CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a bloc of five ethnic armed groups, has denounced the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
During a two-day meeting in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai on Sept. 11-12, the alliance discussed the Rakhine conflict in addition to its current talks with the government on the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA).
When asked about the bloc’s views on ARSA, an emerging group whose Aug. 25 attacks on police stations triggered an army crackdown leading to a mass exodus, UNFC chairman and New Mon State Party (NMSP) vice chairman Nai Hong Sar said, “We do not acknowledge the ARSA, as its operations appeared to be violent.”
The UNFC also comprises the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), the Arakan National Council (ANC), and the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP). Four other members resigned earlier this year.
“We also worry about the ARSA’s possible movement in Mon State, as the state is open to the [Andaman] sea,” Nai Hong Sar said, adding that the same security measures that have been taken in Irrawaddy Region should be taken in Mon State.
The ARSA claims its fight is to achieve basic rights for self-identifying Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority that has seen more than 400,000 of its members flee to Bangladesh in recent weeks, according to the UN, escaping alleged indiscriminate killing, rape and arson by Myanmar security forces.
However, reports of ARSA militants killing civilians and carrying out arson have fueled the domestic image of it as a “terrorist organization,” a label approved by the government. Some 30,000 ethnic Arakanese were displaced in Rakhine State because of the conflict it sparked.
ARSA’s announcement of a one-month ceasefire on Sept. 10 was met with the Myanmar government’s spokesman tweeting that the government “does not negotiate with terrorists.”
The group has stated it does not target civilians and rejected any affiliations to transnational jihadist groups, saying in a press release on Thursday it “does not welcome” the involvement of those groups in Rakhine.
Surrounding the violence is a persisting debate over the name for the self-identifying Rohingya, who are referred to as “Bengalis” by most in Myanmar, inferring they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“We do not recognize the term ‘Rohingya’,” said Nai Hong Sar. UNFC would not include ARSA in its “all-inclusive” peace talks, he added.
Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) vice chairman Tar Jode Jar told The Irrawaddy that ARSA is on a “totally different” path to other ethnic armed groups.
He echoed claims widely circulated in Myanmar that the problems in Rakhine problems are the result of previous governments’ negligence.
Muslims were issued white cards—temporary citizenship papers—in Rakhine in return for votes in the discredited 2010 election, he said.
UNFC is negotiating to sign the NCA on the basis of its eight-point proposal. But government talks with the UNFC and another bloc, the Northern Alliance, have made little progress, partly because the Tatmadaw rejects the Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, TNLA and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
All four of these groups were labeled as “terrorist” organizations in the Shan State parliament in December 2016.
Thu Thu Aung contributed to this report.