Myanmar Military, Arakan Army Confirm Indirect Talks as Some Refugees Head Home
2020-11-30 -- Myanmar's military and the rebel Arakan Army are holding indirect talks through mediators to try to build on a three-week lull in fighting in Rakhine state since elections, spokesmen for the warring sides told RFA.
While contacts through a third party attempt to put an end to a two-year-long war between rebel troops and government forces that has killed more than 300 civilians and displaced about 226,000 others, some war refugees have already returned to villages, in the face of landmines and other unexploded ordnance.
Leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy won a second five-year mandate in Nov. 8 general elections that were followed by an NLD outreach to ethnic-based political parties, gestures toward peace talks from the country's powerful military, and three weeks without fighting in Rakhine state.
Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun described the recent developments as creating "very good conditions" in a news conference Nov. 27.
"Now, it has been 20 days without armed combats in entire region. For us, the soldiers, every minute that the war stops is beneficial to us. I think it would be the same for the local civilians," he said of the Rakhine state conflict.
"It is a big deal that we have avoided any armed combat for over half of a month. It is good for compliance on both sides. We hope things will get better from here," said Zaw Min Tun.
The spokesman didn't specify the groups acting as intermediaris, but on Nov. 25 he told RFA told RFA that lower-level personnel are in talks with the AA through unofficial intermediaries such as community leaders.
"The most important thing is to stop the gunfire in the places where there were armed engagements. It takes both sides to stop gunfire.
"To achieve that goal, it requires both troops on the ground to talk. Only when the troops on the ground cooperate can the policy makers be able to work together," said Zaw Min Tun.
Khine Thukha, spokesman for the AA, which is fighting for more autonomy for ethnic Rakhines, confirmed the mutual ceasefire to RFA's Myanmar Service.
"There has been a mutual ceasefire on both sides to build trust between troops. We have been negotiating through the middlemen to go forward to the next step of meeting for peace talks in person," he told RFA.
The government declared the AA an illegal organization and terrorist group in March â€“ a designation that will have to be removed to advance talks.
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe said there are precedents for moving from a ceasefire to more serious talks and for shedding the illegal organization label.
"There are many problems in Rakhine State, and above all, securing a ceasefire agreement should be the first priority," he said.
"I think the rest of the problems in Rakhine could be resolved one by one once there is peace agreement," Maung Maung Soe told RFA.
The volunteers helping refugees displaced by fighting in Rakhine state told RFA that many who had fled their villages during the armed conflict are now starting to return to their homes in war-torn Rathedaung, Kyaukphyu, Ponnagyun and Mrauk-U Townships.
The Rakhine state government has recently begun collecting data on those who fled armed conflict in the state in order to start bringing some people home.
The Rakhine government is "collecting information on the people who cannot go home," said spokesman Win Myint.
"We need to know their problems," he told RFA. "We will figure out how we can help these people who cannot go home."
More than 1,000 families from 22 villages from Paletwa and Kyauktaw townships are taking shelter in Nyaung Chaung refugee camp in Kyauktaw township, and many say it is too early to go home.
Three of the 22 villages--Tin Ma Gyi, Upper Tin Ma and Pyaing Taing -- have been burned down entirely while in other villages, a portion of the houses were destroyed by fire.
"I cannot go home. My village has been burned down. My home is gone," said Ma Hla Yee from Tin Ma Gyi village.
"I am struggling to survive here but I cannot go home either," said the widow, who lost 25 cows and her supplies of rice and potatoes.
Oo San Thaung said he lost his home and rice supplies and feared returning because of landmines and remaining troops near his community in Tin Ma Gyi village.
"We want to return only when there is consistent peace and conditions are safe for us.
"There are still troops in the area. We are worried that our lives will be in danger again."
Khine Myo Aung, the person in charge of the Nyaung Chaung refugee camp, said those displaced by war face huge challenges.
"The winter months have arrived. We need enough warm clothes for seniors and children. We need blankets too. We need many other essentials," he told RFA.
As many as 3,000 displaced villagers have already returned home on their own, said Zaw Zaw Tun of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, an NGO which helps war refugees.
"They have returned because there is no more combat. They have been following the news from their home villages," he told RFA.
"But we know that there are no guarantees that the armed conflicts are completely over," said Zaw Zaw Tun.
"We are concerned that they took the risk and returned home, especially since there are many land mines in the area surrounding the village."
Reported by Thet Su Aung, Nayrein Kyaw and Ni Min Tun for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
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