The Arakan Army, one of Myanmar’s newest and least known insurgent groups, has been hurled from obscurity to prominence after a series of escalated attacks that threaten to tilt the country’s already volatile Rakhine state towards all-out war.

On January 4, Myanmar’s Independence Day from British colonial rule, the Arakan Army staged one of their most brazen and belligerent attacks after several weeks of expanded ambushes and engagements with Myanmar security forces.

In Buthidaung township, in the early morning, Arakan Army soldiers staged coordinated attacks on four camps of paramilitary Border Guard Police (BGP). The military’s media arm, Myawady Daily, reported on January 5 that Arakan Army insurgents attacked the bases in greater numbers than reportedly ever used before.

100 Arakan Army soldiers attacked the BGP base at Ngamyinbaw, 100 at Kyaungtaung, 100 at Khahtihla, and 50 at Gokpi, the report said.

Thirteen BGP troops were killed in the attacks, with two of the police stations completely overrun. The insurgents took a number of prisoners who were later released as they withdrew. There are no credible estimates of Arakan Army or state security force casualties in the recent ramped up fighting.

The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, has responded by deploying an unknown number of troops to the area, by road, air and river craft, including a number of units from crack Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs) no’s 22 and 99.

Attack helicopters have been used by state forces, including during a four-hour firefight between 50 Arakan Army soldiers and a Tatmadaw unit in Buthidaung Township on January 13. The size and relative sophistication of these ambushes came as a surprise to military and government leaders, who reacted with a show of unusual unity and resolve.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar Commander In-Chief (L) and National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) shake hands after their meeting in Naypyidaw in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Phyo Hein Kyaw
Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar Commander In-Chief (L) and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Phyo Hein Kyaw

A rare meeting of senior civilian government and military officials on January 7, attended by President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, marked possibly the first assembly of the high level officials since the National League of Democracy government came to power in March 2016.

According to state media, the officials discussed “the topic of Rakhine state and border security matters”, and the December 21 ‘ceasefire’ called by Min Aung Hlaing to pause Tatmadaw operations from December 21, 2018 to April 30 of this year to pursue bilateral peace talks with northern Myanmar-based insurgent groups.

The military has accused other northern ethnic armed organizations of breaching the December 21 suspension and have tried to cast blame on the Arakan Army. The ceasefire process in the country’s north, northeast and west is effectively dead, despite the Tatmadaw’s dubious overtures.

Local commentator Maung Maung Soe told one of Myanmar’s online political talk-shows that this was the first time the NLD government had formally instructed the Tatmadaw to attack a specific armed group, although the civilian government is at times as belligerent as the military in demanding recalcitrant rebels capitulate.

The president’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, told a press conference on January 7 that the Arakan Army was a “terrorist organization” that had contacts with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), including an alleged meeting of the two groups in Bangladesh, and that the government had vowed to “crush the terrorists.”

The spokesman further threatened the Rakhine population at large: “Do they want to see a cycle of violence lasting decades?…I want to tell Rakhine people who are supporting (the Arakan Army): Don’t think about yourself, but think about your next generation.”

The Arakan Army’s political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), said in a statement on the same day as the government’s high level security meeting, that it has never had any contact with ARSA while vowing to continue its resistance against the government.

FILE PHOTO - A Myanmar soldier stands near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A Myanmar soldier stands near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, September 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

ARSA stands accused of launching raids on border police outposts in August 2017 that sparked the Tatmadaw’s now notorious “area clearance” operations in Rakhine state that drive over 700,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh.

The Arakan Army, which has gradually built up a significant armed presence, with some estimates of as many as 3,000 soldiers in the region, appears resolute and ready to pursue its so-called ‘Way of Rakhita’ rebellion against Myanmar state rule.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy magazine on January 10, Arakan Army leader Major General Tun Myat Naing said that Tatmadaw reinforcements were arriving in the area, and that “(I)t is very likely that future clashes will be fierce…we will retaliate.”

“I heard (officials) say that Rakhine will be completely ruined in the next 10 years or so, and that Rakhine will meet the same fate as Syria. So I believe that if they want to destroy our land, we should destroy their (majority Burman) land. However, we are open to peace talks if our presence in Rakhine state is recognized.”

It’s operational presence in key townships of northern and central Rakhine, including in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnangyun, and Kyuaktaw townships, along with a strong presence in Paletwa township in Chin state, will make any Tatmadaw operation logistically challenging.

So, too, will the Arakan Army’s suspected access to safe havens in bordering Bangladesh and India.

Leaders of the Arakan Army, ethnic rebel group, gather with other rebel leaders and representatives of various Myanmar ethnic rebel groups at the opening of a four-day conference in Mai Ja Yang, a town controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Kachin State on July 26, 2016.The conference is organized by the rebel leaders ahead of the August planned peace conference by Aung San Suu Kyi's new civilian-led government. Suu Kyi has made peace a flagship policy of her new government, which took over in March after decades of brutal junta rule while conflicts continue to rage in several areas between ethnic minority armed groups and the army. Some 240,000 people have been displaced nationwide due to unrest and communal conflict. / AFP PHOTO / STR
Arakan Army leader Major General Tun Myat Naing (R) at a conference of rebel groups on July 26, 2016. Photo: AFP

Ethnic Rakhine public support for the Arakan Army has been rising in recent years, and these latest attacks could lead to greater antipathy towards the Myanmar state and military, further bedeviling Rakhine’s immense development challenges and a deteriorating humanitarian situation.

In a related development, on January 14, the Rakhine High Court upheld the decision of a lower court to bring to trial Dr Aye Maung, a former Arakan National Party leader who is facing charges of high treason and public mischief, along with a prominent Rakhine writer, for making anti-government remarks at a public event a year ago.

Aye Maung had expressed public support for the Arakan Army, speech that has seen scores of Rakhine political activists and even Buddhist monks imprisoned for breaches of the colonial era 1908 Unlawful Association Act.

Significantly, the appeal of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe, both jailed on Official Secrets Act convictions, was upheld on January 11 in part on the fact that Wa Lone had phone numbers of Arakan Army leaders in one of his old notebooks.

The jailed journalist claims he never used the contacts. But this small detail was included in the widely criticized verdict to uphold their internationally condemned seven year sentences.

The government’s counter-terrorist rhetoric against the Arakan Army is entering dangerous new territory. The only armed group to be publicly and officially designated a terrorist organization under the 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law is ARSA.

A screenshot from an Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army propaganda video. Photo: Youtube
A screenshot from an Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) propaganda video. Photo: Youtube

The government has refrained from labeling other armed groups under the 2014 law, potentially to avoid a moral equivalence of Myanmar’s long- standing ethnic armed rebels with the reviled Rohingya minority.

The military-controlled ministry of home affairs reputedly maintains a secret terrorist list, as well as a list of reputedly unlawful associations. That opens the possibility of new arrests and investigations under the anti-terror law, as authorities have already done for several years with Rakhine civilians under unlawful associations.

But it is unclear if the AA will be formally designated a terrorist organization, which would complicate possible future peace talks.

The Tatmadaw’s anti-AA rhetoric is laden with messages of betrayal and advantage, claiming that police and army units were configured to respond to the potential for ARSA attacks, none of which have been officially acknowledged by ARSA since an ambush in Maungdaw one year ago.

Brigadier General Myint Toe, commander of the No 1 Border Guard Police Garrison in north Rakhine state, told the Myanmar media, “When we paid attention to the possible attacks of the ARSA, the AA launched well-organized attack on the police outposts. It was a stab in the back…the AA took political advantage as to its attack.”

Conflating the Arakan Army with ARSA will likely be detrimental to Myanmar public perceptions of often maligned Rakhine grievances towards the central government, and fuel further resentment from ethnic Rakhine communities, both inside Rakhine state and among large internal migrant worker communities where Rakhine often toil in underpaid and unsafe occupations.

Myanmar solders patrol the streets at Thapyuchai village, outside of Thandwe in the Rakhine State. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Myanmar solders patrol the streets at Thapyuchai village, outside of Thandwe in Rakhine state. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

International reactions to the January 4 attacks have been largely of silent bewilderment at the emergence of a barely understood armed group that has often been eclipsed by the humanitarian catastrophe facing the Rohingya minority since 2012.

The heads of missions of the European Union and EU delegation has been one of only a few Western embassies to call for restraint, saying in a statement, “The escalation of violence in Rakhine state must stop immediately. The EU deplores the attack by the Arakan Army (AA) on several police posts in Rakhine State, and deeply regrets the loss of lives. We call for restraint and urge all sides to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians.”

The government continues to restrict access to almost all United Nations and international relief agencies to the townships affected by the recent fighting, where over 5,000 civilians have been displaced in the past few weeks. That’s inhibited a credible, impartial humanitarian response as reports of abuses against civilians mount.

Meanwhile, all the pieces of a political, economic, and humanitarian conflict are aligning in a potentially new and dangerous phase to Rakhine state’s protracted misery. With growing community support for the Arakan Army’s struggle, and the almost inevitable dramatic and abusive overreaction of the Tatmadaw, war could engulf Myanmar’s Rakhine state for years to come.

David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst