Rakhine Intrigue- Is there any Way out?

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Parvedge Haider

Rakhine- the most discussed regional landmark in south and south-east Asia in the recent past, has become a big concern for Bangladesh. There are key players, beneficiaries and crisis makers all around but the only sufferer is Bangladesh despite not being a party to any. In the recent years, the global media attention was towards the mass exodus of Rohingya community[1]. The movement of Arakan Army (AA) was not that significant up to 2015 since its birth in 2009. From 2015 onwards, some presence of AA was felt and the tempo of their movement had been rising gradually. But the most of the significant attacks of AA against the Myanmar Army occurred since October 2018. The first reported confrontation between AA and Myanmar Army occurred in 2015. So far a significant number of clashes have been reported between these two opposing forces. There are reports of Myanmar army’s use of Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) in Rathedong civil area to neutralize the AA activists. On the other hand, the headquarters of the Burmese military western command was also attacked by AA.

It was anticipated that the economy of Myanmar would go down due to various global sanctions as a follow up of their atrocities on the Rohingya community. Moreover, besides the Rohingya crisis, there are tensions almost in every state of but the economic progress of Myanmar is on the rise. The economic friendly location of Rakhine in the long coastal belt of Bay of Bengal is attracting the foreign investments. Rakhine’s two important natural resources; oil and gas, plenty of fishes, beautiful beaches and immediate connection with the Indian Ocean have generated foreign interest in Rakhine.

Photo-1: Map of Rakhine

Already 17 foreign companies have invested 9 billion dollars there[2]. Investments are more towards hotels, fisheries, oil and gas. Beside those, the Indian investment in Sittwe Rakhine, Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project has been planned to connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State, Myanmar by sea[3]. In Myanmar, it will then link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa, the westernmost towns of Myanmar, in Chin State via the Kaladan river boat route and then from Paletwa by road to Mizoram state in Northeast India. Possibly, it is a less priority project of India. Recent economic crisis is obstructing India for the continuation of this project. Moreover, Sittwe is a shallow harbor port; it is not possible to bring any big mother vessels. However, Myanmar is also trying to attract the local investors to invest in Ngapali beach, Rakhine for establishing hotels[4].

On paper, Rakhine is within top five among all the states in Myanmar considering the investment potentialities.  But still the reality is not encouraging. There are massive rate of unemployment and discrimination of government revenues in Rakhine. During gas and oil exploration, the foreign companies have paid a huge amount of money to the military government but none of those reached to Rakhine for its development. There is a strong resentment of the Arakanese (Rakhine) towards the central government on many other issues besides their long grievances of losing the historical state of Arakan.

Chinese involvement in Rakhine is enormous. In 2009, Myanmar’s junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe and China’s Vice President Xi Jinping inked an agreement to build a deep-sea port on the Maday Island, Kyaukpyu that will be used by China to import crude oil from Africa and the Middle East and natural gas from Arakan State[5].

Photo-2: China’s Trans-Myanmar Oil and Gas Pipelines

China International Trust Investment Corporation (CITIC) is involved in the development of Rakhine and controlling Chinese government operations. Besides this project, there are upcoming Chinese economic zones in southern Rakhine. In a nutshell, it appears that Rohingya exodus and the rise of AA have highly facilitated the Chinese projects indirectly. Historically, the Arakanese Buddhists do not accept the presence of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. But recently AA has stopped commenting against the Rohingya and Muslims, however, it might be a show off also.

There is a significant military confrontation between AA and Myanmar army in the recent years. But the intensity of these clashes has been raised after the Rohingya exodus. AA’s attack on 04 January 2019 in four border police outposts in Buthidaung Township is a significant display of military power[6]. AA is relatively a newcomer among the insurgency groups in Myanmar. This is an army of young Rakhine nationalists that has been formed to fight against their real enemy, Burmese army. The motto of AA is ‘ The way of Rakhita’- They are fighting to get their state back. They want to achieve nationwide revolution against the Burmese army and force them to accept their demand. The general people of Rakhine are highly supportive to AA. They admire them by heart.

Photo-3: Arakan Army Logo

AA is militarily, politically and socially well organized and very patient. They are well equipped and disciplined like a professional army. Well trained in Kachin state, AA maintains a rigorous social media presence and significant public relations campaign. A small young group initially was recruited basically from the mineworkers in Kachin state area. Kachin Independent Army (KIA) is one of the well-organized, battle-hardened insurgent groups in Myanmar. People often say that it is the incubator of the insurgency. AA also assisted KIA in fighting Myanmar army during their stay in Kachin. Then they moved towards Rakhine to achieve their objectives. The young Arakanese were attracted towards the amazing personality of AA chief Major General Tun Myat Naing. This charismatic leader has a fairly International outlook. Earlier he worked as a tour guide sometimes in Yangoon. He speaks in French, German and fluent in English. He is likely to have better understanding, how their movement will be accepted globally.

Photo-4: Major General Tun Myat Naing

Within this short period of time, there are as many as 7000 to 8000 trained soldiers in AA including 700 to 1000 female soldiers. They have built up a training center in Rakhine state also. Though AA is taking preparation since 2009, the communal clash between the Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhist made them delayed, specially the situation in 2012. However, AA expressed many a times that their fight is not against the Rohingya Muslims.

It is not confirmed about the financing of AA. The more supported opinion is the business of drug, specifically the methamphetamine tablets (Yaba) is the primary source of their financing. Their experiences in getting trained and operating in Kachin and keeping their skeleton of force in Shan state are creating an opportunity of conducting methamphetamine drug business. It is to be noted that Kachin and northern Shan state are the major producers of methamphetamine tablet drugs.

The movement on ‘Arakanese Right’ started by Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) in the seventies of the previous century, they are now one of the signatories with the government. The leaders of the AA thinks that the movement of ALP did not well address the aspiration of the Arakanese and it did not consider much about the prestigious historical background of Arakan.

History of Arakan Kingdom and the Present State of Arakanese

The Arakanese have long esteemed historical background. They represent the succession of Arakan kingdom that began over 3000 years BC. There are evidences of using coins by this community during 8th century. The Arakanese had a good number of intellectuals during the British colonial period. There were Arakan students in Oxford and Cambridge universities during those days. That means, the Arakanese were developed in those days. The Sittwe airport started as Royal Air Force (RAF) Station, a military airfield in World War II. It was handed over to Department of Civil Aviation by International Aero Limited Company on 24 July 1947. During the post-independence era, there were active presence of the Arakanese in all walks of life; Government service, judiciary, military etc. There were Arakanese military generals at that time.

Arakan kingdom was very wealthy. The present Arakanese are proud of their ancestors and history. But now the economic state of Rakhine has gone down; 78% of the inhabitants live below the poverty line. Under the Burmese rule, Arakanese have become very poor. Among the population of Rakhine, around 60% are capable of working but the unemployment rate is very high. The electrification rate is one of the lowest among the states in Myanmar; that is 20% only. Only 20% of the houses have access of safe drinking water. The Arakanese think that it is not their bad luck; the Burmese have destroyed their historical pride. In the present days, there are as many as three million people live in Rakhine state. However, after the mass exodus of Rohingya community, this number might be less. The main grievances of the Arakanese are against the continuation of wrong ruling, they are facing. They have started thinking that the only political movement cannot ensure their right. They have won a landslide victory (80 % seats) in their state during last parliamentary election in 2015 but they didn’t get any political power in the center; not only that they were not consulted while doing the Rakhine state based economic agreements with the foreign countries. Moreover, there are incidents of police fire on the Arakan students but none of the members of the law enforcement agencies were brought under justice. At the same time, the invading Myanmar Army’s increasing military oppression has created a massive cultural destruction of the Arakanese.

Significance of Clash between AA and Myanmar army

This is not just an insurgency; it might be a politics also. Recent attacks by the AA on the Independence Day (04 Jan 2019) in Myanmar might be a symbolic one. This might be a shift of sentiment from politics to armed struggle.

Unlike many insurgencies in Myanmar, AA has got enormous popular support. Arakanese had their own kingdom. They were under Burmese rule for a short period of time, 40 years; from 1784 to 1824. Then onwards the Arakanese were ruled by the British that continued up to 1948. After that, this nation was within the union of Burma. Later on, the Military regime tactfully changed the name of their state as ‘Rakhine’.

Most of the ethnic insurgent groups in Myanmar demand their right within a federal government. But AA talks about restoring the sovereignty of the ancient Rakhine kingdom. They call it ‘confederation’, not independence, but the explanation of confederation, they mean independence.  If the operation of Myanmar army continues with a similar tempo, there might be more internally displaced Arakanese in Rakhine. Already the Myanmar government has said that International agencies are not allowed to take entry in Rakhine. Then the situation might turn differently. If the internally displaced persons do not receive support except the government, more dissatisfaction will be created.

There might be new avenues of Rakhine based situation development in future. ARSA or any other new similar minded party might get involved due to a long delay of Rohingya repatriation. There likely to be the area of the overlapping population that might create the situation more complicated. Though there is no prove of AA and ARSA discussion at present but the development of situation might compel them to reach in a common platform.

AA says that Arakan 2020 is their dream[7]. Probably they basically want to escalate the attacks ahead of the election year. The election plan of Myanmar is in 2020. The Arakan 2020 is not about winning the election but the sovereignty. However, Myanmar Army’s counter offensive might cause a long term tension in that area. Some of the AA soldiers might try to cross the border and take shelter in Bangladesh territory if they are unable to fight back the Myanmar army. The Arakanese might also try to take shelter in the hilly areas of northern Rakhine. Guerilla warfare might be continued for a prolonged period.

The intelligence network of AA is very good. Moreover, it has been proved that AA has the ability to put bombs in multiple places. That means AA might resort to extreme guerilla tactics. The terrain may not permit the guerilla warfare in the southern part of Rakhine. So the guerilla warfare is likely to be restricted within the Northern part of Rakhine.

The renewed violence in northern Rakhine State will further diminish prospects for large-scale repatriation of Rohingya communities. It seems that the return of Rohingya people is difficult at this moment. Any repatriation of Rohingya might not be possible during the renewed violence in northern Rakhine. Moreover, the repatriation route might fall within the likely hideouts of AA guerillas in future.

Why AA is fighting against Myanmar Army? Why now?

The recent fight between AA and Myanmar Army has generated lot of question and suspicion. Despite the historical background of wealthy Arakan Kingdom, the irrational attitude of ‘Bamar’ tribe led Myanmar administration might cause the recent fight. But some circumstantial events are spawning the suspicion as well.

The so called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attack was occurred on the night of August 24, 2017 just hours after the Kofi Annan led ‘Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’ submitted its final report proposing a long-term solutions for Rakhine State. On the other hand, AA clash with Myanmar army have been raised significantly after the mass exodus of Rohingya community. This also comes with a counter-reaction. The Burmese military has got a green signal of the Government to crush the AA. A large number of Myanmar army troops have been placed in Buthidang, Maungdaw and Rathedong to hunt down the AA.

Except the ‘Myitsone Dam’ project in Kachin, none of the Chinese economic projects have been obstructed by any of the insurgent groups of Myanmar. China maintains a very good connection with KIA, the trainer of AA. There is a strong opinion that AA gets weapons through KIA. The cross border relationship of the insurgent groups and Chinese businessmen are also very strong. Though officially it is not proved but the weapons reaches to the hands of Myanmar insurgents are basically of Chinese origin. Moreover, there is a mutual interest between the insurgent groups and Chinese businessmen in cross border drug trades.

Likely Interpretations on the Events Occurred

  • Myanmar army’s plan on forceful and traumatic Rohingya exodus seems to be well planned. The strategy Myanmar government utilized in response to so called ARSA attacks that drove out almost a million of Rohingyas, the same strategy was exploited many times in the history of Counter Insurgency operations. The time civilians support the insurgents, the counter-insurgency force attack on the civilians to discourage them from not having contact with the insurgents. Myanmar Army projected the similar strategy in the case of Rohingya community but this time they were definitely brutal.
  • Though the brutality against the Arakanese is not extreme, Myanmar Army is trying to isolate the general people from the insurgents. A security operation has been declared. There are reports of helicopter gunship attack in the civilian areas with an allegation of giving shelter to the AA soldiers.
  • So far no Chinese projects or pipelines have been touched by any of the ethnic insurgency groups. That senses quite a lot.
  • Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attack and AA’s clash with Myanmar army have facilitated the interest of China and Myanmar government.
  • Due to enormous International pressure, the fight between AA and Myanmar Army is being explicitly projected so that the International community is convinced of delayed Rohingya return.
  • It’s true that AA is a well-organized army but they have many limitations as well. Definitely they need to depend on some superpowers for arms and ammunition replenishment. On the other hand, Myanmar Army has been instructed by the central government to crush the AA. Myanmar Army should have achieved more success with the legitimacy of military action.
  • AA is one of the important organizations of Northern Alliance. The possibility of participation of Northern Alliance in Rakhine to support directly AA is not certain. There are multidimensional interest factor in it. The drug business and uninterrupted supply of arms and ammunition might be the reason that all the insurgent groups of Northern Alliance would not participate in this affair.
  • World Bank has donated fund for the restoration of Rakhine after the crackdown of Rohingya. It indicates that indirectly, the World Bank is supporting the crime created by Myanmar Army.
  • On 21 December 2018, the Myanmar Army declared a four-month unilateral ceasefire in five conflict areas, saying it would hold talks with non-signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) during the ceasefire period. However, the Western Command (stationed in Chin State and Rakhine State) was notably excluded from the unilateral ceasefire announcement.
  • The domination of AA is basically at Northern Rakhine and north of Chin state. India’s Kaladan project has been passed through Paletwa, Chin State. AA did not hesitate to conduct operation in Paletwa area. It might be an indication that AA might be agreed to leave some space for the economic interest of China but the same might not happen in case of other countries.
  • Some of the international organizations are instigating the Rohingya community to conduct large scale processions. Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH) Chairman Md Mohibullah has met with the U.S. president. Now the Rohingya community is demanding that without the dialogue and unless Naypyidaw meets their demands, they will never opt for repatriation and resettlement at their homeland.
  • At present, Rohingya community related almost 75% of the expenditure is being borne by the Government of Bangladesh. Besides various types of social crime and other disturbances of the local people, this extra pressure has become a big burden for the overall economy.

Is there any way out?

The situation created based on Rakhine is really complicated. A simple and general analysis indicates that AA being a well-organized army would like to continue fight against Myanmar Army till the last. Besides the strong historical causes, AA is well supported by the Arakanese. So, they are likely to resort to guerilla tactics and prolong the conflict if they are unable to continue a regular form of fighting. If the situation develops in that line, a permanent tension will prevail in Northern Rakhine and the bordering areas of Bangladesh, even some of the escaping force of AA might try to take shelter inside the Bangladesh territory taking an advantage of tough terrain. This situation is likely to create a plea of delayed return of the Rohingyas.

AA might act as per the bigger plan of Myanmar and China. If that is the fact, there will be a prolonged staged operations to project the instability. That situation will also cause delay of the Rohingya return.

The Rakhine crisis appears to be an intrigue of long term plan. Despite the wholehearted efforts of the leaders of Bangladesh, the bilateral and diplomatic applications did not bring much result yet due to non-cooperative attitude of Myanmar. There might be a rare opportunity if the superpowers which have economic interest in Rakhine but could not take entry in it, those might become a great support for Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s economic and political affairs are basically routed through China or there is a strong Chinese dominance in every sector of Myanmar. But while doing all the recent economic agreements, Myanmar was smart enough to bargain appropriately. The well-known Chinese technique of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ issue was deliberately considered by the economic experts of Myanmar. They would not like to fall into the trap like Sri Lanka and some other African countries. So, it has been expected that Myanmar is going to receive a continuous support of China. However, the insurgent groups of Wa state, Kachin state and Shan state might get activated against the Myanmar government provided the situation gets beyond their acceptable perimeter.

Some of the western countries, those maintain an anti-China approach, might get covertly involved to destabilize the success of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is not impossible also. There is saying that one of the top western intelligence organizations was responsible to create and patronize the drug business in the Golden Triangle. China as a country was not in favor of illegal drug business at that time.

There might be rise of agitation, procession and dissatisfaction of the general people against the Myanmar Government in the near future. Arakanese as a nation wants to regain their historical ‘Arakan Kingdom’, the general people of Kachin state are strongly protesting against ‘Myitsone Dam’ project etc.

The educated young generations of Myanmar are in favor of true democracy[8]. Though it is very slow, the movement is on the progress. Some people are actively working on it. Thinzar Shunlei Yi is one of them. She is a founder of the diversity campaign #myfriend, and seeks to combat intolerance and extremism in Burma, particularly through the voices of youth. The campaign brought young people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds together online as friends in support of peace and diversity. Already they have achieved a significant local and international media attention. She is also an active member of the first-ever Ambassador’s Youth Council at U.S. Embassy Rangoon, which meets monthly to advise the Ambassador on youth perspectives and needs in Burma.

End note

The above mentioned points are not the strong way out, that is for sure. Rakhine situation is definitely a complicated one. The responsible persons of Bangladesh are trying their best appropriately and they should continue their effort the way they are doing now. The above mentioned points have been highlighted just to get note of a diversity of approach and possibilities. Many of those might be within the desire of ‘time’!

[1] Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561, Accessed on Septembe,13 2019.

[2] Myanmar’s upcoming regional investment fair to offer high hope of full growth potential, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-01/23/c_137767730.htm, Accessed on September 13, 2019.

[3] Myanmar’s Approach to India, https://thediplomat.com/tag/kaladan-multi-modal-transit-transport-project/, Accessed on September 13, 2019.

[4] Rakhine opens new beaches for hotel, tourism investments, https://www.mmtimes.com/news/rakhine-opens-new-beaches-hotel-tourism-investments.html Accessed on September 13, 2019.

[5] Maday Island Deep-Sea Port No Boon to Locals, https://www2.irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=20851 Accessed on September 13, 2019.

[6] AA launches massive coordinated attacks on four border police outposts in Buthidaung Township, leaves 9 injured, 13 police personnel killed, https://rakhine.unionenterprise.org/index.php/latest-news-en/534-aa-launches-massive-coordinated-attacks-on-four-border-police-outposts-in-buthidaung-township-leaves-9-injured-13-police-personnel-killed Accessed on September 13, 2019.

[7] Arakan Army chief vows to set up HQ in Rakhine State soon, https://www.dhakatribune.com/world/south-asia/2019/02/14/arakan-army-chief-vows-to-set-up-hq-in-rakhine-state-soon, Accessed on September 13, 2019.

[8] https://www.csis.org/podcasts/extremism/voice-youth-myanmar-%E2%80%93-thinzar-shunlei-yi


Parvedge Haider- Researcher, Regional Geopolitics and CHT

Email- parvedgehaider5235@gmail.com

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