Another Conflict Wracks Myanmar’s Rakhine Province

Arakan Army the latest to seek some form of autonomy

By: Michele Penna

In Rakhine, Myanmar’s westernmost province, the folly of war has not quite stopped as the Covid-19 virus continues its march across a country singularly unprepared for it. An increasingly bold Arakan Army (AA), which is seeking some form of autonomy from the Burmese government, is clashing with the country’s central military in a province already dogged by a separate ethnic conflict with the Muslim Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom have been driven out of the country to Bangladesh.

The latest in long series of skirmishes took place on April 6, when seven civilians lost their lives and nine were injured as fighting erupted in southern Chin State, bordering Rakhine and also affected by conflict. Among the victims was a three-year-old boy killed in airstrikes.

The Arakan Army is a relatively new ethnic armed organization. Created in 2009, for much of its existence, it did not actually operate in Rakhine, but was based out of Kachin State, under the wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). When Asia Sentinel visited Laiza in 2016, it found the Arakanese troops had a substantial foothold in the town, occupying a special section of the Kachin “capital” with their own facilities, a training ground and a hall decorated with military slogans.

Cooperation is not limited to offering shelter. Observers suggest both the KIA and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – the two strongest ethnic organizations in a country where dozens operate – have equipped the new group with weapons, helping the 7,000-strong AA establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in the ethnic war. The AA’s arsenal is now believed to include M60 machine guns, Barrett MRAD sniper rifles and explosives. In 2019, insurgents even launched rockets against a military tugboat, killing two soldiers.

From their bases in the mountainous north of the country, the AA has fought its way deeper into Rakhine, trying to establish positions in its home province and clashing with the armed forces, the Tatmadaw, as they are known in Burmese, at every step. Attacks have been launched against military and police facilities and the AA has managed to take soldiers as prisoners, while as many as 100,000 people have been displaced according to Human Rights Watch.

“One of the main reasons why fighting in Rakhine is so heavy is because the AA tries to seize territory. Most other ethnic armed organizations (besides in northern Shan State) control pockets of territory and are fighting a much more defensive fight against the Tatmadaw,” said Dr. David Brenner, Lecturer in International Relations, Goldsmiths at University of London. “The AA needs to wrestle territory from the Tatmadaw, which is why their military campaign is much more offensive and the Tatmadaw’s reaction much more decisive,” Brenner contended.

Like other armed groups, the Arakan Army is demanding autonomy to self-administer their area, a plan they have condensed into a campaign slickly called “Arakan Dream 2020.” The organization is popular among locals in Rakhine, where hostility toward the central authorities is widespread - something that will likely make it hard for the Tatmadaw to evict the AA from their newly-acquired positions.

“On the military front, it’s quite obvious that the AA has already gained a semi-permanent foothold in Rakhine,” Brenner said. “More importantly, however, is that the AA enjoys a lot of sympathies among large parts of the Arakan population.  Paradoxically, the Tatmadaw’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign which aims at cutting the ties between rebel groups and local communities will most likely only strengthen these ties in the long-run,” he argues.

Part of the reason the AA is the recipient of public support is that the province lags behind in terms of development, with local poverty rates approaching 78 percent, compared to the 37.5 percent national average. “A key issue is over political and economic control of Rakhine state’s natural resources and land. Many of Rakhine state residents consider the central authorities of Myanmar as interlopers who have not prioritized Rakhine state or the interests of its residents,” said Ronan Lee, Visiting Scholar at Queen Mary University of London.

It is on Rakhine’s coast, it should be added, that Chinese firms are developing the Kyaukpyu special economic zone, a multi-billion-dollar deep-sea project. The area is also the terminus for a US$1.5 billion oil and gas pipeline linking the Gulf of Bengal with China’s Yunnan province.

Widespread fighting is hardly a cure for economic woes and bodes ill for the peace process. The latter, which started under former president Thein Sein, was meant to end the country’s ethnic conflict and provide a solution to one of Myanmar’s biggest challenges. But over time, it has morphed in a long series of meetings that have produced little concrete results, while fighting has increased in the north and north-east. In Kachin State alone, around 100,000 people have lost their homes since 2011, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“Conflict in Rakhine state has the potential to utterly derail the peace process,” Lee said, adding that the guerrilla tactics of the Arakan Army “demonstrate that it is possible to inflict significant reversals on the Tatmadaw and this may encourage other insurgent groups to rethink the utility of peace and to more forcefully pursue political demands.”

The arrival of COVID is adding fuel to the fire. Myanmar is now seeing its first cases, while authorities are adopting some degree of containment, with lockdowns in cities and quarantines for returning migrant workers. But the healthcare system remains unprepared for calamities like those that struck China and Europe. Refugee and IDP camps, where hundreds of thousands are forced to live in close proximity and lack medical facilities, are a particular flashpoint - here, both the fury of the virus and the folly of war are likely to be worst.