fight. It would be best if we could achieve self-determination peacefully. We will try.
Does the Northern Alliance support the political goal of the AA to demand confederate status? What is its stance?
We allies have a policy to mutually respect each other’s political objectives and existence. We will acknowledge each other and provide mutual support.
Given the latest developments, can 2019 be a year of peace?
Peace is nowhere in sight considering the current situation.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.