Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state has been wracked by armed conflict over the past several weeks, as escalated and expanded fighting between Myanmar security forces and the rebel Arakan Army erupts across several townships.

The new clashes are destabilizing a region already wracked by the Myanmar military’s now notorious “clearance operations” that drove over 700,000 Rohingyas into neighboring Bangladesh, a campaign of violence the United Nations has reported as crimes against humanity.

While Myanmar authorities have justified those operations launched in August 2017 as a legitimate response to Arakan Rohingya Salavation Army (ARSA) insurgent attacks on border security outposts, the latest attacks are more clearly being perpetrated by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group opposed to Naypyidaw’s Burman-centric rule.

Arakan Army ambushes have been reported since November in Rakhine state’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Mrauk U, Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw townships, as well as Paletwa township in neighboring Chin state, representing the most significant spike in engagements since fighting at the end of 2017.

On January 1, three remote-controlled roadside mines were detonated against the car convoy of Rakhine Chief Minister U Nyi Pu, causing minor damage to one of the cars.

The Arakan Army has reportedly denied any involvement in the action, but they have been implicated in landmine or improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in the past, including against government targets in the state capital Sittwe in February 2018, although no casualties were reported in that attack.

In a report in the Myanmar military newspaper Myawady Daily on December 6, two Arakan Army insurgents were reported killed while planting a wire-controlled IED on the Rathedaung to Buthidaung Road, one kilometer from Sangotaung village of Buthidaung township.

Ambushes by Arakan Army insurgents have targeted both Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, units and paramilitary Border Guard Police (BGP). On January 2, Myanmar state media reported that a unit of BGP camping at a Buddhist monastery in Saytaung Village of Buthidaung were attacked by an “unidentified armed group” estimated at “30 men with small and heavy arms.” No casualties were reported.

Several attacks have been reported by Tatmadaw media close to the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, including one on December 3 near Border Post 64, and for the next two days a force of 80 Arakan Army soldiers, according to Myawady Daily, attacked Tatmadaw troops close to BP63 and BP-64, likely indicating that the Rakhine insurgents have been using Bangladesh as sanctuary.

A clash in Maungdaw on December 17 between BGP forces and an unnamed armed group resulted in one BGP trooper missing in action. The dead trooper, Private Aung Kyaw Thet, was reportedly found on the Bangladesh side of the border on December 21, with “a locally produced detonator…found underneath the body” and returned “to this side and given a proper burial later in the day” according to Myanmar state media.

Further south, on December 5, the Tatmadaw was ambushed in Rathedaung Township, and on the following day in Buthidaung. Myawady Daily reported that “(S)ome officers and other ranks of the Tatmadaw columns fell or were wounded…[by]…Arakan Army insurgents with the intention of destroying regional security.”

On December 16, three Tatmadaw troops were reported killed in an Arakan Army rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack on their truck convoy, just five miles from Rathedaung town.

Myanmar – Arakan Army – Youtube
Arakan Army fighters in 2018 in a Youtube screen grab. Photo: Youtube

It is difficult to estimate the numbers of combatant and civilian deaths in this recent round of fighting, as both sides only release episodic statements of casualties, and any official figures should be treated with skepticism.

Clashes in Kyauktaw township in December have reportedly involved Myanmar fighter jets and helicopter support, although these have not been verified, close air support has been used to battle Arakan Army forces in the past.

The United Nations Office Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has already estimated 2,500 civilians have been displaced by the fighting just in Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw townships since December 8.

The conflict over the past several years temporarily displaced hundreds of civilians in Rakhine and Chin states, with numerous reports of human rights violations including forced portering, use of civilians as human shields, and indiscriminate use of landmines by both sides.

There has been no significant independent investigation of human rights abuses, although local Rakhine and Chin organizations have documented violations over the last three years.

The significance of these latest clashes is in the simultaneous spread of ambushes, the steadily increasing area of kinetic operations by the Arakan Army, not just in the southern Chin Hills and isolated areas, but also on the plains of central Rakhine State.

It is not altogether clear beyond broad statements what are the Arakan Army’s broad objectives. Nor are their strength of numbers in Rakhine and Chin states known, although some estimates put the insurgent group at several thousand soldiers with several hundred operating in Rakhine state.

Myanmar people displaced from the recent fighting between government troops and ethnic Arakan Army take shelter at a displacement camp housing over 700 people in Kyauktaw township in Rakhine state on December 23, 2018. - The western territory is a tinderbox of ethnic and religious divisions and security forces have clashed with both Rohingya insurgents and much better armed Rakhine fighters from the mostly Buddhist Arakan Army. (Photo by - / AFP)
Myanmar people displaced from recent fighting between government troops and ethnic Arakan Army in Kyauktaw township, Rakhine state, December 23, 2018. Photo: AFP

What is clear is the Arakan Army’s intent to scale up operations, a drive clearly borne out of a close analysis of their activities in western Myanmar since 2014. The Arakan Army has also been implicated in targeted killings of political leaders and military intelligence officers, although the group denies its involvement.

In one sinister development during the current round of clashes, The Irrawaddy news site reported that the Arakan Army had sent warning letters containing a single bullet each to three people in Buthidaung Township; a police station chief, a village administrator, and a prominent timber businessman, warning them not to obstruct the group’s activities.

On December 24, a founder of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), U Khin Than Maung, was fatally shot at his home in Kyar Inn Taung village of Myebon Township. The ALD is widely perceived as being too close to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), but this killing is the latest in several unsolved murders.

In September 2018, a member of the Office of Military Affairs Security (OMAS), Corporal Ko Phoe Lone, was shot and killed by a gunman while attending a fair in central Sittwe with his wife and child.

Myanmar police have arrested several suspects in the murder, including prominent Rakhine youth and political activists over the past three months, fueling Rakhine resentment who protest the detainees innocence. The perceived injustice is also feeding growing social support for the Arakan Army.

Myanmar-Rakhine-Map-Radio Free Asia
Two views of Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. Source: Radio Free Asia

For several years, authorities have arrested and charged ethnic Rakhine political, community and religious figures with alleged support for the Arakan Army and armed resistance, often under the draconian Unlawful Associations Act.

The most high-profile case of arrests is that of former Arakan National Party leader Aye Maung, who was arrested in January last year and charged in September under Sections 122 and 505 of the Penal code for high treason and public mischief after a speech he delivered following the Myanmar police shooting deaths of several demonstrators at a public rally in Mrauk U.

The United League of Arakan (ULA), the political wing of the Arakan Army, has mounted a relatively sophisticated public relations campaign over the past few years, touting the #ArakanDream2020 hashtag of calling for escalated actions ahead of 2020 nationwide elections. It has encapsulated Rakhine grievances under the slogan “The Way of Rakhita”, now readily available emblazoned on t-shirts (in English) throughout much of Rakhine state.

The Way of Rakhita is defined by the ULA in its slick promotional material as a nationwide armed revolt: “Under the Burman colonial rule and racist regime, Arakan has now become the poorest state of Myanmar where people of Arakan are falling into the vicious cycle of inequality, poverty and famine. These great sufferings and tragedies have given the Arakanese new generations no choice but to launch national revolution.”

The warning letters with bullets sent to three people in Buthidaung reportedly warned them against obstructing the “Way of Rakhita.”

These recent attacks have taken place even as the Tatmadaw leadership on December 21 announced a temporary suspension of military operations in five northern and eastern Myanmar military command areas, covering northern Kachin and eastern Shan States.

Myanmar security officials stand guard in a pool of mud on July 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Simon Lewis
Myanmar security officials stand guard in a pool of mud on July 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Simon Lewis

The operational pause is designed to facilitate peace talks with all northern ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) following a statement on December 12 from three members of the Northern Alliance, including the Arakan Army, whose main headquarters and training facilities are in Kachin State close to the Chinese border, that they wish to pursue peace talks with the central government.

Yet this four-month long suspension, from December 21, 2018 to April 30 2019, did not include Rakhine state, ostensibly because security forces needed to maintain operational readiness to repulse any attacks from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the government has designated a terrorist organization under the 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law.

Yet ARSA has not publicly admitted any attack on security forces since an ambush in Maungdaw in January 2018, and its capabilities to attack the Tatmadaw and BGP are significantly lower than the Arakan Army.

All four members of the Northern Alliance, including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), United League of Arakan (ULA), the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), and the Kokang political wing the Myanmar National Truth and Justice Party (MNTJP), released a statement following a meeting on December 27 saying that they would halt operations only if the Tatmadaw’s four-month suspension extended to Rakhine State and operations also cease against the Arakan Army.

Recent clashes in the Western borderlands and into the Rakhine central heartland of Mrauk U, Kyauktaw, and Ponnagyun should be cause for consternation for government development efforts in the region.

They will also no doubt unsettle international actors, including the UN and international donors poised to receive nearly one million Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, if the conditions are permissible, although this is highly unlikely at the present.

A silhouetted Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army fighter against the rebel group's flag. Photo: Youtube
A silhouetted Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army fighter against the rebel group’s flag. Photo: Youtube

But they must also concern other donors and investors, including Japan and the World Bank, who are scaling up activities to develop impoverished and divided Rakhine state.

India is slowly awakening to the reality it has a new permutation of Rakhine insurgency on its border, as some of the recent fighting has been along the Kaladan River. India has slowly pursued its US$400 million Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project which will, in one section, connect Sittwe port to Paletwa Jetty in Chin State with a road connecting Paletwa with southern Mizoram in Northeast India.

China must also be partly perturbed as the violence jeopardizes its massive investments in the Belt and Road Initiative, including a scheme to connect the Chinese border through Myanmar to a deep-water port in Rakhine state’s Kyaukpyu township, as well as two oil and gas pipelines that traverse from there north to China’s southwestern Yunnan province.

The December 12 peace parley by the Arakan Army and its two allies was obviously a Chinese push from Yunnan. But how much can Beijing and Yunnan, which both run Chinese foreign policy along multiple levels inside Myanmar, really influence the Arakan Army and its operations in its self-claimed “fatherland” in Rakhine state?

But it is Bangladesh that should be the most concerned as home to a million Rohingya refugees along its border with Myanmar. That’s because the slowly expanding Rakhine insurgency on its doorstep, one that if it is indeed reflective of general Rakhine grievances, harbors deep antipathy for the Rohingya, both those that remain in Rakhine and those violently expelled across the border.

Rohingya men look at smoke billowing above what is believed to be a burning village in Myanmar's Rakhine state, as members of the Muslim minority group take shelter in a no-man's land between Bangladesh and Myanmar, in Ukhia on September 4, 2017. Photo: AFP/ K M Asad
Rohingya men look at smoke billowing above what is believed to be a burning village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state on September 4, 2017. Photo: AFP/ K M Asad

To date, there has been no report of Arakan Army forces targeting Rohingya Muslims in their areas of operations, despite significant numbers of vulnerable Rohingya communities remaining in northern Rakhine state and other townships of central Rakhine.

All of these international actors will need to better understand the Rakhine’s grievances, often overlooked in the post-2012 crisis facing the Rohingya Muslim population, and long-standing resentment towards the ethnic Burman-dominated political, economic and security establishment.

The arrival of the Arakan Army in Rakhine state in 2014, and its steadily increasing attacks over the past four years, has been eclipsed by the savage expulsion of over 700,000 Rohingya following ARSA attacks. But this relatively new insurgent group – it celebrates its ten-year anniversary in May 2019 – could dramatically impede peace-building and development in Rakhine.

The recent deadly clashes should be a wakeup call to review what the international community conceives of the armed conflict in Myanmar broadly and in Rakhine in particular, and tailor its stalled peace support initiatives according to Rakhine’s on-the-ground reality.

David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst