Analysis

Military Tensions Rise in Western Myanmar as Arakan Army Chief Warns Regime 

By Agga Aung 9 May 2022

Major-General Tun Myat Naing, chief of the powerful ethnic armed organization (EAO) the Arakan Army (AA) based in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State, has issued a public warning to the head of the Myanmar military’s Western Command, raising the prospect of renewed fighting in Rakhine.  

“Htin Latt Oo, don’t go too far. You have been irritating. I won’t give a shit about peace [if you carry on]. I will come to your place and crush it,” wrote the AA chief on his Twitter on May 7. Major General Htin Latt Oo is the head of the Western Command, which oversees Rakhine State. 

In response to the AA chief’s warning, ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe wrote on his Facebook “I hear a loud thunder from Rakhine.” 

It is still unclear why the AA chief has issued such a strong statement. Rakhine is currently largely stable and peaceful, compared to other parts of the country, but sources in Rakhine say the situation could change quickly.

Behind the curtain in Rakhine State

The AA and the Myanmar military were once bitter enemies. Established in 2009, the AA has been fighting the military in Rakhine State since 2015 for self-determination for ethnic Rakhine [also known as Arakan] people. It enjoys the support of the Rakhine population and inflicted huge casualties on government forces in Rakhine and neighboring Chin State, until an informal ceasefire was agreed in late 2020.  

At an October 2019 press conference, then military spokesperson [and current junta spokesperson] Major-General Zaw Min Tun admitted that it is hard to fight the AA. “I have never seen a cowardly and cunning group like the AA among the EAOs that have emerged since independence,” he said. The Maj-Gen’s choice of words was controversial, but it revealed the military’s feeling of powerlessness towards the AA. 

When the Union Election Commission decided to cancel the 2020 general election in many parts of Rakhine State due to instability, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing played the situation to his advantage and offered the army’s help to stage the election, which led to an informal ceasefire with the AA that ended two years of intense fighting.

With the involvement of Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa, the military and the AA reached a gentlemen’s agreement to stop the clashes.

However, since last year’s coup the Myanmar military has been overwhelmed with the armed resistance that has erupted in many parts of the country, and so has had no time to deal with the AA. 

The military’s struggle provided an opportunity for the AA. Since the coup, the United League of Arakan, the AA’s political wing, has established a parallel administration in Rakhine State with its own judiciary, revenue department, public security offices and other governmental institutions. 

Maj-Gen Htin Latt Oo, the head of the military’s Western Command based in Ann Township, may have felt insulted by the AA’s growing influence. 

The junta has attempted to counteract the AA, with regime troops inspecting villages and tightening security checks on roads and in towns. The regime has once again started detaining and interrogating people it suspects of having ties to the AA, something it has not done since the 2020 ceasefire. Those inspections and arrests surged around mid-April. 

Even before Maj-Gen Tun Myat Naing issued his strong warning, military tensions were rising in Rakhine because of the junta’s actions, said Rakhine politicians. 

In early April, the AA’s spokesperson Khaing Thukha called on the regime not to interfere in its administration in Rakhine, saying that will spark an armed conflict. He then told an online press conference: “Tensions are rising between the Myanmar military and the Rakhine people’s authority led by the AA. We have been talking through intermediaries to ease tensions and avoid confrontation.

“But if the junta continues to interfere, we can’t guarantee peace. So the regime needs to be careful,” he added.

Not only the AA chief, but its troops on the ground cannot put up with the regime, said sources close to the AA.

The junta, which is struggling against the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) in many parts of the country, will not want to open a new front in Rakhine State, said analysts. 

An exhausted regime changes its tune 

In response to Maj-Gen Tun Myat Naing’s warning, junta spokesperson Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun told the BBC that the regime does not want to fight the AA.

In the interview, he urged the AA chief to talk with Min Aung Hlaing when he meets the junta leader in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw. Min Aung Hlaing has called for face-to-face peace talks with the leaders of EAOs. Several EAOs, including powerful ones like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Liberation Army, have said publicly they won’t join the talks.

Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun’s change of tone is in stark contrast to his remarks on the AA two years ago. Military analysts said that the army might be upset, and that it might only be tolerating the AA’s stance because it is doing badly in the conflicts elsewhere in the country and because of the junta chief’s proposal of peace talks.

Military analysts believe the regime will fight a war against the AA if it can gain the upper hand against the PDFs. But there is also the possibility that fresh fighting could break out before then, they added. 

AA chief tries to kill two birds with one stone 

Maj-Gen Tun Myat Naing’s interviews and social media posts show that he does not have a tendency to make rash statements. 

His recent challenge came as a bomb that has been detonated in timely fashion. The regime has called on the EAOs to reply by May 9 as to whether they will attend the peace talks offered by Min Aung Hlaing. 

The AA has not yet responded to the regime’s proposal, and Maj-Gen Tun Myat Naing’s warning came a day after the KIA rejected the talks. 

The AA chief’s warning means that he shares the same view as the KIA, and that he is trying to deter junta activities in Rakhine. “The challenge is another insult to the Western Command chief,” said an observer. 

If the military regime does fight a war in Rakhine, it will likely be a suicide mission for its troops. But if it does not fight, the junta will only be able to watch helplessly as the AA further expands its influence in Rakhine State.

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