As 2019 took its first tentative steps, Myanmar set about celebrating its 71st anniversary of its independence from British rule. On 4 January, in Maha Bandula Park in Yangon, the sound of sporting events and fun fairs filled the air. In the Buthidaung township in northern Rakhine state, it was the sound of bullets that stamped a bloody mark on the calendar.
The Arakan Army (AA), a rebel group fighting for self-determination for the Arakanese people, an ethnic group of about 2 million people living mainly in Rakhine state, launched coordinated attacks on four police outposts near the Bangladesh border, killing 13 policemen and wounding nine others. According to the Myanmar News Agency, around 350 AA soldiers descended on the outposts and exchanged fire before fleeing when state army helicopters arrived. It is the first time the AA has directly attacked police outposts.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the attacks were retaliation against the Myanmar army, which AA claims is using the police for military operations and that police officers have been threatening local villagers, RFA reported.
He said the date of the attack was just a coincidence, that “there is no Independence Day for us.”
In recent weeks, there has been a marked increase in hostilities between the rebel group and Myanmar’s army, known as the Tatmadaw. Until now, the Tatmadaw has not engaged in a full-scale offensive against the AA. The Independence Day attacks have changed that.
“The President’s Office has instructed the military to launch an operation to crush the terrorists,” Zaw Htay, director general and spokesman for the President’s Office, said at a news conference after the attacks.
“The Myanmar government has denounced the AA as a terrorist organisation and ordered the military to implement effective counter-insurgency measures against it,” he said.
This is both significant and unprecedented. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party have played passenger to the Tatmadaw on military affairs since coming to power in 2015. Her government has been slammed internationally for not interfering in what the UN has described as a genocide against the Rohingya people. That crackdown was prompted by attacks from another Rakhine state insurgency group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), and led to the displacement of over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims and to accusations of rape and murder by the Tatmadaw.
If the Tatmadaw mount an attack it could lead to at least three more months of violence in the areaDr Min Zaw Oo
So why grab control of the military steering wheel now? Hunter Marston, a PhD candidate at Australian National University and an independent consultant specialising in Myanmar, believes it is a show of strength from the NLD.
“The NLD spokesperson’s statement that the President’s Office has ordered the military to ‘crush the terrorists’ is probably a slight mischaracterisation of the situation,” he told Southeast Asia Globe.
“In reality, the military is not subject to civilian control and operates very independently. So it seems more likely to me that the military has decided to wage a major offensive operation against the AA, and the civilian NLD government has no choice but to support the military offensive. If it did not, it would appear to lack control, and to voice anything other than loud support for the military’s campaign would only indicate its weakness in control over the military.”
Power move or not, the prospect of another crackdown on arguably Myanmar’s most contested region seems very likely. With the political and social tensions there as fragile as china, a bullish Tatmadaw offensive is almost certainly going to have shattering consequences.
The path of violence
To understand the risks of direct military action against the Arakan Army, it is first necessary to look at the background of its adversary.
The AA was formed nearly ten years ago by 26 young Arakanese men. It has since grown in popularity and size, and today it is believed to comprise 7,000 fighters. Its real weapon is not its military might, but its ability to command unwavering support from Arakanese nationals. Dr Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, feels this support will make any Tatmadaw offensive very tricky.
“It appears that the Tatmadaw will try and remove all the AA bases in the area; they will attack from different directions. [It is] very likely the AA will have to lay low – meaning they will have to abandon their bases – and will have to be in hiding, mingling with civilians. They have a strong civilian support base in the area, so [if the Tatmadaw mount an attack] it could lead to at least three more months of violence in the area.”
The AA was founded to push for self-determination for the Arakanese population while promoting their history and culture. The Arakanese are predominantly Theravada Buddhists, which is the principle religion of Myanmar, but the AA feel that their people are underserved by recent economic development, despite having access to many natural resources, and are overlooked politically. The Independence Day attacks are a sign that the AA are now very much active in Rakhine state, which pleases many Arakanese people.
“The AA has leveraged support from the cluster of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) with strong links to China and the United Wa State Party, as well as the high demand among Arakanese politicians and activists for an armed resistance,” said Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher specialising in security, development and humanitarian affairs in Myanmar.
He added: “That doesn’t mean that the group has full support for all of its actions, but its status as a viable armed force lends it principled support from much of the wider Arakanese political elite and from politically active civilians.”
With such wide support in the region, any military attack on the insurgency group will almost definitely play into the AA’s hands.
“Tatmadaw abuses against Arakanese people will only make the AA more influential,” Jolliffe said.
“It could end up with a protractedly displaced population on its hands that would likely help the AA to build a civilian constituency under its influence, either in exile or in remote parts of Rakhine state,” he said, adding, “In the near term, political elites, ordinary civilians and the diaspora will be mobilised against the government and Tatmadaw if violence ensues.”
It raises the question of why the Tatmadaw would risk a major offensive. The AA has long been a lurking threat to the state army, but this is the largest attack by the group to date. A full military retaliation from the Tatmadaw, according to Min Zaw Oo, is unlikely to stop the AA entirely, but might temporarily weaken it militarily. The other possibility is that the Tatmadaw is simply posturing.
“The escalation of a violent offensive by the Tatmadaw follows a pattern seen in other ongoing conflicts, where the Tatmadaw raises the pressure of war even as it prepares to enter ceasefire negotiations, in order to strengthen its bargaining position,” said Marston.
The way of words
On 22 December 2018, the Tatmadaw announced a four-month ceasefire in five regions in the north and northeast of Myanmar, notably excluding Rakhine state.
“There are two reasons [for this]. One is ARSA is still effective over there,” explained Min Zaw Oo. [Two], the government and Tatmadaw will not allow any army groups [to] have a foothold in Rakhine state. If anyone tries to have a foothold in Rakhine state, they will be removed. That is a policy.”
The AA has in the past tried to engage the Tatmadaw in talks, but has been turned away when the Tatmadaw “refused to engage with any groups which had not been active at the beginning of the Thein Sein peace process in 2011,” Jolliffe said.
“It wanted to send the message that groups can’t just suddenly use violence and then get a seat at the table in return.”
More recently, it seemed possible that the AA and two other EAOs would enter peace talks. The three groups met informally with the Myanmar Peace Monitor in December. According to Marston, “the signs seemed promising for ceasefire negotiations”, but in the wake of the Independence Day attacks, a ceasefire now seems unlikely.
While this latest ceasefire is encouraging because it is pushing for dialogue in a country divided by so many lines, it also follows the trends of Tatmadaw tactics.
“As has been the case for three decades, the Tatmadaw strategy is to contain the EAO threat by keeping the majority locked into ceasefires, but divided and distracted so they cannot make significant political demands while fighting a few groups at a time,” Jolliffe said.
If the Tatmadaw pursues military action against the AA, Myanmar’s Rakhine state is again set to be the stage for a bloody conflict that has very little chance of being resolved. But it is doubtful that such an inauspicious start to 2019 will have any major political effect domestically.
“The military has been heavily abusive towards activists and all forms of political opposition for decades,” said Jolliffe. “It has also carried out systematic and extensive bloody campaigns targeting Buddhist Shan, Karen, Ta’ang, Mon and Rakhine civilians in areas where armed organisations [have been] active for decades. I expect most people outside of these areas will be pretty ambivalent and will not necessarily hear much about it.”
Dr. Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst in Myanmar, said that any military operation by the Tatmadaw on the AA will “backfire” and that the new ceasefire should be reviewed.
“The ceasefire by Tatmadaw should cover the whole nation and [the] limit of four months should be lessened,” he said.
“The informal and formal meetings between the government, plus the Tatmadaw and the EAOs, including AA, and the steps toward the trust building, must be initiated immediately. The fragile ceasefire shall not lead to lasting peace,” Yan Myo Thein contended. Any ceasefire, he said, will hold strong “only through effective dialogue”.