A rebel group in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of three candidates of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s governing party, demanding the release of detained student protesters in return for letting them go.
The governing National League for Democracy (NLD) said the three – Min Aung, Ni Ni May Myint and Chit Chit Chaw – were abducted last week while campaigning ahead of the country’s November 8 election.
The Arakan Army (AA), which is battling government troops in the region, said in a statement posted online on Monday the three candidates would be “detained and investigated as required by circumstances till a certain time”.
The group, which recruits from the largely-Buddhist ethnic Rakhine community and is fighting for greater autonomy for the region from the central government, has accused the NLD of complicity with military “atrocities” against civilians in the conflict that has intensified over the past year.
It said, however, it was willing to free the abductees in return for the release of students arrested during recent protests and other “innocent people” detained by authorities.
“If they make demands in this way, it would difficult for us to comply,” Myo Nyunt, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee, told the Reuters news agency by phone.
Armed men descended on October 14 on a campaign event for the NLD in Taunggok township in southern Rakhine, an area relatively unscathed by the violence, which has forced tens of thousands of people from their homes since early last year and has killed dozens.
Witness and NLD supporter Thant Zin Phyo told the AFP news agency how he and about 10 other men and women had been beaten and called “traitors”, before the attackers left with the two female candidates and their male counterpart.
The NLD is widely expected to be returned to power in the national polls – only the second since the nation emerged from outright military rule.
But there are huge questions about the vote’s credibility, particularly in Rakhine, where the country’s election commission has said more than half the polling stations initially planned will no longer operate, as parts of the state are too unstable for voting.
The Arakan Student Union said four of its members had been arrested on Monday after marching through the state capital of Sittwe holding banners criticising the government and military.
Several other students have been arrested after similar protests in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, virtually all Rohingya Muslims are disenfranchised, either languishing in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh or stripped of citizenship and rights in Myanmar.
Last month, the United Nations human rights investigator to Myanmar said the upcoming polls could not be free and fair because of the exclusion of Rohingya of voting age living in Rakhine state and in Bangladesh.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in 2017 during a military-led crackdown the UN has said was executed with genocidal intent. The country denies the allegations and says it was targeting fighters who attacked police posts.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya remain in Rakhine state where they are mostly confined to camps and villages.