On March 23, the Arakan Army (AA)—an ethnic armed organization (EAO) based largely in Myanmar’s Rakhine State—finally released a statement condemning the military’s seizure of power in the February 1 coup. AA spokesperson, Khine Thu Kha, said that the AA was “together…with the people” and would “continue to go forward for the oppressed Rakhine people” (Dhaka Star, March 23).
Up until this point, the AA had held back from issuing any kind of response to the coup, despite an increasing number of EAOs having already declared their support for the civil disobedience movement (CDM). Some groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is one of the AA’s alliance partners, have even begun to carry out attacks against the military in retaliation (Kachin News, March 12). Similarly, when the State Administrative Council (SAC), Myanmar’s new military government, announced on March 10 that it had removed the AA from the list of terrorist organizations, the rebel group made no formal acknowledgement of the move (The Irrawaddy, March 11).
What explains the AA’s initial silence, and more importantly, its sudden decision to speak out against the coup? The answer to both these questions lies in the AA’s struggle to achieve self-determination for ethnic Rakhine and the restoration of an “Arakan” state, something which the AA commander-in chief, General Twan Myat Naing, previously termed “Arakan Dream 2020” (Development Media Group, December 14, 2019; BNI Multimedia Group, June 4, 2019).
Arakan Dream 2020
In early 2019, the conflict between the AA and the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, reached a new level of intensity following a coordinated series of attacks by hundreds of AA soldiers on military border outposts (The Irrawaddy, January 4, 2019). Aside from being a way to mark the tenth anniversary of the group’s formation, it also signaled a new chapter in the AA’s “Way of Rakhita” campaign, which seeks to ignite an Arakan nationalist movement by drawing on sentiments associated with the historical Kingdom of Mrauk-U (Asia Times, February 28, 2019). For over 350 years, the once-powerful Arakan kingdom ruled over much of what is now modern-day Rakhine State, as well as parts of Chittagong Division in neighboring Bangladesh, until its conquest in 1785 by the Burmese.
In preparation for the realization of its “Arakan Dream 2020,” in December 2019 the AA announced the formation of the Rakhine People’s Authority—a proto-state which would be used to levy taxes on businesses to fund the rebel army’s operations and that of its political wing, the United League of Arakan (Radio Free Asia, July 20, 2020). During the first few months of 2020, the AA focused its attention on establishing control over the ancient city of Mrauk-U, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Mrauk-U. In late March, the climax of a battle that had been raging for 40 days occurred when a force of over 3,000 AA soldiers attempted to take a strategic hilltop overlooking the Kaladan River on the border between Rakhine and Chin states and were only repelled after a joint counter-offensive involving the army, navy and air force (The Irrawaddy, March 25, 2020).
It was around this time that the previous government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), first declared the AA a terrorist organization (Myanmar Times, March 23, 2020). The degree of influence the Tatmadaw had over the decision remains unclear. However, a military spokesperson was quick to make a statement confirming the military’s support for the designation, while remarking that the AA now had “very little chance of participating in the peace process” (Radio Free Asia, March 26, 2020).
The military further pressed this point when in May 2020, in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it announced a nearly four-month-long ceasefire covering the entire country, with the exception of areas in which the AA operates (Myanmar Times, May 9, 2020). When the Brotherhood Alliance, which includes the AA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), proposed its own ceasefire in June 2020, the military proved equally uncompromising (Radio Free Asia, June 2, 2020). And when the date for the “Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong,” in which the military plays a central role, came round in August 2020, the government declared that the AA would not be invited (The Irrawaddy, August 6, 2020).
Despite both the Tatmadaw and the NLD clearly having little appetite for engagement, the AA made repeated attempts to force negotiations on the exchange of captured combatants and the release of political prisoners. For instance, in September 2020, a video was released by AA showing three soldiers it was holding captive, and then in October the AA confirmed that it had abducted three NLD election candidates (Radio Free Asia, September 23, 2020; The Irrawaddy, October 20, 2020).
With political channels clearly cut-off, the AA continued to mount attacks against the military. This pressure was sustained right up until the election on November 8, 2020, with particularly fierce clashes occurring around Rathedaung Township, which is close to Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital, and quite some distance from the AA’s stronghold in Northern Rakhine on the border with Chin State (The Irrawaddy, October 7, 2020). Given the extent of the fighting, the Union Election Commission (UEC) decided to suspend polling in areas affected by unrest and conflict. This, however, included most of Northern Rakhine and caused anger among the approximately 200,000 people—73 percent of Rakhine’s registered voters—that were denied the right to vote (Frontier Myanmar, October 28, 2020).
A Fragile Peace
The day after the election, as it became clear that the NLD had won by an even larger margin than in 2015, and ethnic parties had performed much worse than expected, the Tatmadaw announced the formation of a new peace talks committee. Interestingly, the committee was not only intended for negotiations with signatories of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), but non-signatories too, which caught the attention of the AA (Radio Free Asia, November 10, 2020).
On November 12, the AA made a request to authorities for by-elections to be held by December 3 for the areas in which voting was previously suspended (Radio Free Asia, November 10, 2020). When the military responded positively, an informal truce was established, which then paved the way for online discussions on November 25 (The Irrawaddy, November 16, 2020; Myanmar Now, December 3, 2020). This eventually led to a face-to-face meeting on December 10 at the headquarters of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in the self-administered Wa region in Shan State to discuss a formal ceasefire agreement (Myanmar Times, December 22, 2020). The meeting was said to have gone well and further talks were planned, until the military deposed the elected government on February 1.
Although initially hesitant, in the proceeding days and weeks, an increasing number of EAOs released statements condemning the coup. But while the AA sought to maintain an air of ambiguity publicly, it continued to quietly communicate with the military. On the same day as the SAC’s announcement of the AA’s removal from the list of terrorist organizations, it was reported that the AA and the Tatmadaw were negotiating over the clearance of landmines (Development Media Group, March 10). The subject was first broached in January 2021, when the two sides were set to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the deployment of troops in Rakhine State, and therefore seemed to suggest that negotiations were continuing from where they had left off prior to the coup (BNI Multimedia Group, January 19).
It is notable that despite the relative success it was having in achieving its goals militarily, the AA has consistently shown an interest in a political settlement, as can be seen by its repeated attempts to initiate talks on prisoner exchanges. The difference before the coup was that, as the NLD refused to engage with the AA, there was a limit to what the Tatmadaw could offer beyond a ceasefire, which meant it had little option but to support the NLD’s hostile stance. Interestingly just before the coup, as a gesture of goodwill, the AA released the three NLD members it had captured in October 2020 (Myanmar Times, January 4, 2021). While this prompted Major General Zaw Min Tun to say he was “optimistic about the future of the negotiations,” the NLD’s only response was to reject the AA’s calls to reciprocate the move (Myanmar Times, January 4, 2021).
In this context, it is understandable why, in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the AA was unwilling to declare support for the civil disobedience movement (CDM) and a return to the status quo under the previous NLD government. Instead, the AA was presumably hoping to take advantage of the Tatmadaw’s new approach to the peace process, as well as the SAC’s need for support, to push for a federal solution in Rakhine.
Mounting Opposition in Rakhine
Any chance for a political settlement was quickly dispelled though, when on March 23, the AA finally joined other EAOs in condemning the coup and the military’s crackdown against protesters. The most likely explanation for this can be found in the mounting opposition to the reality of the coup in Rakhine State. Initially, while protests were raging in other parts of the country, in northern Rakhine there were none. Residents of the war-torn region either cited fear, ambivalence, or in some cases, support for the new regime as their reason for not taking to the streets (Radio Free Asia, February 24). However, in southern Rakhine, protests soon gathered pace and have continued to grow (The Irrawaddy, February 10). In the refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh, Rohingya have also made sure to voice their opposition to coup (Benar News, March 5; Southeast Asia Globe, February 2).
While it is tempting to dismiss the possibility of the AA being influenced by Rohingya attitudes towards the coup, the AA has recognized that its vision for an Arakan State necessarily includes the Rohingya. Prior to the coup there were emerging signs of a possible path to reconciliation between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya and since the military takeover sympathy towards the plight of ethnic minorities has increased in general (Rohingya Today, January 18, 2021; The Straits Times, March 29, 2021).
Meanwhile, the Arakan National Party (ANP), which was given a seat on the SAC, has been facing rising dissent. The ANP’s decision to join the military junta government was not well supported from the start, with opposition reaching as high as the party’s Central Executive Committee. The tipping-point proved to be the approval of a meeting with the regime’s newly-formed Union Election Commission (UEC), which resulted in a number of the party’s lawmakers resigning en masse and joining the Arakan Front Party (AFP).
On February 9, 47 Rakhine-based civil society organizations (CSOs) jointly called on the ANP to step down from the SAC (The Irrawaddy, February 9). Then, on March 21, another statement was released, this time by 77 CSOs, denouncing the military government and demanding the release of detained protesters. In the statement, 11 Arakan student unions, also condemned any attempt to seek gains via cooperation with the SAC as “abhorrent” (BNI Multimedia Group, March 24).
The ANP has since begun backtracking from its decision to join the SAC and appears to be laying ground for an off-ramp. First, ANP spokesperson U Pe Than stated the party may leave the SAC if the government fails to meet its seven-point list of demands. These include the appointment of the ANP’s candidate for Chair of the Rakhine State Administration Council, provision of assistance to internally displaced people (IDPs), and reconstruction of houses looted during the war in Rakhine (BNI Multimedia Group, March 17). With such an uncompromising list of demands, the ANP only appears to be setting the SAC up for failure.
Most recently, the ANP expressed concern over the SAC’s violent crackdown against “innocent citizens protesting freely for democracy” and reaffirmed its commitment to “working with any organization that recognizes and values the interests of the Arakanese people in order to have the right to self-determination and self-administration” (BNI Multimedia Group, March 25, 2021).
Pressure from the Arakan Army’s Alliance Partners
On February 17, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is a fellow member of the Northern Alliance along with the AA, came forward to denounce the coup after people in Kachin State had begun to question its silence (The Diplomat, February 11, 2021). Although relations between the AA and the KIA are said to have deteriorated in recent years, the KIA is still able to exert influence over the AA, not only due to its status as one of Myanmar’s largest EAOs, but also because the AA was founded with assistance from the KIA and continues to benefit from training, ammunition and food supplies from the KIA, as well use the KIA’s headquarters as its own (The Irrawaddy, March 25, 2020). Importantly, the KIA became the first EAO to take military action against the Tatmadaw in response to violence committed against unarmed civilians when it destroyed a Tatmadaw camp on March 11 (Kachin News, March 12). The KIA has since conducted several follow-up attacks against both the military and the police (Myanmar Now, March 13; Myanmar Now, March 28; BNI Multimedia Group, March 29).
In a similar fashion to the AA, the MNDAA and the TNLA, also members of the Northern Alliance, chose not make any sort of statement on the coup at first, albeit with the exception of a photograph in which TNLA generals displayed the 3-finger salute associated with anti-government protesters (Twitter.com/Matt Walsh, February 10). The MNDAA was involved in a clash with Tatmadaw soldiers travelling with authorities from the Kokang Self-Administered Zone on February 5 (Twitter.com/Mattyrwalsh, February 6). However, it is unclear whether this was motivated by the coup.
This changed on March 30 when the AA, MNDAA and the TNLA released a joint statement under the Brotherhood Alliance calling on the military to immediately stop “the violent shootings and killings of peacefully protesting citizens” and move “quickly to resolve the political problems” (Twitter.com/NimrodAndrew, March 30). The Brotherhood also threatened to support ethnic peoples fighting in the ‘Spring Revolution’ if the military failed to comply.
Perhaps sensing its vulnerability, two days later the military declared a nationwide 30-day ceasefire in order to further the peace process with the EAOs and peacefully celebrate the Buddhist festival of Thingyan from April 13-16, which culminates on Lunar New Year Day (Anadolu Agency, April 1). The AA was not included in the military’s previous nationwide ceasefires due to its designation as a terrorist organization, and seeing as the current truce between the two sides has yet to be formalized, it will be interesting to see how the AA reacts. It is clear though that, for now, the people in Rakhine will not support a path to an Arakan State if it entails cooperation with the military.