War-Weary Rakhine Residents Cautiously Welcome Détente Between Military, AA

By Khine Rola 4 December 2020

SITTWE, Rakhine State—Rakhine people have welcomed the launch of online discussions between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army (AA) on Nov. 25 as a sign that military tensions are easing in the region.

The AA on Nov. 12 called on the Myanmar military and government to hold elections before Dec. 31 in nine northern Rakhine townships where voting in the Nov. 8 general election was canceled for security reasons. The statement said voters in the affected areas had lost their rights. Within hours of the statement being issued, Myanmar’s military welcomed the AA’s request.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the AA provided details of the Nov. 25 meeting, saying the two sides discussed holding elections in Rakhine and enabling the transport of food and medical supplies to villages that have been isolated by clashes, as well as maintaining the mutual understanding the two sides have achieved so far.

More than 230,000 people have been displaced since fighting broke out in Chin State’s Paletwa and northern Rakhine State in November 2018, according to the Rakhine Ethnic Congress.

However, the region has seen no clashes since the Nov. 8 election, and some displaced persons have started to return to their homes and resumed harvesting paddy.

“We’d be very glad if both sides continued to hold their fire for longer, considering the interests of the people. The two sides have stopped fighting for the [sake of the] people, because it is the paddy harvest season now. People are at peace, now that they aren’t hearing gunfire. We want to see further discussions,” said Rathedaung resident Ko Kyaw Min Khaing.

Rakhine politicians are optimistic about the meeting—the first bilateral talks in recent years. They believe the preliminary meeting will help build mutual trust and pave the way for further discussions.

U Kyaw Lwin, a patron of the Arakan Front Party and a Rakhine State MP for Kyaukphyu Township, said: “In my view, this is the first step toward a roundtable meeting where the two sides can hold thorough discussions.”

Local residents have called on both sides to hold further talks in consideration of security and peace in the region, lamenting that they have borne the brunt of the fighting over the past two years.

Minbya resident Ann Thar Gyi, who helps internally displaced persons (IDPs), said: “Political conflicts are the cause of the fighting in Rakhine State. I want to see political issues solved at the table and not by military means. In two years of war in Rakhine, many people have died, been displaced and had their houses burned down, and arrested on suspicion [of helping one side or the other]. We no longer want to see those things. Military tensions have eased now, and we want this to continue.”

The de-escalation of clashes in the region has seen a drop in the number of checks on civilians at military checkpoints on both roads and waterways, according to local residents. But they are also concerned that present conditions are just a lull before another round of clashes, as the Myanmar military’s Z-craft are seen moving along the rivers in the region almost every day. They are concerned that the military is transporting reinforcements, food and weapons to prepare for fresh fighting.

“We are not sure if there will be a more concrete peace or if the two sides are taking a break before they fight again. But we have seen military reinforcements. And there are still inspections at military checkpoints, though there are fewer than in the past,” Ko Ann Thar Gyi said.

U Kyaw Lwin said: “So far they have not signed any agreement at the [negotiating] table. So they still have suspicions toward each other. So clashes could break out at any time if one side enters the territory of the other. So, progress in the Rakhine peace process is not yet steady.”

While some IDPs have returned to their homes following the de-escalation of military tensions, some are even going on pilgrimages to Kyauktaw and Mrauk-U townships.

U Tun Aung Kyaw, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Arakan National Party, said: “The fact that the two sides have held talks on a ceasefire in consideration of public interests is good for Rakhine State. I hope they will be able to meet around a table and successfully solve the problems through political means.”

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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