By M A Athul
May 16, 2019
Just over 10 years after the formation of the Arakan Army (AA) on April 10, 2009, this Ethnic Armed Group (EAG), according to reports, has emerged as a significant new threat to the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army). Since January 2019, AA has significantly increased the tempo of operations in the Rakhine State. According to reports, between January and April 7, 2019, there have been at least 103 clashes between AA and Government Forces, in which 12 civilians, 58 militants and 28 Security Force (SF) personnel have died. Meanwhile, AA has claimed that, between May 1 and 12, there were at least 33 clashes with Government Forces in Rakhine State (fatalities not disclosed).
AA for long has displayed efficient tactical prowess in successful and coordinated attacks. In the recent past AA insurgents have carried out several major attacks, including the March 9, 2019, incident in which AA insurgents attacked the Yotayoke Police Outpost in the Ponnagyun Township of Rakhine State, killing nine policemen.
AA has also targeted high profile individuals, including Rakhine Chief Minster U Nyi Pu. On January 1, 2019, they ambushed the Chief Minister’s convoy, though no causalities were reported in the incident. AA has also abducted several Government officials, including Police officers.
Formed in 2009 with 26 cadres in the Laiza area of Kachin State under the tutelage of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), AA has morphed into a sizable force, numbering, on various estimates, between 1,000 and 7,000 personnel. AA was not widely known until March 29, 2015, when they overran Tatmadaw positions in the Chin and Rakhine States in coordinated attacks. According to a January 2019 report, around 3,000 AA militants have infiltrated Kyauktaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships in the northern Rakhine State and Chin State’s Paletwa Township.
AA leader ‘major-general’ Tun Myat Naing has demanded a confederate status for Rakhine State, as encapsulated in the ‘Arakan Dream 2020 slogan. The Myanmar Government has, however, vehemently rejected the demand as impossible. On March 26, 2019, Major-General Soe Naing Oo asserted, in this context, “With the thoughts of a child daydreaming, some of the armed groups are asking for what is impossible.”
The Rakhine insurgency has long been waged by low landers in the heartland of political activism in Myanmar, significantly raising the stakes for the Tatmadaw, which sees itself as guardians of Myanmar’s sovereignty. The deployment of 10,000 troops since December 2018, including troops of the elite 55th Light Infantry Division (LID) in Rakhine State, is a likely indicator of Tatmadaw’s intention to crush AA.
Despite its tactical successes, AA is unlikely to maintain an upper hand in the long run.
The first major hurdle for AA to maintain its tempo is its supply route, stretching from KIA bases in Kachin State, through Chin State, to Rakhine. This was a secure route when AA was maintaining a low profile. However, as AA has ramped up its operational tempo, this route will be targeted by Tatmadaw, denting AA’s operational capabilities over time.
Further, China is likely to put pressure on both the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and KIA, to restrict their support to AA, which is dependent on these two groups for weapons. The extension of truce in the Kachin and Shan States with KIA and two other groups [Ta’ang Nationalities Liberation Army (TNLA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)], all with a close nexus with Beijing) on April 30, 2019, seems to be a move in this direction. With the truce extended, more state resources are expected to be marshalled for the Rakhine theatre.
Moreover, AA’s escalation comes at a time when an uptick in armed violence is un-favourable to the strategic interest of both China and India, particularly in AA’s areas of operation – the Rakhine and Chin States. Beijing’s Kyaukphyu port project in Rakhine is intended to give them a strategic position in the region, and any destabilisation would be detrimental. Moreover, India has started giving weapons to Tatmadaw and has executed joint operations targeting AA camps in Rakhine. AA activities impact adversely on the Kaladan Project, slated to link Kolkata (West Bengal) with Mizoram via the Rakhine and Chin states.
The offensive against AA can be expected to continue in the coming months, until Nay Pyi Daw is able to get a definite upper hand over the AA rebels.
M A Athul is a Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal