In Western Myanmar, State Counselor’s Praise for Tatmadaw Causes Unease

By Nyein Nyein 23 April 2020

While Rakhine and Chin states continue to be rocked by heavy fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s praise for army officers and rank-and-file soldiers for protecting civilians in the two western Myanmar states has been criticized as harming the prospects for peace, and setting back the cause of national reconciliation with the country’s ethnic minorities.

In a statement issued by her office on Tuesday evening, Myanmar’s de facto leader and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pledged “to continue to work to achieve … peace,” to help people to “be free from the suffering due to the armed conflicts.”

The Office of the State Counselor’s Facebook post drew over 24,000 likes and 1,000 comments within 24 hours, with diverse reactions from users. While many thanked her for praising the soldiers, many others expressed displeasure at her stance, claiming that the military’s reported artillery and air strikes on villages had left many civilians dead or displaced.

“The soldiers you praise are committing crimes of arson and killing women and children, while townships in Rakhine State are blocked access to the Internet,” said one commenter, adding ironically, “I respect that you think about other minorities.”

Another commenter wrote, “Now I see that reconciliation means reconciling with the Tatmadaw.”

U Pe Than, a Lower House lawmaker from the Myebon constituency of Rakhine State, said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement “is not helping to move forward the peace negotiations,” since she praises the soldiers and regards the Arakan Army (AA) as a terrorist group. “[It’s] clear that she takes the side of the Tatmadaw.”

Exactly a month ago, her National League for Democracy government declared the AA a terrorist group and an unlawful association.

The State Counselor said that while the government, public and volunteers are putting their efforts into controlling and containing COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, soldiers are “giving their lives” to protect people and their wellbeing, but the AA “is conducting destructive activities in western Myanmar.”

The government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center, which she chairs, held talks with the AA until February aimed at reaching a bilateral ceasefire agreement. The talks included three other ethnic armed groups—the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Army, an ethnic Kokang group—in northern Myanmar. But the peace talks have been temporarily postponed due to travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our hopes are wearing thin, due to her stance, even though we have been pushing for a political dialogue,” U Pe Than said.

Besides, he added, “It is clear that [the government] is discriminating between the Chin and Rakhine [minority groups], as her plan to help create development opportunities once the fighting is over only applies to Paletwa [in Chin State].”

Stressing the plight of Paletwa residents, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the government is planning to create livelihood opportunities and regional development for sustainability when Paletwa becomes stable and peaceful again. Paletwa is seen as the AA’s gateway to Rakhine State.

Nearly 10,000 IDPs, mostly ethnic Chin and Khumi, are currently sheltering in downtown Paletwa and nearby Samee town after fleeing intensified fighting between the AA and the military.

She expressed regret about the civilian casualties and the victims of the fighting in Rakhine and Chin states. She pledged to provide the necessary support to the injured and the surviving family members of the victims.

Offering praise to officers of the national army is normal for a senior state leader and in most countries there would be no objection to it. Furthermore, Myanmar’s army was founded by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, the late General Aung San, during the fight against British colonial rule, and the State Counselor has made no secret of her fondness for it. In Myanmar’s case, however, the military officers and rank-and-file soldiers she praises have been accused of human rights abuses against the residents of Rakhine State and the air force has reportedly been involved in strafing villages, wounding and killing innocent civilians.

The military has suffered significant losses since the AA—which uses guerilla warfare tactics—began trying to build a base in western Myanmar in early 2015, though it was born in northern Myanmar in an area controlled by another ethnic armed group, the KIA. Myanmar military spokespersons have repeatedly declined to provide figures for casualties among army personnel.

If the numbers were made available, the public would be able to see just how much the Army is sacrificing to help protect the livelihoods of the local residents in Myanmar’s western states.

As they possess arms, AA troops have also abducted local people—often for months—including an NLD lawmaker from Paletwa Township last year, and have attacked government development projects. Among these were the Multimodal Transit Transport Project, from which it abducted a number of Indian nationals working on the project. Their actions are intolerable. But it does not mean the Tatmadaw, the national army, is free from wrongdoing and is only protecting lives.

According to accounts from local people, relief groups and other observers, including the media, innocent civilians are vulnerable to artillery shelling, air strikes, arbitrary detention and physical abuse such as beating, destruction of homes, and arson by the military—the very institution tasked with protecting them.

In Rakhine State, nearly 160,000 people had been displaced as of the end of March. Hundreds of innocent civilians have died from wounds caused by unclaimed shrapnel, bullets and landmines, while hundreds of others are being sued or are in detention on suspicion of affiliation with the AA.

As recently as this week, the military arbitrarily detained 38 residents of Kyauk Seik Village in Rakhine State’s Ponnagyun Township on suspicion of affiliation with the AA, less than a week after eight civilians were killed by artillery strikes on the village. It released 33 of them after questioning and beating them.

Kyauk Seik Village administrator U Aye Tun was among the 33 detainees who were released on Tuesday after being held in a building at the compound of the military’s Light Infantry Battalion No. 550 for more than 24 hours.

He told The Irrawaddy after being released, “The men were beaten with the butts of soldiers’ guns, kicked and left without food during the interrogation.” His nephew and a friend are among the five men still being held by the military. He demanded their immediate release.

In her message, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she is happy that rice bags were delivered to people in Paletwa, Chin State on Sunday.

The military assisted in the delivery of 830 rice bags—which was delayed over the Thingyan holidays due to security concerns—to more than 3,600 internally displaced people. A previous delivery of 100 rice bags in March was held up by AA troops for several hours until a local relief group agreed to give the armed group 20 bags.

It has been more than a month since Paletwa Township’s displaced villagers had to flee their homes due to fighting between the military and AA, which saw military fighter jets strafe their villages.

Since mid-March, air strikes on villages in Paletwa have caused dozens of civilian casualties, including 21 deaths and 26 injuries in Meiksa Wa and Wet Ma villages.

While the state government has provided some support to the victims’ families, there have been no expressions of condolence to the families of the dead villagers, and no support offered to local relief groups, by the Union government, the President or the State Counselor herself. The injured remain stranded in temporary shelters along with all the other villagers who have fled.

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