Myanmar Rakhine Situation From Worse to Worst
The Rakhine State the South Eastern strip of land that tapers into the Bay of Bengal is facing multiple challenges that emanate from the curious blend of ethnic and religious tensions that have been breeding for long and to resolve which there is lack of political will as well as an effective military strategy.
This has resulted in providing space for religious extremist groups as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which claims to be the violent voice of the Rohingya a stateless people who are now split between Bangladesh and Myanmar with over 700,000 having migrated across the borders to the West in 2017 after the scorched earth policy adopted by the Tatmadaw.
The adverse reaction of the international community has led to the Myanmar military be on the backfoot, while the country’s top political leader National League of Democracy (NLD) Chair and State Counsellor Aung Suu Kyi is also facing flak for her inability to control the violence perpetrated by the military as well as for not showing enough empathy to the plight of those who have been subjected to mass abuse including women and children.
If that was not enough, the rise of the ethnic Arakan Army which has been demonstrating military prowess in the past few months portends the Myanmar Army being drawn into a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in the scabrous hills. Underlying the dimensions of the two conflicts in Rakhine State is the abject neglect and political apathy to deal with the people at large be it the Rohingya or the Arakanese.
On the other hand, political expediency by the NLD has led the situation to fester raising the stock of the ethnic armed group the Arakan Army (AA) amongst the local populace thereby complicating solutions which are not likely to come in the short term. The NLD’s action in imprisoning a popular Rakhine leader of the Arakan National Party for high treason even though he had led the local party to a majority in the State in 2015 Elections has given the AA a short in the arm winning public support always the most critical factor in an insurgency.
The AA was also excluded from the Cease Fire declared by the Myanmar Army on 21 December covering the Kachin and the Shan States till 30 April. The Army did not include the Rakhine state to have the freedom to target the ARSA but ended up irking the AA. While the intent of the cease-fire may also be to direct additional forces towards the Rakhine, the AA is concerned over the impact of a massive operation on its survival.
The AA has thus undertaken an aggressive course effectively putting the venerable Tatmadaw on the local defensive. On Myanmar’s Independence Day on 4 January, the group launched coordinated attacks on four police outposts in northern Rakhine State, killing thirteen officers and injuring nine others as per the International Crisis Group. Six border guard police officers were wounded in an ambush by the Arakan Army (AA) in northern Rakhine State, according to Myanmar Army spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Lin Tun.
He said the AA ambushed a vehicle with border guard police on board at around noon north of Maungdaw Township’s Kyee Kan Pyin Village, where the board guard police have a base. “One was seriously wounded, and the rest sustained minor injuries,” Brig. Gen. Zaw Lin Tun told The Irrawaddy. “It happened in the north of Kyee Kan Pyin, not near the [border] fence.
At least three villagers were reportedly killed in armed clashes between the Myanmar Army and the AA near Hpon Nyo Leik village in northern Rakhine’s Buthidaung Township as per the Irrawaddy.
The reaction of Aung Suu Kyi has been uncharacteristic, to say the least where reports indicate that she and President Win Myint had directed the military to “crush the terrorists,” in a coordinating conference held on 7 January. The possibility of the AA and the ARSA having joined forces though denied by the former is another reason for the ongoing tensions. These factors have also led to friction between the government and the Tatmadaw with the latter allowing the directions of the NLD leader to crush the terrorists leak to the media.
Myanmar army, in turn, killed 13 rebel fighters in the western Rakhine State, “Between Jan 5 and 16, 2019, there were eight clashes and five landmine explosions,” said Major General Tun Tun Nyi, speaking at a press conference in the capital, Naypyitaw. “Thirteen enemy bodies and three weapons were seized, and some soldiers died and were injured on our side,” he said.
The Myanmar military or Tatmadaw has indicated that peace talks with the Arakan Army can be held if AA changes its political view and gives up its goal of Rakhine becoming part of a confederation of states. “It depends on the AA whether they join the path of political negotiation,” said Major-General Soe Naing Oo, the chairman of the Tatmadaw’s True News Information Team, on whether the Tatmadaw would hold political negotiations with the group. “We will think about whether to move forward, depending on the AA’s actions,” he said. “They have spoken of a confederation [as their preferred political system], but that is the opposite direction from the current path to building a democratic federal union that the government, Tatmadaw and the people have agreed upon.”
As per Myanmar analyst Maung Maung Soe speaking to the Irrawaddy indicated that the, AA was founded in 2009 on the Myanmar-China border based on the previous lessons of dissident groups as the AIA [Arakan Independence Army] and ALP [Arakan Liberation Party]. The AA mustered military muscle on the Myanmar China border with the objective of finally deploying to the native Rakhine State which seems to have taken the Myanmar Army by surprise. On deployment to the West, it based itself in a thickly forested area of Chin State’s Paletwa, North of Rakhine State. Sporadic attacks were carried out by the AA in the Northern Rakhine areas since 2015, but the group also fought with the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army] and the Kachin Independence Army [KIA] in the northeast.
Today the AA is a 7,000-strong force that is equipped with modern arms. In 2018 the group seemed to have established strong positions astride the four townships—Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw—in northern Rakhine State and is carrying out operations from this belt. AA chief Major-General Tun Myat Naing told The Irrawaddy. “We prefer [a confederation of states] like Wa State, which has a larger share of power in line with the Constitution,” referring to the status of the AA’s ally, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), adding that a confederation is “better” than federalism.
President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay accused the AA of having ties to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and of funding its operations from the illegal drug trade. “I want to tell AA supporters to think about whether the AA really can make Rakhine State better. Frankly speaking, please stop your support,” he said. The AA has denied having links to ARSA. The Arakanese National Party also released a statement objecting to U Zaw Htay’s remarks.
The ARSA has also become active after lying low post 2017. In continuing violence by the ARSA, six policemen, including one police colonel, were wounded during an ambush in Maungdaw Township. ARSA had also mounted an attack near Maungdaw’s Wat Kyein Village on Jan. 16 when artillery shelling wounded three officers in a two-hour assault on a police post in northern Maungdaw Township according to the General Administration Department (GAD).
Clearly the situation in the Rakhine State has deteriorated in multiple areas with two militant groups of which one the AA is a military formation raising the ante against the Myanmar Army, how it tackles the challenge now remains to be seen?