Fresh clashes erupted earlier this month in Myanmar’s Rakhine State’s between Myanmar’s military (the Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA) and both sides suffered heavy casualties.
Clashes took place near the villages of Kyauktan and Aungtharzi in Rathedaung Township in the first week of October and continued for four days, MPs and residents told Northeast Now.
“The clashes were probably the fiercest so far in Rathedaung. Burmese military bombed Arakan Army positions with fighter jets and used artillery to pound rebel positions every day,” Rathedaung’s Upper House lawmaker U Khin Maung Latt said.
He said the two sides were fighting to gain control of a hill near Aungtharzi between Kyauktan and Hteeswe villages.
Villagers said some were caught up in the fighting because they had gone back after facing difficulties in camps set up for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Myanmar’s military spokesman, Major General Zaw Min Tun, said clashes happened because the AA blocked water and road transport to Sittwe, Rathedaung and Buthidaung townships.
“As they have blocked off water and road transport, the Tatmadaw was compelled to take strong measures to ensure the safety of vessels and vehicles,” Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun told Northeast Now.
Maj-Gen Tun said the Tatmadaw has successfully dislodged the AA troops on the hill near Hteeswe, from where the rebels were blocking the Ponnagyun-Rathedaung-Buthidaung road and the Sittwe-Buthidaung-Rathedaung waterway.
The AA attacked naval vessels six times in September, he said, admitting to heavy casualties on both sides during the battle to capture the hill.
Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun, however, warned that the Arakan Army was making efforts to regain control of the hill as the Nov parliament polls neared.
The AA said on Facebook claimed they have reoccupied the strategic hill from the military, killing at least thirty Tatmadaw soldiers.
The Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC) says that more than 40,000 people have been displaced by fighting since August in Rakhine State, with the number exceeding 22,000 in late September in northern Rakhine.
Myanmar’s military says it has extended a unilateral ceasefire several times for other ethnic rebel groups but exempted Rakhine State, saying it was fighting terrorists in the state.
India has taken much interest in the fighting in Rakhine because the Arakan Army has severely affected the India-backed Kaladan multi-modal transport project in Myanmar.
The Arakan Army has sourced Chinese-made weaponry in large quantities from the south-eastern Chinese coast, shipping it across South-east Asian waters to Bangladesh’s Wyakaung beach, from where they were portered into the Chittagong Hill Tracts and then Rakhine.
Bangladesh army has a thin presence in the Thanchi-Matamuhuri region of CHT and Arakan Army foot-and-mule convoys had easily dodged past cantonments like Alikadam, from where only limited patrolling is possible because of terrain and troop limitations.
The group, designated a terrorist organisation by Naypyitaw, clashed with Myanmarese troops on nearly 600 occasions last year, and a majority of the skirmishes occurred in close proximity to the $480-million Kaladan project.
There have also been at least four instances of Arakan Army cadres targeting the shipment of materials for the infrastructure project or attacking Myanmar troops providing security to the project.
In 2019, just as a key phase of the Kaladan project was nearing completion in Rakhine and Chin states, the Arakan Army shifted its area of operations to these regions.
The Arakan Army says India should recognise their group’s “struggle for independence” which analysts think is a veiled hint to pay them regular ‘taxes’ in exchange for ensuring safety and progress of the Kaladan project.