Myanmar Junta’s Rakhine Poll Plan Hinges on Arakan Army 

By The Irrawaddy 23 February 2023

The military coup in February 2021 triggered an armed uprising across the country, with fighting raging in both towns and villages – but Rakhine State has been relatively stable. This is partly because the ethnic rebel Arakan Army (AA) reached a ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s military three months before the coup thanks to mediation by Japan’s Sasakawa Foundation.

Rakhine State had experienced two years of fierce fighting before the putsch, but during that time Rakhine lawmakers were able to help displaced civilians through Parliament.

On the political stage, the Arakan National Party (ANP) won popular support in northern Rakhine while the National League for Democracy (NLD) was strong in southern Rakhine.

But following the coup, the majority of Rakhine people, who have long been oppressed by Myanmar’s military, began to prefer armed struggle to party politics.

AA leaders were at first quiet about the new military regime, and even spoke out against the civil disobedience movement (CDM) in Rakhine. However, the armed group has since begun providing basic military training for People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) fighting the regime, and supplied arms to Chin resistance groups. It has also engaged in talks with the parallel civilian National Unity Government.

Political situation since coup 

The junta is now planning to hold an election in a bid to establish legitimacy. It recently amended the Political Parties Registration Law and extended emergency rule for another six months.

In February last year, the regime released Rakhine politician Dr. Aye Maung, who had been handed a long jail sentence for high treason under the now-ousted NLD government, in a bid to resurrect party politics in Rakhine.

There are three major local parties in Rakhine State and each holds a different opinion of the junta’s proposed poll.

Dr. Aye Maung, chairman of the Arakan Front Party (AFP), agrees that the new Political Parties Registration Law is restrictive, but insists parties have an important role to play in solving the political crisis and says an election is crucial to breaking the impasse.

The Rakhine politician reportedly advised the United Democratic Party, known as the Rose party for its logo, to re-register under a new name with the junta-appointed Union Election Commission. The party was dissolved ahead of the 2020 election after its chairman Michael Kyaw Myint was accused of money laundering, flouting business laws and fleeing a prison sentence handed down under a previous military regime. The party re-registered as the Union Democracy Party this month.

Dr. Aye Maung says he will re-register his own AFP as a Rakhine State-based party, but also try to contest in Yangon and Ayeyarwady regions and Chin State’s Paletwa.

“We need a political platform where we can raise political issues. We have decided to re-register to assert the identity of Rakhine ethnic people,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Meanwhile, the Arakan National Party (ANP), from which Dr. Aye Maung split, says it has not yet decided whether to contest the planned poll as it is still watching the regime’s moves.

ANP policy steering committee member U Tun Aung Kyaw said: “Political parties must do what is beneficial to the people. I think parties will think differently if there are too many restrictions and people can’t benefit.”

The Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) has condemned the new Political Parties Registration Law as the military’s plot to cement its grip on power. Its general secretary U Myo Kyaw said the ALD will not register under laws that would perpetuate dictatorship and has no plan to contest the poll.

U Myo Kyaw has been in hiding after the regime opened an incitement case against him. The junta has also arrested the head of ALD’s Taungup Township chapter, U Kyaw Kyaw Lin, and a member from Thandwe.

Meanwhile, vice chairman U Kyaw Zaw Oo and a central executive committee member of the AFP have been abducted and detained by the AA.

Rakhine residents lost interest in political parties after they failed to intervene to halt the military’s war crimes, including abduction and killing of civilians and arson attacks on villages during two years of fighting before the coup. Some party members have even joined the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan.

Dr. Aye Maung insists that not all Rakhine people will take the path of armed struggle, and political parties still have a role to play. Ultimately, people will decide how to overcome the current crisis, he says.

Junta restrictions targeting AA and Rakhine people 

During the two years of intense fighting from late 2018 to November 2020, the military restricted supplies of building materials, pharmaceuticals and basic foodstuffs to Rakhine after losing public support there and suffering heavy losses in clashes with the AA. The resulting shortages saw food prices soar in the state.

Ahead of the November 2020 general election, the Myanmar military and the AA reached an informal ceasefire brokered by Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation.

Rakhine State was relatively calm even as the whole country was thrown into chaos by the coup in February 2021. But tensions soon flared again, and the two sides engaged in fierce fighting on the borders of Bangladesh and India in August 2022.

Despite its air superiority, the regime lost bases to the AA. According to military analysts, the latest clashes saw regime troops ousted from almost all their bases in Maungdaw, which borders Bangladesh. It also lost several bases in Paletwa in neighboring Chin State.

The regime has applied the same tactic in the latest fighting in Rakhine, imposing travel restrictions on both roads and waterways, and restricting supplies of food and pharmaceuticals. It only lifted restrictions gradually after a fresh truce in late November last year.

U Maung Saw Win, chairman of Mayu Region Development Association in Rathedaung Township, said: “Currently, the AA has control over the area. The Myanmar military has not been able to re-establish outposts that it lost to the AA. Economic and social issues in Rakhine have only worsened since the coup. Most people still can’t return to their villages from displacement camps. And others can’t earn a livelihood because of the presence of troops around their villages.”

Junta, AA trade arrests 

In the months before the latest fighting, the regime arrested civilians on suspicion of having ties to the AA. The AA, in turn, arrested junta personnel.

The regime arrested around 20 civilians in Taungup, at least 30 civilians in Thandwe, and over 30 including civil servants, police, administrators and civilians in Kyaukphyu. It also detained civilians and administrators in Maungdaw, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Minbya townships over their alleged ties to the AA.

Of the 324 civilians detained during the latest fighting, only 85 had been released, AA spokesman Khaing Thukha told a press conference in November last year.

Over 30 civilians were killed and more than 70 injured in Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Maungdaw, Ponnagyun and Minbya townships by junta artillery strikes and arson attacks in the latest fighting.

Second ceasefire 

The AA ambushed a junta vehicle on Sittwe-Ponnagyun road on November 10 last year. In retaliation, the regime killed 11 residents and torched houses in two villages along the road.

AA troops then besieged Light Infantry Battalion 550, the only military unit in Ponnagyun, some 25 miles from Sittwe. The regime also blockaded Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital and economic hub, on November 10.

Faced with tough choices, the two sides agreed an informal truce again on November 26, through the mediation of Sasakawa. The AA called it a humanitarian ceasefire while the regime lifted travel restrictions. The AA urged village administrators in Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships who had resigned amid tensions between the two sides to return to work. The junta welcomed their reinstatement.

Potential for election in Rakhine 

The regime has been updating voter lists in Rakhine since January 9. However, residents are taking no notice of the process, which is going on undisturbed. Meanwhile political parties are not campaigning in the state.

Rakhine ethnic politician U Pe Than said: “There have been no disturbances in the preparation of voter lists. The AA has allowed it, but this does not mean it will also allow the poll. It will depend on public opinion about the election across the country, and whether the ceasefire holds until then.”

Rakhine people have no interest in the junta-proposed poll and are also waiting to see how the AA responds to the regime’s efforts to hold the election in Rakhine.