Many Arakanese Embrace AA’s Presence

By Lawi Weng 12 February 2019

Rakhine State has been the scene of the country’s worst fighting so far this year, as opposed to last year, when Kachin State was the focus. Each year the fighting moves from one area of the country to another, but it never seems to break out everywhere at once, despite the fact that most ethnic groups have their own armies. Some people have even asked why this should be. But, as we all know, the history of ethnic revolutionary armed groups shows that there is no common interest that would lead to a coordinated attack on the Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw).

Until recently, the Arakanese had no fighting in their region for over 60 years. So, they did not have experience with IDPs being forced to flee the fighting, as is the case today. The Arakanese did not have a strong armed force based in their region. The Myanmar military had sole control of the region, though it was unpopular among ethnic Arakanese.

Ethnic Arakanese were split when the Arakan Army returned to base forces on their land. For good reason, many Arakanese were happy, as their ethnic armed group was able to return and set up bases. They feel that now they have an army that can protect their security and even fight for their political rights.  When it comes to the Myanmar Army, if you do not have a strong armed force, they ignore your requests for political talks. So, for many years, Arakanese were upset, as their political voices were ignored by the Myanmar government and Army.

When the AA came back to the region, it was the first time Arakanese had seen their own army face to face. They compare their army to the Ye Baw Ton Jade (Thirty Comrades led by General Aung San) who went to study military training in Japan, then came back secretly to Myanmar to fight against the British for independence. Unfortunately, the Arakan region, especially the northern part, has become a war zone, forcing many local people to flee the fighting. However, the fighting has continued to spread. About 7,000 IDPs have fled their homes since the Myanmar Army launched a military offensive in Arakan after the AA attacked three police bases in Maungdaw and killed 13 police officers on Jan. 4.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counselor, instructed the Myanmar Army to use a military offensive to crush the AA as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. The Myanmar Army declared it would eliminate those AA based in Arakan. The Myanmar Army uses the “Four Cuts” policy, an old military strategy used to fight against ethnic rebels in the past. The strategy aims to cut off food, funds, intelligence and support for the groups it is fighting. The Myanmar Army arrested 38 people and charged them under the Unlawful Association Act 17 (1) and 17 (2), according to Narinjara news agency based in Arakan State. The state government has even allowed the Army to check civilian houses whenever the Army suspected families of supporting the rebels. The Army uses different types of repression on the ground to stop local Arakan from supporting the rebels, but the fighting has gotten worse and local people continue to support them.

KIA: AA’s ‘big brother’

The AA describe the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) as being like a brother organization that helped it to build up a strong armed force. The KIA was the main group providing assistance to the AA when it was being set up. So, the Arakanese are thankful to the Kachin for allowing their army to be established on Kachin land. A Kachin friend who works for a foreign embassy described how he was happy when he visited Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. He said that when he told them he was Kachin, many locals were happy to see him, and said they were good comrades. So, the Arakanese feel a close friendship with their Kachin brothers.

The KIA and the AA cannot be split when it comes to the current armed conflict in Myanmar. The Myanmar Army is not happy that the KIA allowed the AA to be set up in Laiza. Some members of the Tatmadaw have posted hate messages on Facebook saying that they cannot forgive the KIA, and blame it for what is happening in Arakan.

The AA set up its headquarters in Laiza in 2009. The AA has even been based in the area controlled by the Karen National Union. But they were forced to move those bases after the KNU signed a ceasefire in 2012 with the Myanmar Army.

The AA has also been based in northern Shan State in an area under the control of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, as well in the Kokang area, where they helped the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) fight the Tatmadaw. When the MNDAA launched a strong attack in Laukkai, some AA troops were also killed alongside their Kokang comrades. Some people criticized the AA for letting its soldiers die on other people’s ground. But leaders from the AA said they needed to gain fighting experience before returning to their land.

In the 1970s, the former Arakan armed group known as the Arakan Liberation Army led by Khaing Moe Linn tried returning to their motherland after forming an armed group in the KNU-controlled area. They tried to cross into Chin after traveling through Karen, Shan and Kachin, then go to Arakan. But the Myanmar Army attacked as the group was on their way into Chin State. Many Arakan Liberation Army troops were killed, so they could not reach their region.

The AA is smart to use the area of the Kachin first, then move into Paletwa in Chin State, where the population on the border of Rakhine State is mixed Chin and Arakanese. The AA was able to survive by relying on Arakanese living in Paletwa. It took five years for the AA to up build troops in Arakan, and for them to be able to fight back against the Myanmar Army.

The Myanmar Army has ruled in Arakan for a long time, dispensing patronage to help poor people in the Arakan region. Local Arakanese now use the language of the Burmans, who provide security on the Bangladesh border and prevent the Rohingya from spreading into other townships in the region. Nonetheless, the local Arakanese view Burmans as not much different from the British who once came to colonize their region. They ask why, given the lack of fighting there in recent decades compared to other states, Rakhine remains the poorest state. They accuse the central government of taking natural resources from their region but failing to develop it. The Arakanese even feel that they need their own armed group in their region to stop religious violence. They feel the Army will only try to create problems between Arakanese and Rohingya.

Local Arakanese have struggled under a poor economy and repressive Burman rule for over 60 years. The director of the Myanmar President’s Office, U Zaw Htay, warned local Arakanese people early in January not to support the rebels, saying the Arakan region was in danger of becoming a war zone. Some locals say they are prepared for the worst, but hope for best now that they have their own army in the region.