Is Arakan State on the Brink of Another War?

Except for the United Wa State Army (UWSA), all the major ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) have refused to attend the peace talks invited by the regime in April. This shows EAOs’ distrust in the military regime. At the same time, EAOs are consolidating their control in their territories.  

By DMG 21 Jun 2022

Written by Min Thuta 

Clashes have occurred almost daily in mainland Myanmar since the military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021. The regime still can’t assert full control of the country. As it does not want to scrap the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, the regime has promised to hold general elections next year, and it has also attempted to resurrect peace talks, though many question whether it has the genuine will to achieve peace. 

The military has always rigorously upheld the 2008 Constitution, which grants no political or economic rights for ethnic states but guarantees the military the right to intervene in the country’s politics. Today, I am speaking out loud about a federal democratic Union. The military, which constitutionally holds 25 percent of seats in national and sub-national legislatures, is planning to introduce a proportional representation (PR) system in the coming general elections, as it can’t rely on its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to win enough seats under the current first-past-the-post system.  

Myanmar’s conflict today is different from the ones before 2010. Ethnic people have demanded a federal Union since independence. And they are continuing their armed struggle today because of the Bamar politicians who portrayed federalism as the right to cede from the country in their strategy to assert domination in the country. Today, ethnic people are eyeing self-determination and self-administration rather than a federal country. They are aiming for a confederation with less centralisation. 

Armed conflicts have intensified after the military seized power, with clashes happening regularly in the mainland. People’s Defence Force (PDF) groups have mushroomed in the country to fight the military dictatorship. PDFs, however, lack the political ambitions ethnic armed groups cherish. Their ultimate goal is to end military dictatorship and establish democracy in the country. 

PDFs do not ask for self-determination, power and resource-sharing in the same way that ethnic armed groups are demanding. The National Unity Government (NUG), which is largely made up of former lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD), does not have a desire for a genuine federal democratic Union, which is the aspiration of ethnic people. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Bamar people and chairwoman of Myanmar’s most influential party, the NLD, only talked about democracy and federalism while her NLD government was in office.  

Except for the United Wa State Army (UWSA), all the major ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) have refused to attend the peace talks invited by the regime in April. This shows EAOs’ distrust in the military regime. At the same time, EAOs are consolidating their control in their territories.  

The UWSA, which has not clashed with Myanmar’s military for more than 30 years (since its 1990s ceasefire with the previous military regime), has described the post-coup crisis as an internal issue of the Bamar ethnic people, and said it would not take sides. The armed group exercises effective control over its territory, which is officially recognised as a self-administered division under Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution. At a meeting with the junta leader in May, the UWSA demanded “statehood”. 

If statehood is granted, Wa would become the only region independent of the Bamar Union even under the 2008 Constitution. Wa has promised not to secede from Myanmar, only to prevent itself from automatically becoming part of China. Myanmar’s military would not fight the Wa, which has no substantial natural resources in their territory. The Wa are already using Chinese as the official language in their region. And it is visible that Wa is more under the influence of China than the central Myanmar government. Its policy not to secede from the country will help it to automatically become a confederate entity. 

War and Peace 

It should be noted that Arakan State was relatively peaceful after the coup. Clashes broke out between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army in late 2018, and there were thousands of clashes from 2019 to November 2020, in which hundreds of civilians died and more than 200,000 people were displaced. The Myanmar military also detained and imprisoned numerous people for alleged ties to the AA. 

The two sides entered an unofficial ceasefire to make way for the general election in November 2020. The military then seized power in its February 2021 coup. The AA subsequently urged Arakanese people not to take part in anti-regime activities, and has since expanded its parallel administration including a judiciary, revenue department and public security offices. 

Myanmar people and anti-coup groups have speculated about the Arakan Army’s apparent non-participation in the anti-coup movement, assuming that it had allied with the Myanmar military. During this time, the Arakan Army viewed itself as doing its job well, in part by avoiding coup backlash. 

However, after anti-regime groups sent messages to the Arakan Army on the 13th anniversary of the ethnic armed organisation’s founding in April 2022, the regime became more aware of the Arakan Army’s activities and anti-military activities, and rebooted preparations for military operations in Arakan State. 

The leaders of the Arakan Army have a distinct political and military perspective, as evidenced by the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself signed off on a declaration of annihilation in 2019, and yet the AA was able to control much of Arakan State despite the Myanmar military’s ensuing offensive. 

Tensions have risen since AA leaders met with NUG representatives in May 2022. Junta troops in Arakan State have become more active and clashes with the Arakan Army have resumed. The Arakan Army has so far rejected peace talks invited by the military junta in April of this year. 

The Arakan Army chief Twan Mrat Naing, the youngest ethnic armed group leader in Myanmar, has also been able to build some trust among the Burmese people during this period. AA leaders, who have been proclaiming the establishment of a confederate nation since the fighting in 2020, also have clear military views. 

Arakan Verges on the Unknown 

AA leaders are politically ambitious and well-prepared, and we know that much can be done during this time. The military is amping up military readiness in western Myanmar, especially with the deployment of a submarine to Arakan State. To be sure, a major clash could erupt in Arakan State at any time. 

There is no denying that the Myanmar military is stepping up its preparations based on its experience from the two years of fighting from 2019 to 2020, because it understands the military readiness of the Arakan Army. The Myanmar military has the advantage of being able to use the army, navy and air force during any future fighting. It can be assumed that the military would use these forces in battle in Arakan State, and take advantage of naval and air superiority. 

It is not easy to know what the Arakan Army is preparing for during this period, but it could be significantly more than in 2019. The Arakan Army chief, who once numbered his troops at only 5,000, has since said that the number of AA soldiers has increased to more than 30,000.  

If there is a major clash between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military in Arakan State, there is no denying that junta troops will continue to target civilians, as usual. During this month alone, the military junta has been raiding and arresting civilians in every Arakan State township.  

This time, if hostilities recur in Arakan State, AA leaders will be able to declare complete independence for Arakan State. The Arakan Army has long called for a return to the “Way of Rakkhita” for Arakan State. It can be said that independence is the only political belief that the Arakanese people can agree upon, and the leaders of the Arakan Army, with big political ambitions, can certainly shout the same if they so choose.