The Arakan Army (AA) militant group and its political arm, the United League of Arakan (ULA), in Rakhine state has been officially designated as a terrorist organization, the government of Myanmar announced Monday, saying the group has "incited fear" and disrupted stability of the country by attacking government and civilian targets.
According to the order, signed by Minister of Home Affairs and head of the Central Committee for Counterterrorism Soe Htut, AA and ULA were responsible for "serious losses of public security, lives and property, important infrastructures of the public and private sector, state-owned buildings, vehicles, equipment and materials."
The order said President Win Myint blacklisted the group under Section 15 (2) of the Unlawful Associations Act of the country because of its actions, which posed "a danger to law and order, peace and stability of the country and public peace."
Founded in 2009 by Rakhine Buddhists who seek self-governance, AA has been fighting government forces in sporadic skirmishes that began escalating in late 2018. The group says it has recruited about 7,000 fighters and formed alliances with other anti-government forces to "protect our Arakan people" from the grip of the central government in Naypyidaw.
Tun Kyi, a rural development activist, told VOA the group has become increasingly popular among the Buddhist group in Rakhine despite heavy government crackdown.
"The entire Arakanese people support the AA. AA is fighting for equal rights of its people," Kyi said. "It will never become a terrorist group in their minds."
In a response statement following its official terror designation, AA said the government's decision showed that "Myanmar colonial rulers" had no intention to come to a peaceful resolution with non-Burmese ethnics in the country.
Khine Pyi Soe, the spokesperson of Arakan National Party, told VOA that the government declaration will further destabilize Rakhine state, which has been hit by violence for years. He said the designation will encourage the government forces to increase their operations in the region, furthering the discontent of the minority communities.
"Our main concern is Tatmataw targeting the people," Soe said, using the official name of Myanmar's armed forces.
"AA will take this seriously and they may not be defeated. We don't want people being killed; and the situation will be worsening if they don't choose negotiations," he said.
The central government and armed militias of various ethnic groups in 2015 signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in an effort to end decades of ethnic conflict in the Burmese-majority country through dialogue. However, bilateral talks between the government and AA ceased in February when both sides accused each other of thwarting a political resolution.
On the morning of Jan. 23, 2020, the AA group launched an attack on an advanced regional military training school in Rakhine's Minbya Township that reportedly left casualties on both sides.
According to Myawady Daily, a Myanmar army outlet, some 300 AA fighters conducted the attack on the school from five directions. It said the attack was foiled, leaving at least 15 AA militants killed and dozens of their weapons confiscated.
Aung Shin, a spokesperson for National League for Democracy party, told VOA that Rakhine state will most likely witness more militancy activity in coming weeks amid failed negotiations between the two sides.
"The designation of the Arakan Army as terrorist organization is not strange since the government has a policy of opposing any acts of terror. But it is disappointing because fighting will escalate after this announcement," he told VOA.
Rakhine state gained international attention in August 2017 when Myanmar's army started a deadly crackdown against Rohingya Muslims that prompted nearly 1 million people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The army campaign has been described by the U.N. as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
While global focus has been mainly on the Rohingya minority, local reports say continued clashes since late 2018 between Myanmar's army and AA in Rakhine state have left as many as 130,000 people displaced.