Myanmar military removes rebel Arakan Army from ‘terrorist’ list

Decision ‘removes distraction’ of fighting with armed rebels as crackdown continues with reports of more deaths on Thursday.

Myanmar Rakhine AA
The AA is fighting for greater autonomy in the western Rakhine state and over the past two years had become one of the most formidable forces in challenging the Myanmar army [File: Hein Htet/EPA]

Myanmar’s military government has removed the rebel Arakan Army (AA) from its list of “terrorist” groups because the faction has stopped attacks in order to help establish peace across the country, state media reported on Thursday.

“The designation of this group as a terrorist group is terminated from March 11, 2021,” the state-run Mirror Daily said, citing the end of attacks and the military’s vision of building “nationwide eternal peace”.

The decision comes as the army is struggling to contain daily protests against the February 1 coup during which it detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and senior members of the civilian government.

The AA is fighting for greater autonomy in western Rakhine state and over the past two years had become one of the most formidable forces in challenging the Myanmar army, also known as the Tatmadaw, which has been fighting various ethnic wars for some 70 years.

By removing the “terrorist” designation of the AA, the military also potentially removes another obstacle to its effort to hold onto power and crack down on the continuing protests.

Herve Lemahieu, a Myanmar expert from Australia’s Lowy Institute, said the move was probably because the military wanted to end the distraction of fighting the AA in the north so it could focus on the protests.

“The Tatmadaw has many enemies, they don’t want to operate on too many fronts at once and the most pressing front at this point in time is against the ethnic Burman majority in the major urban centres,” he told AFP news agency.

AA silent on coup

Under pressure from the military, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government placed the AA on the list of terrorist groups last year amid fighting that has displaced 200,000 mostly ethnic Rakhine people.

The AA, which agreed a temporary ceasefire in November, did not respond to a request by Reuters news agency for comment on the military’s decision.

Some of Myanmar’s more than two dozen ethnic armed groups have criticised the coup and even shown support for anti-coup protesters, but have not significantly stepped up military action or abandoned ceasefire deals.

The AA had not voiced support for the protesters and few protests have been reported in Rakhine, which came to global attention in 2017 when the military launched a brutal crackdown on the state’s mostly Muslim Rohingya forcing hundreds of thousands of people into neighbouring Bangladesh.

The AA’s ranks are largely drawn from the ethnic Rakhine and Buddhist majority in what was an independent kingdom until the 18th century.

During Myanmar’s decades of military rule, Rakhine became the second-poorest state in the country and continues to suffer even as enormous Chinese and Indian projects are approved in the area.

Elsewhere in the country, security forces continue to violently crack down on protests with reports of at least three deaths among protesters in Myaing township southwest of Mandalay.

Videos and photos shared on social media showed dozens of protesters running away as shots were heard in the background.

There were also reports of one death in Mandalay and one in Yangon on Thursday afternoon.

One video showed protesters carrying an injured man following a protest in North Dagon township in Yangon, and according to social media reports, some individuals had been shot.

Residents also took to the streets and around the town market in Dawei in Tanintharyi Region to protest against the military rule.

At least four civilians were also reportedly arrested in Aungban in Shan State.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies