The Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State released a total of 15 policemen and soldiers on Monday night after a visit by Japan’s special envoy to Myanmar Yohei Sasakawa to the state capital of Sittwe.
The detainees had been arrested by the group during armed conflict with the Myanmar military.
All 15 men were handed over to the military in Ponnagyun Township, according to an AA announcement. Among those released was at least one individual with the rank of captain—medical officer Ye Lin Soe, it said.
The announcement also said that the release was carried out on humanitarian grounds and that those freed were in poor health and in need of urgent medical attention.
It is not known how many prisoners remain in AA custody.
The announcement came three days after Sasakawa—also chair of the Nippon Foundation—attended a virtual meeting with AA leaders. He also met with military chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw on Saturday.
Sasakawa arrived in Sittwe on Monday and told local journalists that he had been informed that those arrested by the AA would be released periodically and in groups.
“It is a very good move that could advance one step further in building trust with one another,” he told reporters.
The 15 soldiers and police were freed hours later.
More than one week before Sasakawa’s visit to Rakhine State, the AA’s spokesperson said clashes were reported between his group and the Myanmar army in northern Maungdaw Township after the military had trespassed into AA territory. The military denied the AA’s claim and said any fighting that took place was likely with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, another group reportedly active in the area.
Villagers from northern Maungdaw said that they witnessed the military sending reinforcement troops to the region last week after the alleged clash, and were worried about battles resuming.
The AA and the Myanmar military engaged in fierce fighting in Rakhine State and southern Chin State for more than two years, but clashes ceased in November 2020 following a mutual but non-binding agreement.
In June, the AA released more than a dozen policemen and soldiers who were arrested by the armed group during a 2019 raid on a Mayu River ferry in Rakhine State’s Rathedaung Township.
Although some of the more than 200 locals charged with violating the Counterterrorism Law in connection with the AA were freed—including relatives of AA leader Twan Mrat Naing—more than 160 people remain in detention, according to data compiled by Rakhine civil society organisations.
Relatives of individuals who are still being kept behind bars have expressed hope that the military will free those prisoners in the wake of the AA’s latest release on Monday.
Ponnagyun Township local Nyi Nyi Aung was among five local men arrested nearly two years ago and charged for allegedly having connections to the AA. His mother Ni Ni Aye told Myanmar Now on Tuesday that her son was innocent and she hoped the military would allow him to return home.
“Soldiers and police are among those who have troubled relationships with the AA. Even they have been freed now. My son is a civilian who is not involved in anything. So I hope the military council will release him,” she said.
While the military has been focusing on crushing armed resistance elsewhere in the country since Myanmar’s February coup, the AA and its political wing the United League of Arakan have increased their influence in the region, taking further control of administrative and judicial matters in northern Rakhine State.