A spokesperson for the Arakan Army (AA) has claimed that “hundreds” of regime troops have surrendered to the group since last year’s coup.
“There are hundreds of junta soldiers that have surrendered to the AA. We are upholding our humanity and providing them with as much help as we can afford to give,” Khaing Thukha, the group’s spokesperson, said at a press conference on Tuesday.
He declined to disclose the exact number of soldiers currently in AA custody, but said it also included prisoners of war that the group hopes to exchange for captured AA troops.
“We are thinking about releasing their men as soon as they release our members. We have some junta officers that we’ve taken as prisoners of war and we are talking with intermediaries to arrange an exchange of prisoners,” he said.
The press conference comes just days after residents of Kyauktaw in northern Rakhine State reported that two junta soldiers were abducted in the town last Saturday.
There were also reports that a junta soldier stationed at Kyauktaw’s Mahamuni pagoda had defected to the AA on May 22. A week later, troops at the pagoda unaccountably fired on nearby IDP camps with heavy artillery.
According to Nyi Thuta, an army captain taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement, dissatisfaction has been high among soldiers deployed to Rakhine State since before last year’s coup.
“The soldiers there were already very unhappy, as they had to fight some really difficult battles. I know they were extremely demoralised even before the coup. That’s why hundreds of them have surrendered to the AA, even though the fighting isn’t so intense there now,” he said.
The AA engaged in often fierce clashes with Myanmar’s military for nearly two years, from late December 2018 until around the time of the November 2020 election.
Late last year, fighting resumed in some areas, raising fears of a return to a full-blown war after a year of relative peace. Since then, tensions have been high, with the AA warning last month that battles could resume “at any time.”
In recent months, the AA has also become more involved in the anti-coup movement, with some resistance forces claiming to have received military and political aid from the group.
At the press conference on Tuesday, Khaing Thukha said that AA leaders held an online meeting with the civilian National Unity Government (NUG) on May 16—just two months after declaring that there had been no communication between the two sides.
“We discussed with the NUG how we could collaborate with them,” he said without elaborating.
“We have no reason to object to their endeavours to achieve true democracy. We have also declared that we appreciate and respect the public’s effort to achieve liberation from the military’s oppression,” he added.
Regarding the AA’s decision not to attend a meeting hosted by junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, he said it was based on the group’s assessment of the current situation and its past dealings with the military.
“We didn’t go because of their arrests and oppression in Rakhine State, their relationship with us, and the inconsistency in their statements and actions,” said Khaing Thukha.
According to the AA spokesperson, the junta is also sending more troops to Rakhine State from light infantry divisions 55 and 22.