The Arakan Army (AA)—an Ethnic Armed Organisation (EAO) fighting for autonomy of Myanmar’s Rakhine state—has been engaged in intense clashes with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) since late 2017. The fighting escalated in the last quarter of 2018, with the AA expanding its force presence in Chin and northern Rakhine states and initiating a two-front offensive strategy against the military and local administration.
The military has responded to this emergent insurgency in a swift yet reckless manner, echoing its past counter-offensives against other EAOs. This time, the civilian government too is actively involved in the counterinsurgency campaign. While the current form and scope of the state’s response might suppress the AA’s strike capacity in the short term, the mounting allegations of excessive use of force and human rights abuses may prove to be counterproductive in the long term.
The military has responded to the AA’s advances in its patent brute force style. It has pushed fresh infantry deployments into northern Rakhine and Chin states and used the air force against AA positions. The use of air power has traditionally accorded the Tatmadaw a clear tactical advantage against land-based rebel armies.
The Tatmadaw’s offensive pattern makes it evident that it is using its signature “four cuts” doctrine to degrade the AA’s capabilities and push them out of Rakhine state. Part of this controversial counterinsurgency strategy entails cutting off the target EAO from the local population by all means, thus straining its supply lines and breaking its support networks.
However, this strategy often fails to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants while also blockading essential humanitarian aid into core conflict zones. It is not surprising, therefore, that multiple instances of arbitrary and excessive use of force by the Tatmadaw against local Arakanese civilians have been reported recently.
These include open firing at and shelling ‘suspect’ villages, arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, torture, and rampant deployment of air force in civilian areas. For instance, a “fierce” air bombing campaign in civilian areas outside Sittwe was reported on 14 March. Less than a week later, six civilians were injured in Mrauk U township when the military reportedly opened fired at “suspected AA terrorists” while passing by the town centre. Three days later, six civilians who were reportedly hiding in a bomb shelter in Buthidaung Township’s Say Taung village were killed when the military opened fire.
Clearly, besides degrading the AA’s capabilities, the military’s attempt here is to diffuse local support for the rebels through the use of fear and random force.
However, despite their relatively higher strike capacity and stronger force capability, the Tatmadaw has suffered significant damage since the fighting escalated last year. These have come in the form of ambushes, landmine hits, high-rank fatalities (including at least one Major and Captain), capture of troops as Prisoners of War, seizure of weapons and other military accessories, and even the takeover of a tactical command base. In several clashes, the military found itself outnumbered by the rebels, indicating a strain on deployment strength and reinforcement capabilities.
The military also appears to be collaborating with the Indian army to deny the AA escape routes and safe havens across the border in India’s Mizoram. According to recent reports in the Indian media, the Indian army carried out “reciprocal” operations against AA positions along the border in return for the Tatmadaw’s takeover of Naga rebel camps in the upper Sagaing Division. However, the extent of damage that the AA suffered during these border operations remains unclear.
Involvement of the Civilian Government
Unlike previous instances, Myanmar’s civilian government led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be directly involved in the counterinsurgency campaign this time. Following the 4 January AA attack on police outposts, the civilian government convened a rare high-level national security meeting during which it designated the AA as a “terrorist organisation” and reportedly ordered the military to conduct “clearance operations” against the group. Orders of such nature usually come from the Tatmadaw high command.
This change of tact by Suu Kyi’s government only reflects the sense of urgency in Naypyitaw regarding the AA. The government clearly wants to stabilise Rakhine state in the earliest, and also consolidate its own authority in the process.
However, by giving formal political sanction to the military’s campaigns, the Suu Kyi government—which is currently leading a national peace process—could risk its own position as a legitimate negotiating party in the reconciliation process. For instance, in a recent interview, a senior AA commander called the Suu Kyi government “anti-peace,” citing her directive to the military. This is a problematic perception that could be further compounded by the military’s use of excessive force against civilians.
Furthermore, the civilian government’s perceived failure to provide humanitarian aid and services to the conflict-affected population could further discredit it. This is particularly because of the high levels of displacement that the fighting has caused. Since December 2018 alone, at least 5000 civilians have been displaced in both Chin and Rakhine states, with hundreds fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh. Earlier, some 1750 Chin refugees had fled the fighting into India’s Mizoram.
Will the Military Cease Fire?
So far, the military has not announced if it is going to extend the four-month ceasefire that it had announced in December 2018 across five regional commands in Shan and Kachin states to cover Chin and Rakhine states. However, since there is no political agreement between the military and the AA at the moment, fighting is expected to continue for now.
If the five-point agreement signed during a recent informal meeting of government representatives and non-ceasefire EAOs holds, the military might stop its offensives temporarily. However, the Tatmadaw is not known for unilateral ceasefires in the face of a full-fledged insurgency, particularly in a sensitive border state like Rakhine. Hence, it is unlikely that the military would stop pursuing AA troops and positions for at least some time.
Angshuman Choudhury Senior Researcher, and Coordinator, Southeast Asia Research Programme (SEARP)
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