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The Arakan Army responds to Rohingya abuse accusations in Myanmar

‘We suggest observers give balanced attention and concentration to all the horrible civilian loss of lives and properties all across Myanmar including Arakan.’ 

This is a close-up of Tun Myat Naing is the commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army (AA) and also the chairman of its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA). He is pictured wearing a military uniform looking to his right side. His elbows or on a table and his hands are clasped. Stringer/Reuters
Tun Myat Naing is the commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army (AA) and also the chairman of its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA).

The Arakan Army, one of the most prominent armed opposition groups challenging military rule in Myanmar, has been accused of committing abuses against the Rohingya minority and of spreading harmful rhetoric about them.

These allegations have been reported in international media and circulated on Rohingya-focused social media accounts.

Earlier this week, The New Humanitarian ran a story citing similar testimony from several members of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community in the coastal state of Rakhine, which has become a major battleground both for the ruling junta and armed groups like the Arakan Army.

We reached out to the United League of Arakan (ULA), the AA’s political wing, for comment, but its response – which was signed ULA/AA-HQ – did not arrive until after publication.

In the interest of transparency and fairness, we are now publishing the ULA/AA’s responses below, in full, as they were sent to our Asia editor, Ali M. Latifi:

The New Humanitarian: What is the Arakan Army's official policy in terms of the Rohingya people and their rights to citizenship in Myanmar? Does the AA consider the Rohingya to be rightful citizens of Myanmar?

ULA/AA: First of all, we would like to express our thanks to you for contacting us at this particularly challenging time coupled with the complexity and misunderstanding over the ground situations. 

Throughout our movement, we have already praised the role of [the] media in presenting our struggle and truth, and again, this time, we hope you express our explanations and stances rightfully and effectively. 

To address your question, we, the ULA/AA, as a resistance and liberation movement representing the region and people of Arakan, have always prioritised protecting the rights of all communities in the region regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. 

Technically speaking, the concept of citizenship is legally related to the existence of a state, but it is correct to say that we recognise and uphold the citizenship and human rights of the Muslim residents in Arakan. Indeed, we will try to protect the rights of all communities equally in the region.

Therefore, the individual Muslim residents as members of Arakan’s polity will surely have the same citizenship rights and duties as any other individuals under the ULA government.

The New Humanitarian: In areas where the AA is in control, or should the AA gain greater control in the country, would they reinstate the full citizenship rights of the Rohingya people?

ULA/AA: The Muslim residents of Arakan under our controlled area have enjoyed various degrees of rights with no discrimination based on racial or religious identities. As partly stated above, our policy toward the Muslim residents in the region is to provide equal governmental services including security, jurisdiction, and basic welfare including healthcare and education. 

As several domestic and international reports have mentioned, there has also been an unprecedented degree of progress in terms of constructive inter-community relations and social cohesion in our controlled areas since a few years ago.

But you can also see that these are mainly the activities of the Myanmar military (SAC authority) and some extremist elements of the Muslim community such as ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army], ARA [Arakan Rohingya Army], RSO [Rohingya Solidarity Organisation], and others who have always posed barriers on the road to peaceful and cohesive Arakan in the future.

We will not withdraw our commitment to serving all communities in the region including minority groups like Mro, Thet, and Khamei under our government.

The New Humanitarian: There are accusations that the AA forces had forced Rohingya in Rakhine state to evacuate their homes earlier this month and then set fire to and looted those homes. What is the AA's response to those claims?

ULA/AA: Upholding truth and verified information should be the keys to countering false narratives and disinformation. In the two northernmost townships of Arakan such as Maungdaw and Buthidaung where a sizable Muslim population is present, we have noticed that our military operations face some irregular challenges and misinterpretations. 

For instance, even if we properly did early warning and precautions in line with the International Humanitarian Law so that the non-combatant civilians could avoid harm and collateral damage, our actions were misinterpreted by some Muslim diaspora groups as forced relocations and mass displacement. 

Similar blame was also put on us when the joined forces of Myanmar military and Rohingya militants burned down several houses by Arakanese and non-Muslim groups in the town in addition to many others damaged due to the junta airstrikes and setting fires by the retreated Muslim militants to halt our offensives. We categorically reject all these one-sided and groundless accusations.

More importantly, the Buthidaung incident is not the only case of armed fighting where several houses in the urban centre have been burnt down for various reasons. You can observe how the civilian houses and public infrastructures in urban Pauktaw, Rambree, have been destroyed by the junta air strikes, artillery shelling, arson and drone attacks.

But it is also sad to see that some Muslim diaspora activists and interest groups attempted to bring particular attention only to the Buthidaung incident. 

We suggest observers give balanced attention and concentration to all the horrible civilian loss of lives and properties all across Myanmar including Arakan. 

We would reassure you again that any wrongdoings from our side will have respective consequences and actions for anyone who has committed any abuses and crimes.

The New Humanitarian: The AA has also been accused of forcibly conscripting hundreds of Rohingya men into their forces. Does the AA accept these claims? Or do you believe them to be untrue?

ULA/AA: The AA is now the largest de facto state-armed organisation in Myanmar in terms of manpower. As expressed before, we have now nearly 40,000 standing troops excluding several thousand auxiliary members. It means that we have a sufficient number of human resources to volunteer and actively serve in the military. 

Therefore, the news related to the forced conscription of Muslim residents or other community members is irrational and unfounded. As explained above, it could also be a problem of misinterpretation when our officers urged the Muslim IDPs not to go back to the towns and villages situated in the conflict zones. 

As an authority responsible for providing security to the civilian population, the ULA gives the same instructions in other parts of the state to all communities to refugees in only safe locations under our controlled areas. However, we are ready to address the accusations of forced recruitment if there are credible pieces of evidence to prove it. Please do not hesitate to contact us.

Currently, there are now more than 200,000 Muslim IDPs in our controlled areas, and we are providing security, shelter, food, medication, and clothes with all that we have. We want to ask the humanitarian actors to give more attention to this emergency issue.

Another point is that it is true that we do have some Muslim members in our police, judiciary, and civilian administration. We have adopted this policy in order to increase the local community participation in our governance and build mutual trust between the ULA and the concerned Muslim community. This is also our policy to select and appoint individual citizens into our bureaucracy based on merits and loyalty regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.

The New Humanitarian: Recently, leaders of the AA have made repeated references to Bangladeshis and Bengalis online. Some Rohingya see this as being in line with the decades-long accusations by various governments in Myanmar that the Rohingya are Bengali and therefore not full, rightful citizens of Myanmar. What is the AA's response to these claims? What is the intention behind the invocation of Bengalis and Bangladesh by AA leaders and supporters online?

ULA/AA: A part of the problem that we experience in trying to resolve the Muslim question in Arakan is the issue of stereotypes and exaggeration. Even a starter can understand the point that ‘Bangladeshis’ means the citizens of Bangladesh, a political identity, whereas ‘Bengalis’ means the ethnic people or a member of the Bengali ethnic-linguistic community, a cultural identity.

Indeed, you have several millions of Indian citizens who are ethnic Bengali enjoying full citizenship rights. On another front, Bangladesh also has ethnic Arakanese (Rakhine) as its citizens.

In one of our statements, we have publicly stated that as Arakanese people are a part of the Bangladeshi nation, Bengali is a part of the Arakan nation. We believe this is the simplest truth that every observer can freely understand.

At the same time, we also understand the situation of how the Burmese military and government suppressed the Muslim residents by designating the latter as ‘Bengali’. 

But, for us, it is quite the opposite. Someone can easily find primary evidence of how mass immigration took place during the British colonial administration from Bengal to Arakan. Besides, some evidence also shows the immigration of hundreds of thousands of post-colonial eras into Arakan, especially during the ‘War of Liberation’ in Bangladesh. 

Therefore, we need to understand why a particular group of people tries to claim as ‘Rohingya’ rather than ‘Bengali’.

*By portraying themselves by another name, many dishonest Muslim community members, especially in the diaspora and elite circles, believe that they can claim as an indigenous ethnic
group by erasing the evidence of colonial migration. From the perspective of the local native
indigenous population, ‘Rohingya’ is a political movement to separate a part of Arakan, our
fatherland, by destroying the integrity of our ancestral history.

We see it as a very unfaithful and dishonest act. However, it does not mean that we will never recognize the term ‘Rohingya’.

We want them to admit the historical facts of colonial migration in addition to the removal of politically motivated distorted historical claims harmful to other communities in the region.
At the same time, we also understand that the current Muslim residents of Arakan should also
have the legitimate right to claim citizenship even if they are the descendants of the colonial
or post-colonial immigrants.

The commitment of the ULA authority to protect equal citizenship and human rights for all individual residents in Arakan will never be wavered.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

*This section was added on 30 May after ULA/AA-HQ pointed out that the final page of its response was missing.

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