SITTWE, Rakhine State—The Arakan Army (AA) rebel group on Wednesday released the Rakhine State director of the military-backed telecom operator Mytel and his driver, more than one month after detaining them.
The AA abducted the Sittwe-based director of Mytel’s Rakhine State Office, U Zaw Tun Aung, and his driver, U Saw Thein Maung, on Dec. 23 in Kyauktaw Township, saying they posed a security threat.
AA spokesman U Khaing Thuka said both men were released in Manaw Thiri Village in Pauktaw Township.
“We took them for questioning as we had security-related suspicions. It was only meant to be temporary, but due to the heavy offensives, we could not release them until today,” he told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
According to Police Lieutenant Colonel Maung Maung Soe of the Rakhine State Police Force, the two men arrived back in Sittwe on Wednesday with the help of authorities from Pauktaw Township.
Mytel is Myanmar’s fourth telecom operator after MPT, Telenor and Ooredoo. It is a joint venture of Star High Public Co. Ltd, owned by Myanma Economic Corporation under the military-controlled Ministry of Defense; Myanmar National Telecom Holdings, a Myanmar consortium comprising 11 companies; and the Vietnamese telecom company Viettel.
The two were making a field trip to improve Mytel’s communication services in Rakhine State, and were near Kyauktaw Township when contact with them was lost on the morning of Dec. 23, according a statement issued by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, last month following their disappearance.
The two, who are both ethnic Rakhine, left Sittwe on Dec. 17 and visited Ann, Thandwe and Minbya townships. They stayed overnight in Minbya on Dec. 22, and were en route to Kyauktaw the following day when they went missing.
Due to the fighting, the government blocked internet access in eight townships in northern Rakhine as well as Chin State’s Paletwa Township on June 21 last year. Access was restored in five townships in September, but remains blocked in Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U and Minbya.
The freeing of the Mytel employees followed Tuesday’s release by the AA of Maung Htwe and Zaw Zaw, two army corporals captured in Paletwa on Nov. 19. They were among 13 detained soldiers from Hmawbi-based Light Infantry Battalion No. 313, which is under Division 77.
On Jan. 21, the AA released U Whei Tin, an Upper House lawmaker from the National League for Democracy representing Paletwa Township, after detaining him for two-and-a-half months.
U Khaing Thuka said the group has released a total of 66 people who have no links to the military since 2019, including employees of the Hsu Htoo San Construction Company; civilians captured from the Shwe Nadi ferry; firefighters and civilians detained in Mrauk-U Township; and drivers from the Transport Ministry abducted from the vessel Aung Takhon in Rathedaung Township.
The rest of the soldiers abducted by the group remain in detention, he said.
The AA proposed exchanging the Tatmadaw soldiers with ethnic Rakhine civilians and AA members detained by the government in a “prisoner of war swap”. If the government released the AA members and the others, the AA said, it would release the soldiers.
The AA demanded the release of its members in exchange for 17 police and soldiers detained from the Shwe Nadi ferry, but the Tatmadaw rejected the offer, saying the situation does not fall within the rules and regulations governing prisoner exchanges, and that the military does not negotiate with terrorist groups.
The AA does not make public the precise number of people, whether civilian or military, in its custody.
Clashes continue to erupt in Rakhine State, with the AA and the Tatmadaw engaging in heavy fighting in Ingyin Village in Myebon Township on Monday and Tuesday.
More than a year of military clashes between the AA and the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State have caused over 160,000 internally displaced persons to take shelter in temporary camps.
The civilian death toll continues to grow as villagers’ houses, caught between the warring parties, are frequently struck by artillery shells. Both sides continue to arrest civilians.
Nearly 200 Rakhine people have been arrested by the government on suspicion of affiliation with the AA and charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law.
Those who have been sued under the law include the AA chief, Major General Tun Myat Naing, Dr. Nyo Tun Aung, Colonel Kyaw Han and the group’s spokesman, Khaing Thuka.
The brother, sister and brother-in-law of the AA chief have also been detained and brought before a court under the Counter-Terrorism Law.
Translated from Burmese with additional reporting in English by Nyein Nyein