The rapid rise of the Arakan Army

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News Desk

The Arakan Army (AA), despite being one of the more recently formed ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) has rapidly risen to become one of the most powerful.

The AA was formed in December 2009 in Kachin State by Tun Myat Naing, an ethnic Rakhine. It is the military wing of the United League of Arakan (ULA).

The AA’s ideology is based on what they call The Rakhita Way.

Its main objectives are: self-determination for the multi-ethnic Arakanese population, the safeguarding and promotion of the national identity and cultural heritage of the Arakan people, and the “national dignity” and best interests of the Arakan people.

When it started there were only 26 members and the group was ill-equipped. But, the former chairman of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Peng Jiasheng, helped arm the fledgling group.

“The most memorable thing in my life was in 2009, when our Arakan Army was formed with 26 men; we had only one gun. After Chairman Peng Jiasheng gave us 100 guns, we took these 100 guns and two RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] to fight, back to our homeland Rakhine, and it was a crucial event in our revolution,” revealed Tun Myat Naing at a memorial service for Peng Jiasheng on 29 March 2022.

Initially, the AA was reliant on the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Its first recruits were trained at the KIA Military Academy and they gained combat experience fighting with the KIA, after the KIA’s ceasefire with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) broke down in 2011.

The Thein Sein government excluded the AA from the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) dialogue and did not allow them to sign the NCA in October 2015, even though the AA wanted to be part of the agreement.

The election of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2015 did not change anything and in December 2015 AA troops started to move from Kachin to Rakhine State. They built bases in Chin State’s Paletwa Township, which borders Rakhine State and along the borders with India and Bangladesh and started launching offensives against the Tatmadaw in Rakhine and Chin states.

The numbers of AA soldiers quickly grew. According to the Myanmar Peace Monitor there were 1,500 AA troops in 2014. According to the Irrawaddy, this rose to 2,500 troops and 10,000 supporters in 2015 and later, 7,000 troops in January 2019.

In late 2016 the AA, the KIA, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) formed the Northern Alliance-Burma (NA-B). They started fighting the Tatmadaw in northern Shan State in December 2016.

There had been attempts to negotiate a peace with on-off ceasefire talks between the AA and the Tatmadaw during 2019, but they were doomed to failure because of the Tatmadaw’s insistence the AA leave Rakhine and return to Kachin State.

Negotiations became even less likely when in March 2020 the NLD government designated the AA as a terrorist organisation as a way to isolate it from other EAOs.

The fighting between the Tatmadaw and AA had become heavier and more frequent from late 2018. A 2020 Crisis Group report said: “The conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army in Rakhine and southern Chin states is the most violent and intense Myanmar has experienced in decades.”

According to the same report, the fighting resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and an estimated 230,000 displaced people.

According to a May 2020 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, after January 2019 the number of civilian deaths and the destruction of property caused by the army in Rakhine State increased. The way the Tatmadaw treated the ethnic Rakhine was similar to how they had previously treated the Rohingya in 2012, 2016 and 2017.

Referencing the Tatmadaw’s 16 May 2020 attack on the predominantly ethnic Rakhine Let Kar village in Mrauk-U Township, Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of HRW said: “The burning of Let Kar village has all the hallmarks of Myanmar military arson on Rohingya villages in recent years.”

But then, the election and the consequences of the election led to the situation between the AA and the Tatmadaw changing.

On 14 October 2020 the AA kidnapped three NLD members, who were campaigning for the 8 November national election, and demanded the return of detained AA supporters.

The AA’s demands were not met, but on 16 October 2020, the Union Election Commission (UEC) announced that voting in the upcoming 8 November 2020 election would be cancelled in many parts of central and north Rakhine.

Cancellations were expected, but the ones announced were far larger than expected. Voting was cancelled in a majority of townships in Rakhine State.

There were suspicions that the NLD had influenced the supposedly independent UEC and pushed for the cancellations because the NLD was worried that the local Arakan National Party (ANP), which was loosely affiliated with the AA, would get too many seats.

In the 8 November elections the NLD won another landslide victory.

But, because close to three-quarters of voters in Rakhine State did not get to cast their ballots, it prevented the ANP from gaining an absolute majority in the Rakhine State parliament and it also meant that the NLD had a larger majority in the national parliament.

In response, four days after the election, both the AA and Tatmadaw released coordinated statements calling for the cancelled elections in Rakhine State to be held.

Japan’s special envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa, engineered the diplomatic breakthrough that led to the Tatmadaw and AA releasing coordinated statements calling for elections. The release of the statements also marked the start of a de facto ceasefire between the two groups, that has lasted, in the most, till now, though how much longer it will last is up for conjecture.

The fighting in Rakhine State from 2018 to 2020 had already greatly reduced the government’s control of the region.

Fear of being attacked or abducted had restricted the police and civil servants to towns in Rakhine State. Many local administrators resigned due to threats from the Tatmadaw or the AA who accused the administrators of collaborating with the other side.

The fragile peace of the ceasefire allowed the AA to concentrate on building up its administrative capabilities in Rakhine State and it has greatly increased its control over the state’s administration.

The AA’s aim of replacing government administrations in Rakhine with its own was given a boost by the February 2021 coup. Suddenly the Tatmadaw was facing insurgencies across the country in Bamar areas and with other ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) that did not have ceasefires with the Tatmadaw or had rejected previous ceasefires.

The AA has used the relative peace of the ceasefire to build up its administrative capabilities and gain more control of Rakhine State by steadily wresting administrative control of areas from the junta.

Since the coup, the AA has greatly increased its control over the Rakhine State’s administration.

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