RANGOON — At a conference in Arakan State’s Kyaukphyu Township in recent days, Arakanese Buddhist politicians, monks and community leaders have called for the creation of an “Arakan National Defense Army” that would protect Buddhist residents from Muslim communities in the state, a conference organizer said.
The five-day Arakan National Conference, which wrapped up on Thursday, was the biggest gathering of ethnic Arakanese representatives in decades and was held amid an ongoing, deadly conflict, which since 2012 has pitted the state’s Arakanese Buddhists majority of about 2.3 million people against the approximately one-million strong Rohingya Muslim community in northern Arakan.
Nyi Nyi Maung, a spokesperson from Arakan National Conference, said the majority of the participants supported a proposal by Buthidaung Township representative Tun Aung Thein to ask the central government for permission to create the Arakan National Defense Army.
“This decision came out from our analysis of the current situation in our region,” he said. “This decision represents all people in Arakan and the government has to seriously consider it.”
Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann and the President Office’s Minister Aung Min, who is usually tasked with holding peace talks with ethnic armed groups, attended the conference in recent days.
Nyi Nyi Maung said Arakanese participants were unsatisfied with current security measures, in particular in the northern Arakan townships of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, where the majority of the population is Muslim.
The regions, as well as other conflict-affected townships around the state capital Sittwe, already have a heavy security presence, with armed police and military units controlling every aspect of the lives of the Rohingya, while also enforcing rules that segregate Buddhist and Muslim communities.
Arakanese nationalist groups and state authorities have been accused by international human rights groups of carrying out a campaign of organized violence against the Rohingya in order to ethnically cleanse Muslim communities from the state. Security forces stand accused of committing a range of rights abuses against the Muslim community with impunity.
Tun Aung Thein, the Buthidaung representative, said the Arakanese would now like to have their own armed units in order to protect Buddhist communities.
“In Buthidaung and Maungdaw, we have very few of our Arakanese people. Therefore, we have no security. Our people face threats almost every day even though there are police and army,” he said. “All representatives supported my proposal for our Arakan Army.”
The Arakanese in western Burma, like many other ethnic groups, faced repression by the Burman-dominated military during junta rule and formed their own armed rebel groups. The organizations are small and only have a few hundreds fighters based in Kachin rebel-controlled Laiza and Karen rebel areas near Mae Sot, Thailand.
Tun Aung Thein said these units could form the basis of a new Arakan National Defense Army, adding, “Our Arakan [rebel] army said they are ready to serve their people.”
Nyi Nyi Maung said all ethnic armed groups were in talks with the central government about political autonomy through the creation of a federal union and a local security role for their fighters. “This is why our Arakan people need to have our own army… this will help our future planning and will also help during the current conflict,” he said.
The Arakan National Conference also discussed how the impoverished state could gain greater benefits from the abundant oil and gas reserves located off its coast in the Bay of Bengal, which are currently being exported and used to fund central government coffers. “We held discussions about our natural resources and we want a 50 percent share for our people,” said Nyi Nyi Maung.
He said conference participants also planned for their leaders to exert influence in the Emergency Cooperation Committee (ECC), which will coordinate aid operations in the region and comprises state and central government officials, UN agencies and international NGOs, as well as Arakanese community leaders.
“We will work with the central government, which will let us monitor all work from humanitarian aid groups… Aid groups that have some problem with the locals have to come under control of the ECC,” Nyi Nyi Maung said.
Many Arakanese oppose international aid for the Rohingya and view the UN and NGOs as biased towards the Muslim community because of aid operations for the Rohingya, who suffer from a lack of access to food, health care and education.
In late March, Arakanese mobs attacked UN and NGO offices in Sittwe and ransacked about two dozen buildings, bringing aid operations to a temporary halt.
President Thein Sein in his monthly radio address on Thursday warned that the Sittwe riots were “universally unacceptable, and should never have happened. We will not accept this kind of behavior, and action against the offenders is being taken.”
He said the ECC had been set up to improve cooperation between “government, international organizations, and representatives of civil groups. The public will be consulted and closer attention given when carrying out peace, stability and development work in Rakhine State.”
Additional reporting by Khin Oo Thar.