Rakhine rebels locked in a vicious fight with Myanmar's army will not "get peace by praying", its commander said as he vowed his forces will fight on despite being outnumbered and under aerial assault.
The increasingly bloody battle in western Rakhine state is between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA), which claims to be fighting for more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in one of the country's poorest states.
With the region under strict lockdown, it is difficult to get a precise death toll, though the military has confirmed over 20 of its security forces have been killed by the AA since January.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday from the safety of the Wa region of eastern Shan State, which borders China, AA chief Tun Myat Naing said his forces have no intention of giving up their armed struggle.
"We are not the ones to give up. We have to fight the war," said the bespectacled major-general.
"We will not get peace by praying."
The rebel leader was speaking in Panghsang, home to the United Wa State Army, a normally reclusive group who this week invited journalists and other ethnic leaders to commemorate 30 years of autonomy.
The China-backed Wa have a long-standing ceasefire with Myanmar, which has so far allowed them to operate from a semi-autonomous zone.
Experts allege the well-armed Wa, who have a 25,000-strong standing army, offer training and equipment to several other rebel groups as leverage against Myanmar's central state.
The presence of the AA leader in Panghsang will do little to dilute that perception -- despite vociferous denials by the Wa.
Rakhine in the west -- one of the poorest states in Myanmar -- has long been a tinderbox of complex ethnic and religious divides.
A brutal military campaign in 2017 forced out some 740,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh.
Myanmar's army said the mass expulsion was justified in a campaign to stamp out Rohingya terrorists known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
With many Rohingya gone, the AA has ramped up its own campaign of ambushes and assassinations.
Fighting has spread across Rakhine and into neighbouring Chin state, displacing more than 20,000 civilians of various ethnicities, while residents in the temple-studded town of Mrauk U, the ancient Rakhine capital, have reported fighter jets streaking across the skies.
Earlier this month a military helicopter attack killed at least six Rohingya, who the army claimed was working with the AA.
Tun Myat Naing rejected the accusation as "groundless."
However, he conceded that there are Rohingya "who are suffering under the repression" of the Myanmar military as well in Rakhine - a rare note of empathy from ethnic Rakhine towards their Muslim neighbours.
Tun Myat Naing said he also met a Chinese official in Wa, a sign the giant neighbour is closely watching events in strategically important parts of Myanmar.
"He asked us not to start an offensive... I asked him to negotiate for both sides," said the rebel army chief.