The Irrawaddy

AA Leader Dismisses ‘Ridiculous’ Claim that His Group Has Ties to ARSA

The Chinese delegate who is brokering negotiations between the government and the Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) has warned the latter’s members, including the Arakan Army (AA), not to associate with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in Rakhine State.

AA commander-in-chief Major-General Tun Myat Naing talked to The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint about the results of the recent FPNCC meeting, the prospects for peace in Myanmar, and whether or not the AA has any links with ARSA.

China reportedly told the FPNCC not to associate with ARSA and warned that it would face harsh action if it did so. What is the stance of the FPNCC on this?

Chinese security officers came to us and enquired about ARSA. They told us not to support it. So we said that none of us would support jihadists who fight for religious causes. Ethnic armed organizations are fighting for their national demands. We assume that the other side [the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw] has misled China into thinking that ethnic armed groups may be connected with ARSA. In fact, it is our Rakhine State and Arakanese people who have been directly impacted by ARSA. We therefore have concerns. China has also concerns, and we can say we have the same stance. It is good for us that China has concerns.

Local political analysts speculate that the AA may be secretly supporting ARSA. What would you say to that?

It is ridiculous. It is either ignorant speculation or a deliberate provocation.

What would you like to say about Rohingyas identifying themselves as one of the ethnic groups in Rakhine State?

It is quite a complicated issue. I avoid answering this question as much as I can. Regarding the question of whether they are an ethnic group or not, it depends on the government’s definition of ethnicity concerning their racial identity, language, literature, customs, foods, religion and how they came to be living in Rakhine State. You can learn that from the records of the colonial period.

The reality is they are people of Bengali race living in Myanmar. And we see that the [National League for Democracy-led] government is taking steps to repatriate them after they fled to another country. ‘Repatriation’ means bringing somebody back to their own country. So according to my understanding, [the government] accepts that those who fled are Myanmar citizens.

If they are accepted as Myanmar citizens, they should have equal citizenship rights under existing laws. Repatriated refugees should not be kept in places like detention centers. If they are accepted, they should be treated in line with the law as Myanmar citizens. They should be allowed to travel freely throughout the country, and they should also be presented with job opportunities and rights to trade and education. If they want to go to foreign countries, Myanmar passports must be issued. Those people for their part need to respect the law and should be loyal to the country.

It is not wise for the government to address this problem superficially in response to pressure from the international community. But the government should lay down a clear policy first to solve the problem.

The international community views ARSA as a group fighting for the rights of Rohingya people, while the majority in Myanmar consider it an insurgent organization. What is your personal view of ARSA?

I don’t see how their stance can be separated from religion. Assessing their earlier activities, it has acted like a jihadist movement. Ethnic armed organizations have not accepted it as a revolutionary group. The international community is overly concerned with human rights in those cases that do not directly affect their interests.

No matter how much the international community accepts them, it is more important that Myanmar people accept them. It is more important that they harmonize with Myanmar people. Whether the international community accepts them or not is only one part of the problem. It is in Myanmar that the conflict is happening, so their acceptance by Myanmar people is what matters. Ethnic armed organizations have not recognized it as revolutionary group.

What did the FPNCC discuss regarding the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] at the recent meeting?

We discussed what we were doing before the meeting as well as the current situation regarding the NCA, the government’s view on non-signatories, its relations with signatories, and progress in implementing the NCA. We want to negotiate with the government collectively, but the government wants to hold separate talks with individual members. The government held separate talks with the Wa and Mongla [who are also members of the FPNCC]. They also presented what they discussed with the government. The government told them to sign the NCA, saying that no agreement in the world is unchangeable. We also exchanged views on it.

The FPNCC previously said that it would find an alternative approach other than the NCA to the peace process. So why did you discuss the NCA this time? Is it because of China, or some other factor?

It is because we want to review the interests of the country and all possibilities, as well as because of China. Our view is that a ceasefire and political dialogue should involve separate agreements. Even if we sign a single agreement, ceasefire and political agreements should be separately stated. They said provisions in the agreement can be changed later, and we want to make sure it is not just a gentlemen’s agreement. We have previously submitted general policies and detailed demands. If they would recognize and accept them, there may be a way forward.

What stage have the FPNCC’s peace talks with the government reached?

It is difficult to say for the time being. If the NCA can be changed, we will try constructively to accept it. But then, challenges remain. The government has excluded the Ta’ang, Kokang, and AA from the NCA. But China is pushing for the acceleration of Myanmar’s peace process. We at the FPNCC want to move forward together as a group. If the government does not compromise, the peace process will get nowhere. But if it is willing to negotiate with us as a group, there might be a way forward.

So, the FPNCC will hold talks with the government based on the NCA?

Though China is pushing us, we will sign only when it is acceptable to us. It depends on how much the Myanmar government is willing to change [the NCA]. If they echo the military and insist the NCA can’t be changed, it is finished.

What is the stance of the FPNCC on China’s Silk Road project?

It is a big project for the 21st century. We believe the project can contribute to the development of the whole region and that benefits will be shared by the countries. So, the FPNCC welcomes it, and we AA also welcome it. We will see how we Arakanese people who have lagged behind can connect with the world through this project. We were forgotten in resource extraction projects including the Kyaukphyu [special economic zone] project. We will try to advance the interests of our region. We have now better military and political foundations, and will make greater efforts for the interests of our region.