The emergence of the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State has underscored the increasingly complex conflict between the military, Rohingya people and local Buddhist nationalists that has been ongoing since the nation’s independence in 1948 (and, arguably, long before).
The AA attacked four border posts on January 4, Myanmar’s Independence Day, with particular brutality — killing 13 policemen and injuring nine others from the Border Force Police, a paramilitary force controlled by the military. Hostages taken at the time have since been released.
The Myanmar military — known as the Tatmadaw — responded by deploying an unknown number of troops to the area, including units from its expert light infantry divisions. On January 13 there was a reported four-hour firefight between the AA and the Tatmadaw. Some commentators are already fearing that the situation will devolve into all-out war similar to long-running conflicts in Kachin and Karen States. Reports estimate that 100 people on both sides have been killed in Rakhine so far.
Well-armed and organised, with an estimated 7000 troops, the Buddhist AA — the armed wing of the United League of Arakan — formed in 2009, reportedly with the backing of the Kachin Independence Army. The KIA has been fighting a civil war in the northern state of Kachin since 2011.
It already highlights the increasingly tough road to peace for Myanmar’s State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is already facing Myanmar’s mounting economic woes. The conflict is certain to hamper moves to repatriate the 750,000 Rohingya who fled the country from August 2017 and remain in sprawling refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. An initial attempt in November 2018 stalled, and rising anti-Rohingya sentiment in Bangladesh has further complicated matters.
Fighting between local Arakan militias and Myanmar military is hardly something new. Historically, disputes date back to the 18th century ahead of the British conquest of the country in the 19th century. Rakhine Muslims fought for the British during World War II, while Buddhists supported the Japanese. In 1968 the Arakan Liberation Army formed, backed by insurgents in Karen State. It surrendered in 2012 and is now part of Suu Kyi’s Panglong peace process.
Days after the January 4 attacks, President Win Myint convened a meeting of the military dominated National Security Council.
“The President’s Office has instructed the Defence Ministry to increase troop deployments in the areas where the police stations were attacked … and to use aircraft if necessary,” a government spokesperson said after the meeting. The meeting was also attended by Suu Kyi, Tatmadaw commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing and others.
The government has attempted to link the AA with terrorist-designated Rohingya group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, but this appears highly unlikely, as there has always been friction between the region’s Muslims and Buddhist groups. AA chief Brigadier-General Tun Myat Naing, who is the son-in-law of the speaker of the Rakhine State parliament, said this linkage appears like an attempt to discredit the AA with local Buddhist supporters.
What does seem certain is that things will only get worse in 2019 for the people of the impoverished but resource-rich state of Rakhine.