Analysis: Arakan Army - A Powerful New Threat to the Tatmadaw

By The Irrawaddy 8 January 2019

YANGON—More than nine years after it was formed by 26 Arakanese (Rakhine) youths, the Arakan Army (AA) today is a 7000-member strong army which is gaining progress in its bid to establish a stronghold in its homeland, Rakhine State.

Hundreds of AA troops launched a coordinated attack on four border guard police outposts in Buthidaung Township on Friday. Only after the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) sent reinforcements and attacked from the air, the AA troops retreated.

Thirteen police were killed in the attack during which the AA abducted 18 police and their family members who they later released.

The conflict plays out as Myanmar comes under growing pressure from the international community regarding the exodus of Rohingya from northern Rakhine State into Bangladesh following brutal military clearance operations spurred by serial attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on a number of police outposts in August 2017.

The AA was established in 2009 in Kachin State’s Laiza with the support of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and in 2014 it revealed its dream of returning to its homeland of Rakhine State.

The Arakan Army’s military training school is located close to Nan Sam Ran Creek near Laiza in Kachin State. These photos, taken in 2014, depict the life of Arakanese soldiers at the military training school. / The Irrawaddy

It appears that the ethnic armed group has been realizing this dream.

Ethnic affairs analysts estimate that around 3,000 AA soldiers have infiltrated Kyauktaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships in northern Rakhine State and Chin State’s Paletwa Township.

How has the AA funded a standing army of some 7,000 troops and managed to conduct military operations just a few years after its formation in spite of having no areas in its control?

The AA obtains arms and ammunition from its mentor the KIA and its ally the United Wa State Army (UWSA). It also purchases them on the black market at the Thai-Myanmar border, according to sources close to the matter.

In addition to arms and ammunition made locally by the KIA and UWSA, and China-made weapons, the AA has in its arsenal US-made M60 machine guns whose unit price is around $10,000 on the black market. The M60s are seen in a video commemorating the 9th anniversary of the AA’s formation which circulated on social media in April 2018.

According to the video clip, the AA also has Barrett MRAD sniper rifles which have a unit price of over $10,000 on the black market at the Thailand-Myanmar border. The sniper rifle is commonly used by the border guard forces of Israel and armed forces in Norway and the Netherlands.

AA snipers during a parade. / AA Info Desk

The sniper rifle is believed to be attributed to the deaths of a number of Myanmar army officials since clashes broke out between the two sides in 2015.

Analysts suggest that the AA might also purchase weapons from Kuki rebels on the Myanmar-India border.

As well as an arsenal of advanced weapons, AA troops appear to be well-equipped with uniforms and ample food rations. The AA also helps with living and health expenses of the troop’s family members and is even said to finance members who drop out in order to continue their education.

The AA pays transportation costs for those wishing to join the armed group but cannot afford to travel to Kachin State’s Laiza where they undergo military training.

While it’s true that a portion of the AA’s funding is likely to be provided by their Arakanese supporters, Myanmar’s government and military have accused the AA of smuggling drugs to fund its army.

Where does the money come from?

It is a rare case among ethnic armed groups in Myanmar to have established a strong army within nine years and to be able to fund a sophisticated campaign.

For years, Arakanese people have migrated to find employment opportunities and escape the ailing economy of Rakhine State. Many Arakanese who are working abroad contribute at least a few thousand kyats monthly to the AA. Some affluent Arakanese people also make large contributions to the AA on a regular basis. They often contribute cash on special occasions such as the birthdays of family members, in one case witnessed by The Irrawaddy, a wealthy donor contributed more than 10 million kyats.

After the Tatmadaw launched air strikes on the AA’s footholds in Chin State’s Paletwa in 2017, some rich Arakanese gave money to the AA to help them buy anti-aircraft missiles, the AA’s Chief Maj-Gen Twan Mrat Naing once told The Irrawaddy.

Their support is so huge that even the President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay on Monday told AA sympathizers to stop their support.

“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.

According to U Zaw Htay, the government and Tatmadaw believe the AA mainly gets its funds from drug smuggling, an accusation which AA information officer Khine Thu Kha denied.

The 2017 report compiled by the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine State Advisory Commission states that the AA is linked with drug dealers.

The case in which Lt-Col Aung Myat Kyaw was arrested in Yangon in February 2016 supports the accusation of the government and Tatmadaw. A graduate of the first batch of AA military training and also a close aide of Maj-Gen Twan Mrat Naing, the court heard that he was responsible for the procurement and logistics of arms and ammunition for the AA in preparation for their staging of a revolution in Rakhine.

In early 2015, AA troops marched over land from Kachin State’s Laiza to Chin State’s Paletwa Township near the Myanmar-India border, leading to clashes with the Myanmar Army. Lt-Col Aung Myat Kyaw was a key player in arranging logistics of arms and ammunition for those troops.

A large number of army rucksacks and backpacks, night binoculars, walkie-talkies, compasses, GPS, and materials and used in the making mines and bombs were seized from a house in North Dagon Township in Yangon where Lt-Col Aung Myat Kyaw was a tenant.

Thousands of anti-aircraft machine-gun bullets, AK47 bullets, shells, and TNT dynamite were seized from a house in Yangon’s Hlaingtharyar Township in a follow-up search.

U Wai Tha Tun, a drug dealer who resided with Lt-Col Aung Myat Kyaw in North Dagon Township was also arrested together with over 300,000 yaba tablets.

The AA dismissed claims of their connections to the drug trade and accused the government of deliberately attempting to defame it.

During his trial, Lt-Col Aung Myat Kyaw admitted to cooperating with drug dealers to supply drugs to Rakhine State, and of giving the profits back to the armed group. He bought arms and ammunition with the money allotted by the AA.

According to his testimony, he has transported rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), RPG warheads, TNT dynamites and mines around 30 times either in his own car or by long-distance express buses from the Myanmar-Thai border to Rakhine State’s capital Sittwe via Yangon.

He was charged under the arms act and narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances law and sentenced ten years to prison. He was also charged for money laundering as he was found to have bought land along the Yangon-Sittwe Highway and saved over 40 million kyats at banks. He is currently facing trial at Yangon Region Northern District Court for this along with eight other drug dealers.

The government claimed that the four persons suspected of killing former Mrauk-U Township administrator U Bo Bo Min Theik in February 2018 are connected with the AA.

The suspects said they traded approximately 4.4 million methamphetamine pills between December 2016 and November 2017, and confessed to buying M-16 assault rifles, pistols and several magazines and rounds to supply the AA.

The ethnic group denied their claim, saying that it never uses M-16 assault rifles.

Leaders of some of the ethnic allies of the AA also denied accusations that the AA is involved in drug dealing.

The UWSA, the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) have always denied their own involvement in the drug trade despite the fact that large amounts of drugs are produced in their regions.

Why is the AA popular among the Arakanese?

Since 1962, the Arakanese people have had few strong representational organizations.

Being a small force, the Arakan Liberation Party and its armed wing the Arakan Liberation Army, which were established before the AA, never managed to win much support from the Arakanese people.

But the AA has managed to revive a patriotic fervor in the Arakanese and rekindle their hopes of self-determination reminiscent of the golden days of the mighty Arakanese Kingdom.

Prominent Arakanese political figure Dr Aye Maung, who is currently facing trial for high treason, told The Irrawaddy in 2016 that he supports the AA.

AA chief Maj-Gen Tun Myat Naing would be one of the persons who will shape the future of Rakhine State, according to Dr Aye Maung.

It is indisputable that the AA has won popular support among Arakanese people. The Irrawaddy has even witnessed some Arakanese parents encouraging their children to join the AA. As well as the ordinary Arakanese people, most Arakanese politicians accept the AA too.

Why is the AA warring against government troops?

Having been established in Kachin State’s Laiza, the AA gathered their feathers and learned to fly from the KIA. Their cause is, like other ethnic armed groups, self-determination and greater autonomy.

AA leaders could not start their revolution in Rakhine State, but have been planning to return to their homeland since 2014.

AA cadets receive their military rankings during their passing out ceremony. / AA Info Desk

Although the government has invited the AA to join peace talks, the Tatmadaw repeatedly refused to hold talks with them between 2015 and 2017, on the grounds that the armed group was established after the 2008 Constitution was adopted, while most other ethnic armed groups were born at the time of independence.

Several active and retired military officers, on condition of anonymity, have said that there is no seat for the AA at the peace talks since it was founded so recently.

Tatmadaw spokespersons have said they would not hold peace talks with the AA as it launched attacks since 2015 after the country had a democratically elected government.

On Dec. 21, the Myanmar Army declared a four-month unilateral ceasefire in five military regions saying it would hold talks with non-signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement during the ceasefire period.

However, they have been criticized for excluding Rakhine State which is overseen by the Tatmadaw’s Western Command.

The Tatmadaw cited threats of attacks by ARSA as their reason for excluding Rakhine State from the ceasefire. The AA’s information officer Khine Thu Kha later said that if the Tatmadaw has genuine willingness, it could also announce a ceasefire where military tensions are running high with the AA and at the same time exclude areas where ARSA is active.

He said the Tatmadaw excluded Rakhine State because it wants to launch large-scale attacks on the AA while halting its military operations in northern areas of Myanmar.