Ongoing conflict in Myanmar's Rakhine State prompts street protests

Military clashes with the largely Buddhist Arakan Army are overshadowed by the Rohingya Muslim tragedy
Ongoing conflict in Myanmar's Rakhine State prompts street protests

This photo taken on Jan. 28, shows residents holding bullet shells in a village in Rathedaung township, Rakhine State, where fighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic Arakan Army (AA) took place from Jan. 26 to 28. (AFP photo)

Monks and others joined a weekend protest rally calling for Myanmar's military to declare a unilateral ceasefire in an internationally little-known conflict with largely Buddhist insurgents.

Clashes have been ongoing with the 'Arakan Army' that was founded in 2009 in troubled Rakhine State on the Bay of Bengal. The militia is also fighting in adjoining Chin State. An estimated 30,000 people have been internally displaced since November.

The Arakan Army (AA) is a militia fighting for greater autonomy for inhabitants known as ethnic Rakhine, with Arakan being the historic name for what was once an independent kingdom. The AA militia has been reported as having more than 1,400 troops.

But this pocket of violence has been overshadowed in recent years by hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya driven by 'ethnic cleansing' violence into neighboring Bangladesh.

More than 3,000 demonstrators on Sunday May 19 took to the streets of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, to demand a ceasefire that would clear the way for peace negotiations with AA members.

"We are concerned for the safety and security of civilians as they bear the brunt of ongoing hostilities," protester Aung Htay told ucanews.com.

Protest rallies were held on the same day in the townships of Maungdaw, Pauktaw and Ponnagyun.

On May 9, Buddhist monks, local leaders and various community groups wrote a joint letter to President Win Myint, military chief Min Aung Hlaing and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the formerly imprisoned democracy activist.

They called for foreign and Myanmar NGOs to be allowed access to people living in internally displaced persons' camps and for the military, accused of past abuses, to protect civilians.

According to Aung Htay, there had been no responses to the letter up to May 19.

Pe Than, lower house MP for the Arakan National party in Rakhine State, said Myanmar security forces cited "security concerns" when restricting the provision of humanitarian assistance to displaced people.

He added that there had been cases of the military fatally shooting Buddhist civilians in Rakhine. The military also stands accused of mass killings and rapes of Muslim Rohingya in the state.

Ursula Mueller, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. expressed serious concern about a recent upsurge in violence between the AA and Myanmar security personnel.

"The United Nations calls on all parties to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and allow access for humanitarian assistance," Mueller said in a May 14 statement following a six-day visit to Myanmar that included Rakhine.

The military in December declared a ceasefire in northern and eastern Myanmar, which with an extension is due to expire on June 30, however, it excludes Rakhine State.

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