In Person

Tatmadaw Following Rules of Engagement in Rakhine: Spokesman

By Htet Naing Zaw 26 April 2019

More than four months after fierce clashes broke out between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA), military tensions remain high in Rakhine State between the two sides despite the recent talks in Naypyitaw.

Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, secretary of the Tatmadaw’s True News Information Team, recently talked to The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Htet Naing Zaw about the Tatmadaw’s ongoing clashes with the AA, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

HTET NAING ZAW: How many people have the Tatmadaw filed lawsuits against under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act in Rakhine State [over their suspected association with the AA]? How many people are facing trial?

BRIG-GEN. ZAW MIN TUN: As far as I know, two monks were disrobed and arrested, and 23 were arrested in Let Kar [a village in Mrauk-U Township]. There might be more. I don’t know the exact list.

We heard that some detainees died during interrogation in the Let Kar village case. Is it true?

Yes, it is. We have issued a press release. One person died during interrogation. Another died of heart problems, around April 20, 21. The third one was a drug addict.

According to procedures, we sent the bodies to Sittwe People’s Hospital, and had post-mortem examinations carried out. We reported the deaths to the police station. So far, three detainees have died.

Were they detained for their connections with the AA?

We arrested them because they had ties to the AA. We found documents about their organizational structure, along with a list of names. We have the records of their interrogations, and they are [AA] members.

Just those 23? We heard that the Tatmadaw also took four people to Tein Nyo [also in Mrauk-U].

Yes, that’s correct. We have opened cases against four at Tein Nyo police station. So there are 27 in total. We only know that much. In some cases, [suspects] were directly arrested by the police, and not by the Tatmadaw.

For the time being, they are only being interrogated, and I haven’t heard that any ruling has been made by a court.

What is the situation regarding the fighting with the AA? Has it escalated? Where are clashes taking place?

The engagement has not escalated. It is notable that there have been hardly any engagements on the Agnu Maw and Maungdaw routes. Recently, there were mine attacks on the Agnu Maw and Maungdaw routes. There were at least two attacks, though there were no injuries.

We have issued a press release stating that there were mine explosions at a village downstream of Kyauk Pan Nu.

What instructions are soldiers given in terms of following the military’s code of ethics to avoid civilian casualties?

We have rules of engagement, which bar us from attacking non-military targets. But there is an exception: We can return fire if the enemy launches an attack on us.

We have repeatedly said that the situation is complicated in Rakhine State. [They] launched attacks near villages, and shot from the villages. Under such circumstances, we inevitably had to return fire. There have been many examples. Whenever something happens near a village, there are reports that villagers have been wounded and that the Army is responsible for that.

But in reality, both sides fired. So, it can’t be said exactly which side is responsible. When [they] launch attacks near villages, we try as much as we can to avoid [civilian casualties]. We only return fire when there is no alternative.

Lately, the Tatmadaw has sued very few village administrators [for having alleged ties with the AA]. Has it changed its policy?

We interrogated some village administrators. Recently, there was an incident in which our battalions were shot at from Yangon-Sittwe Road in Mrauk-U. And there was also shooting [at the Tatmadaw] from the village of Baung Htoke.

So, we interrogated the village administrator, and met community elders at the village monastery, and held talks with them. This is our usual procedure.

We have not changed our policy regarding village administrators. What is happening on the ground is there are people who intentionally cooperate with the insurgent group. We must identify and take action against them.

But on the other hand, some people have to engage with [the insurgents] out of fear or for other reasons, and not because they wish to. It is unrealistic to take action for such engagement. In some cases, [locals] have had to engage [with the AA] against their wishes. In that case, we don’t take action against them.

The President’s Office has given approval [to the military] to crush the AA. The Tatmadaw has launched a counter-insurgency operation in response. Does this mean it will continue military operations in Rakhine?

We will continue military operations until regional security can be guaranteed. There is another important thing. We are clashing with the KIA in [the area overseen by the Tatmadaw’s] North-East Command. There is no fighting in Kachin State, but in northern Shan State, in Muse.

We have clashed with the KIA four times through April 23 [since the end of Thingyan on April 17]. The main reason is that we and the KIA had agreed territories since before starting the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] process. But they established outposts beyond their [agreed] territory.

And they shot our soldiers who were performing logistical duties. We occupied seven or eight KIA outposts on April 23. They [KIA troops] were deployed some 6,000 meters from our Mongpaw outpost, and launched sneak attacks on us. We were able to clear almost all of the area on April 23.

Will the Tatmadaw continue to build roads in Karen State? I have heard there are tensions [in the area].

The Tatmadaw is building roads in Karen State, and the [Mu The] bridge must be completed before the rainy season. So, we are continuing with its construction.

Tensions heightened [with locals staging a demonstration] when the Karen State chief minister visited the [bridge construction] site. The roads we are building are not new ones, but old ones linking Kyauk Kyi with Toungo, and further connecting with Yun Salin Gyi Creek.

We are improving the road [by paving it] with gravel, and have so far reached Mu The. Previously, it took a whole day to travel [from Kyauk Kyi] to Mu The. Now, the travel time has been reduced to around three hours.

There are organizations that oppose the road construction. [The local Karen National Union chapter has objected to the new bridge]. There were protests against the bridge construction. For the time being, we are continuing with the bridge construction.