Myanmar: New Front in an Old War
How the Arakan Army is emerging as a major player in Myanmar’s civil war.
In the very early morning of March 29 the Myanmar Army was caught off-guard when it was assaulted and overrun in two separate locations: Kyauk Taw, in northern Rakhine State, and Paletwa, slightly north of Kyauk Taw in neighboring Chin State. In Kyauk Taw, two soldiers were killed, and two were taken prisoner, according to the Arakan Information Network, as quoted by The Irrawaddy. In Paletwa, a captain was killed, a private was injured, and two soldiers were taken prisoner according to the Chin Human Rights Organization. In both instances the assailants appeared to escape without serious casualties. As surprising as the assault was, more surprising was the group behind it: a relatively obscure militia called the Arakan Army, using the former name of Rakhine State. This group had previously only been known for operating in the country’s northern Kachin and Shan States, mostly in a supportive position of the much better known Kachin Independence Army. In a single carefully coordinated attack, though, the Arakan Army has gone from obscurity to prominence.
The commander of the Arakan Army, Brigadier General Tun Myat Naing is younger than his contemporaries of the other ethnic armed groups in the country, but is shrewd, passionate, and well spoken. Regarding his militia being outnumbered and outgunned in Rakhine State, he told The Diplomat, “Revolution is to resist a more powerful enemy, a better equipped army – this is how we have to manage to fight for our freedom, to liberate oppressed people.” Utilizing a smaller army requires flexibility. “Guerrilla tactics are good for saving your manpower and firepower and direct contact when you are sure you will win. It just depends.” The quick appearances of Tun Myat Naing’s men and their equally quick disappearances after fighting underscores their versatility. Their raids on the Myanmar Army so far have involved overrunning positions, seizing weapons and equipment, and disappearing back into the jungle, leaving the Myanmar military scrambling to respond.
The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s Armed Forces are known, has conducted raids and arrested a number of Rakhine citizens it says are suspected of being associated with the Arakan Army. At least 31 have been formally charged, but Tun Myat Naing says far more have suffered as a result, “Many villagers were taken into the sun, and they kept them there the whole day. Their food was taken by the army. People were treated badly, beaten and tied up, hanging under trees. A village was completely burnt down by some Burmese soldiers, we heard from the villagers. They told the villagers they had to follow the orders to burn down the villages.” Reports from independent sources have corroborated accounts of collective punishment against Rakhine villagers in and around Kyauk Taw, where 450 people have been displaced by continued clashes, most notably a blockade of food or aid. Brigadier General Tun Myat Naing said that transportation routes into the city had been blocked off, and that coupled with flooding from heavy rains, which washed away most everything they owned, has left many families in complete desolation. According to the general these people have been denied status as internally displaced persons (IDPs) by the local and central government, and none of the many aid agencies or government agencies in the state have taken steps to help what he estimates to be more than 5,000 people affected by the conflict and blockade of Kyauk Taw and the dozens of smaller villages nearby.
The fighting between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army has also had severe repercussions in Paletwa, in bordering Chin State, where both sides were accused in a recent report of committing severe human rights abuses. According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) the Tatmadaw forcibly recruited two child soldiers from the township, as well as one adult about a month before the fighting began. The CHRO reports that on the evening of March 28, a force of 40 Arakan Army soldiers approached a Myanmar Army outpost outside of Paletwa, where eight soldiers were stationed. During the night and early into the following morning the CHRO says a total of 16 ethnic Chin villagers were detained by the Arakan Army, two escaped and alerted the villagers of the Arakan Army’s movement, which in turn alerted the Tatmadaw. Another villager named Ling Min was out hunting at this time, and has disappeared. The CHRO believes he was detained and was forced to work as a porter or guide, or that he was killed by the Arakan Army. The CHRO’s Rachel Fleming told The Diplomat, “We don’t know exactly what happened in (the case of) Ling Min, which is why there must be an independent, impartial investigation to determine what happened to him. Circumstantial evidence points to the Arakan Army, as they detained eight other villagers at the same spot, and ordered the villagers to perform forced labor. Also, the Burma Army soldiers were positioned in the village for the duration of the fighting, in sight of the villagers, so they do not believe that the Burma Army is responsible.”
Fleming described the fighting itself: “During the clashes, a Burma Army private was wounded, and escaped into the forest. A Burma Army captain was killed. Two other Burma Army soldiers were detained by the Arakan Army and the remaining four fled back to their headquarters in Paletwa.” The Arakan Army had effective control over the village, overwhelming the small force stationed there. It was at this point, according to the CHRO, that the Arakan Army forced villagers to dig a grave and bury the dead captain. Afterward they say 10 villagers were forced to carry what the Arakan Army had seized from the Myanmar Army to the Bangladesh border, at which point they were released.
Tun Myat Naing denies these allegations, “They accused us of taking porters, taking the villagers as guides, but these are false accusations. We have to respond to these accusations.”
As a result of the fighting much of the village was destroyed, and both sides have been accused by the CHRO of laying land mines around the village. More than 350 people have been displaced and are in need of humanitarian aid. The CHRO reports that efforts have been made by the Tatmadaw to pressure the displaced villagers to return home against their will at a time it continues to be unsafe there. Tun Myat Naing places the blame for this on the Tatmadaw. “We do not station [fighters] in their (Chin) villages. We try to avoid confrontations near villages as much as possible.” His assertions are supported by reports from CHRO that clashes continue in the area, but outside the villages. The general also noted similar tactics used by the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State, “They deployed two divisions in the northern part of Arakan State, and after our confrontation a week ago they sent troops to the far north, closer to the border, with more land mines, which is very dangerous for the villagers, and for their livestock.”
According to the CHRO, the child soldiers were released by the Tatmadaw after significant legal and political pressure was placed on the government, but the adult villager forcibly recruited is believed to still be in custody, presumably in military training. According to a press release by the Arakan Army, two of the soldiers they kept prisoner were released to the Bangladesh Red Cross, and are expected to be transferred by the Bangladesh Border Guard back to Myanmar.
The Diplomat contacted the spokesperson for Myanmar President Thein Sein, as well as the Ministry of Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Home Affairs. All declined to comment regarding these events and accusations, originally referring inquiries to each other before finally deferring to the Ministry of Defense, which was unavailable for comment.
Around the time of the clashes in Rakhine State, heavy fighting broke out in the country’s semi-autonomous Kokang Region on the Chinese border, and clashes intensified between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army. It is not unreasonable to infer that these events were coordinated, and Brigadier General Tun Myat Naing implies as much. “It could be coincidence. When people view the whole structure they think we try to synchronize, and of course we have to synchronize to defeat or hurt the enemy.” His official reluctance to disclose what seems to be an obvious and calculated effort by Ethnic Armed Groups comes with some light laughter, but he did convey the genuine need of such coordination by ethnic forces. “We need to have even more timely synchronized actions. If all the Burmese ethnic forces move that way, I am sure the central government will be pressured to negotiate and they will think they will come to the table faster. They will become more flexible if they have military pressure from all directions at the same time.” In this way the aspirations of the Arakan Army are also the aspirations of the oppressed and marginalized in each of the ethnic regions of the country, and an attempt to unify what is largely divided and fractured. Under a government often thought to control through divide and conquer the means of reversal become apparent.
The Arakan Army says at least ten clashes have taken place since fighting initially began, but the pace has slowed with the onset of the monsoon season. The strategy for them now, General Tun Myat Naing says, is to observe movements of the Tatmadaw, and plan their next moves accordingly. Meanwhile, there is a separate front for the Arakan Army, the political one. While the Arakan Army previously made it a point to avoid politics, this is changing as it grows. “Eventually we decided to start a political wing of our own, because we have our fundamental principle and political agenda. The military objective is to support our political ambitions. We have to have the right to self determination, and to form a genuine federal union where Arakan people can determine their own destiny with their own decisions. We need to fight for that. We will make our national movement to achieve this objective.”
The fight, both political and military, seems to be a lonely one for the Arakan Army. While it has many allies in the north of the country, it operates alone in its home state. Local political groups are legally banned from associating with it, and Rakhine State’s other armed group, the Arakan Liberation Army, has not responded to the Arakan Army’s attempts to reach out, according to Tun Myat Naing, likely because of the Arakan Liberation Party’s ceasefire with the central government, and its role in the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between several of the country’s armed groups and the Myanmar government.
Speaking on the ceasefire talks, Tun Myat Naing is skeptical. “Of course we want to solve the problem through dialogue, but we can see the attitude of the central government – they are not that sincere. So this could be a waste of time, scrambling over the table while already two years have passed by and nothing fruitful or beneficial or concrete has come out yet. The ceasefire is like a divide tactic.”
Regarding the well publicized riots and continued tensions between Rakhine State’s ethnic Rakhine majority and Stateless Rohingya minority, which have resulted in over 140,000 people displaced from their homes and nearly 200 recorded deaths, Tun Myat Naing suspects much of the conflict is a distraction. “We should not make blind accusations to political (actors) without evidence, but if we look beyond these clashes we can see who benefits from this problem. It is obvious. When we had that clash, the Arakanese people lost a lot, the Bengali [a controversial term for the Rohingya, implying they are foreign) people lost their homes and everything. We both hurt. But someone – they achieved their plan. They realized their plan with no one to thwart it. This is one [piece of] evidence. Another that you could see is when the people were fighting each other, if [the authorities] wanted to stop it they could have earlier. They didn’t have to be watching from the distance. So it could be a guiding hand to manipulate the fight of the local people who don’t benefit.” For now, there is deep resentment between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities, and in other ethnic regions in the country political and armed groups have often been manipulated against each other, weakening their military capabilities, and often causing them to lose control of their natural resources.
The coming year will be one of great potential for Myanmar, and one of inevitable change for better or worse. With elections officially scheduled for November 8, challenges to the current constitution, student activists increasingly challenging the status quo, and a resurgence of conflict in several of the ethnic regions, the country is undoubtedly on the cusp of something big. Brigadier General Tun Myat Naing emphasizes the role he hopes the Arakan Army and the other ethnic armed groups might play, “May 2015 to May 2016 is a big period. Now it is July. This time spent, this one year, will bring back a sort of change in this country, we pray. I wish to change this for the better.”
Richard Potter is a writer and social worker from Pittsburgh. His has previously written for Vice, The Mantle, Your Middle East News, and other publications, covering the Middle East and Myanmar.