New Delhi: A month after Indians were abducted and released, the head of the ethnic armed group in Rakhine State has said that the Indian government needs to “negotiate” with the Arakan Army (AA) and pay “taxes” to continue its flagship connectivity project.
The volatile Rakhine State has been in the global spotlight since over 730,000 Rohingya refugees fled across the border into Bangladesh in 2017.
This year, the state witnessed another layer of violence, with clashes between Myanmar’s military and the AA, an ethnic insurgent group that is largely from the majority Buddhist population. The insurgency, which is fighting for autonomy, has tapped into resentment among the Arakanese against the Bamar majority that dominates the Central government, on sharing of resources.
In an interview to the Myanmarese media outlet, The Irrawaddy, AA’s commander Major General Tun Myat Naing said that the group was compiling lists of the projects and businesses operating in parts of Rakhine and Chin State, where AA troops were active.
Rakhine State is the location for India’s multimodal Kaladan project, which is critical for India’s Act East policy. The connectivity project aims to physically connect India with Southeast Asia. The multi-million dollar project has two aspects – a waterway component of 158 km on Kaladan river and development of Sittwe port, as well as a, road component of 109 km from the Indian border.
The AA leader said that the collection of ‘taxes’ was a way to assert their authority on their territory.
Tun Myat Naing told The Irrawaddy that the operators of the Kaladan project had failed to acknowledge India’s authority. If they want to implement any project in Rakhine State, “they must negotiate with us with respect”, he added.
He said that the AA would soon be contacting the Indian embassy and firms about collection of ‘taxes’. “We are planning to send letters to the Indian Embassy and Indian companies. They can carry out their work, but they must inform us of their plans. And they must avoid engaging in any activities that resemble military operations. If they are only undertaking projects, they need to make sure they look like projects,” he said.
The AA commander threatened “to destroy” companies that failed to pay for their projects.
Last month, AA had abducted five Indians who were working on the Kaladan project. It was the first time that AA had kidnapped foreign nationals. While four of them were released after a day, one died while in rebel custody.
As per a Reuters report, AA identified the Indian national as Vinoo Gopal. A spokesperson of AA told Reuters that they “the group was deeply sorry for the family, and freed the survivors”.
According to diplomatic sources, the intent of the ethnic armed group would be clearer once the Indian embassy is sent a letter with their demands.
Long-term observers felt that the demand by AA has to do more with recognition rather than with requirement of funds.
With the Myanmar government classifying AA as a terrorist group, it is highly unlikely that New Delhi would accept these demands.
Earlier this year, the Indian Army conducted a “coordinated operation” with the Myanmarese military from February 17 to March 2 to “avert a possible threat to the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project”.
The operation, as per a Press Trust of India report, was to “crack down on the members of the Arakan Army”.
The focus of the operation was to crack down on the members of the Arakan Army, an insurgent group in Myanmar, the sources said. The members of the Arakan Army had also moved close to the international border along Mizoram, they said.
During the joint operation, the Indian Army strengthened the security on the border along Nagaland and Manipur to prevent AA members from fleeing into India. “The operation was also undertaken keeping in view the safety of Indian workers engaged in the project,” PTI reported in March 2019.