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26 July 2022

Rakhine: a precarious ceasefire hangs in the balance

A brutal conflict may return to Rakhine if a fragile truce between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army falls apart — further straining the junta’s thinning capacity to beat back challenges to its rule.

By Shona Loong
Graphics by Brody Smith
The distinctive bell-shaped temples of Mrauk-U, once the capital of the sovereign kingdom of the same name. Nigel Pavitt / Alamy.
The distinctive bell-shaped temples of Mrauk-U, once the capital of the sovereign kingdom of the same name. Nigel Pavitt / Alamy.

Rakhine State has been a focal point of international attention on Myanmar, particularly since 2017, when the Tatmadaw’s ‘clearance operations’ against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) drove over 700,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. The following year, Rakhine was beset by heavy fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw. The AA, associated with the Rakhine ethnic group, was then described as ‘the most ruthless, militarily effective, and defiant armed group in the country’. After two years, the AA–Tatmadaw conflict ebbed away right before the November 2020 elections, when the AA agreed to an informal ceasefire with the Tatmadaw brokered by the Japanese negotiator Sasakawa Yohei.

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A tense calm has prevailed over most of Rakhine State and southern Chin State since the February 2021 coup d’etat, in contrast to the increase in violence throughout the rest of the country. The AA and the Tatmadaw remain the primary belligerents in Rakhine, where the activities of other ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) are practically non-existent. Relations between the AA and the State Administration Council (SAC) junta are poor. The AA has leveraged its ceasefire with the Tatmadaw to expand its exercise of authority across much of northern and central Rakhine, a programme it calls ‘the way of Rakhita’. This has heightened tensions between the AA and the SAC in recent months.

As the situation in Rakhine shows, Myanmar’s countrywide conflict is not just about overthrowing the junta, but about competing formats for political and territorial organisation. The AA, which claims to have 30,000 troops, is waiting to see which post-coup actors best accommodate its aspirations for Rakhine autonomy, and may yet return to large-scale combat if its aspirations are undermined. Renewed conflict in Rakhine will have significant implications for the countrywide conflict, forcing the SAC to divert critical resources from other fronts.


The AA–Tatmadaw collision course

Before the coup, politics in Rakhine marched to a different beat than in the rest of Myanmar. Founded in 2009, the AA grew from a fledgling armed group to a formidable threat during the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) term in government (2016–2021). The NLD’s actions stoked resentment among ethnic Rakhine people, convincing them that electoral politics would not resolve their grievances against the central state. After a Rakhine autonomist party won local parliamentary elections in 2015, the central government refused to allow lawmakers to appoint a chief minister from their party, causing them to walk out of the regional parliament. Tensions boiled over in January 2018 when authorities arrested the party’s leader for a speech in which he accused the NLD of treating the Rakhine people like ‘slaves’, later trying and convicting him of high treason and sedition. In 2020 the Union Election Commission cancelled elections in the state, citing security concerns, even in constituencies which had seen little fighting.

Between 2018 and 2020, when the conflict was most violent, the AA combined ideology, communications and insurgency to potent effect. It articulated the ‘Way of Rakhita’ as a desire to restore Arakan sovereignty, which was lost in the 18th century when Burma’s Konbaung dynasty defeated the Kingdom of Mrauk-U. The AA’s vision found fertile ground among young Rakhine people, who had experienced forms of marginalisation familiar to Myanmar’s other non-Bamar groups: Bamarisation, persistent underdevelopment, and Tatmadaw-led land grabs. Moreover, the AA, led by its young, well-educated and charismatic leader, Twan Mrat Naing, deftly used social media to garner popular support. YouTube videos of interviews with its leaders, combat footage and displays of captured weapons endeared the AA to much of Rakhine’s population, which until then had little interest in conflicts elsewhere in Myanmar. These ‘hearts and minds’ strategies have been remarkably successful. Kyaw Lynn, writing for the Transnational Institute, stated in 2021 that ‘Arakan society is presently seen to be more united and organised than during previous governmental eras in modern history’.

In response to the AA’s growth, the Tatmadaw – whose fight against the AA was backed by the NLD – suppressed the AA with a ferocity greater than it had meted out against other EAOs.

The AA’s military strategy is also different from that of other prominent EAOs, which, in the two decades before the coup, were largely focused on staving off Tatmadaw campaigns in the territories they controlled. Conversely, between 2015 and 2018, the AA was the only EAO to extend its operations across an increasingly wide geographic area. The AA began by occupying remote villages temporarily, before establishing itself more robustly with bases and checkpoints. In 2018, the AA moved beyond rural insurgency, using assassinations, abductions and other intimidatory acts to unnerve its opponents in urban areas. For instance, in April 2019, five local media outlets received threats of violence if they continued to refer to the AA as an ‘insurgency’ and not a ‘revolution’. While these intimidatory tactics depart from the norms of EAO behaviour in Myanmar, they mirror successive central governments’ long history of eliminating political opponents by such means. Since Myanmar’s independence, previous juntas have targeted representatives of shadow government outfits, EAOs and the NLD in this way.

In response to the AA’s growth, the Tatmadaw – whose fight against the AA was backed by the NLD – suppressed the AA with a ferocity greater than it had meted out against other EAOs. In 2019, the Tatmadaw deployed five of its ten Light Infantry Divisions into the Rakhine theatre, after the NLD called for the Tatmadaw to ‘crush’ the AA. A year later, in March 2020, the NLD designated the AA a ‘terrorist organisation’, allowing it to arrest villagers across Rakhine suspected of links with the AA. These actions occurred against the backdrop of the NLD’s attempts to quell conflict in nearly every other theatre. At the time, the Tatmadaw was pursuing peace negotiations with EAOs signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and had instituted a unilateral ceasefire with the most formidable non-NCA signatories.

But it is not just military force that distinguished the Tatmadaw’s actions in Rakhine from other counter-insurgency campaigns. To combat the AA’s sophisticated communications strategy, in 2019 the NLD issued an unprecedented directive to all mobile service providers, insisting that they block internet services in nine townships with a significant AA presence, resulting in a 1.5 year-long internet blackout, the world’s longest.

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In 2019, the NLD blocked internet services in nine townships, resulting in the world’s longest internet blackout.

Ultimately, this backfired: rather than diminish support for the AA, the Tatmadaw’s counter-insurgency tactics deepened locals’ resentment towards the Tatmadaw and the NLD government, while severing links between Rakhine and the rest of Myanmar. The 2018–2020 conflict had also created a significant humanitarian crisis. 200,000 people, mostly ethnic Rakhine, were internally displaced as a result; approximately half are still displaced today. The internet blackout further hampered humanitarian access and damaged the local economy.

The brutal tactics deployed against the AA echoed those of the Tatmadaw’s ‘clearance operations’ against the Rohingya, although the latter were conducted with much greater brutality. Shared experiences of violence at the hands of the Tatmadaw have opened the door to reconciliation between the ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya – another unforeseen impact of the Tatmadaw’s counter-insurgency campaigns.


The AA engages on its own terms

Despite the scale of the Tatmadaw’s campaign against the AA, by the time the AA entered an informal truce with the Tatmadaw in November 2020, it had surpassed most other EAOs in terms of military strength and political ambitions. This put the AA in a position where, after the coup, it could chart its own path. The AA is steadfastly interested in the pursuit of autonomy; it does not rule out engagement with those seeking the overthrow of the SAC but considers this to be secondary to its main goal. The AA’s priorities are clear from the evolution of the AA’s responses to the coup, which evolved in three phases.

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At first, though both the SAC and the National Unity Government (NUG) sought to appease the AA, the AA’s stance towards both remained consistently ambiguous. The SAC lifted the internet blackout, removed the AA’s ‘terrorist’ designation and released political prisoners linked to the AA. Conversely, the NUG pursued informal talks with the AA after the coup – a departure from the NLD’s exclusion of the AA from pre-coup peace negotiations. Yet the AA shrugged off accusations of cooperation with either side. It discouraged anti-SAC protests in Rakhine, but ‘grieved’ for victims of the SAC’s crackdowns. Correspondingly, there were very few anti-coup demonstrations in Rakhine – in stark opposition to the street marches occurring countrywide.

But by April 2021, it was clear that the AA was not just equivocating, but rather leveraging the coup to consolidate its internal sovereignty. That month, the AA announced in a statement, in Burmese, that it was entering a new revolutionary phase: turning from military matters to implementing strong public institutions. This was followed by an August 2021 announcement that the United League of Arakan – the AA’s political wing – was exercising de facto authority over two-thirds of Rakhine, where according to an AA spokesperson it was ‘engaging [in] executive and judicial responsibilities’. The same spokesperson claimed that by then, the AA had resolved disputes in over 550 cases, including land disputes and murder.

Research by the International Crisis Group indicates that the AA’s authority is strongest in rural areas, particularly in northern Rakhine – in Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Ponnagyun townships in Rakhine State, and in Paletwa township in Chin State. Central townships, notably Kyaukphyu, Taungup and Ann, are contested, with the AA operating mobile forces. Most major transportation and communication channels remain under SAC control, as do Rakhine’s southern townships of Gwa, Thandwe, Taungup and Munaung.

The AA is steadfastly interested in the pursuit of autonomy; it does not rule out engagement with those seeking the overthrow of the SAC but considers this to be secondary to its main goal.

In January 2022, the AA began to make more elaborated bids for outside actors’ recognition of the AA’s aims. While evidently distinct from that of the SAC, PDFs and other EAOs, the ‘Way of Rakhita’ had previously been nebulous, save Twan Mrat Naing’s repeated invocations of a ‘confederal’ status similar to what the United Wa State Army has attained in Myanmar’s northeast. But in two rare interviews to the English-language press, in Hong Kong’s Asia Times and Bangladesh’s Prothom Alo, Twan Mrat Naing delimited the AA’s aspirations. He put to rest fears that the AA desired independence, except as a last resort, arguing that this would stoke the fears of Rakhine’s neighbours, India and Bangladesh. He also stated that the AA was open to seeing if the NUG’s vision for a federal Myanmar could encompass its ambitions. While not an all-encompassing political theory, Twan Mrat Naing’s statements gave unprecedented insight into the AA’s political thinking.

These interviews are also notable because they revealed a shift in the AA’s stance towards the Rohingya. Two years ago, the AA released a statement which, while refraining from mention of the Rohingya and noting that a majority of its members are Buddhist, asserted that the AA ‘respects freedom of religion and human values’. But in the Prothom Alo interview, Twan Mrat Naing tackled the issue of the Rohingya head on, explaining that the AA recognises the ‘human rights and citizen rights of the Rohingyas’. A softer stance towards the Rohingya falls in line with the AA’s bids for international legitimacy and better relations with Bangladesh. But the International Crisis Group interprets this shift in the AA’s rhetoric in the light of the evolution of the AA–Tatmadaw conflict. Before the ceasefire, the AA’s guerrilla forces required supplies and cover from local communities, including Rohingya. Then, to strengthen its public institutions, it began to include Rohingya in its police, judiciary and administration.

That is not to suggest that reconciliation in Rakhine will be easy. For one, while the AA leadership is now striving for inclusivity, it is not yet clear if the AA’s support base shares these sentiments. Twan Mrat Naing claims to be open to the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, but expresses concern that mass repatriation could ‘unleash a new wave of unrest.’ At a local level, mid-level officials may continue to mistreat Rohingya despite AA leaders’ attempts to include them in their nascent administrative structures. The AA’s administrative capacity has expanded tremendously since the coup, but remains uneven. If conflict restarts in Rakhine, Rohingya are likely to bear the brunt of armed violence; since the coup, the Tatmadaw has targeted Rohingya for collaborating with the AA.


Competing blueprints for a future Myanmar

Rakhine is now on a knife’s edge, as tensions between the AA and the Tatmadaw have escalated since April 2022. The Tatmadaw perceives the AA’s expanding administration as a threat, resulting in increasing standoffs, clashes and arrests by both sides. Reports of clashes have emerged from Paletwa, Maungdaw and Myebon townships, while both sides have conducted arrests in Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun and Sittwe. In July 2022, the Tatmadaw also bombed an AA base near the Thai–Myanmar border, killing six soldiers, in an area controlled by the Karen National Union. For its part, the AA has used social media to intimidate the Tatmadaw and swell ground support, but did not respond publicly to the SAC’s invitation to peace talks in May 2022. Given escalating tensions, a conflict relapse appears likely, although both parties will re-enter the battlefield reluctantly: the Tatmadaw because it can ill afford to open a new front against such a formidable opponent, and the AA because its support base is still reeling from the humanitarian impacts of the 2018–2020 conflict.

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Escalating tensions between the Tatmadaw and AA

Recent incidents as reported by local media.

Each square ■ indicates a violent event from 01 Feb 2021 to 30 June 2022

Central to the future of Rakhine is the AA’s blueprint for the ‘Way of the Rakhita’ and the extent to which other actors – particularly the SAC and NUG – can accommodate it. Three scenarios are possible. Firstly, the SAC, overstretched in other theatres, could tolerate the expansion of the AA’s authority in Rakhine while it seeks centralised control elsewhere. This seems unlikely, given the SAC’s desire for control over strategic areas in Rakhine, including the site of large-scale Chinese investments in Kyaukphyu township. Secondly, the AA may continue to chart its own path, remaining equivocal towards other actors in Myanmar’s conflict, while strengthening its administrative structures.

Finally, the AA might warm to the NUG. This would require the NUG to accommodate the AA’s ‘Way of Rakhita’, which goes beyond other EAOs’ aspirations for autonomy, within its vision for a future Myanmar. In June 2022, after months of informal talks, the NUG and AA met officially for the first time. The AA’s response was cordial but characteristically murky: it merely stated that its ‘relations with the NUG are good’ in comparison to those with the SAC. At least two obstacles stand in the way of closer cooperation between the AA and the NUG: one, whether the AA’s leadership and constituents can overcome their mistrust of former NLD leaders within the NUG; and two, whether the NUG can adapt to the AA’s demands.

The fate of Rakhine’s population of 3 million – as well as that of more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees – hangs in the balance.

According to Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, a Rakhine researcher, the NUG may fear that other EAOs ‘would demand similar treatment, precipitating a long-feared national disintegration into multiple ethnic micro-states’. Even so, there are signs that the AA is increasingly engaging with the wider anti-coup resistance, consisting not just of the NUG, but also PDFs and EAOs. The AA condemned the executions of four political prisoners announced on 25 July 2022, saying in a statement that ‘this act wiped out ASEAN members’ efforts toward peace and reconciliation,’ and adding that the executions would only attract ‘braver heroes in the future, and contribute to the Spring Revolution.’ Meanwhile, reports suggest that the AA has provided training or arms for at least 11 PDFs north of Rakhine, in Chin State.

Whether the NUG can accommodate, compromise and address longstanding drivers of violence will have a significant influence on the future of the AA – an organisation that insists on autonomy but not disengagement. So far, the NUG’s willingness to learn and adapt has outstripped that of the SAC, which remains mired in old strategies that, as Htet Myet Min Tun wrote for ISEAS, ‘serve narrow interests but neglect to address underlying national issues’. The fate of Rakhine’s population of 3 million – as well as that of more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees – hangs in the balance.