The Causes and Likely Effects of the Arakan Army’s Attacks

By The Irrawaddy 12 January 2019

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the Arakan Army (AA)’s attacks on four border police outposts in northern Rakhine State on Jan. 4, Myanmar’s Independence Day, and their impact on politics and the peace process of the country. Political analyst U Maung Maung Soe joins me to discuss this. I’m Ye Ni, editor of The Irrawaddy Burmese edition.

As you know, the AA launched attacks on four border police outposts in northern Rakhine State on Jan. 4, Independence Day. Thirteen police were killed in the attacks, and the AA briefly held 18 persons prisoner. There have been many clashes since the AA took steps in 2014 and 2015 to establish a stronghold in its homeland of Rakhine State. But my personal view is that the AA has raised the stakes by launching its latest attacks on Jan. 4. What do you think is the AA’s goal? What message does it want to send through its latest attacks?

Maung Maung Soe: The AA was founded in 2009 on the Myanmar-China border. It seems that it took lessons from previous [Arakanese] organizations such as the AIA [Arakan Independence Army] and ALP [Arakan Liberation Party], which came into existence in 1968. At that time, the ALP was founded in Karen State. After assembling hundreds of troops by around 1975, it marched from Karen to Shan State, then to Kachin State and to Chin through the Naga mountain range. There they were surrounded and annihilated by Tatmadaw troops. Similarly, the AIA led by U San Kyaw Kyaw Tun was founded with the support of the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], and it too was annihilated by Tatmadaw troops as it marched from Kachin State to Chin State. It seems the AA learned a lesson from them, and took its time to build a strong army on the Myanmar-China border. First, it apparently chose to infiltrate into Rakhine rather than marching its troops in there. Second, it chose to base itself in the thickly forested area of Chin State’s Paletwa, upstream from northern Rakhine State. The AA started participating in the peace process around 2014, 2015. It joined the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council]. But when [former] President U Thein Sein met the UNFC leaders on Sept. 9, 2015, the AA, TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army] and MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army] were barred [from participating in] the peace process. This was followed by the attacks of the AA. Clashes broke out in northern Rakhine State in 2015. There were sporadic clashes in 2016 and 2017, especially in Chin State’s Paletwa, toward the end of 2017. But at the same time, some AA troops remain in northeastern areas of the country, and have participated in joint military operations with the KIA, the TNLA and the MNDAA. AA troops have infiltrated gradually, and their activities intensified in Rakhine and Paletwa in 2018. And around the end of 2018 they came down to the outskirts of four townships—Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw—in northern Rakhine State. There were attacks on convoys, and clashes with the Myanmar Army in the forest. There were allegations that the Tatmadaw used helicopters in the clashes. The Tatmadaw on Dec. 21 declared a ceasefire in five military regions on the Myanmar-China border [to further the] peace process. The truce covers areas in Kachin and Shan states, but it does not cover the area overseen by the Western Command. The Tatmadaw said it could not implement a ceasefire there due to ARSA [the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army]. But in my opinion, it is because of the infiltration of AA troops in northern Rakhine State. If the Tatmadaw were to halt its operations there, it would amount to an acceptance of [the AA’s] existence there. The Tatmadaw already has a policy to negotiate with the AA, but it is hard for it to halt its operations in the absence of an agreement. For this reason, I expected [the Tatmadaw] would hold talks promptly to solve the problem. But that didn’t happen. The AA has concerns that [the Tatmadaw] will bring troops from Kachin and northern Shan State to Rakhine and launch large-scale attacks. Due to such concerns and reservations, clashes broke out and continue. On Jan. 4, the AA launched its first-ever attacks on [police] outposts. The aim of the AA since it was founded in 2009 has been to return and establish a stronghold in Rakhine. I think the AA is preparing to base itself in Paletwa and northern Rakhine State. There will be fierce clashes if the Tatmadaw doesn’t accept this. You can look at the example of MNDAA troops returning to Kokang in 2015. There will be fierce clashes if the Tatmadaw doesn’t accept the AA building a base in Paletwa and northern Rakhine State as part of implementing what [the AA] calls “The Way of Rakhita.”

YN: At a press conference at the President’s Office on Monday, [government spokesperson] U Zaw Htay said the President, the State Counselor and the Army chief held talks immediately after the Jan. 4 AA attacks. He said the President’s Office has allowed the Tatmadaw to attack the AA. So it seems that clashes are inevitable. What can be done to avert or reduce the chances of fighting?

MMS: It should be noted that this is the first time the National League for Democracy-led government, since it took office, has instructed the Tatmadaw to conduct military operations, and it is in Rakhine State. The government has neither instructed nor restricted the Tatmadaw in clashes in Kachin and northern Shan State. It should be noted that this is the first time. So regarding future attacks in Rakhine State, not only the Tatmadaw but also the government has to ensure responsibility and accountability. We will monitor this. It will be interesting to see how ethnic armed organizations including the AA assess this. Because the decision to launch attacks was not made by the Tatmadaw alone. Our previous understanding was that the Tatmadaw made decisions about military matters, according to the Constitution. But this decision was made by the government. So, it will be interesting to see how other ethnic armed groups view it. But the door to peace talks remains open. U Zaw Htay said political negotiations would be held [with the AA]. And the AA said in its statement that it would continue talks. And I think China will also broker the talks despite its denunciation of the AA attacks. Skepticism will grow if clashes break out. And we need to wait and see the response of the ethnic armed organizations to the fighting waged by the government. Again, as I’ve said, whether or not the Tatmadaw can accept the existence of AA troops in northern Rakhine is also a very important factor.

YN: At the press conference, U Zaw Htay warned that big powers are at play in the Rakhine issue. Paletwa, where the AA is currently based, borders India and Bangladesh. And U Zaw Htay accused the AA of having two bases on the Bangladeshi side of border [where he also claimed there are] ARSA bases. And as you’ve said, China is a big player in Myanmar’s peace process. So, it seems the President’s Office views it not just as an internal issue, but a regional political chessboard. What is your assessment of this?

MMS: Western countries and others have alleged that the seven ethnic groups based in northeastern areas of Myanmar that opted out of signing the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] and which formed the FPNCC [Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee] did so because they are tied to China’s apron strings. They accuse them of having close ties to China. But on the other hand, China is urging them to sign the NCA for the success of the peace process.

Anyway, it is indisputable that a big power is involved in our peace process. There are also accusations that China has backed the AA motivated by its own interests in Rakhine State. The AA says it is simply realizing its “Way of the Rakhita”. It troops have reached the India border as it attempts to realize this. Bangladesh and the AA have denied having ties with each other. We’ll wait and see on this.

However, I’m more interested in [the role of] India. India is a big power, the main rival to China in the region. It keeps an eye on China’s steps. India and Japan are planning to build [an economic] corridor to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. India is one of the countries that is particularly wary about China’s steps in Myanmar.

And I found that the Indian government paid attention to border security in 2018. As far as I know, the Assam Rifles is responsible for security on the India-Myanmar border. I heard that a proposal was submitted to the Indian Parliament in 2018 to form another border guard force. I don’t know if the decision has been made. Anyway, the Indian government has given attention to border security.

The Naga armed group, which the Indian government has declared an unlawful association, is based inside Myanmar. Again, India assumes that the Kuki group, which often launches attacks in Manipur, has bases inside Myanmar. There are allegations. So, we need to wait and see how the Indian government views the AA on its border. It will be interesting to see.

YN: Racial tensions are inevitable as clashes escalate. We have now seen some netizens on both sides [from the Bamar and Arakanese communities] attacking each other on social media. What is your advice to ethnic groups, especially the Arakanese politicians and civil society organizations (CSOs), as they try to handle this?

MMS: [The government], if it has the will, should easily be able to overcome the [Arakanese] displaced persons crisis, which needs urgent attention. If the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, the Rakhine State government and Arakanese CSOs work together, they will be able to solve the problem of some 5,000 displaced persons, and of any new displaced persons. At the press conference on Monday, [government spokesperson] U Zaw Htay urged political organizations and CSOs [to help displaced persons]. This is not enough. The government has accused the AA of having ties to ARSA. The AA has denied it, and Bangladesh has also denied that the AA has bases on its side of the border. On this problem, we will have to wait and see. But the Arakanese people don’t accept that the AA has links to ARSA. Even if the AA has ties to ARSA, [the government] should separate internal issues and handle them separately. If the two problems are combined, it will become more difficult to solve not only the problem of AA, but also the refugee crisis. We have yet to solve the [Rohingya] refugee crisis. If the government doesn’t cooperate with the community, either with Arakanese CSOs or political parties, and if there is hatred between the two communities, it will be hard for the government to solve the refugee crisis. Besides that, there is talk that sanctions will be imposed against Myanmar. This will put the country into deeper trouble. So, in my view, it is not enough for the government just to urge Arakanese political organizations and CSOs [to take action]. It has to invite them and cooperate with them. It also important that [the government] broaden the federal framework. Only then can this problem be solved.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!