Ethnic Resistance Group Claims Capture of Hundreds of Soldiers in Western Myanmar

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Ethnic Resistance Group Claims Capture of Hundreds of Soldiers in Western Myanmar

The Arakan Army claims that it has overrun the 15th Military Operations Command headquarters in northern Rakhine State.

Ethnic Resistance Group Claims Capture of Hundreds of Soldiers in Western Myanmar

A screenshot of a video released by the Arakan Army (AA)’s information service on May 6, 2024, showing what it claims are captured Myanmar soldiers and their families in Buthidaung Township, Rakhine State, Myanmar.

Credit: AA Info Desk via The Diplomat

An ethnic armed group in western Myanmar claims to have captured hundreds of Myanmar military soldiers after taking control of a major command post close to the border with Bangladesh.

In a video statement posted to the Telegram messaging app yesterday, the Arakan Army (AA) said that soldiers belonging to the headquarters of the 15th Military Operations Command (MOC-15) in Rakhine State’s Buthidaung Township had surrendered to its forces.

The video released by the AA shows several hundred captives, some of them in military uniforms, others injured, walking in a line across a field and down a muddy road. Most are barefoot. Later, the video shows what appear to be AA soldiers, armed with rifles, guarding a large group of men in an open field.

An English-language caption in the video says it shows the deputy commander of the MOC-15, his soldiers, and their families after a “final assault in which [junta] soldiers faced total defeat and surrendered.”

In a separate statement on Sunday, the AA said that the headquarters of the MOC-15, one of the military’s three MOCs in Rakhine State, was captured on May 2 after a 12-day siege. The group captured “weapons, ammunition, military equipment, and surrendered prisoners of war,” the statement added, according to The Associated Press.

As the AP and some other media reports have noted, the AA’s video appears to show members of the Muslim Rohingya minority. The Rohingya have been subject to severe repression for years, most particularly in 2017, when the military, in conjunction with Rakhine vigilantes, launched a “clearance operation” that drove around 740,000 people across the border into Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s military has reportedly begun drafting Rohingya men into its ranks under its recently activated conscription law, which stands to poison further the ethnic and sectarian tensions in western Myanmar.

While the fall of the MOC-15 headquarters has not yet been confirmed by the military regime in Naypyidaw, its surrender would mark the latest in a long series of military setbacks for the military administration that seized power in a coup in 2021.

The losses have been particularly dramatic in Rakhine, where the AA has been on the offensive across Rakhine State since a year-long ceasefire collapsed last November. By March, according to an analysis from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the AA had won “primary control” of eight of Rakhine State’s 17 townships, and one township in neighboring Chin State.

In early February, it overran the junta’s final remaining outpost in Mrauk-U, the capital of the last independent Rakhine kingdom, which was conquered by the Burmese kings in 1785. The victory was highly symbolic for the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), which envisions the reestablishment of an independent Rakhine state. A few days later, it overran the 9th MOC headquarters in Kyauktaw Township, leaving just one of Rakhine’s three MOCs – the 5th MOC HQ in Toungup Township in the south of the state – under junta control.

In recent weeks, the AA and the junta have fought fiercely for control over Maungdaw and Buthidaung, the two northernmost townships of Rakhine State close to the Bangladesh border, prompting hundreds of Myanmar soldiers and border police to flee across the border into Bangladesh. The AA also reportedly seized a border guard headquarters in northern Maungdaw Township late last week, according to The Irrawaddy.

The two sides are also vying for control of Ann Township, in the central part of Rakhine, the base of the Myanmar military’s Western Regional Military Command. The AA launched attacks there on March 24.

If confirmed, the fall of the MOC-15 HQ would mark a significant loosening of the junta’s hold on Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, which the AA has now cut off from the rest of Rakhine State. Should these townships fall under the AA’s control, it would then be able to redeploy its forces against the state capital, Sittwe, which is still under junta administration, or Ann Township, which sits at the crossroad of the highway linking central Rakhine State to Magwe Region to the east.

The loss would also have considerable political importance. The regime has lost just two other MOC headquarters: the 16th MOC HQ in Hsenwi, northern Shan State, which was captured by the Three Brotherhood Alliance in January, and the 9th MOC HQ, which the AA captured in February. The Myanmar army has 21 MOCs, which are made up of mobile infantry battalions and “essentially act as rapid response units,” according to Andrew Selth of Griffith University, an expert on the Myanmar military.