A protester holds an image of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during an anti-coup march in February 2021. Getty Images

Written by Kyaw Lynn 

The general election held in November 2015 gave birth to a democratic government after five decades of authoritarian rule in Myanmar. However, the elected government had little authority over military and security issues, as the military exercised its imposed transition under the 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the military. Nonetheless, there had been high expectations for a division of power on the civilian side of government in Arakan State, where the state’s ethnic political forces won most of the constituencies. However, these expectations did not materialise, much to the chagrin of the Arakanese people, who have been hungry for self-government for years.

On the other hand, a group that has been using various means to launch an armed uprising in Arakan State has been watching the situation closely. The Arakanese people have become aware of this without needing much persuasion to follow the group’s path. The influence of not only pulling forces but also pushing forces is important to increase public participation in a political movement. As a result, large-scale fighting erupted in the following years, marking the highest number of deaths and injuries due to military conflict in Arakan history.  

In many other parts of the country, people were enjoying the fruits of peace, development, democracy and freedom, while Arakanese people bitterly grieved their less fortuitous circumstances.  

A Coup and Arakan’s Response 

The Myanmar military seized power on February 1, 2021, and the country’s politics entered a new phase. In the case of Arakan State, however, the informal ceasefire (as of November 2020) remains intact. But change in one part of an interconnected nation is sure to have impacts in others, as is the case in Arakan State, which relies heavily on Myanmar and neighbouring nations in the political and economic spheres, and many other areas. In post-coup Myanmar, it is important to minimise the negative effects and increase the positive ones. 

Significantly, after the military coup, National League for Democracy (NLD) members and supporters protested and were arrested in Arakan State, but no significant mass protests were reported. There have been allegations from mainland Myanmar and the international community that the Arakanese people are supporting the military coup, but these assumptions have not been substantiated. 

There is grey space between support for and opposition to the coup. Consider first that the Arakanese people suffered from the effects of two years of war leading up to the coup, and the coup regime arguably has brought some military-political stability (rather than more chaos) for the Arakanese people. A second reason may be related to the NLD’s stance on the war in Arakan State: The NLD government not only did not sympathise with the plight of the Arakanese people during the war, but also supported the Myanmar military, not only morally but also politically and diplomatically. As a result, the military’s overthrow of the NLD government was seen by some as having the potential to eventually bring a greater degree of self-rule to Arakan State. 

But nearly one year since the coup, there have also been signs of disillusionment with the junta. The Arakan Army (AA) has become involved in the fight against the Myanmar military in other areas and has begun to support some of the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs). Arakanese youths in areas such as Yangon have taken an active part in opposing the military coup. Such attitudes of these young people also to some extent highlight the ethical commitment of the Arakanese community. This has brought criticism of Arakanese political forces and their response to the military coup, but there is no consensus and vocal opposition to the regime remains limited in Arakan State. 

Radicalisation and Political Jockeying 

In the face of fierce fighting from 2018-2020, the Arakanese became more radical and more focused on revolutionary forces than political parties. This was the first crisis for Arakan political parties since 2015. The February 1 military coup was another crisis for these political parties, and their reactions to the takeover were mixed. There are only three well-known parties in Arakan politics: the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Arakan Front Party (AFP). 

The ALD, which appears to be more pro-democracy than its Arakan rivals, has been most vocal in its opposition to the coup, while the other two political parties have approached it from a political point of view; as a power struggle between the NLD and the military. The different responses can be understood as having historical underpinnings. The ALD was more democratic than any other Arakan political party in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and remained a staunch ally of the NLD. This is evidenced by the fact that the ALD did not run in the 2010 general election, which the NLD also boycotted. 

Another aspect of the parties’ divergent responses to the coup can be understood from the perspective of leadership relations. 

Historical differences aside, the ANP and AFP leaders had strained relations with NLD government leaders. Especially after the 2015 general election, there was a power struggle between the ANP, which won a majority in Arakan State, and the NLD, which won a majority nationally. The arrest and imprisonment of Dr. Aye Maung, the current leader of the AFP, further alienated him and his party from the NLD government. During the five-year rule of the NLD government, in addition to the Muslim conflict in Arakan State, the armed conflict with the Arakan Army was not fully resolved.  

Therefore, resentment can be said to have influenced the AFP and ANP responses to the coup that toppled the NLD government.  

But the political aspirations and economic development that the Arakanese people aspire to are unlikely to be realised under the post-coup status quo. During the current ceasefire period, the Arakanese people have not strongly opposed the stances of the AFP and ANP toward the regime. However, in the event of renewed fighting in Arakan State, these political parties will need to change their positions, or they are likely to face an existential crisis. 

It is difficult to draw a graph that puts Myanmar’s politics on the X axis and Arakan politics on the Y axis, and arrives at a proportional relationship. But it is also difficult for Arakan State, which is still within the borders of an internationally recognised sovereign state, to create a complete independence.  

Nonetheless, the changes in Arakan State are very different from those in Myanmar. The distinction between Arakan and Myanmar politics has become more pronounced since the military coup. The momentum of Arakan nationalism in the state’s politics is beginning to create power-seeking institutions. That is why the Arakan People’s Authority is trying to establish a separate judiciary, tax collection system, police force and other government mechanisms. The ultimate goal of these creations is to achieve an independent and sovereign state.  

Global Trends, Local Distinctions 

In the past few years, the United States and the United Kingdom (the world’s oldest democracies) as well as India (the world’s largest democracy) have seen the emergence of a far-right populist nationalism, threatening the world’s liberal human rights and democratic norms. Donald Trump became president of the United States in 2016, the United Kingdom withdrew from the European Union through a “Brexit” referendum that same year, and a potent form of Hindu nationalism has arisen in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  

The rise of far-right nationalism has also been documented in France, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere globally. This far-right nationalism is based on the existence of a nation not on territorial or political characteristics, but rather on the basis of ethnicity, with those who are considered “the other” facing exclusion in various ways. In other words, it is based on an exclusive national identity. 

However, in recent years, perceptions of national identity in Arakan State have been observed to be different. That is to say, the existence of our nation is based on the principle of citizenship, not on the basis of the cultural components such as race. Surprisingly, this is due to the fact that more radical revolutionary forces are gaining ground in Arakan politics. Despite the conflict between the Arakanese and Muslim communities in 2012, it can be said that relations between the two communities have since shifted in a more positive direction, perhaps due to the shared hardships brought on by the 2018-2020 war. 

A common enemy and common suffering can unite, but a common vision remains to be seen. Traditionally, Arakanese political forces have offered little political recognition of other minorities in Arakan State. But today’s revolutionary leaders have a broader perspective than party political leaders. This means that, unlike previous Arakan revolution leaders, the current leaders want to see this revolution as the liberation of all oppressed people in Arakan State.

The larger the political aspirations, the more important it is for minorities in the region to have broader political participation, and to gain their support. For a revolutionary group striving for higher political goals than a normal political party, it is more important to represent everyone in the region. Only then will this revolutionary group be more recognised and valued by the international community.  

These factors can be seen as contributing to the differences in policy and actions between the ordinary political parties and revolutionary forces in Arakan State. Regardless of their individual stances on the military coup, such differences can improve the state and direction of Arakan politics in the years to come, but only if coordinated toward like-minded ends.

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