Myanmar Insurgents Say They Kidnapped Ruling Party Candidates

Western Myanmar insurgents claimed responsibility for kidnapping three candidates from State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). On 14 October, armed Arakan Army (AA) operatives overran a campaign event in southern Rakhine. When speaking with Agence France Press, witness and NLD supporter Thant Zin Phyo reported the insurgents beating him and 10 others before abducting two women and a man.

Additional witnesses observed the operatives calling the hostages “traitors” and confiscating cell phones, party flags, and event funds. The AA said the abductions were intended to draw attention to the NLD’s collaboration with Myanmar’s Tatmadaw military. Since 2018, they have waged an insurgency against the Tatmadaw for their “atrocities” on civilians and religious minorities and greater Rakhine autonomy. Hostilities have caused hundreds of deaths and injuries and displaced over 200,000 people on both sides. The election committee said over half the Rakhine polling stations would cease operations, due to instability in various areas caused by violence. On Monday, four students representing the Rakhine State Students Union were arrested after marching through the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe.

According to U.S. News & World Report, the AA said in an online statement that the hostages would be “detained and investigated as required by circumstances until a certain time.” However, they proposed freeing them in exchange for the NDL’s release of students and other “innocent” detainees who protested the war. Myo Nyunt, from the NLD central executive committee, responded in a phone call with Reuters, “[I]f they make demands in this way, it would be difficult for us to comply.” In addition to AA claims of “collaborating and covering up war crimes committed by the Myanmar Army,” Amnesty International urged the United Nations Security Council’s action against Myanmar amid evidence of indiscriminate firing at civilians.

They reported testimonies, photographs, and videos displaying the Tatmadaw’s “disregard for civilian suffering” in areas at the center of hostilities. Although polls suggest an NLD victory, there is skepticism about the vote’s credibility. Rohingya Muslims—many residing in the Rakhine state—are denied citizenship, preventing them from voting or running for office. Asia director Brad Adams said Suu Kyi’s decision to hold an election excluding their participation is “appalling” and that “real democracy cannot flourish in an apartheid regime” against the Rohingya.

The kidnapping demonstrates ongoing conflict in Myanmar. Jonathan Gorvett of Dispatch- Foreign Policy wrote that the AA harbors resentment since 2015’s elections. Despite many Rakhine people sharing ethnic relations with their Burmese co-religionist Buddhists, they voted for the region’s nationalist parties. With Burmese reigning in the capital, they expected Rakhine representation at the regional level. However, following the NLD victory, Suu Kyi appointed the party’s chief minister, U Nyi Pu to govern the Rakhine. Laetitia van den Assum, a member of  a United Nations commission in Rakhine to investigate violence, said Suu Kyi  “didn’t trust anyone,” and seeking control “put someone in charge who she could tell what to do.” She concluded that this “alienated the Rakhine even more.” While the AA’s resentment is justifiable, it does not validate kidnapping the NLD candidates. Nonetheless, their aggressive actions are an escalation in resentment with disregard for their sovereignty. To reduce tension, Suu Kyi should accept the AA’s proposal and release the detainees.

Burmese historian Thant Myint-U observed the Arakanese people’s idea that Suu Kyi’s appointment indicated the failure of democratic politics, and that the AA “stepped into this vacuum.” In December 2018, although the Tatmadaw announced a month-long ceasefire in five Myanmar regions, they excluded the Rakhine, claiming to prevent the AA from gaining “a foothold in the area.” They also designated the AA a terrorist organization one month later. Military Major-General Nyi Nyi recalled Suu Kyi’s orders to “effectively, quickly, and clearly” defeat them. He also recounted her suggestion that “she wanted to avoid being accused of religious prejudice” for attacking militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), “but not ‘Buddhist rebels’.” The conflict escalated in August 2017,  when Rohingya militants attacked multiple Myanmar police posts. The Tatmadaw responded by burning villages and attacking civilians. In the first month of fighting, over 6,000 Rohingya, including 730 children and were killed. Over 700,00 Rohingya are currently displaced.

Co-founding the NLD in 1988 and placed under house arrest for opposing the ruling totalitarian military junta, Suu Kyi became a renowned human rights advocate. However, her reputation has declined due to allegations of overlooking genocide. While the AA’s tactics are inexcusable, she should acknowledge their desires for autonomy and accept their proposal. She should also allow Rakhine candidates’ regional representation and provide the Rohingya people’s citizenship. If Suu Kyi can show respect for Rakhine autonomy and the Rohingya people, perhaps the insurgent militants will be less inclined to violence, and embrace peaceful resolution. She must also change her authoritative strategies to build trust and establish relationships, as continued aggression will only escalate the conflict.