The Arakan Army, commonly referred to as the AA, had its first true taste of battle with Burmese troops in March of this year near Kyauktaw Township in northern Arakan State, though its troops had previously played a backup role in both the Kachin and Kokang conflicts. The AA is one of three ethnic armed groups that are currently engaged in conflict with government troops and thus are ineligible to sign onto a nationwide ceasefire accord.
The Irrawaddy recently spoke with AA Commander-in-Chief Brig-Gen Tun Myat Naing about recent tensions between Arakan and Burmese troops, the group’s political objectives and his views on the role of Rohingya Muslims in resolving Arakan grievances with the government.
What is the current situation between the Burmese military and the Arakan Army (AA)?
It is not very good. They [the Burma Army] still pursue the approach of annihilation to solve the problem [of armed ethnic resistance in Arakan State]. But it is not difficult for us because we have already taken it into consideration. The situation is not very difficult. But I think the fighting could become more intense.
Where has the AA established strongholds in Arakan State?
I need to be secretive about some military issues. From the point of view of nationalism, we have many advantages in Arakan State. It is our home and we feel comfortable there. However, my experience tells me that we still need something.
What are the objectives of the AA?
We must be able to determine our own future and have self-determination. We just can’t let someone else decide our future. Every Arakanese man believes that he will be able to determine his own future someday. We will continue doing what we do and keeping faith no matter how difficult it gets. It would be good for all if an agreement could be worked out with relative ease, but if it can’t, we have to find other ways.
I will do my best for the Arakanese people. I would try to give them better national victories. Again, I want to tell the government that it should not treat us as an enemy at this time, in this era. Instead, it should find solutions together with us. It is up to the government whether we will be friends or foes.
Our fundamental military principle is defense, while the government is trying to annihilate us. We have to defend our rights and lives. I want to stress that we are not the enemy.
Why did clashes break out in Arakan State in late March?
The Arakan Army is active in other places, besides Laiza [headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), where the AA has trained in recent years]. We have had more things to do in response to the changing situation, and we have had to work on a deadline. We have been mobilizing support and we had a confrontation with the Burma Army in so doing.
Does the AA have the support of the Arakanese people?
Despite the fact that we suffer a break in continuity—because our revolution has been suppressed for so long—it has been very easy to unify the Arakanese people once we show our flag to them. They don’t hesitate to make sacrifices. Now we in the AA can stand, all because of the support of the Arakanese people. We have thousands of troops and our operational costs are big, so we couldn’t do this without the support of the people.
How many troops does the AA have?
We have more than 10,000, including our civilian wing [Editor’s note: this is believed to be an overestimate; independent sources familiar with the issue estimate around 800 troops and an unknown number of civilian supporters]. Recently, more than 2,000 have completed training. At first, we started with 26 people. Then we offered training, and there have been more than 100 trainees every time. Now we are accepting the 26th intake of trainees.
Who comprises the AA membership and its central committee?
We have not formed a central executive committee yet. We have more than ten thousand members. We did not form a [political] party because there were a number of parties already. At first, we thought of unifying the parties in Arakan State instead of forming a separate party. But then we came to realize that it is not convenient because there would be too many leaders and it would hamper their functionality. We now have a blueprint for a central executive committee. We plan to eventually form an Arakan National League [as an administrative wing of the AA] and we are already working on it.
We have a consultative council, and senior experts advise them. With their help, we are now trying to get contacts in neighboring countries. We are almost ready to work on a wide scale. We have already planned for a meeting where we will publicly announce our organizational structure.
Are your supporters safe amid tensions between the AA and the Burma Army? What do you have to say about their concerns?
Those with low education levels may be a little worried. But we have a saying that blood is thicker than water. We are Arakanese people and we always will be. They will not worry, they will be brave.
Although it is generally said that previous conflicts have been caused by religious feelings, if you take a deeper look, you can see that they stemmed from the Ministry of Immigration and Population, and the political tricks of the government. The government will do anything to win the war and retain its grip on political power.
In the recent clashes, when the military columns came, they slept in Bengali houses [Editor’s note: Bengali is a term used by many in Burma to refer to both people of Bangladeshi origin and to Rohingya Muslims, a mostly stateless minority living primarily in Arakan State].
They did not eat at Arakan villages for fear that information might be leaked. Again, they asked Bengalis to guide them, and they used them and the local militias for guidance and security.
In the past, the Burma Army even made Arakanese people misunderstand Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, [by leading Arakanese people to believe that she supported the Rohingya population] but even then, rational Arakanese people did not believe them. They know what is right and what is wrong.
Again, [Burmese troops] deceived the Bengalis into believing that they would be able to create their own militia, then they used them to fight with us by proxy. We have heard that they gave firearms to Bengalis in villages in Buthidaung close to the border and asked them to inform them when we came.
You mean the government manipulated them during the previous conflicts and riots?
There are political manipulators, and we are weakening in every aspect. We are subjected to political decoys and economic crises. We don’t have political immunity from the consequences of all of this [conflict] and our people had to suffer a lot.
What is your view on the Muslim population of Arakan State?
We value and respect human existence. We are obliged to find solutions for problems. We just can’t bring antagonism to the forefront. So we should not rely on our emotions in resolving problems. We may take decisive action if we need to. And we stick to our principle of safeguarding our national security and our national interests.
If you think it is the problem of Arakan State alone, you are wrong. It is a problem that stretches between Southeast Asia and South Asia, from the Bay of Bengal to the Malacca Strait. All will suffer the consequences of this. And we have to find an answer with great caution and make sure they [Rohingya and Bagladeshis] do not suffer. But we can no longer afford to let our national interests be harmed.
What do you think of the ‘Interfaith Marriage Law’ that was drafted after the riots in Arakan State?
There are unreasonable things in that law. We prefer forward thinking to conservative thoughts, since we believe we can build something which can be more secure for our people. I don’t oppose it, but I don’t agree with everything in that law.
What do you think about Arakan State Chief Minister Maj-Gen Maung Maung Ohn?
He is a soldier performing his duties. He is carrying out the instructions of his superiors. He knows what people like and he can keep people in order. There are many things that can be done to make people happy in Arakan State, for example, doing development work instead of giving people political rights.
What do you expect from the forthcoming general elections?
We support our Arakan National Party, but I see it is not doing well. I don’t want to criticize the internal affairs of the party, but, it would be better if the organizational structure were stronger. No matter who would [enter the race] from [elsewhere in] Burma, Arakanese people will win the election in our Arakan Sate. Even if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi contested in our state, she would not win, I dare say. Speaking as an ordinary Arakan man, I would just give them second place after our [Arakan] national interests.