Can ‘Coordinated Attacks’ Be Calls for Ethnic Rights? Myanmar Military Chief Asks

By Htet Naing Zaw 29 October 2019

NAYPYITAW—Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing questioned the definition of ethnic rights Monday as he criticized the Aug. 15 attacks by ethnic armed groups in a few townships in Mandalay Region and Shan State.

Speaking at the fourth anniversary of the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in Naypyitaw on Monday, he asked if ethnic groups have the right to commit terrorist attacks, referring to coordinated attacks by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Arakan Army (AA) on Aug. 15 in Pyin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Region and Naung Cho, Lashio and Kutkai townships in Shan State.

“We will have to ask whether in such actions it is ethnic rights that they are demanding,” said the military chief.

The three groups attacked civilian targets and blew up bridges on the Mandalay-Muse Union Highway, the major route for China-Myanmar border trade, halting trade for a few weeks.

Following the incident, government spokesperson U Zaw Htay said that though the government denounced the attacks, the door to peace would still be kept open for the ethnic armed groups.

The three groups said they launched the attacks to help reduce the military’s ability to put increasing pressure on the AA in Rakhine State. Together with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the groups make up the Northern Alliance of ethnic armed groups.

Speaking at the NCA anniversary event on Monday, Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing blamed the AA for fostering instability in Rakhine State while the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, was focusing its efforts on protecting local ethnic Rakhine people from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

He said the AA launched attacks on border guard police outposts in January 2019 and ramped up its operations in Rakhine State amid instability created by the ARSA.

“Those attacks are inappropriate for our democratization process. The Tatmadaw cannot just stand by and do nothing in response to those insurgent attacks,” said the military chief.

The two sides have met a number of times this year at peace talks brokered by China to discuss signing bilateral ceasefires but the meetings have yet to yield any tangible results. Myanmar military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun has accused the TNLA, MNDAA and AA of having no intention to sign the NCA.

Arakan National Party Central Executive Committee member U Pe Than said that it appears the military chief considers the AA a terrorist group similar to the ARSA.

“We all want to establish federalism and we are all working for our ethnic rights. Some believe they can achieve [these rights] only with arms, while we are doing as much as we can within the legal framework. We share the same aim but we use different strategies,” he said.

The Myanmar military and the AA have been clashing fiercely in northern Rakhine State since November 2018.

Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has said that he considers Britain’s divide-and-rule policy to be the root cause of internal insurgency in Myanmar. According to the military chief, the divide-and-rule administrative strategy of the British resulted in increasing divisions between ethnicities who later took up arms, driven by ideological differences as well as racial identity. He said that this practice of armed revolt against successive governments still continues today.

The military chief called on EAOs not to dwell on the past but to look on the bright side and work together in harmony for a better future, saying that the responsibility for shaping the future falls in the hands of those living at the present time.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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