Rohingya militant attacks on police posts and state security forces’ savage campaign of retaliation may have opened a Pandora’s box of instability in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, with repercussions that could haunt the country’s military for years to come.
Whether the rebel Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the group responsible for the August 25 attacks but that has been quiet in recent weeks, has the intention or capability of rebounding from its sanctuaries in the teeming new refugee camps in Bangladesh is a critical unknown.
Further fighting would complicate and possibly even derail fragile prospects for the repatriation of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees.
What is not in doubt, however, is that the military, or Tatmadaw, already faces another far more serious insurgent threat in the same state. Overshadowed by the refugee crisis and the storm of international diplomatic activity it has generated, Rakhine’s second front pits the Tatmadaw against a Rakhine Buddhist rebel force that is notably better equipped and trained than ARSA’s rag-tag rebels.
A recent upsurge of attacks by the so-called Arakan Army, or AA, suggests the ethnic Rakhine rebels are now preparing to take advantage of the army’s ongoing distractions in northern parts of the state to step up their infiltration of central townships.
The AA is not a new threat but it is determined, well-armed and well-funded. In contrast to the ARSA, it is a force that appears far more capable of planning and operating strategically.
Formed in 2009 in northern Kachin state under the umbrella of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the AA has drawn mainly on Rakhine migrant labor working in the jade mining complex of Hpakant to emerge as a force that is estimated at close to 2,000 combatants backed by a trained reserve.
Led by a youthful former student Tun Myat Naing who today styles himself as a ‘brigadier general’, the AA gained significant combat experience on the battlefields of the north, both with the Kachin and their northern insurgent allies. In Kokang region fighting in northeast Shan state in 2015, the small AA contingent was noted as punching well above its weight.
Even as it has been growing and fighting in the country’s north, the AA has also made efforts to turn its attention home to Rakhine state. Since 2015, that strategy has centered on establishing base areas in the rugged hill country of Paletwa in the south of neighboring Chin state. The remote but strategic township borders Bangladesh to the west and Rakhine state to the south.
From these base camps the AA has extended its footprint south across the state border deep into the Rakhine heartland. Its units have operated in the majority Buddhist townships of Kyawktaw, Mrauk-U , Min Bya, and Ponnagyun close to the state capital of Sittwe. From Paletwa and Kyawtaw the AA has also been able to infiltrate west into the majority Rohingya townships of Buthidaung and Rathedaung.
Initial indication of the shift south came in March 2015 with relatively minor attacks that, probably not by chance, coincided with heavy fighting in Kokang. But the dry season months of March and April 2016 saw a far more serious upsurge of activity as small but well-equipped guerrilla units infiltrated south.
The campaign included propaganda work in Buddhist villages, armed clashes with government forces and occasional use of relatively large improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to mine highways.
While the bulk of the group’s fighting force is understood to remain in the north, a growing contingent estimated to number up to 500 combatants is currently operating on the Chin-Rakhine front.
In notable contrast to ARSA, AA insurgents are equipped with support weapons in the form of rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and mortars that significantly enhance their capability for both ambushes and stand-off attacks on security force bases.
Back on its home turf, AA’s military capabilities are reinforced by distinct political advantages. At the tactical level, local roots and ability to tap into grass roots grievances in Myanmar’s poorest state appear to be paying off in terms of village-level support, or at least acquiescence.
Strategically, the AA also derives status as a member in good standing of the powerful northern ethnic opposition bloc – the so-called Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) — which has pointedly declined to sign the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), the beleaguered centerpiece of the government’s floundering peace process.
The FPNCC has coalesced around Myanmar’s strongest insurgent faction, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which has not let its own long-standing bilateral ceasefire with the Tatmadaw stand in the way of logistical and training support for ethnic allies in active hostilities with the army. The AA has been an important beneficiary of the UWSA’s carefully calculated strategic largesse.
This year AA offensive operations began earlier than usual. On August 22, the AA overran a base of the Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) in Paletwa near the border with Bangladesh. It remains unclear whether the attack stemmed from a local dispute or was driven by more strategic calculations.
A militarily insignificant group with less than 100 men under arms, the ALA is the token armed wing of the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) which in 2012 signed a bilateral ceasefire with the Tatamadaw and in 2015 signed the NCA.
The seizure of the ALA camp was followed by an attack on a Tatmadaw unit on August 31 — six days after the ARSA wave of attacks and the beginning of the army’s now notorious “clearance operations” in the majority Muslim townships of Maungtaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.
Heavy fighting since suggests that the Tatmadaw has finally, if belatedly, woken up to the gravity of the AA threat. An early November army offensive in the Paletwa region marked the first serious effort to disrupt the insurgent base area since the AA emerged there two years ago.
Failure to react earlier appears to reflect interrelated problems of thinly-stretched resources and strikingly poor intelligence — weaknesses that extend well beyond Rakhine state and have surfaced repeatedly in northern Shan state since 2015.
Coordinated from Kyauktaw, the home base of the Military Operations Command 9 (one of three divisional-sized MOCs in Rakhine), the offensive was reportedly backed by artillery and attack helicopters. It appears to have met with little success: significantly, the Tatmadaw’s media outlets released no statements detailing losses inflicted on the insurgents or overrun camps.
Independent media sources revealed a more telling portrait. On November 8, according to independent media reports later confirmed by sources close to the Tatmadaw, an AA ambush of army vessels moving along the Kaladan River killed 11 troops, including two officers, and wounded 14 more.
Flowing south from the Indian border through Chin and Rakhine states to the Bay of Bengal, the Kaladan forms a key communications artery in otherwise rough country with few roads.
The ambush was evidently the final nail in the professional coffin of the Tatmadaw’s luckless Western Military Region commander Major General Maung Maung Soe.
On November 10, the general — who had already reportedly incurred the displeasure of Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a September conference in Sittwe — was abruptly relieved of his command and transferred back to the capital Naypyitaw.
According to Yangon sources, his sacking came at the end of multiple intelligence failures both in Rohingya Muslim townships and with regard to the AA.
Failing an improbable breakthrough in stalled negotiations between the FPNCC and a government still firmly chained to its NCA, the coming dry season months will almost certainly see a higher than usual level of hostilities in Rakhine state.
Indeed, notwithstanding the Tatmadaw’s early November push in the Paletwa region, the AA already appears to be probing south: on November 18, a clash with the military took place in Buthidaung, one of the Muslim majority areas that has been targeted in the Tatmadaw’s “clearance operations” against ARSA insurgents.
This situation will only be exacerbated by the Rohingya crisis. In a recent interview with the French daily Le Figaro, AA chief Tun Myat Naing pointedly dismissed speculation that his forces might be willing to cooperate with ARSA, noting that “we wish to stay out of the current conflict between the Muslims and the Burmese.”
However, should any sustained program to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to Rakhine state actually begin in the coming months – which is far from guaranteed — it will almost certainly be seized on by the AA to attack the credibility of the government and Tatmadaw and bolster the notion AA is the true defender of the Rakhine Buddhist community’s interests.
If during the same period the ARSA returns to the fray in the areas along the Bangladesh border, the Myanmar military will find itself confronting the reality of a serious and potentially protracted two-front conflict in the state at a time when its overriding strategic concerns lie squarely along the Chinese border in the north and northeast.
It is there that over 80% of the country’s ethnic opposition is ranged against it, well-armed, recalcitrant and, for the first time in decades, united.