Myanmar on Friday condemned the Arakan Army's abduction of three candidates from the ruling party as they campaigned in war-torn Rakhine state last week as a threat to hard-won democracy and a sign the ethnic rebel group is not serious about peace talks.
The Arakan Army (AA) abducted Ni Ni May Myint, 31, who is seeking reelection to the lower house of parliament; Chit Chit Saw, 32, running for a seat in the upper house, and Min Aung, 48, a state parliamentarian seeking reelection, by speedboat on Oct. 14, three weeks before national elections.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates were seized on Phaung Khar Island in Taungup township, far south of the theater of the war in Rakhine state between the Myanmar military and the AA that erupted in late 2018.
The AA has said the abductions were to draw attention to the NLD's collaboration with the military, and that it would release the candidates if the government agrees to free politicians, student protesters and innocent civilians arrested and jailed by Myanmar authorities.
Presidential office spokesperson Zaw Htay said Friday that the abductions cast a shadow on hard-won democratic freedoms after decades of military rule.
"We have had to wait for decades to regain the right to elect our desired MP. Now, we are still in democratic transition, so they should not do anything to derail the country from this transition. They should respect the many years of sacrifices made for the people's right to vote for whomever they like."
Zaw Htay said that the abductions draw into question the AA's stated desire to reach a peace deal with the government.
"The AA's leaders should re-examine their true motives if they really want a peace deal from dialogue. They need to decide what is better for Rakhine state and for the Union, whether it is peace talks or more armed fighting," he said.
Arakan Army spokesperson Khine Thukha told RFA's Myanmar Service in response to Zaw Htay's comments that the military was to blame for the ongoing conflict.
"The AA has never started any offensive. If they sincerely want peace, the military and government should declare a nationwide ceasefire and start genuine dialogue," he said.
Responding to the AA's demands for securing the release of the three NLD candidates, the ruling party's spokesperson Monywa Aung Shin told RFA, "We have laid out or intention that we will resolve this conflict by political negotiation. We think this is the best way."
"The NLD party cannot be a part of negotiations but our government can. I think it is best to start with talks that have no agenda in order to progress to the next step. They have used the term 'genuine' in negotiations. It is in reality very challenging to do that, so it would be better to hold informal talks between the two sides first," said Monyway Aung Shin.
Zaw Htay said the peace process would have to wait until next year, as the coronavirus pandemic has stalled bilateral talks between Myanmar and ethnic armies.
The AA has been battling Myanmar forces since late 2018 as the rebels fight for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people in what they consider to be its historic homeland on the Bay of Bengal coast. The war has killed nearly 300 civilians and injured more than 640 while displacing more than 220,000 civilians.
Both the AA and Myanmar military have detained soldiers from each other's forces during the armed conflict as well as civilians suspected of supporting or aiding the enemy.
In March, the Myanmar government declared the AA, an 11-year-old force thought to have 7000-9000 fighters, an illegal association and terrorist organization and has refused to negotiate with it bilaterally or in official peace talks with multiple ethnic armies.
Zaw Htay also criticized the AA for its handling of two Myanmar army soldiers who had deserted and contacted the AA for assistance, saying they should have worked with domestic organizations instead of placing the troops into the custody of foreign entities.
Local NGO Fortify Rights in September obtained an AA video with the recorded confessions of the two privates, who admitted to taking part in a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state in 2017 that included torture, mass rape, indiscriminate killings, and arson.
They later showed up on the Bangladesh border and asked authorities for help but were turned over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands.
But Khine Thukha said working with the government would be impossible after the terrorist declaration.
"The government has declared the AA as a terrorist organization and it detains and kills civilians suspected to be AA collaborators," said Khine Thukha.
"The military launches all-out assaults against AA troops, causing the Rakhine civilians to flee from their homes, although the government has announced stay-at-home orders in many regions. As there is no law in Myanmar to prosecute the military for war crimes, the AA has no choice but to work with international organizations," he said.
Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
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