Arakan Army Resistance Force claims control of strategic township in Myanmar

Fighters of the Arakan Army are seen outside a police station in Paletwa, Chin state, Jan 14, 2024, after the ethnic armed group seized the township. [Courtesy]

A powerful ethnic armed group fighting Myanmar’s military that is based in the country’s western state of Rakhine has seized a township bordering India and Bangladesh, the group declared Monday, confirming accounts by residents and media.

Paletwa is the first township reported to fall to the Arakan Army, which launched surprise attacks beginning in mid-November on military targets in Paletwa, which is in Chin state. Paletwa is just north of Rakhine  and borders both Bangladesh and India.

Khaing Thukha, a spokesperson for the Arakan Army, told The Associated Press on Monday that the entire Paletwa region has become a “Military Council-free area,” referring to the ruling military government.

“The administrative mechanism and clutches of the military council have come to an end. The administration, security and the rule of law for Paletwa region will be implemented as needed,” Khaing Thukha said in text messages.

The military government made no immediate comment.

The Arakan Army is a member of the armed ethnic group alliance that recently gained strategic territory in the country’s northeast. Along with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army — operating together under the name of the Three Brotherhood Alliance — it launched a coordinated offensive on Oct. 27 in northern Shan state along the border with China.

That offensive has posed the greatest battlefield challenge to Myanmar’s military rulers since the army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021. The alliance says it has seized more than 250 military outposts, five official border crossings and a major city near the Chinese border, along with several important towns.

The Arakan Army is the well-trained and well-armed military wing of the Rakhine ethnic minority movement, which seeks autonomy from Myanmar’s central government.

Rakhine is where a brutal army counterinsurgency operation in 2017 drove about 740,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority to seek safety across the border in Bangladesh. Rakhine is also known by its older name of Arakan.

The Arakan Army first said late Sunday night that it gained complete control of Paletwa township. The group also released photos of its guerrillas taking pictures in front of the township’s general administration office, the police chief’s office, the fire office and the municipal office.

Myanmar’s independent national and Rakhine media outlets reported Monday about the capture of Paletwa, citing the Arakan Army.

A resident interviewed by phone said that Arakan Army had taken control of Paletwa town after intense fighting between the group and military that broke out last week. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, because he was afraid of being arrested by either side in the conflict.

He said that he and most of the town’s residents left Paletwa early this month to take shelter in nearby villages, and just a handful stayed behind. He said access to the internet and cellphone services in the area was almost entirely cut off as the fighting raged.

Another resident who left the town earlier said he hasn't been able to reach family members believed to still be in Paletwa by cellphone since early January.

Paletwa, whose location on the border gives it strategic importance, is where the Arakan Army first established a foothold in 2015 to fight against the army. However, most of Paletwa’s inhabitants are from the Chin ethnic minority, and there have been tensions over the group’s operations there.

However, the Chin have been a major force in the resistance against the military since the army seized power in 2021, so they now share a common enemy with the Arakan Army.