Historically ethnic conflict in modern Myanmar has been a glacially slow-moving disaster, debilitating the nation’s politics while shifting only incrementally from one decade to the next.
In 2019, the eruption, spread and intensification of nationalist revolt in Rakhine state abruptly upended that familiar landscape with sobering implications for an already fragmented and floundering peace process and domestic security more broadly.
The new war in Rakhine state, pitting the military against the local Arakan Army (AA), a widely popular force led by a young and ideologically committed leadership, is also increasingly impacting Myanmar’s regional standing at a range of levels.
China’s push for economic connectivity to the Bay of Bengal, stage-center during President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to Myanmar, will now need to navigate the hostilities already lapping close to the projected deep-sea port and special economic zone at Kyaukphyu, a crucial component of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Poor prospects for any repatriation of the Muslim Rohingya refugee population camped in neighboring Bangladesh, estimated as high as one million, are now further receding, while additional migrant flows out of the state towards Southeast Asia are slowly gathering pace.
In retrospect, 2019 will be defined as a watershed in these events. It opened with raids by AA guerrillas on police posts in northern Rakhine on January 4, staged symbolically on Myanmar’s Independence Day.
It closed in December with far larger AA coordinated assaults on army bases, not coincidentally as de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi landed in Holland to defend the military, or Tatmadaw, at the International Court of Justice against charges of genocide against the Rohingya community.
The operations at year’s end involving hundreds of rebels staging attacks in widely separated townships only served to underscore what Tatmadaw commanders already knew: the armed forces – now with all three services deployed — are facing their most serious insurgent challenge in decades.
And unlike the on-again, off-again brush-wars in northern Myanmar, the Rakhine conflict offers virtually no prospect of a ceasefire.
Sustained hostilities last year inflicted steep losses on both sides, even as the fighting and accompanying abuses have displaced close to 100,000 civilians in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state, where Paletwa township has seen repeated clashes.
While neither the Tatmadaw nor the AA release casualty figures, analysts in Yangon estimate a toll of military fatalities ranging between 800 and 1,000 fairly evenly balanced between the two belligerents.
Ambitious advances by the AA between January and April triggered an aggressive reaction as the Tatmadaw has attempted to reassert control over the populous flatlands and villages of north-central Rakhine while pushing the rebel forces back into the state’s hills and jungles.
Sustained operations have involved large-scale deployments of light infantry battalions backed by heavy artillery, mounting air power and a striking commitment of naval assets on the state’s numerous riverine arteries.
Since the beginning of the May-October rainy season, the AA has responded with two strategies that are gradually reshaping the conflict and likely to accelerate in 2020.
The first has involved attempts to establish parallel government structures to exploit the collapse of civil administration in many areas. Undertaken by the AA’s political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), the process which undoubtedly facilitates recruitment of new fighting forces has only been hastened by the resignation of government-appointed village and ward administrators in several areas following alleged Tatmadaw abuses.
The AA’s drive to usurp governmental functions has been reflected since October in repeated abductions of civil servants and off-duty security personnel from public transport on roads and rivers. Those held have been subjected to AA screening and pseudo-judicial investigations into their backgrounds before being either released or detained.
AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing has also announced plans to levy taxes on businesses operating in Rakhine state, a threat which the group’s military reach has only gone to underscore.
The second shift during the monsoon rains consisted of AA infiltration from the battleground townships in the north and center of the state – Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Ponnagyun and Minbya – and southwards into Myebon and Ann, seat of the Tatmadaw’s western regional command and close to Kyaukphyu.
By the end of 2019, reports were emerging that small AA units had moved south along the spine of the Arakan Yoma range as far as Toungup and even Tandwe townships.
The infiltration mirrored a similar pattern of activity between 2015-2017 when AA units first slipped into Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Kyauktaw townships of north Rakhine from bases in Paletwa to begin political proselytizing and later local recruitment and training courses.
To date there have been few reports of clashes in Rakhine’s south, suggesting that armed units have similarly focused on building support networks to sustain active military operations in the current dry season and beyond.
But the detonation of three small explosive devices on Munaung Island on December 19, hours before a scheduled visit by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, was a pointed, if bloodless, reminder of the AA’s widening reach.
In the short to medium term, it seems unlikely that reach will impact the sea-board end of Beijing’s projected China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). In mid-2019, the AA publicly expressed support for foreign investment in Rakhine state that recognizes local interests and would seem to have nothing to gain by staging direct attacks on CMEC-related infrastructure.
Twin pipelines that begin at Kyaukphyu and already carry oil and natural gas across central Myanmar, through the conflict-prone region of northern Shan State and across the border into China’s southern Yunnan province have never been targeted by insurgent forces at either end and for a simple reason: antagonizing China, the source of most of the AA’s munitions, makes no sense.
A more striking aspect of the war’s escalation has been the logistical capability of a force operating several hundred kilometers from its main sources of resupply in northern Myanmar, where the AA was first founded and grew under the auspices of the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The intensity and extent of fighting in 2019 appears to indicate that munitions are continuing to flow south and west, almost certainly along routes developed by the same illicit networks that move millions of methamphetamine tablets from Shan state to Rakhine and on into Bangladesh.
That, in turn, reflects the weakness of the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) and its stark incapacity to control highways even in central regions of the country, let alone the conflict-impacted border, a recent Myanmar Frontier commentary suggested.
The rare interdiction late last October of a truck moving 14,500 detonators between Shan state and the central city of Mandalay provided some indication of the scale of a crisis rooted largely in official corruption.
Against this troubled backdrop, prospects for a ceasefire in Rakhine as part of a wider deal between the Tatmadaw and the so-called Northern Alliance of rebel factions (of which the AA is a member) are vanishingly slim.
A key Tatmadaw condition for a ceasefire requiring Northern Alliance factions to redeploy to “designated areas” might be negotiable for armed groups operating solely in the north, namely the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the KIA.
But for the AA, any return to a “designated area” near the KIA “capital” of Laiza in Kachin state where the group was first based but distant from its current theater of operations in Rakhine is a self-evident non-starter.
For its part, Naypyidaw can hardly agree to a ceasefire that would cede the AA’s demand for a recognized presence in the state where their wide popularity would provide a base for further political and military consolidation. The AA’s leadership has already made clear its ambitions for Wa-style “confederal” autonomy.
For the Tatmadaw, a more palatable option in 2020 would be a ceasefire with the Northern Alliance on the easier ground of the north, where the KIA has already ceased fighting and where the TLNA and MNDAA have declared a unilateral ceasefire through February while expressing hopes for a broader deal later in the year.
However precarious, peace in the north would serve to isolate the AA politically, satisfy Chinese impatience to begin northern CMEC projects and enable the military to shift the weight of its resources to countering the AA in Rakhine.
Ethnic divide-and-rule by means of ceasefires has been a leit motif of Tatmadaw counter-insurgency since the 1980s. It has never achieved real peace in Myanmar, but the strategy has seldom failed to buy time. Only in 2020 the main beneficiary looks likely to be China.
[This is the second installment of a two-part series. Read the first part here]