AA Frees Three Abducted NLD Members, Three Soldiers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

By Nyein Nyein 1 January 2021

The Arakan Army on Friday released three members of the ruling National League for Democracy who were abducted by the ethnic armed organization while campaigning in Rakhine State in October ahead of the election, and also freed three government soldiers captured in late 2019.  Local political and security analysts said the move was aimed at building “mutual trust” and achieving a “longstanding ceasefire” between the government, the AA and the Myanmar military, paving the way for Rakhine State to hold voting canceled in November.

It has been two and a half months since the three then-candidates, Daw Chit Chit Chaw, Daw Ni Ni May Myint and U Min Aung—who stood for seats representing Rakhine’s Taungup Township in the Lower House, Upper House and Rakhine State parliament, respectively—were abducted in the township’s Hpaung Kha Village on Oct. 14.

Friday’s releases came as “the result of the second online meeting” between AA chief Major General Tun Myat Naing and military peace negotiation committee chairman Lieutenant General Yar Pyae on Dec. 30, according to AA spokesman Khaing Thu Kha, who said the meeting lasted about 35 minutes.

The AA released three soldiers—officer U Myint Aung and privates Nan Win Maung and Wai Lin Aung—of Light Infantry Battalion 313 under Brigade 77 on Friday morning in Paletwa Township, southern Chin State, according to the AA spokesman. The group detained them during fighting on Nov. 19, 2019 in a village in Paletwa. The three soldiers are in ill health, according to sources.

The three NLD members were transferred to the military’s Western Command chief, Brigadier General Soe Tint, in Minbya Township in the afternoon, in line with plans outlined to The Irrawaddy by the AA spokesman on Friday morning.

Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun confirmed to The Irrawaddy the release of the civilians and soldiers. “We have received the three soldiers, and we will transfer the three NLD members to Sittwe [Rakhine State’s capital] on Friday afternoon,” he said, adding that the releases came about as a result of negotiations between the military and the AA.

The AA’s Khaing Thu Kha said the group would release more detainees who are older or ill, “depending on the progress of the peace talks”.

The AA and the military called a pause in clashes about two months ago after near constant fierce fighting since November 2018.

Negotiations leading to the pause were mediated by the chairman of Japan’s Nippon Foundation, Yohei Sasakawa, who expressed hope that it would set in motion voting in Rakhine.

In a Nov. 12 statement, the AA urged the government to hold voting in the affected areas before the end of December and said it would collaborate with the military to create the necessary conditions. To the surprise of many, the military welcomed the overture. The two sides have held informal talks three times, on Nov. 25, Dec. 9 and Dec. 30, to try to formalize the peace. Tens of thousands of IDPs have returned home since the fighting paused.

U Maung Maung Soe, a political and ethnic affairs analyst, said that as the latest meeting involved key decision-makers, it would help build “mutual trust”, adding that it appeared both sides appear to be genuinely “trying to have a strong ceasefire”.

He felt sure that the hiatus in fighting would last for some time in Rakhine State.

According to sources, one of the topics discussed by the AA and military (or Tatmadaw) was troop deployments, considered a key to establishing a more permanent ceasefire in Rakhine State.

The AA is one of the four-member Northern Alliance, which has been negotiating to sign bilateral ceasefire agreements between its members and the government.

To achieve this, further discussions are needed among the Northern Alliance members, the Tatmadaw and the government’s Peace Commission under the National Reconciliation and Peace Center, U Maung Maung Soe said.

Dr. Min Zaw Oo, the director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, said the AA clearly intended the release of the detainees as a gesture of goodwill, adding that it was cause for optimism.

The AA’s release of the NLD members, two of whom are sitting parliamentarians, is significant given the group’s call for elections to be held in nine townships in northern Rakhine State where voting in the Nov. 8 general election had to be canceled for security reasons.

It will also likely be “a factor in the NLD government and Union Election Commission’s decision on whether the area can hold voting freely and fairly”, Dr. Min Zaw Oo said.

The AA said in a statement on Oct. 19 that it would not release the candidates until the government freed all ethnic politicians and civilians arrested for affiliation with the AA and student protesters detained for demanding peace. The process of releasing students and alleged AA affiliates would be complicated, however, as their legal cases are at various stages of completion.

Also on Friday, the AA and its two partners in the Brotherhood Alliance, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, extended their unilateral ceasefire for two more months until Feb. 28. The alliance declared a truce in September 2019, though it has been disrupted by frequent fighting.

The military on Dec. 31 extended its own unilateral truce covering much of the country until Jan. 31, 2021 “to restore eternal peace”, “to expedite the peace process with the EAOs” and “to facilitate” COVID-19 prevention, containment and treatment  in the country. However, the truce excludes areas where groups declared by Myanmar to be terrorist groups are active.

The AA has been on the government’s list of terrorist groups since March.

Regarding Friday’s move, observers speculated that the military and the AA are trying to return to the situation that prevailed in the region before serious fighting erupted two years ago.

Dr. Min Zaw Oo said, “Before January 2019, the AA and military engaged on the border and in Paletwa, and avoided escalations in fighting. The military did not deploy its units and the AA did not attack local battalions. I think they are trying to find a way back to that situation.”

In a statement issued by the Nippon Foundation on Friday, Sasakawa welcomed the AA’s release of the three NLD members and three soldiers. He expressed confidence that the two sides will continue to negotiate, adding that he hoped free and fair elections would be held in Rakhine soon.

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