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Arrests in Rakhine raise fears of renewed conflict between military, Arakan Army

Residents in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state are increasingly on edge, worried that fighting between the military and the Arakan Army (AA) will soon erupt once again as arrests of personnel from both sides escalate.

The national military fought an increasingly bitter war with the AA, which says it is fighting for autonomy for ethnic minority Rakhine people, from December 2018 until a truce was reached in November 2020, months before the army seized power in a February 2021 coup.

The coastal state was awash with refugees from that fighting, but stayed relatively quiet for many months while anti-coup protests and fighting by local militias raged across much of Myanmar but tensions started rising in recent months.

The military this week detained people who it suspected of having links with the AA in the state capital Sittwe, and Mrauk-U, Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw townships, in response to the AA’s recent arrests of junta soldiers.

Since Thursday, the military has been blocking the city gates of Sittwe, after the AA arrested a naval lieutenant and a sailor there. It also shut down waterways from Sittwe to various towns in the state, which borders the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh. 

Police and soldiers are checking hotels, guest houses and residences all over Sittwe looking for suspected AA members.

Residents told RFA that at least seven civilians were arrested on Thursday evening.

Three civilians, including 46-year-old Oo San Maung, were arrested by 30 soldiers in the Mingan Block 9 area of the city, his son Myo Kyaw Hlaing told RFA’s Burmese Service.

“They came to search our house. My father went out to the front of the house and said no one was there,” said Myo Kyaw Hlaing. “They just arrested him without saying a word. Not only my father, two other youths in our ward were arrested.  We have no contact with those arrested yet.”

Residents told RFA that three minors and Soe Thiha, a visitor from Taunggup, were arrested in Sittwe on Friday Morning.

There have been reports of more civilian arrests but RFA has not been able to confirm this independently.

At about 9 p.m. Thursday night, soldiers fired shots at a group of people as they returned to a guest house in the same part of Sittwe, a person in the group told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“One of my friends and I were going back to our guesthouse on a motorbike. Three other guys were on another. The soldiers blocked our path and shouted at us to stop. When we didn’t stop, they fired four or five shots at us,” he said.

“The guys on the other motorbike left it and ran away. I was lucky I didn’t lose mine,” said the man, who said he was not hurt in the gunfire.

The military arrested more than 20 civilians in Mrauk-U township on Wednesday after the AA arrested three military personnel on Tuesday.

“Aa far as we know, some of the civilians they arrested were released that day,” a resident of Mrauk-U told RFA.

“We heard that six people were released, and I think there are still more than 10 people detained,” the resident said on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

The AA arrested a soldier and three policemen in Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw townships between June 16 and 22. In response the army arrested 30 civilians, according to local reports. Among the civilians, sources told RFA that four women were said to have been released, but the rest were still in detention.

Other reports said that the AA has arrested more than a dozen members of the police and military in Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships, and the military has detained at least 50 civilians over the past few days in retaliation.

RFA tried to contact the junta’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, by telephone for comment, but he did not respond.

Zaw Min Tun, however, warned the AA at a press conference on May 19 that it would be responsible for the consequences of detaining soldiers.

“What we are doing at the moment, the reason we are detaining the Rakhine people, is for their own good. We do not want them to get into trouble,” he told reporters.

“I would like to repeat that we are detaining the Rakhine people so that they will not get into trouble. We are patiently working for peace within the union. If anything happens regarding this, don’t blame the military for the consequences,” Zaw Min Tun said.

The AA’s spokesman, Khine Thukha, told a news conference on June 14 that AA members were only retaliating against the military for its abuses.

“The reason for the arrests is that the Myanmar army raided houses of our ULA/AA members at night time,” he said. The ULA refers to the United League of Arakan, which is the political wing of the Arakan Army.

Some of our troops were detained by the military during last month and this month. That’s why we have arrested their troops. If they keep on doing that, we will retaliate,” he said.

He said if the military releases the AA members, the AA would release the soldiers they arrested, but he would not disclose how many each side had arrested.

Pe Than, a former member of the state parliament, said the situation in Rakhine was volatile.

“It depends a lot on how many more people are going to be arrested in future and how much trouble there will be,” said Pe Than.

“If both sides keep on doing this, the number of detainees, which is just a few at present, will become a lot. The arrests might be in groups instead of one or two. And then, as the situation worsens, there could be some clashes that could blow up into renewed fighting,” he said.

Pe Than said the military and the AA should negotiate a peaceful resolution before the violence escalates.

But tensions between the junta and the AA have been high since early May, with locals and Rakhine politicians concerned that fighting will soon intensify.

The resumption of full-scale conflict between the military and the Arakan Army could put the lives of millions of ethnic minority residents of Rakhine at risk, according to a report published this month by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO.

It said AA efforts to gain territory in the north could affect as many as 3 million ethnic Rakhines and Rohingyas. Tom Kean, ICG senior adviser on Myanmar, told RFA this month that a humanitarian consequences from renewed fighting would probably be worse than they were during the two-year war.

Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government has invited the AA to join an alliance of regional armies to fight the military, which IGC said could also lead to an escalation in violence in Rakhine state.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.