“The Way of the Rakhita” – the Arakan Dream – doesn’t have a single definition, but its force as a unifying message among the Arakan people is powerful. Evoking memories of the once-great Arakanese Kingdom, Arakan Army General Twan Myat Naing’s appeal to Rakhita inspires the Arakanese in ways that Burmese calls for peace cannot. However, its power among the Arakanese might be the very reason the people of Myanmar’s Rakhine state will continue to suffer worse and worse violence in the years to come.
A war has been ongoing between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) since 2011, when the AA formally took up arms against the Tatmadaw in a bid for self-determination in Rakhine state. However, as the AA has grown in size, so too has the intensity of the conflict. This year on January 4 – Myanmar’s Independence Day – the Arakan Army attacked Border Guard Police stations in Buthidaung township, killing 13 members of the police force and injuring nine others. The AA reportedly also seized dozens of small arms and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Responding to that attack, the government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) labeled the AA a “terrorist organization” and ordered the Myanmar military to “crush” the insurgent group through a series of “counterinsurgency measures” and “clearance operations.” This effort has led to the displacement of more than 5,000 civilians in Kyauktaw, Ponenugun, Rethedaung and Buthidaung townships.
Arakanese civilians, particularly women and children, are disproportionately affected by the ongoing conflict between the AA and military. This does not just include Arakanese but also Rohingya civilians who fled to Bangladesh en masse in 2017 after attacks against them led by the Myanmar military.
Why does the AA enjoy popular support among the Arakanese people? Indeed, as the AA instigates violence that has killed Arakanese civilians and displaced 5,000 more, the Myanmar government has recently laid out plans for foreign direct investment in Rakhine state, among other initiatives aimed at the economic development of Rakhine. However, these calls for investment and peace ring hollow for the Arakanese, who have not forgotten their historical grievances against the Burmese, nor their current political reality.
The Arakan Kingdom was an autonomous and self-governing realm until the Burmese occupied it in 1784. The Arakan state has not been independent since this defeat, and the Burmese occupation has continued unabated for more than 200 years. Today, this dynamic reveals itself in the lagging socio-economic development of Rakhine despite possessing vast natural resources and the inequality found throughout the state. In 2015, the Arakan National Party (ANP), the third-largest political party in Myanmar, won 45 Senate seats in much-heralded national elections. Despite winning a majority of the votes, however, the NLD government refused to share executive power at the state level with the ANP.
This political reality has not gone unchallenged: During the military dictatorship of Ne Win in the 1960s, the Arakan Independence Army (AIA) and the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) fought for an “Arakan freedom” in which the Arakan people would govern Arakan state. Both rebel groups collapsed in 1967.
In 2009, General Naing founded the Arakan Army and the United League of Arakan (ULA) to continue the fight for a free Arakan. Initially, the AA only had 27 soldiers enlisted. Since then, however, the group has greatly expanded, with some studies estimating the actual number to be 7,000. With growing power and influence, the AA is positioning itself as the sole savior of the Arakan people who can return the Arakan state to its previous independent glory.
Using a concept known as “The Way of the Rakhita,” General Naing appeals to a deep-seated sense of oppression in the Arakan people to fight for self-determination. While one interpretation of this call to arms would be a totally independent state, Naing claims he is only asking “to obtain confederate status for Rakhine state,” in much the same way as Wa state, which has a larger share of power than other states in line with the constitution. Regardless of Naing’s intentions, the call to Rakhita resonates with the Arakan as harkening back to their ancestors’ wish to build a sovereign state and an end to Burmese domination.
Myanmar’s calls for peace, democracy and investment have not led to development, autonomy, or a halt in bloodshed in Rakhine state. The Arakanese cannot be faulted for not trusting their democratic institutions, nor the central government that leads them. A lack of economic opportunities, neglected political representation, increased migration, and continuous pressure for years on end can spark a revolution.
The Arakanese people are right to look elsewhere for a solution to their problems, and stepping into this vacuum are the Arakan Army and its Way of the Rakhita. However, while such a vision may inspire historical nostalgia, it can only lead to more suffering by the Arakenese themselves in the days to come.