Triggered by a wave of rebel attacks, the recent surge in hostilities in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state marks an ominous watershed in a hitherto low-intensity conflict between Arakan Army (AA) insurgents and government forces.
After four years of low-key political and military infiltration from bases several hundred kilometers away on Myanmar’s northern Chinese border, assaults by hundreds of ethnic Rakhine fighters on four police posts in early January appeared to indicate the ethno-nationalist rebel group had shifted its operational focus squarely back onto its home-turf in Rakhine state.
The military, or Tatmadaw, responded at speed by air-lifting crack units into Rakhine from other parts of the country and ratcheting up operations backed by artillery and air power aimed at “crushing” rebels who now operate across almost all townships in the northern half of the state.
Last week, on January 31, the Tatmadaw staged a day of well-publicized war games in Meiktila in central Myanmar show-casing a range of improved capabilities, not least parachute assaults, low-level air strikes and aerial resupply drops. Attended by armed forces commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the drills were clearly intended to send a blunt message both to the general public and the AA: the gloves are coming off.
The Tatmadaw’s impending escalation confronts the AA with a critical challenge: how to sustain a war at the end of precariously long supply lines. “If the AA has one problem, it’s resupply,” noted one Bangkok-based intelligence official. “They’ve upped the ante in a big way but whether they’ll be able to deal with the response is a lot less clear.”
Fighting for far-reaching autonomy in a nation dominated politically, economically and militarily by its ethnic Burman majority, the AA is flexing real strengths which have undoubtedly underpinned its current assertiveness and confidence. Those strengths may also, however, have instilled a dangerous over-confidence.
Not least is a significant level of popular support, particularly among Rakhine youth both inside Rakhine state and beyond. As detailed in a January report by the International Crisis Group, that support has been boosted by the mishandling of the state’s politics by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government nominally led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and a growing perception that political channels for protest via state politics have been exhausted.
Popular support and a dynamic leadership headed by the AA’s youthful 40-year-old commander Tun Myat Naing has translated into a remarkable surge in armed strength in recent years. A current assessment by one regional intelligence service puts the AA’s numbers – in 2015 believed to be around 2,500 – at between 5,000 and 6,000. Figures cited in the Myanmar media are as high as 7,000.
Rapid growth has been underpinned by apparently rich cash flows. AA spokesmen have asserted that lucre has come from donations, both from wealthy benefactors as well as migrant Rakhine workers who have fled poverty at home to work in other cities in Myanmar. But few analysts doubt that AA’s funds have also derived from involvement in the huge trade in methamphetamine that moves between northeastern Shan State where the group operates into Bangladesh.
Finally, the group has honed its military capabilities through its membership in the Northern Alliance-Burma (NA-B), a coalition of four ethnic insurgent groups based in the north of the country which has declined to sign the government-sponsored Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
Training and headquarters provided by a Northern Alliance ally, the Kachin Independence Army, near the KIA’s capital of Laiza on the Chinese border, has been essential to the AA’s growth. Small-unit tactical skills and real-world combat experience gained since 2014 in the Kokang region of Shan state with ethnic Chinese forces of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army have also been important.
The AA’s combat capabilities have also been underpinned by modern small-arms acquired both from the KIA and the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), which from behind the shield of its own ceasefire agreement with the government has served as the Northern Alliance’s logistical godfather.
Striking as they all are, though, none of these strengths provides the answer to the question that will soon weigh heavily on AA field commanders in Rakhine state: how to sustain and expand guerrilla forces while avoiding being ground down by superior Tatmadaw firepower? In Rakhine as elsewhere, that will depend on a reliable and steady source of munitions and lines of supply between that source and front-line combatants.
The AA faces daunting challenges on both counts. To date, the group’s primary source of munitions has been the KIA and the UWSA. If not entirely dependent on China, both armed groups are certainly subject to Chinese influence and pressure.
And, given that Beijing has no interest in the Rakhine war spreading state-wide to impact on its Belt and Road Initiative specifically and national economic and political stability generally it seems likely that both the KIA and UWSA will be under growing pressure to distance themselves from logistic support for the AA.
Supply lines promise to be even more problematic. There is certainly no “Tun Myat Naing Trail” leading from KIA bases on the Chinese border across north-central Myanmar and through the rugged hills of Chin state down to Rakhine state. In a tribute to its ingenuity and persistence, the AA has evidently since 2014 managed to infiltrate men and weapons by motor road into both Rakhine state and neighboring Paletwa township of southern Chin state, where the group has reportedly set up a network of camps.
To date, this process has been sufficient to build up a force loosely estimated at between 2,000 or 2,500 combatants in the Rakhine-south Chin theater. But as the conflict escalates, moving significant supplies of munitions into either region along roads subject to tight Tatmadaw scrutiny will become increasingly difficult.
That will likely complicate the expansion of AA guerrilla forces into Rakhine’s south, where China has interests in developing the deep-sea Kyaukphyu port as part of a BRI vision of giving China’s landlocked southern provinces access to the Indian Ocean.
The logistics dilemma will inevitably require the AA to look towards and across Myanmar’s western borders with India and Bangladesh – rugged, road-less, mostly jungle covered hills where its forces in both Chin and Rakhine states are already operating.
Indeed, in the aftermath of January 4 attacks on police posts in Rakhine’s Buthidaung township, the Myanmar government publicly asserted that the AA was already operating in two camps inside Bangladesh – an allegation angrily dismissed by the government in Dhaka.
Both India and Bangladesh are clearly monitoring the Rakhine crisis closely due to the porous nature of their borders with Myanmar. For its part, New Delhi has sought in recent years to offset Chinese influence in Myanmar by improving relations at all levels with Naypyidaw — with military-to-military cooperation accorded particular attention.
Frustration in New Delhi over the unwillingness of the Tatmadaw to move decisively against camps inside Myanmar run by insurgents from India’s northeast has festered for years. Nevertheless, the Indian government has nothing to gain and much to lose by turning a blind eye to AA bases inside Indian territory, let alone to AA attempts to establish covert supply lines through India’s perennially restless northeast.
Indeed, India’s cooperation with Myanmar in denying sanctuary to the AA inside the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram provides New Delhi with perfect leverage to encourage more assertive Tatmadaw action against Indian rebels known to be active in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing Division.
From Naypyidaw’s perspective, Bangladesh presents an altogether different dilemma.
Since Tatmadaw-led pogroms in 2016 and 2017 drove well over 800,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh, typically frosty relations between the two neighbors have plummeted. Despite the Memorandum of Understanding on Rohingya repatriation signed in November 2017, there has been no indication that Naypyidaw is willing to make concessions on either Rohingya citizenship rights or international monitoring mechanisms that would be basic preconditions for any large-scale return of refugees.
Naypyidaw’s accusation that Bangladesh has permitted the AA to set up two camps inside its territory indicates clearly that Myanmar’s government is concerned that Dhaka is ready to use the AA to advance its position.
Justified or otherwise, those fears have almost certainly been exacerbated by two recent attacks in Rakhine state’s Maungdaw township attributed to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) after a year of almost total military inaction by the rebel group. Those attacks included an ambush of a police vehicle on January 16 and an attack on a border post allegedly carried out from the Bangladeshi side of the border on January 24.
Yet it’s doubtful that Dhaka has the political appetite or operational wherewithal to mount a diplomatically risky campaign of covert support for the AA under the current circumstances, regional and Western security officials and other analysts told Asia Times.
Several sources said that the possible presence of AA operatives inside Bangladesh’s Bandarban district, where the local Marmar Buddhists are ethnic cousins of Myanmar’s Rakhine, would owe more to the realities of ethnic ties and smuggling activities across a rugged border than to any broader strategy by Bangladesh’s military intelligence directorate aimed to support insurgency inside Myanmar.
Given the high level of mutual suspicion in both militaries and the presence of armed non-state actors on both sides of the border, gauging how events might unfold in the weeks ahead is difficult. But as one intelligence official commented to Asia Times: “Insurgent activity along and across porous borders and mistrust between the two militaries are a recipe for military miscalculations.”
For now, however, there is little to suggest that the AA’s new war will secure the sources of munitions along reliable supply lines it will need to expand its fight in the coming months. And that realization will almost certainly encourage the Tatmadaw to ramp up operations, as it has in recent days, with an aim to decimate the AA before the Rakhine conflict spreads any further.