By Carlos Sardiña Galache
Bangkok Desk, Apr 3 (efe-epa).- The conflict between the Myanmar Army and the guerrilla of the Arakan Army (AA) in the country’s west has intensified in recent weeks, despite the call in late March by the Secretary-General of the United Nations of a world truce to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Antonio Guterres’s request has been echoed by several Burmese civil organizations and on Wednesday a group of foreign diplomats – including those from the European Union, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany and France – issued a statement in which they also called for the cessation of hostilities to fight the novel coronavirus.
At the moment, only 20 cases of COVID-19 have been detected, although the number of tests carried out has been minimal in a country with a very poor health system. The government has taken extreme measures such as prohibiting the entry of commercial flights, but every day Clashes take place in the north of Arakan state (Rakhine) and the south of the adjacent Chin state.
The fatalities or injuries from this barely visible conflict – which flared up from January last year – is not exactly known, but it has already displaced more than 60,000 people from their homes in Arakan and Chin, and everything seems to indicate the war is becoming increasingly violent.
“The Burmese army is losing ground to the AA and as they get frustrated they are using more brutal means. The Tatmadaw seems to be becoming less concerned about civilian casualties from for example random shelling of villages,” UN official who works in Sittwe (Arakan’s capital) and asked to remain anonymous told EFE on Thursday.
“The Tatmadaw seems to see the COVID 19 as an opportunity to commit more abuses while the world is distracted,” he added.
The government imposed an internet blockade Feb. 5 in the remote region where the war is being fought, after having lifted it months before, and humanitarian aid agencies have restricted their freedom of movement, so there is little information about what happens on the ground.
In addition, Myanmar authorities detained two local journalists this week for interviewing members of the AA.
One of them is the editor of Voice of Myanmar magazine, Nay Myo Lin, and t was arrested Monday in Mandalay for interviewing an AA spokesman; while the other is the director of the Narinjara portal, specialized in news from Arakan, and was arrested Tuesday in the state capital.
To accentuate the news blackout, the transport and communications ministry ordered mobile phone operators to block access to 221 web pages, according to a statement issued Monday by the Telenor company.
The arrests of journalists and the blocking of web pages took place after the Government designated the AA as a “terrorist organization” on March 23.
The AA was created in 2009 by a group of predominantly Buddhist and majority Rakhine ethnic Arakan students to fight for state autonomy, like so many other armed groups representing the country’s ethnic minorities. Many have been fighting against the central government since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, and some are allies of the AA.
“The government’s designation of the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization does not give the authorities many additional legal powers, and was likely intended to stigmatize and isolate the group and its leaders. (…) All of this suggests that the prospects for a negotiated ceasefire or political solution to the conflict are further away than ever, “Richard Horsey, an analyst based in Burma, told EFE.
Only one other group of dozens operating in Burma is currently classified as an extremist organization by the Government: the Rohingya Salvation Army of Arakan (ARSA). It took up arms to fight for the rights of the predominantly Rohingya Muslim minority, whom authorities deny citizenship and qualify as “Bengali immigrants.”
After a series of ARSA attacks in August 2017 in northern Arakan, the Burmese Army launched a brutal military campaign after which the majority of the Rohingya population, more than 730,000, fled to neighboring Bangladesh. For it, the military and the government face an accusation of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. EFE-EPA