YANGON - When the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army offered a month-long cease-fire on September 10 with the stated purpose of facilitating aid through the conflict zone in Rakhine State, Myanmar’s response was swift.
“We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists,” Zaw Htay, spokesman for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said on Twitter the same day.
Myanmar branded the group, known in shorthand as ARSA, a terrorist organization after it carried out deadly attacks on police and army posts on August 25, prompting a military crackdown that has caused more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh and resulted in widespread claims of atrocities and ethnic cleansing.
But as observers — and even ARSA members — have pointed out, Myanmar continues to negotiate with several ethnic armed groups fighting for more autonomy in its border regions. Some of them have also been called terrorist outfits, though not by the central government.
So why the apparent double standard?
The difference is in the way that Myanmar’s government, and some of the ethnic armed groups themselves, view the legitimacy of the Rohingya struggle.
They don't recognize the Rohingya as one of Myanmar's many "national races," insisting they are immigrants from Bangladesh, despite generational roots. Negotiating with them could, indirectly, provide that recognition.
“They are not our ethnic groups. They claim to be ethnic. But we can’t give [it to] them. In our history there is no Rohingya,” said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s political party. “It is different from Karen or Kachin or Shan," he added, referring to three of the larger recognized ethnicities in Myanmar.
As for ARSA, they are just insurgents.
“They make trouble in Rakhine State, and [then] they said cease-fire. We don’t understand what they mean," Nyan Win said.
He rejected claims that Myanmar treated ARSA differently because it remains the only Muslim armed faction in a largely Buddhist country that has struggled to contain anti-Muslim sentiment.
Though ethnic armed groups have fought against the same military cracking down on insurgents in Rakhine State, they have distanced themselves from ARSA.
“We do not recognize the term ‘Rohingya’,” Nai Hong Sar, the chairman of the UNFC, an umbrella organization representing a handful of ethnic armed groups, was quoted as saying earlier this month.
While the UNFC, which stands for the United Nationalities Federal Council, does not represent all factions involved in ongoing peace talks in Myanmar, its statement speaks volumes about the rare unity of views between the military, the government and some ethnic armed groups.
“As we’ve seen, the ARSA is a kind of terrorist group because of their activities,” said Tar Bone Kyaw, the general secretary of the T’ang National Liberation Army, based in northern Myanmar and representing the ethnic Palaung people. He cited ARSA’s alleged killing of civilians, which the group denies.
“The way they operate is like the acts of terrorists. So as for us we cannot regard them as a revolutionary group or something like that. So they are just terrorists. That is our view on the Rohingya organization,” he said.
At the same time, he condemned the military operation in Rakhine State, saying it has cost “a lot of human life.” The military has responded to such claims by insisting it is hunting terrorists not civilians.
Still, like other factions, Tar Bone Kyaw said the TNLA does not recognize the ethnic group.
“There is no ‘Rohingya’ in Burma. They are just Bengali. They came from Bangladesh. So they are not the indigenous ethnic people in Burma,” he said, using another name for Myanmar.
Representatives of additional ethnic armed groups could not be reached on Monday.
The more than one million Rohingya minority in Rakhine State are denied citizenship, and ARSA says it is simply fighting for the group’s basic rights. Myanmar’s security apparatus has suggested it is trying to carve out an Islamic state in Rakhine.
While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since August 25, the violence in Rakhine State has also affected Buddhists, Hindus and smaller non-Muslim ethnic minorities who have fled their homes or died in the fighting.
Myanmar’s army on Monday says it discovered a mass grave of 28 Hindus in northern Rakhine State, blaming the murders on the Rohingya insurgents. ARSA refuted the accusations, Reuters reported.