Myanmar’s Arakan Army (AA) ethnic armed organization (EAO) has been beefing up its administrative and judiciary mechanisms in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state during the past 10 months of a cease-fire negotiated with the army before its military coup. On Aug. 1, the AA announced that the people of Rakhine state can now report all crimes and land disputes, as well as other legal issues, to its political branch, the United League of Arakan (ULA). According to Pe Than, a top Rakhine politician and a former lower house MP from Arakan National Party’s Myebon township, the AA now controls 80 percent of the administrative and judiciary sectors in Rakhine state, while military junta’s administrative mechanism is almost completely collapsed.
Myanmar’s military seized power from the democratically elected government on Feb. 1 and embarked on a campaign of brutal repression against anti-junta protests, killing at least 1,146 civilians and arresting 6,914, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The junta is now reinforcing troop levels in Rakhine state in response to the AA’s growing influence, but Pe Than told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the Rakhine people will never settle for anything less than complete independence from Myanmar.
RFA: Can you first tell us about the current situation in Rakhine state?
Pe Than: The issue in Rakhine state is a bit different from the problems in the mainland. Tensions still exist between the military and the ULA/AA and renewed fighting could occur any day. We do not have any stability here yet. The military has not accepted any part of the demands for self-determination made by the AA.
RFA: How much control does the AA have in Rakhine state now?
Pe Than: The AA has now gained control of large swathes of the region and is exercising administrative and judicial powers. Apart from the cities and major towns and areas where there is a large military presence, I should say the AA is in control of about 80 percent of the region. Frankly, the military junta’s administrative machinery has totally collapsed. The judiciary sector does not work at all. The police have no powers, and the courts are not working. No one files complaints or cases at police stations. Even in the major towns, the police are constantly on their toes and cannot perform their duties properly. As the courts have failed in their work, the responsibility of the rule of law has now fallen on the shoulders of the AA in most areas. Only the AA can now mete out justice.
RFA: Do you think Rakhine state will become an autonomous region soon?
Pe Than: Autonomy and self-determination are goals for staying in the union. Otherwise, the goal becomes a totally independent state. Previous governments in the country have given the ethnic people only a small portion of the rights they deserved. People have been demanding a federal system all along, but these demands have been ignored and lately, people are talking about independence. The AA is now a formidable force and has the full support of the local people. And so, we might be seeing major battles that would bring about a decisive result.
Self-determination and independence
RFA: Are the people of Rakhine state hoping for an independent state?
Pe Than: Most people want self-determination. Rakhine was once an independent country that became colonized for 137 years. People lost all their basic rights, natural resources in the region were exploited and Rakhine state became one of the poorest states in the country. They are now yearning for self-determination and, if possible, total independence.
RFA: Do you mean a totally independent country?
Pe Than: That is the dream of the people. And they believe that the AA leaders will find a way that would bring the least harm to the people in pursuing that dream.
RFA: What do you think of the current situation in Myanmar?
Pe Than: The conflict between the junta and the [shadow] National Unity Government (NUG) is getting bigger and bigger, and the sufferings and grievances of the people are also growing day by day. The military will use its full might to protect its interests, but the other side is not going to back down. Since political dialogue is off the table, a civil war will break out soon and I think the country will be ruined.
RFA: What do you think of the Muslim population in Rakhine state?
Pe Than: The Muslims are the second largest population in our state. If we want to establish a new state, we cannot ignore the existence of them. We won’t be able to solve the problem if Rakhines and Muslims cannot live together in harmony. I think the ULA/AA will be able to handle the situation and find a solution. The ULA/AA has already invited Muslim leaders to take part in the administration and judiciary sectors and I think an understanding between the two peoples will overcome the existing problem. The previous governments had played one against the other to create problems and now I think the ULA/AA is working hard to find a solution for the development of Rakhine state.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane.