The Arakan or the Rakhine state of Myanmar is a close neighbour of Bangladesh and has been so in the past. With the influx of the Rohingyas, this state has placed Bangladesh in a worrisome predicament. The Arakan Army is a significant political and military factor there. General Twan Mrat Naing is the commander in chief of the Arakan Army. On 19 December, he spoke over Zoom from the Kachin state to three journalists and researchers of Bangladesh on the situation in Arakan and Myanmar.
General Naing, greetings and thank you for giving us time.
I am very cautious when speaking to English-speaking journalists. Our situation is very complex. Our work strategies are also very complex. English is not our language. It is not easy to present our statements to the people of other countries in that language and it can be risky too. And we don't even want to highlight certain strategic matters outside unless we can make any strategic gains by doing so. I even thought twice before speaking to you all. You might ask me about the Rohingya issue. We refer to them as the 'Muslim inhabitants of Rakhine'. You all are our neighbours. I do not want to create any misunderstandings in Bangladesh.
Tell us about the present situation in Arakan. What is the Arakan Army doing there? Where is the situation headed?
We have an unofficial ceasefire with Burma's central army at the moment. The situation was extremely turbulent before the ceasefire. Other than a couple of battalions, they couldn't enter any area. That will give you an idea of the strength of our presence and our resistance. The ceasefire prevailing now is a military one. There have been no official talks or agreement between the two sides. We sometimes have virtual meetings. They raise objections about our administration and our judicial activities.
We are running a sort of administration in Rakhine. Our judicial system has also been built up there. We have established a tax system. This is nothing new in Burma. Almost all the ethnic groups involved in armed struggle run their own administration in their respective areas. As the war is suspended at the moment, we are focusing on consolidating our position in the areas we have taken over.
Is there a difference in your control over North and South Arakan?
We are basically in the Arakan townships, not in the towns. We can enter there too, we have the strength. But that will create more damage. The Burma military is extremely cruel and we don't want to give them any chance.
Bangladesh emerged in 1971. India and many other countries recognised it. But the situation is different in this region now. The powerful countries in the vicinity are not wanting to see a new state emerging here
In 2020 you once said that it is a dream of the Arakan Army to see your flag fly and hear your national anthem play at the Olympics. Does that mean you are fighting for an independent Arakan?
We have not declared independence. But we indirectly speak to the Rakhine people about our political objectives. More than recognition from outside, we are fighting for internal sovereignty. We are taking the regional and international circumstances into consideration. Bangladesh emerged in 1971. India and many other countries recognised it. But the situation is different in this region now. The powerful countries in the vicinity are not wanting to see a new state emerging here. The powerful countries fear that if such a state emerges, this may instigate the separationists in their own countries.
So basically are you wanting autonomy?
We certainly want independence, ultimately, but that calls for many steps at first. It is all a matter of time.
In 2020 you claimed to have 20,000 cadres and you also said you want to increase this to 70,000. When will you reach this target?
We actually have around 30,000 soldiers. It is not easy to procure military equipment. That is a tough task. When you have a political goal, you have to make all the other things possible. We need at least 30,000 to 50,000 soldiers to retrieve the land of our forefathers. The people too are enthusiastic about being involved with us. I can say this much -- the situation is in our favour but it is difficult to say when we will attain our goal.
You said that the Arakan Army has established an administration and a judiciary. That indicates you all have gone well ahead towards your political aim. You also said you all are not everywhere in Arakan. So where is your judiciary? How do you run it?
We have our own police force. If you have credibility among the people, you have to have a judicial system. You have to resolve their conflicts in a fair and just manner. That is our experience.
We want to work towards our own objectives. It is our strategic position to remain at a distance from the ongoing struggle for democracy now in Burma. We may not be directly involved in it, but our affiliated organisations are part of the struggle
Why is the Arakan Army absent from the anti-coup pro-democracy movement in Myanmar? What stance have you adopted in this regard?
Our main objective is 'Rakhita', to win back our lost sovereignty. The previous generations in Arakan wasted a lot of time in following and supporting the Burmese. Since World War II, the politicians of Arakan have worked in collaboration with the Burmese including General Aung San. But Arakan did not receive its due political share. Arakan was even involved in the 1988 movement to restore democracy, but failed to reap any benefits. After such experiences, we no longer want to follow the Burmese. We want to work towards our own objectives. It is our strategic position to remain at a distance from the ongoing struggle for democracy now in Burma. We may not be directly involved in it, but our affiliated organisations are part of the struggle. However, I would say that we have taken a smart stance. And that is why though there is unrest all over Burma, Arakan is relatively peaceful.
Let's turn to another issue. What thoughts does the Arakan Army have about the Rohingya problem?
We recognise the human rights and citizen rights of the Rohingyas. But this question about such a problem can't be answered in just a few words. It is such a big problem that even as an independent country, Bangladesh won't be able to resolve alone. It is a big issue to us too. We are eager to work with Bangladesh on this issue.
It will take time to resolve this problem, especially with the arguments on both sides regarding the 'Rohingya' identity of the Rohingya people. How a population will identify themselves is certainly a fundamental question of human rights. We have commitment to the fundamental issues of human rights. At the same time, the views of different groups of the population in the same area are also important. The 'Rohingya identity' was not heard of much before 1950. When it emerged, history also was brought into the picture. The history of the Arabs was brought up. The Rakhines then wondered, what about the history of our forefathers? As it is the Arakans had lost everything to the Burmese opponents other than their history. So they too strongly clutched to their history. The Rakhines have a strong sense of nationalism. That is how a division emerged between the main two groups of the population within Arakan. This happened for political reasons. The Arakan Army's stance now is, as we are all on one side against the Burmese, we want all in Arakan to remain together. Bangladesh is a major party to the solution of this problem.
Have you all every had contact with the Bangladesh government regarding a solution to the Rohingya crisis?
We have made several efforts, but we cannot say we have received the response we hoped for. My decision is to discuss the matter with the policymakers of Bangladesh. We are simply waiting for a favourable response.
We recently saw that Myanmar's central minister for rehabilitation visited Rakhine. It was also reported in the media that there were talks about rehabilitating the Rohingyas.
I would say that the situation is still not conducive for this. The Burmese military does not have any steady or stable position on any matter. They can change their minds at any time. Can they be trusted? The return of the Rohingyas is a matter to be welcomed, but the ceasefire here may end at any time. The Tatmadaw themselves have still not backed away from their position.
But Arakan is relatively peaceful at present.
It is true that Rakhine is relatively peaceful compared to other areas in Burma, but there is no guarantee that it will remain so. If the Rohingya community wants to come, let them come. We are not against this repatriation. It is only natural for them to want to return. After all, their condition in the refugee camps is not good. But will they get any different circumstance once they return?
We hear about different Rohingya organisations like ARSA and RSO. How are their working relations with the Arakan Army?
We are under pressure from many countries regarding these matters. No one wants to keep connection with any organisation marked as 'terrorist'. Even we were included on the list of terrorist organisations. Only a few months ago, after the temporary ceasefire, the Burma government removed our name from the terrorist list.
India, China, everyone asks us if we assist ARSA. They caution us about this. But I can say this, there are attempts to get Muslim groups involved with our organisation at various levels. This happened in our police force. We have taken them in. There is a similar move in the judiciary and the administration. They need us because the Arakan Army want to bring in the Muslim majority villages within its administrative jurisdiction too. But last week a Muslim under our training fled along with arms and went to ARSA. This created a dent in our trust in them within the organisation.
There are many second generation highly educated Rohingya young people in various countries around the world. They are speaking out. Are you interested in them?
I am not too interested in this because we are not prepared to include them. If they want to help us, that is very good. But from experience, we see that those educated in the West have a poor understanding of how things are on ground. They have a different view from the revolutionary activists in the field. The western educated youth have only learnt to raise questions. But it is quite a different matter to actually work on the ground.
We know that the Arakan Army has an understanding with China. Have you discussed the Rohingya issue with them?
China is a huge issue. We are located near Yunnan. We have contact with the security authorities of that country there, but not with the policymakers. They sometimes ask about the refugee problem with Bangladesh. It is very true that we have to maintain very good ties with Bangladesh. This is one of our priorities.
In some local newspaper of Bangladesh it was reported that some people from here have gone to the Chin province. Does the Arakan Army have any link with these areas?
The Arakan Army has presence along the border. We are aware of the situation on the other side. But we also know that the Bangladesh government in no way wants us to interfere within their border. We respect Bangladesh's wishes. We want good relations with Bangladesh and we particularly want the people of Bangladesh to know the truth about our struggle. They can give thought to relations with us, be that political, economic or in all spheres.
* The interview, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir