Myanmar armed group releases abducted members of Suu Kyi's party

National League for Democracy members (from right) Chit Chit Chaw, Nin Ni May Myint and Min Aung in Sittwe, after they were released by the Arakan Army, on Jan 1, 2021.
National League for Democracy members (from right) Chit Chit Chaw, Nin Ni May Myint and Min Aung in Sittwe, after they were released by the Arakan Army, on Jan 1, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

YANGON (AFP) - An armed group in Myanmar's conflict-wracked Rakhine state released on Friday (Jan 1) three members of Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling party, who they had kidnapped ahead of November's election.

The Arakan Army (AA) has for nearly two years been locked in battle with Myanmar's powerful military, fighting for more autonomy for the state's ethnic Rakhine population.

Both sides stand accused of rights abuses, with hundreds killed or injured and some 200,000 civilians forced to flee their homes in an area under a strict lockdown - making independent reporting all but impossible.

In October - weeks before an election that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) was expected to win nationwide - gunmen descended on a campaign event in Taunggok township in southern Rakhine and abducted three MP candidates.

Accusing the NLD of "collaborating and covering up war crimes committed by the Myanmar Army", the AA said the aspiring legislators would be freed only if those "detained unlawfully" by the government and the army were released.

On Friday, "after discussions", the trio were freed along with three soldiers also held by the AA, the army - known in Burmese as the Tatmadaw - said in a statement.

"This afternoon, AA handed them to the Tatmadaw team on duty... and they were safely taken by army helicopter to (Rakhine state's capital) Sittwe," the statement read.

The militant group confirmed the release, adding that the three NLD members were kidnapped "for the purpose of war, politics and revolution".

It also called for scores of Rakhine politicians and civilians - including AA members - to be freed.

"As we've released (the NLD members), we are demanding... for AA members who have been arrested to be released in return for peace," the group said.

The western state has long been a hotbed of conflict.

Since the AA stepped up attacks on the military in 2018, Rakhine civilians and village chiefs suspected of being involved have been arrested, while family members of prominent AA figures were also detained.

Ahead of the November poll, the election commission said security concerns meant the vote would be cancelled across swathes of the country, including much of Rakhine.

The move incited fury from a minority group which has long felt marginalised by the country's ethnic Bamar majority, and also raised questions about the vote's credibility.

As expected, Suu Kyi's ruling party swept the election in a landslide win.

But in Taunggok township, where the three abducted candidates were supposed to stand, the Arakan National Party - a hardline nationalist party for ethnic Rakhine - took victory.