Guest Column

In Myanmar, Tatmadaw and Arakan Army Caught in Thucydides’ Trap

By Joe Kumbun 20 April 2020

When an established power feels threatened by a new rising power, war is almost inevitably the result. This phenomenon has been described as “Thucydides’ Trap”.  The term was coined in 2012 by Harvard professor Graham Allison, who used it in reference to the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece, which was chronicled by historian Thucydides. Thucydides observed that the war was caused by the rise of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta. He concluded that the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta made the war inevitable.

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) and the Arakan Army (AA) are now falling into the same deadly trap. The reasons the conflict between the Tatmadaw and the AA can be seen as an example of Thucydides’ Trap are as follows:

The Dominant Power: the Tatmadaw

Not only has the Tatmadaw been the strongest institution among armed organizations in Myanmar, but it has also been the country’s dominant power since independence.

It has fought against different armed insurgencies ranging from the country’s oldest ethnic armed organization, the Karen National Union, to its newest, the AA. Its legacy has been to demobilize, enter ceasefires with, wipe out and reintegrate several insurgencies ranging from the communist rebels to the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/A), Border Guard Forces (e.g., the New Democratic Army-Kachin) to militias (e.g., the Kawngkha-based Mahtu Naw-led militia group).

The Tatmadaw has been the dominant force maintaining both external and internal sovereignty. Externally, it has long acted independently and autonomously on the world stage. In essence, the Tatmadaw has been the face of Myanmar’s national sovereignty for several decades.

Internally, the Tatmadaw has controlled state sovereignty since General Ne Win—then the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw—took power via a military coup in 1962. The 2008 Constitution—drafted by the Tatmadaw itself—also grants the military arbitrary power to get involved in politics. It remains the supreme authority within the state.

It has the power to declare an organization as unlawful or a terrorist group. In the past, it has used this power against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which was classified as a terrorist group in August 2017, while the KIO was declared an unlawful organization in 2011. The Tatmadaw can likewise arrest and charge anyone under Article 17(a) of the Unlawful Association Act.

Needless to say, no reforms involving economic liberalization, political transition or the peace process can be achieved unless the Tatmadaw wills it.

The Tatmadaw—the established power—will not tolerate any threats that are likely to undermine, downplay, downgrade or threaten its dominance. If it feels its power is under threat, it will not hesitate to respond and retaliate by any and all means.

The Rising Power: the Arakan Army 

The AA was born with the assistance of the KIO/A in Laiza at the KIA’s headquarters on April 10, 2009. At its inception, the AA was founded with 26 young ethnic Rakhine led by Tun Myat Naing, who is now a major general and the organization’s chief of staff. The AA’s rise in personnel numbers and capability in just the last decade has been tremendous. Reportedly, the group has grown to number about 10,000 troops.

Although the AA initially operated in the KIA’s territories, it dispatched its troops to Rakhine State in 2015 to establish a foothold there. The AA annually recruits hundreds of military personnel. Until 2019, it sent a limited number of young and educated personnel to the KIA’s Military Academy to study military affairs. Since last year, however, the AA has not needed to send its forces there, as it has created its own Academy, where many of the AA’s forces are now trained.

In early January 2018, a video clip popped up on social media in which AA chief Maj-Gen Tun Myat Naing introduced the “Way of Rakhita” (or the Arakan Dream 2020). “The Way of the Rakhita” does not have a single definition; rather it is a concept with self-determination at its core, evoking memories of the once-great Arakanese Kingdom. This flagship strategy has attracted many Arakan people, from poor rural youth to educated people and politicians alike.

As the AA’s power has grown, AA chief Tun Myat Naing has expressed the AA’s desire to gain confederate status similar to the Wa enclave. The Tatmadaw immediately responded that the AA must give up its goal of confederation.

At the same time, when the Tatmadaw and the AA engaged in tit-for-tat fighting in early 2019, over 100 Rakhine village administrators in Rakhine State resigned from their posts for fear of being wrongly accused of association with the AA. It was an unprecedented event that had not been witnessed in other ethnic areas before.

Indeed, the AA’s power rests in its ability, both militarily and politically, to threaten the dominant power, the Tatmadaw.

Falling into the trap 

The AA’s ascendancy and its attempt to challenge the dominant power have exceeded the Tatmadaw’s tolerance.  The Tatmadaw once explicitly expressed that it was showing the utmost tolerance toward the United Wa State Army after the armed group showed off its military power at a parade to mark its 30th anniversary.

On Oct. 15, 2018, Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reiterated on the third anniversary of the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement that the Tatmadaw would bring “eternal peace” in 2020. However, when the Tatmadaw declared its unilateral ceasefire, it excluded its Western Command, which covers Rakhine State. The order only covered five of its regional commands: the Northern Command in Kachin State; the Northeastern, Eastern and Central Eastern commands; and the Triangle Command in Shan State. The AA accused the Tatmadaw of deploying the tactic so it could focus on its operations in Rakhine State.

The AA thus conducted a series of coordinated attacks on four border outposts in the northern part of Rakhine State’s restive Buthidaung Township on Myanmar’s Independence Day on Jan. 4, 2019.

In August 2019, the AA, along with two of its partners in the Northern Alliance—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)—conducted coordinated attacks on the Tatmadaw’s Defense Services Technological Academy (DSTA) in the military’s heartland, Pyin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Region.

Last year, the government and the AA along with all three other Northern Alliance groups—the KIA, TNLA and MNDAA—met three times for peace talks in Muse and Kyengtung, Shan State. But no tangible results emerged.

Now, even as the world grapples with the outbreak of COVID-19, the war between the Tatmadaw and the AA continues to escalate. UN Secretary General António Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world amid the pandemic, but the call was rejected by the Tatmadaw. The military now conducts its clearance operations against the AA through coordinated attacks using ground troops and air strikes.

When the established power, Sparta, and the rising power, Athens, went to war, the costs of the war were felt all across Greece.  Devastation was felt due to the destruction of vast cities and the poverty that followed.

Likewise, the Rakhine war between Myanmar’s dominant power, the Tatmadaw, and a rising power, the AA, has already produced tens of thousands of displaced persons, taken many innocent people’s lives and devastated many villages. Being caught between the Tatmadaw and AA in Thucydides’ Trap is the tragic fate that has ultimately resulted in misery for the people of Rakhine and Chin states.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State. 

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