A small, roofless light-truck loaded with large loudspeakers drives around the town of Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State. The truck is surrounded by youths who walk by house after house holding silver bowls for the collection of money. The gigantic speakers are playing songs in the Arakanese language on repeat. One of the songs called “People Who Sacrificed” praises those who have given up their lives for the “fatherland.”
Many such groups of self-motivated youths have independently organized fundraising drives to collect money for the people recently displaced by fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) in four townships of northern Rakhine. They receive many in-kind donations and send them up to groups of internally displaced persons (IDPs) via local networks. The networks are frequently facing deterrence from local authorities along the way.
But their actions amount to much more than raising funds—they are conveying messages which they cannot openly speak. What are the messages they are bringing? How do local Arakanese interpret those messages? And the authorities? How do people from other parts of Myanmar take their message heard through mainstream media? What will the implications be?
The recent outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State indicates an increasing trend of political violence. The AA, with steadily increasing mobility, is expanding geographically in Rakhine State with the intention to consolidate its bargaining power through rising public support which it gains through a systematic psyche-war on social media. So far, 4,500 locals have been displaced from their homes due to the recent clashes.
What message is the Arakan Army bringing?
The AA’s messages, rhetoric in style, are heard across social media, the tool of free speech. Over the last year, the AA has been gaining momentum with their crafty use of social media in spreading an online campaign called “Arakan Dream 2020.” This flagship strategy drew many sympathizers, not only among poor rural youths but also from the educated and the politicians. And the AA has succeeded in mobilizing youths from the region which has been engulfed in poverty and inequality for decades.
Arakan Dream 2020 is an initiative, according to AA chief Gen. Twan Mrat Naing, that 2020 will be the start of struggles in the name of “The Way of Rakhita,” a concept with self-determination at its core. There has not yet been any explicit mentioned of how “The Way of Rakhita” will be materialized but the AA is positioning itself as a leading agency for carrying out the movement. One extreme interpretation of “The Way of Rakhita” could be that the Arakanese are pursuing an independent state and this provokes concern among the Burmese elite who largely hold onto a paternalistic view on guarding sovereignty.
In the deep psyches of many Arakanese, stories of the Burmese occupation of the once mighty Arakanese Kingdom in the late 18th century are still vivid. It may be felt that they remain enslaved in terms of their lack of self-determination and their marginalization from political processes. The notion of Rakhita is re-evoking that psyche. Historical facts are carried as hurtful and painful experiences. In that sense, the Arakan Dream is not a new concept but rather a revival of the wishes of their ancestors to rebuild a sovereign state.
An ethnic Rakhine scholar once wrote, “They aren’t inspired by the words of Aung San Suu Kyi on catching up with other countries (Singapore). They don’t trust Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s speeches on peace. But they do care about every word spoken by Gen. Htun Mrat Naing. His speeches inspire the Rakhine public. Arakanese people are excited about Rakhita.”
Why do the Arakanese hold so tightly these messages?
This historical grievance, the Burmese occupation of Arakan, has never been fully put to rest by successive governments. Upon that, the Arakanese construct their racial identity that narrowly encompasses the Buddhist Rakhine. In his latest book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” political scientist Francis Fukuyama argues that liberal democracies—as in the nominal democracy of Myanmar—have not fully solved the problem of “thymos,” a term referring the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity. In the case of the Arakanese people, they have both “isothymia,” the desire to be respected equally to others, and “megalothymia,” the want to be recognized as superior.
Similar to other ethnic groups, the prevailing argument of the Arakanese is that they have economic inequality and are lagging behind in development despite having plenty of natural resources. A political transition in Myanmar creates uncertainty. Populists have used the transition and the democratic election to gain strength. They reawaken the dream of greatness. They raise Arakanese concerns that they are neglected and their dignity is disregarded.
When intercommunal violence broke out in 2012, the Rohingya community, which had been facing severe human rights violations, received the sympathy of the international community. Support from the international community mounted when the fresh exodus of refugees occurred in 2017. When the central government tries to steer a conflict situation, the Arakanese are not able to meaningfully participate. A perception of exclusion takes root. This perceived voicelessness has been made stronger by recent political developments.
The NLD government refused to share executive power at state level after the Arakan National Party won a majority of votes in Rakhine State in the 2015 election. The Arakanese repeatedly complain that their proposals in parliament are frequently rejected or not addressed. At the Rakhine state parliament, members of parliament are not influenced by any actions of the government. The only success has been the removal of a state minister on the grounds of poor performance. Apart from that, all they can do is denounce the government’s actions. In addition to that, weak leadership and internal conflicts within the leading Arakan party upsets the public. There is a vacuum of leadership in Rakhine politics.
Negative sentiment towards the central government, weak local political leadership and no visible improvement in the daily lives of the Arakanese have all converged. Arakanese trust in democratic institutions has sharply fallen. The AA is making a timely emergence, even under the democratic government, as an aspiration for the Arakanese. While this is a real opportunity for the Arakanese, it is also an option borne out of what they see as a failing democratic system. If democracy cannot provide them with better options, they cannot be blamed for wanting to do something about it. Addressing economic issues will not guarantee a resolution yet. It is still too early to say whether leaders from the AA will lead Rakhine politics, but it is difficult to deny that they are going to play an important part.
How do the government and other Myanmar citizens interpret the situation?
Any violent fighting is unwelcome but the people will fight with words which hurt less than bullets and bombs. The Independence Day attack drew the attention of the public—mainly the Burmese majority—and cried out for being attack police posts on this special day. Government is also promptly responded by branding the AA as “a terrorist group.” U Zaw Htay, spokesperson for the President’s Office warned the Arakanese not to support the AA and this drew backlash from the Arakanese. U Zaw Htay blamed the AA of “taking advantage” while the military and government are trying their best to protect Rakhine from terrorists and international pressure. This comes from many people from Myanmar thinking of the Rohingya community as outsiders and that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is a legitimate threat to national sovereignty and territory. Most of the mainstream media also reflects the majoritarian view.
U Zaw Htay’s speech ignited public reprisal at a local level but drew popular support from the majorities who see themselves as thinking on behalf of the pyidaunsu, or the Union. This pulls an already divided society apart along the racial line. There are deep divisions between the Arakanese and other majority ethnic groups. Both sides point fingers at the other. Words do hurt people to some extent. The government also interpreted, as authoritarian regimes have done in the past, that the situation must be responded to with more forces and troops. Even Ma Ba Tha, a nationalist Burmese group with strong anti-Muslim sentiments, denounced the AA’s attacks. The escalation of conflict will benefit no one.
If political leaders believe that peace is not just the signing of a truce but cohesive living between different segments of society, they should refrain from the use of words and physical forces. The Arakanese should think twice before going to war or supporting armed groups because war itself brings destruction. Civilians in the war zone have already suffered. Burmese hegemonic views should also be self-critical rather than easily falling to the trick of words. They should be willing to listen to the minority rather than supporting militarization. This situation also calls for a speedier and more inclusive peace process which reforms power structures and ensures equal rights and respect. If not, history will repeat itself. We don’t want the vicious cycle of civil war unfolding in new locations.