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In Efforts to Stoke Division in Arakan State, Junta Resorts to Old Tactics
12 Aug 2023
Written By Maung Tun Kyaing
Since a 2020 ceasefire with the Myanmar military, the United League of Arakan (ULA), the political wing of the Arakan Army, has expanded its parallel administration, including a judiciary, revenue department and public security offices. Apart from this, the Arakanese ethnic armed group has also made efforts to restore racial harmony in Arakan State, which has been riven by sectarian strife for years.
In the early days of the 2021 coup, Arakan State was relatively stable due to the ceasefire, which was reached in November of the previous year. AA chief Twan Mrat Naing invited Muslims to join the administrative apparatus of the ULA in August 2021, which political analysts say contributed significantly to bettering relations between Arakan State’s Arakanese and Muslim communities, the latter of which makes up the second largest population in Arakan State after Arakanese Buddhists.
Many Muslims have since turned to the administrative and judicial systems of the ULA. It is difficult to estimate what percentage of Arakan State’s Muslims have accepted the AA’s rule and jurisdiction.
“We don’t call [junta] police when there are crimes [or disputes] in our village. They don’t bother to come and settle things. We have to call the AA,” said a Muslim man named Mahmoud Khasen.
Muslim community leaders in Arakan State have welcomed the AA chief’s outreach. They say they want to live in harmony with those of other races and religions.
“Muslims had not been able to go to town, and their movement was restricted, since 2012. So, when the AA made the move [to invite Muslims to join its administration], it was also welcomed by Arakanese communities. The two communities have resumed trading now,” said the Muslim writer U Aung Khin.
“Certain people have achieved political gains from religious and racial conflicts in Arakan State,” he added.
Adding to the challenge of harmonising these two communities, many Muslims were killed and many of their villages were torched in Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Maungdaw townships in 2017 during so-called “area clearance operations” by the Myanmar military. More than 700,00 Muslims were forced to flee their homes and crossed the border into Bangladesh. They still cannot return.
A Junta Propaganda Campaign
The regime has been creating and spreading propaganda since the coup, disseminating misinformation and fake news across the country, including Arakan State. The regime has been monitoring improved ties between Muslim and Arakanese communities in both urban and rural areas, as well as between Muslim and Arakanese students.
Observers say the junta’s media mouthpieces have been spreading fake news designed to divide Arakanese and Muslim people, even after the latest ceasefire was reached between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in November 2022. The regime is mainly using social media platforms — particularly Facebook and Telegram — to spread propaganda.
Among the social media pages that spread propaganda are Rakhine Daily, Mayu Htar Nay, May Yu Hitt Taing, Western 24 News and Doror Waddy Media. Rakhine Daily mainly reports about the activities of the regime and its administration in Arakan State. Meanwhile, the May Yu Hitt Taing social media presence is also publishing hate speech, according to Arakan media monitoring those pages.
Ko Kaung Myat Naing, chief editor of Border News Agency (BNA), said: “There are various pages spreading propaganda for the regime. The regime is sowing discord because it does not want to see social harmony between Arakanese and Muslim communities.”
Every day, the junta’s propaganda machine spreads misinformation about Development Media Group (DMG), Narinjara, Western News and BNA, accusing the news agencies reporting on the regime’s war crimes and human rights violations of feeding lies to the public.
One of the pages, ‘Doror Waddy Media’, has been publishing false and misleading reports about Muslim communities and the Arakan Army. Some of the headlines it published in the first week of May alone included, “Armed AA troops arrive in post-primary school in Say Oh Kya (Muslim) village, Buthidaung Township, villagers flee out of fear”, “AA compiles list of shops and motorbikes owned by Muslims in Buthidaung”, “AA troops temporarily deployed in mosques in northern Maungdaw”, and “AA seizes cattle from Muslim villages in northern Maungdaw”.
Its May 26 report accused the ULA/AA of “forcibly asking for donations in Ngan Chaung (Muslim) village in northern Maungdaw on the pretext of helping storm victims.” Another report accused AA fighters of swearing at and beating villagers in Doe Tan (Muslim) village in Buthidaung Township on June 18. In all of its reports, the AA is referred to as ‘hyena.’ Similarly, Western 24 News also publishes misleading reports about the relationship between Muslim and Arakanese communities, and between Muslims and the AA.
DMG attempted to contact Arakan State Minister for Security and Border Affairs Colonel Kyaw Thura regarding the matter, but he could not be reached.
Analysts say the military junta’s propaganda is trying to inflame tensions between the Arakanese and Muslim communities, which are currently building trust.
“The military junta is looking for a crack to create tension between Arakanese and Muslims. The junta is blaming the Arakan Army for the problems in Arakan State. The junta is manufacturing evidence that the ULA/AA is treating Muslims unfairly and is creating bloodshed,” criticised U Pe Than, a veteran Arakanese politician.
Pressure on Muslims in Arakan State
When relations between Arakanese, Muslims and the AA began to improve, the Myanmar military put heavy pressure on the Muslim community. Since 2021, the Myanmar military has summoned village elders and village officials from Muslim villages to warn them about the crimes reported by Muslims in the ULA/AA courts.
The military’s Kyauktaw-based Light Infantry Battalion No. 375 summoned administrators and community elders from Muslim villages such as Paikthae, Pauktawpalaung, Gotpudaunt, Shwelai and Inbaryi in Kyauktaw Township in September 2022 and warned them not to file complaints with the courts set up by the ULA/AA.
The military also summoned the in-charges from some Muslim villages in Buthidaung Township in September 2022, asked them about AA activities near their villages, and threatened them not to provide financial assistance to the ethnic armed organisation.
Authorities imposed travel restrictions on Muslims in Arakan State following inter-communal conflicts in 2012. Muslims thereafter have largely been required to seek approval from authorities to travel from one village to another or one township to another within Arakan State, and they are effectively barred from leaving the state. Muslims from Thechaung and Thetkelpyin villages in Sittwe Township are not even allowed to travel to downtown Sittwe.
“We have been living at the displacement camp since the inter-communal conflicts in 2012. We are not allowed to travel freely. We face difficulties when we go to downtown Sittwe. We are restricted from going to downtown Sittwe,” said a Muslim from the Thetkelpyin IDP camp in Sittwe Township.
Muslims in townships controlled by the Arakan Army such as Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya and Pauktaw, are allowed to move freely, and there is interaction between Arakanese and Muslims in business and social affairs, and at traditional festivals.
“We visit Arakanese villages and Arakanese people visit Muslim villages. The harmony between the two ethnic groups is more important than conflict,” said U Maung Kyaw Hla, an in-charge of Thayetcho (Muslim) Village in Mrauk-U Township.
The majority of Muslims support the AA, but there are some Muslims who are inclined toward the junta.
Hopes for a Harmonious Future
Now, some are saying that new ideas are developing among Arakanese and Muslims young, old and middle-aged. Starting in 2021, Arakanese and Muslim students have joined together at Sittwe University to create harmony between the two groups.
The chairman of Sittwe University’s student union, Min Ko Aung, said: “Students at Sittwe University now do not have the same views as before. Muslim and Arakanese students have good relations. But we haven’t reached the point where we can change the entire mindset.”
In the past, the inter-communal dynamics between Arakanese and Muslims in Arakan State were not spared from the planning and coordination of the ideas and prejudices of Burmese and Arakanese politicians, religious leaders, and military groups behind the scenes.
After the Arakan Army emerged, Arakanese people and Muslims in Arakanese society have improved relations and are showing a desire to live peacefully together.
“Depending on the attitude of ULA/AA, both Muslims and Arakanese have learned to change their attitudes from the past,” U Pe Than said.