Written by Gaung
“The right to self-determination and sovereignty is at the heart of our national movements. We will see whether a Federal Union of Myanmar will have the political space for the kind of confederation that our Arakanese people aspire to.”
Maj-Gen Twan Mrat Naing, chief of Arakan Army (AA), spoke these words in response to this question during an interview with Asia Times: “Is your final goal independence for Arakan (Rakhine) or autonomy within a federal union? What kind of future state structure do you envisage for Myanmar?”
The above question and answer can be seen as an alert to the current political turmoil in Myanmar by the Arakan Army (AA), and offers a glimpse of the ethnic armed group’s political agenda.
Maj-General Twan Mrat Naing, 43, is arguably the youngest and most successful revolutionary leader in Myanmar. His political ideology is also seen in Myanmar’s political arena as a source of freshness and foresight.
The internal armed conflict that erupted with independence in Myanmar has lasted for more than 70 years. The reason for these conflicts is that the ethnic armed groups have resisted decades of dictatorial edicts and a lack of equal rights and self-determination under Myanmar’s centralised system.
As a result, various ethnic groups, including the Arakan Army, have sprung up and are still fighting against dictators — most recently those who installed themselves as the country’s leaders in last year’s coup.
The term federal union is not new. In the past, it has been the main focus of ethnic armed groups. However, the so-called federal political path has disappeared under the central control of the military dictatorship.
After the military coup on February 1, 2021, the political term “federalism” was voiced more loudly among some EAOs (both signatories and non-signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement), as well as the National Unity Government (NUG) and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs).
However, despite the federal common ground between the abovementioned stakeholders and prominent actors in Myanmar’s peace process, there is no clear path forward. As a result, in the current context, Maj-General Twan Mrat Naing is looking to step toward confederation politics.
A confederation envisions multiple sovereign states or territories coming together without compromising their individual sovereignties.
In his interview with Asia Times, Maj-General Twan Mrat Naing wisely said: “We would prefer to remain with our [ethnic] brothers and sisters, but if our rightful political status which we desire is not accommodated within this union, it would behoove us to be a member of the international community on our own.”
The International Community Starts Next Door
The first step toward becoming a member of the international community on our own would be to shore up relations with Arakan State’s neighbour Bangladesh.
In an interview with Prothomalo Alo, a news outlet in Bangladesh, Maj-General Twan Mrat Naing said Arakan Army troops were active along the Bangladesh-Arakan border and that they did not want the Bangladeshi government to be put in an awkward position.
“The Arakan Army wants good relations with Bangladesh and especially wants the people of Bangladesh to know the realities of our struggle. Bangladesh can give the Arakan Army political, economic or other views on various issues,” said Maj-Gen Twan Mrat Naing.
He also said that the Arakan Army was trying to hold informal talks with Bangladeshi authorities about the return of Muslims who fled Myanmar in 2016-17, but had not yet received a reply.
In light of the above, the Arakan Army seems to be considering Bangladesh’s desire for an alliance and taking into account many other cross-border issues.
Bangladesh and the Arakan Army have expressed their desire to strengthen military, political, economic, cultural and diplomatic ties. The Arakan Army issued a statement on February 20 in honour of International Mother Language Day, which falls on February 21.
The statement said: “Our grandparents in Bengal [Bangladesh] and Arakan have struggled to establish their own culture and nations along the Bay of Bengal, and there remains a natural bond between Bangladesh and the region and its people.”
The statement added: “It is a matter of pride for the Arakan Army to write a statement of solidarity on behalf of the people of Arakan, and the return of the sovereignty of Arakan to our people is the ultimate goal of our national liberation movement.
“We are keen to build a better future for military, political, economic, cultural and diplomatic relations between Arakan State and Bangladesh. Bangladesh should be a good friend of Arakan State.”
Another consideration is that ethnic armed organisations elsewhere in Myanmar remain in control of their influence along the Chinese and Thai borders. They are seen managing their own border crossings.
For example, the Karen National Union (KNU) controls significant stretches of the Thai-Myanmar border while Kachin Independence Army (KIA), United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) remain in control or influential on the Myanmar-China border. Similarly, the Arakan Army must be able to establish good relations with Bangladesh by controlling the Bangladesh-Arakan border, controlling trade and economic links.
A significant advantage for the Arakan Army in this regard is the large number of local Arakanese villages in Bangladesh.
‘The Interests of Our People First’
A ULA/AA delegation led by U Oo Hla Saw attended the Diamond Jubilee Union Day celebrations on February 12 in Naypyidaw. Criticism has risen among some Arakanese and politicians in mainland Myanmar over the decision to attend. The Arakan Army, meanwhile, said it was attending the Union Day celebrations in the interest of the Arakanese people.
“The ULA/AA has always put the interests of our people first. That is why we are working with practical negotiations, taking into account the interests of our people,” U Khaing Thukha, a spokesperson for the Arakan Army, wrote on his Facebook page.
On that day, the military council dropped the case and released 46 people linked to the Arakan Army (AA), although no other EAOs’ affiliates were released. From this, it can be said that a compromise was reached between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. It should be noted, however, that the Arakan Army’s policy is to hold talks with the National Unity Government as well as the Myanmar military in the national interest.
At present, no one can say how or whether Myanmar’s federal political dream might come true. Most Arakanese people are aware of the frustrations of Myanmar’s democratic politics in the past. As a result, the Arakan Army is waiting to see if it will be guaranteed the right to secede in a unique way, or how much freedom it will have to create its own destiny.
In short, the Arakan Army has little faith in joining the shadow of a new Myanmar’s federal government. In addition, the right to self-determination depends on the attitude of the authorities and the leaders of the Burmese forces.
As a result, the Arakan Army is looking for a new political landscape or a new political path in Myanmar.