On a day meant to celebrate Myanmar's independence from Britain 71 years ago, Buddhist insurgents launched attacks on four police posts that killed seven soldiers in the country's restive Rakhine state.
A Buddhist militant group called the Arakan Army staged the attacks Friday near the border with Bangladesh, the insurgent group's spokesman, Khine Thu Kha, told Reuters. The western state of Rakhine is where a brutal crackdown by Myanmar's military in 2017 sent more than half a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing into Bangladesh.
While most of the international attention over the past year has focused on the plight of the Rohingya minority, "ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have been fighting for autonomy for decades," NPR Seoul correspondent Anthony Kuhn reports.
A U.N. spokesperson said earlier this week that some 2,500 people had been displaced in Rakhine since in early December, when fighting broke out between the Arakan Army and Myanmar security forces, also known as the Tatmadaw, according to Al-Jazeera.
In Friday's attack, Khine Thu Kha told Reuters that the Arakan Army retrieved the bodies of seven "enemies" and detained 12 Myanmar security forces. He said the attacks were in response to the recent military offensive against the group and had nothing to do with Myanmar's Independence Day.
The rebels attacked just minutes after the national flag was raised in celebration of the historic day for Myanmar, military spokesman Zaw Min Tun told the news service. Security forces were responding to the attacks and the armed forces will continue operating in the area for security, he said. However, he declined to confirm the number of people killed and captured by the Arakan Army.
The Arakan Army should not be mistaken with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which is a Rohingya insurgent group active in Rakhine. In addition to fighting Myanmar security forces, the Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim rebel groups there have been fighting each other for years.
One major difference between the two groups is that the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists are considered citizens of Myanmar. The Rohingya, as Kuhn notes, are not one of the 135 ethnic groups the Myanmar government officially recognizes, leaving them essentially stateless.
Despite hopes for a transition toward democracy under Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto civilian leader, security forces remain engaged with many ethnic groups across Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The fighting between the military and the Kachin Independence Army in the country's northern borderlands is considered one of the world's "longest running civil wars."