If the Arakan Army plays its cards right, it could have two prized goals in sight: autonomy for Rakhine State in a loose and federalised system, or even independence.
Things are looking up for the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic armed organization operating in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan). Granted, there has been chaos in the country since the February 2021 military coup. But the AA has abided to a ceasefire with the ‘sit-tat’ (the Burmese military) since November 2020. This has dramatically increased its influence in Rakhine State. If it plays its cards right, it could realise its dream of some form of autonomy from the central authorities for the state.
Historically, the AA draws its support from ethnic Rakhine people’s resentment toward the central government based on the marginalisation of their language and culture (despite similarities), economic underdevelopment, and lack of autonomy. These grievances foster a siege mentality that has also amplified distrust of their state’s Rohingya community.
The AA’s leader, General Twan Mrat Naing, granted two interviews in January 2022, to Prothom Alo and The Asia Times. These interviews illustrate that, should the AA prevail over the sit-tat in Rakhine State, two potential sources of international recognition may increase its chances of winning some autonomy or independence for the state. These involve facilitating Rohingya repatriation from Bangladesh and guaranteeing the security of Chinese infrastructure projects.
In 2021, AA and the sit-tat avoided armed conflict except for a few skirmishes. An online meeting between the AA and Japan’s influential unofficial envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa, appears to have prevented escalation. The AA’s recent attendance at the sit-tat’s Union Day celebration was a further diplomatic breakthrough. In the meantime, the AA has engaged in a state-building project since November 2020 that reportedly extends to all but the urban areas of Rakhine State. It has thus largely replaced the junta’s governance institutions in the state.
If that fighting sees the AA expel the sit-tat from Rakhine, it can capitalise on the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to advance its bid for autonomy or independence.
Twan Mrat Naing seems to vacillate between independence and ‘confederate status’ as the AA’s goals. If independence would see Rakhine State completely free of Naypyitaw’s authority, confederate status would be a state government that could autonomously collect taxes, develop natural resources, maintain security forces, and convene a legislature. The AA leader is more consistent in invoking ‘The Way of Rakhita’. Rakhine-based journalist Kyaw Linn categorises this slogan as a nationalist symbol evoking the precolonial kingdom of Arakan rather than a concrete ideological goal. In a speech, Twan Mrat Naing himself describes the Way of Rakhita as consisting of a ‘pragmatic implementation process,’ this being indicative of the AA’s flexible strategy. In his interviews, Twan Mrat Naing refused to be pinned down on the subject of independence, though he does reject the possibility of ‘immediate independence.’ The struggle for ‘internal sovereignty’ (military control of Rakhine) must be won first, he says, and ‘regional and international circumstances’ carefully considered.
Rakhine self-determination is irreconcilable with the sit-tat’s commitment to Myanmar’s national unity, and Twan Mrat Naing’s goal of military control of the state makes resumed fighting between the AA and the sit-tat inevitable. If that fighting sees the AA expel the sit-tat from Rakhine, it can capitalise on the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to advance its bid for autonomy or independence. Their return would be ‘welcomed’, the AA leader avers, but the presence of the sit-tat in Rakhine State prevents this.
The AA’s public statements towards the Rohingya have evolved markedly. Initially, it avoided the use of the term ‘Rohingya’, preferring to label members of the group “Bengalis”. Even now, Twan Mrat Naing hesitates in saying ‘Rohingya’. He prefers ‘Muslim inhabitants of Rakhine State’. However, he concedes that claiming the name ‘Rohingya’ is ‘a fundamental question of human rights.’
Rohingya repatriation would require help from Bangladesh and ‘be voluntary and be done by legal means under international supervision.’ While Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government (NUG) has indicated a pro-repatriation stance, ASEAN’s work with the pre-coup National League for Democracy government to facilitate humanitarian assistance to Rohingya and their repatriation was ineffectual. The AA’s proposals align with the Bangladeshi government long-running determination to see repatriation occur, but that government has not responded to those proposals. If the AA can guarantee the security of Rohingya communities in Rakhine State, Bangladesh might cooperate.
The degree to which Rohingya rights are respected would define the degree to which Rohingya want to repatriate and the credit AA gains from facilitating repatriation. But the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya would be a major diplomatic coup for the AA. Its evolving rhetoric regarding the group is matched by the inclusion of Muslim administrators in the AA’s state-building efforts. If the AA treats the Rohingya as partners, then spearheading repatriation will garner maximal international recognition from the West.
Protection of Chinese infrastructure in Rakhine State would also expand the AA’s international support. Ingratiating itself with China, the AA would have a chance of getting Beijing’s support in its bid to become an autonomous region or independent country. The UN might perhaps look favourably on a China-supported bid by the AA for Rakhine State’s independence.
The Sino-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline and the Kyaukphu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) are China’s main projects in the state. The pipeline extends from the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province. Ranking fourth in China’s energy pipelines in terms of size, it is ‘of national strategic importance as it diversifies China’s energy transport system’ according to Yun Sun of the Stimson Center. The Kyaukphu SEZ features a deep-sea port whose development has aroused suspicions about Chinese ambitions for a naval base on the Bay of Bengal. Despite the coup, the project is ongoing: Chinese companies investing in Kyaukphu recently initiated an environmental and social impact review. Through contacts with the Chinese ‘security authorities’, the AA can guarantee the protection, or even the expansion, of Chinese infrastructure in Rakhine State.
Areas of cooperation between the AA and the national resistance to the sit-tat have emerged. The AA condemned the Christmas Eve massacre in Kayah State, and its 6 February statement pledging cooperation with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) suggests that the KIA could be a bridge between the AA and the wider resistance movement. The cooling of relations between the Arakan National Party, Rakhine State’s main political party, and the junta mean that the time may be ripe for Rakhine State’s politics to align with the national resistance movement.
Recently, long-overdue calls for the international community to engage with Myanmar’s ethnic armed organisations have become louder. Parties seeking to end Rakhine State’s overlapping crises must first engage the AA. The organization has left the door open to cooperation. It is incumbent on the United States, the European Union and the NUG to step through it. If the NUG wants to demonstrate its federal credentials, engaging in good faith with the AA would be an important step in showing how it differs from its predecessors in Myanmar’s democratic movement.