Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state was riven with more violence early Saturday morning (February 24) when three small bombs detonated in the state capital of Sittwe.
The bombs, one of which exploded at the residential compound of the powerful state secretary Tin Maung Swe, and two other devices in the downtown area near a court and land office, slightly injured a policeman. Other devices were discovered undetonated.
Sittwe is no stranger to violence, to be sure. The communal violence of 2012 ethnically cleansed the formerly cosmopolitan trading port of almost all Muslims, creating a sprawling zone of internally displaced people (IDP) camps of 95,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims.
The ghetto of Aung Mingalar in the center of Sittwe, with several hundred mostly Rohingya inhabitants, is the only enclave left. Both the camps and the ghetto have been subject to sharply restricted travel restrictions since the attacks on government security forces by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants on August 25.
Those attacks sparked the Myanmar military’s brutal “area clearance operations” that have pushed an estimated 700,000 Rohingya refugees across the border into Bangladesh in recent months.
In March 2014, Rakhine Buddhist mobs attacked western aid agency compounds in Sittwe, with police shooting over the heads of rioters (tragically killing a young teenage Rakhine girl in the market). The mobs mobilized again against the dispatch of international aid supplies on the Sittwe docks in late 2017 before the police could take control. But until now bombings have been rare.
Sittwe is also the headquarters of many international aid groups and United Nations officials, and frequently hosts high level foreign visitors to the region.
The bombings could possibly be retaliation for the killing by Myanmar police of seven civilian demonstrators in the Rakhine heartland town of Mrauk U on January 16.
A large public gathering to commemorate the 233-year anniversary of the fall of the Arakan kingdom to Burmese invaders demonstrated outside the office of the local General Administration Department (GAD), a powerful civilian agency controlled bureaucratically by the military.
Police shot into the crowd as it grew larger and more restive, injuring 12 others. Adding insult to death and injury, authorities subsequently handcuffed wounded suspects to hospital beds in Sittwe.
Hardline Rakhine politician Aye Maung, a member of the Arakan National Party (ANP) which holds many seats in Rakhine state’s parliament, and nationalist writer Wai Hin Aung were arrested soon after the incident for speeches they delivered allegedly criticizing the government and military, and calling for armed resistance. They currently face charges under 505 (b&c) of the Penal Code and Section 12 (1) of the Unlawful Association Act, both of which allow for prison terms.
It has all put a spotlight on the rising strength and influence of the Arakan Army (AA), a new incarnation of ethnic Rakhine armed resistance which formed in 2009 in northern Kachin state, where it fought in the region’s wars against the government as a member of the Northern Alliance. AA has since expanded its operations against the Myanmar military in north-central Rakhine state and neighboring southern Chin state, including in Paletwa Township.
The strength of the group in these remote areas is difficult to assess, but several hundred fighters are thought to have expanded their operational area, built bases, and steadily escalated attacks on Myanmar army units who have vowed to drive them out. Like other armed groups, AA has eschewed all entreaties to join the government’s nationwide peace process.
AA and government fighting in November and December in Rakhine’s Buthidaung township and Chin state inflicted heavy casualties on the Myanmar army, which deployed helicopter gunships for air support.
In recent months, a series of small explosions on the main Sittwe-Yangon road and in central Mrauk U township have unsettled officials who fear an expansion of AA units onto the plains of central Rakhine.
Over the last two years, dozens of Rakhine civilians have been arrested and charged for unlawful association for demonstrating against the Myanmar military or charged with supporting the AA, whose popularity in the state has reportedly surged.
A public statement by the United League of Arakan (ULA), AA’s political wing, released on January 17 said, “members of the government armed force who have committed this Mrauk-U massacre in holding of racial hatred, the incumbent Burmese [Myanmar] government and the Rakhine state government have full responsibility and the ULA/AA will take serious retaliatory measures against the culprits.”
The killing of former GAD official Bo Bo Min Theik, suspected of involvement in the Mrauk U crackdown, on 30 January was originally blamed by authorities on AA.
The administrator, who was travelling from Mrauk U to Sittwe was found dead under his car, the “first of a number of mysterious occurrences in the apparent murder case” according to state media, which reported the official was stabbed, shot and apparently set on fire by a number of assailants.
ARSA’s involvement in the Sittwe bombings cannot be ruled out, as the group has recently used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in attacks on government forces. Security forces reportedly recently uncovered several ARSA IED training camps with crude bomb-making components.
ARSA’s latest attack on January 5 was reported to have injured five Myanmar army soldiers and involved an IED explosion near the village of Turaing in northern Maungdaw, an attack the group took credit for in a statement released on its Twitter account two days after the ambush.
But if ARSA is responsible, it would indicate a significant expansion of the insurgent group’s reach into firmly government-controlled areas. It’s also possible the incident could be used to further discredit ARSA, which the government has officially designated a terrorist organization under the hitherto unused 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law, and which state media derides as an “extremist Bengali terrorist” outfit.
On January 31, ARSA released another in a series of quixotic statements warning against “other armed groups, dacoit groups, human trafficking groups, drug trafficking groups and some other groups commissioned by the Burmese [Myanmar] terrorist government operating in disguise as ARSA” – further blurring an already complicated conflict and criminalized landscape in the Myanmar-Bangladesh borderlands.
Drug trafficking syndicates’ involvement in the Sittwe bombings is also possible. The border drug trade has been escalating for several years, with the rumored involvement by various armed groups and corrupt security officials and local businesspeople. Official seizures of yaa baa (methamphetamines) in Maungdaw in 2017 was estimated at 11.1 million pills, according to anti-narcotics police, with several high-profile busts.
On February 21, bombs detonated at two banks in the northern Shan state capital of Lashio, with suspicion first directed at the many ethnic armed organizations operating there, as military officials had for several months warned of potential “terrorist” bombings in the town.
The ethnic armed organizations have rarely targeted high density urban areas in this way, however, and as northern Shan State is home to dozens of Myanmar military commanded Pyithu Sit (People’s Militia), some of which are deeply involved in the drug trade, the bombings could have been retaliation for recent high-profile drug seizures or grudges that are more economic more than political.
What is clear is that Saturday’s bombings in Sittwe represent another stage in a mounting series of violent incidents that spell increased armed conflict throughout Rakhine state, and put a civilian-military establishment reputedly pursuing peace combating violence on more and more fronts across the country.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst