An attack by Rohingya militants in western Myanmar in the opening days of the New Year – their first military activity after a protracted three-month hiatus – provided a glimpse of the direction in which the conflict is likely headed in the coming year.
It’s a trajectory that does not bode well for stability on an international border where cultural and religious fault-lines run deep and where, following the exodus of over 650,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, tensions are already simmering.
Compared to the hostilities the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, contends with in other border regions, the mid-morning attack on January 5 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was decidedly small beer.
A team of between 10 and 20 ARSA fighters struck an army convoy with an improvised mine in an ambush in Maungdaw township at the northern extremity of western Rakhine state. The blast was followed by automatic rifle fire from high ground above the road. After an apparently brief exchange of fire the attackers withdrew.
According to the Tatmadaw’s version of events, three people were wounded — two soldiers and the civilian driver of a car which, with a military escort of one or two trucks, was transporting an officer to the township center for medical treatment. Earlier media reports said six were wounded, one critically.
While hardly a major clash, the incident was notable for several reasons. First, it reflected a level of basic tactical skills and discipline – the combination of an improvised explosive device (IED) and small- arms fire and a prompt withdrawal – which ARSA had not displayed before.
Both in October 2016 and August 2017, militant attacks were chaotic affairs reliant as much on local villagers armed with machetes and swords as any ARSA cadre military capabilities. The attacks on police outposts last August 25, the assault that led to the Tatmadaw’s retaliatory “clearance operations”, came at a heavy cost in Rohingya lives.
Second, according to police who spoke to local media in the immediate aftermath of the January 5 ambush, the IED appears to have been remotely triggered by a mobile phone or radio transceiver rather than detonated by a battery-charged command wire or pressure plate activated when a vehicle rolls over it.
Remote detonation of IEDs is hardly state-of-the-art warfare: it’s been standard operating procedure for insurgents around the world since at least the turn of the century. But if confirmed, it would again mark a first for ARSA, an indication that a group which has started from a startlingly low base is learning and adapting.
Equally interesting is where the attackers came from. It’s possible, but unlikely, that they had been hiding out in Myanmar’s Mayu hills west of the road where the ambush took place since the August 25 attacks and the savage Tatmadaw reprisals they provoked.
Far more probable is that the ARSA team infiltrated into Rakhine state from the Bangladeshi side of the border in the days or hours preceding the attack.
There are four reasons for such a supposition: the very long time lapse since late August; the relative proximity of the attack site in San Kar Pin Yin village tract to the border some 10-15 kilometers away; the more or less competent nature of the ambush; and, finally, the presence of what Asia Times understands to be at least one clandestine training facility run by ARSA on the Bangladeshi side of the border north of Teknaf.
While hard evidence is lacking, all of these factors suggest a cross-border operation and, by extension, the deployment of a trained unit tasked specifically with carrying out ambushes with more likely to come.
In the attack’s aftermath, the Tatmadaw will no doubt focus its efforts on understanding two key elements of what happened.
First is the nature of the IED in terms of its composition and triggering. Judging from the relatively small casualty count, the explosive used is far more likely to have been a low-intensity home-made mix rather than a military-grade high explosive such as RDX or C4. Examination of residue at the site will have confirmed that.
The triggering mechanism will have been equally easy to establish from post-blast fragments – or an actual command wire left by the attackers at the site. It also will say something important about the evolving nature of the threat and what counter-measures need to be taken.
The second issue which will prove far harder to pin down is whether the attackers did indeed infiltrate across the border and, if so, from where. Beyond that will be the question of whether they returned to Bangladesh or are still on the loose in the Mayu Range, either carrying out reconnaissance for new attacks or establishing locations for arms caches and food dumps to be used in the future, or both.
What is already clear — and no doubt unsettling for local Tatmadaw and police — is that it was possible for a group of 10-20 armed men to move into an area on a main communications artery near the border and launch an ambush without being either spotted or reported. Moreover, if media reports on the same day are to be credited, pursuit operations were launched only at around 1pm — or nearly three hours after the attack.
That suggests either or both a lack of effective coordination between security force units or complacency after months of quiet.
Where the Tatmadaw can derive some consolation is that the attack fairly conclusively indicated ARSA is still reliant on IEDs and automatic rifles, and does not yet field machine-guns or rocket propelled grenades. If the militants have such weaponry they would certainly have used it and inflicted far higher casualties in an ambush on ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles.
The ambush took place against the backdrop of preparations for a widely touted repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Following a memorandum of understanding signed by the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments last November 23, the process is — on paper at least — scheduled to begin in late January.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Myanmar government spokesman U Zaw Htay was quick to assert that the ARSA operation had been deliberately timed to disrupt or even derail the process.
That is almost certainly a stretch. Given the fears of a still traumatized refugee population and concerns among international aid agencies over unanswered questions surrounding logistics, returnee security and Myanmar government capacity to handle any large-scale repatriation, it is highly unlikely ARSA was seeking to deflect a mass return that is not about to unfold.
What the ambush did accomplish was announce to the group’s recruitment base in Bangladesh-based refugee camps and to the international community more broadly that — rumors to the contrary – ARSA has retained some military capability and is not a spent force. In short, it envisages a cross-border or border-based insurgency along the two countries’ 208-kilometer land frontier.
For its part, Bangladesh’s government has no interest in supporting any such a development. But how militarily or politically capable it would be of actively suppressing a Rohingya resistance movement were one to gather steam under ARSA’s banner is another question altogether.
As Thailand learned along its western border with Myanmar in the 1990s, the Tatmadaw has a well-documented track record of hot-pursuit operations and cross-border strikes aimed at insurgent sanctuaries. The Thai military often preferred to stand clear while the Tatmadaw and their proxies mopped up and went home.
But against a backdrop of popular anger in Bangladesh over the crisis and sharp warnings from Dhaka over alleged airspace violations by Tatmadaw drones and helicopters last September, it would be unwise to assume the Bangladeshi military will prove as accommodating.