Five weeks after agreeing to an informal ceasefire, the military and the Arakan Army (AA) conducted a prisoner swap in Rakhine State’s Ponnagyun Township this week, according to local sources.
The swap reportedly took place at around 7am on Tuesday between Kun Taung and Pa Day Thar villages, about 20km north of the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe. Witnesses were unsure of the precise number of prisoners exchanged but said that a high-ranking AA officer was among them.
“Troops in full uniform carried out the prisoner swap in the middle of the road, about halfway between Pa Day Thar and Kun Taung,” a resident of Pa Day Thar said.
Three AA vehicles and five belonging to the junta met on the Sittwe-Yangon highway with some 30 troops on each side accompanying the convoys for security, a man from Kun Taung told Myanmar Now.
“An AA major who had been arrested by the military council was among the prisoners swapped between the two groups. I’m not sure if any high-ranking junta officers captured by the AA were included in the swap,” he said.
The military council’s information unit and spokespersons for the AA did not respond to requests for confirmation or details about the prisoner exchange.
Before the AA and military agreed to an informal truce in late November 2022, the conflict between them took a heavy toll on local civilian populations. Although hostilities are currently suspended, the security situation has not improved, another Kun Taung villager said.
“The area is calm now, but we can’t tell what will happen next. That’s why the people who fled have not returned. The military troops camped near our village, Kun Taung, have not withdrawn yet. They are still there,” he said.
The AA has been operating since 2009, more than a decade before the February 2021 coup that installed Myanmar’s current military regime. Both before and since the coup, violence has broken out periodically between the ethnic armed group and the Myanmar military.
The military and AA clashed fiercely in Rakhine State and adjacent areas of Chin State between late 2018 and early November 2020, when a non-binding agreement temporarily suspended hostilities.
The 2020 ceasefire was still in effect when the AA and military carried out an exchange of captives, brokered by Japanese special envoy Yohei Sasakawa, in November 2021.
However, fighting escalated again in 2022 and continued until last November’s ceasefire.
Amid the renewed conflict, the AA continued to take prisoners and claimed hundreds of junta troops had surrendered to them. The junta responded with a crackdown, including heightened security and widespread arrests of civilians.
Despite the present ceasefire, ongoing tensions in Rakhine State, including the mass resignation of junta-appointed local administrators, have raised doubts about how long peace between the AA and the military can last.
On Monday, the AA summoned administrators who had resigned their positions in Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships, urging them to return to duty.