By: Michael Hart

On April 9 at about 10 pm, more than 200 insurgents stormed the police headquarters in the ancient town of Mrauk-U in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State, leaving three police officers dead before abducting the family members of personnel on duty.

The assault was launched not by ethnic Muslim Rohingya, however, who have been the victims of appalling ethnic violence over the past three years, but by the Arakan Army, a well-armed insurgent force representing the Arakanese Buddhist majority in Rakhine. The rapid rise of the group has shifted the narrative and adds a new dimension to Myanmar’s complex web of ethnic insurgencies.

Since fighting erupted in early January, more than 100 people have been killed and 31,000 displaced in Rakhine amid clashes between the Arakan Army and Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw. The violence constitutes a major escalation of Myanmar’s internal strife at a time when the national-level peace process to try to resolve ethnic conflict has stalled.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s plan to persuade more ethnic rebel groups to join a nationwide ceasefire is failing, and when the army’s own four-month unilateral ceasefire expires on April 30, fighting could also rebound outside Rakhine in the far northeastern states of Kachin and Shan.

Arakan Army Emerges

The Arakan Army was formed in 2009 in the eastern state of Kachin, with its base in Laiza on the Chinese border. In its early years, the army had close ties with the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army, two of Myanmar’s largest and most powerful ethnic rebel groups. They have steadily migrated southwest to the group’s self-declared homeland in Rakhine, where it now aims to consolidate its presence. The group has become more active in Rakhine in recent years. One of Myanmar’s better-armed groups, its troop numbers have swelled to around 7,000.

The Arakan Army is driven by a desire to secure autonomy and self-determination for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. Like much of Myanmar’s Bamar ethnic majority, the group is hostile to the Rohingya Muslim-minority and views the ethnic Arakanese population as the rightful rulers of the state before its conquest by the Burmese in 1785. The group has run a slick online and social media operation, enflaming nationalist sentiments among many of the state’s long-time residents who view Naypyidaw as illegal occupiers of their land.

The Arakan Army claims 90 percent of ethnic Arakanese support its presence in the state. The group is allegedly funded through local supporters, overseas donations and the drugs trade. The leadership, like many other armed organizations in Myanmar, denies the group finances itself through illegal narcotics trafficking.

Attacks at the start of this year prompted the quasi-civilian National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government to label the AA as ‘terrorists’ and order the Tatmadaw to launch clearing operations. This explicit condemnation by the NLD, which usually avoids associating itself with military offensives, demonstrates the extent to which the AA is judged to represent a serious threat to national security.

Myanmar’s stuttering peace process

While fighting intensifies in Rakhine, Myanmar’s national-level peace process has stalled. Upon the NLD’s election victory in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi promised to reinvigorate dialogue through holding a series of 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences, named after a peace initiative directed by her father in the 1940s. The aim was to expand the existing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which was signed between eight rebel groups and the previous military-run government in late-2015. Yet since coming to power, the NLD has managed to persuade only two more ethnic insurgent groups to sign-up, and has held only three major conferences despite pledging to hold one every six months.

The Arakan Army and its allies in the Northern Alliance grouping – the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – are non-signatories and have been excluded from national-level talks amid recent fighting. Several other armed ethnic groups, allied through the powerful UWSA-led Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), are also non-signatories to the NCA and view the Panglong-centered peace mechanism with suspicion.

Even dialogue with the 10 NCA signatories is not going well. Progress has ground to a halt in the past year as talks have reached an impasse, preventing movement to the next stage. Three years since the signing of the NCA, only non-contentious issues and vague targets have been discussed. Difficult core questions on the extent of power devolution, the exact structure of self-administered political regions, and procedures for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration have been deferred to a later date.

Stalled Process

The peace process, centered on the NCA and Panglong dialogue mechanism, aims to forge a new federal political union in Myanmar based on democracy and respect for ethnic minority rights in border areas. Yet it has two major problems. The ceasefire is not nationwide, while the talks are not inclusive or all-encompassing. Only a smattering of smaller groups, accounting for just 20 percent of total rebel combatants in the country, have signed-up. Without the added support of the 10,000-strong KIA and 30,000-strong UWSA, and their increasingly close allies in the TNLA and the AA, the peace process will be ineffective.

It is also hard to hold peace talks against a backdrop of continued fighting on the ground. The Rohingya crackdown during 2017, which drove an estimated 750,000 refugees over the border to squalid camps in Bangladesh, was followed by renewed clashes in Kachin and Shan states last year, before the latest escalation in Rakhine in the first months of 2019.

There is growing anger among non-state armies at the Tatmadaw’s alleged scorched earth tactics, while the diverse aims and aspirations of ethnic armed organizations are preventing them from forging a collective position, facilitating a ‘divide and rule’ approach from the government. Such division will inevitably hinder dialogue going forward.

In an effort to reinvigorate the peace process, in a surprise move the Tatmadaw declared a unilateral ceasefire in late December, set to run for four months until April 30. The halt to operations covers the eastern conflict zones of Kachin and Shan but excludes Rakhine. While some have praised the move, the Arakan Army has expressed concern the army is using the ceasefire as a pretext to divert troops to offensives in Rakhine. There have also been suggestions the Tatmadaw is quietly regrouping in Kachin and Shan.

When the ceasefire was announced, the government said it planned to engage in informal discussions with NCA non-signatories to move the peace process forward. Yet in the latest talks held with the FPNCC alliance, on 21 March, no discernible progress was made. After high-level discussions in Naypyidaw, AA secretary Col. Kyaw Han said ��the military doesn’t accept the presence of the AA in Rakhine State…but for us Rakhine people, the presence of the AA is the main goal,” adding that “only the AA will be able to take care of the security and development of Rakhine State.” In contrast, government negotiator Tin Myo Win said the region must be cleared of armed insurgents.

Dangerous New Front

Already reeling from the Tatmadaw’s scorched-earth tactics and mass exodus of the Rohingya in the north, fighting is now spreading further south, displacing civilians and putting the repatriation of the Rohingya on hold.

Myanmar’s neighbors have a shared interest in preventing violence from escalating. Bangladesh has agreed to cooperate with the Myanmar border guard forces in operations against the AA and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Meanwhile, China and Thailand have hosted informal talks between the Naypyidaw government and rebel groups operating in the eastern states of Kachin and Shan.

Beijing does hold some influence over groups such as the KIA, but its ability to influence Arakan Army activities in Rakhine, far to the west, is minimal. Formal talks mediated by a third-party are an option, but the army – intent on maintaining control of negotiations – views internal conflict as a domestic matter and has long rejected outside interference. 

With dialogue stalled and no breakthrough on the horizon, Myanmar’s deadly cocktail of ethnic wars could be about to enter a troubling new phase. When the Tatmadaw’s self-imposed ceasefire ends on April 30, fighting could reignite in the east with groups opposed to the NCA. While clashes continue in Rakhine, a similar escalation in Kachin or Shan would leave the military firefighting on multiple fronts.

As the world remains fixated on the plight of the Rohingya across the border in Bangladesh, a number of other ethnic minorities inside Myanmar remain hopeful of a breakthrough in the peace process. Yet it appears increasingly unlikely as the escalating conflict in Rakhine State encapsulates. The Arakan Army will not give up fighting for self-determination but in reality is unable to match the superior firepower of the Tatmadaw, who in turn are intent on maintaining their stranglehold over the nation’s politics. The war in Rakhine, as in other contested areas of Myanmar, is one that neither side can win.

Michael Hart (info.michaelhart@gmail.com) has researched for Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch. This is written exclusively for Asia Sentinel.