Author: MD Mufassir Rashid, Dhaka
Since the military coup on 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s Rakhine State has remained relatively stable and long-standing ethnic divisions appear to be on a path towards improvement. The Arakan Army (AA) — a Rakhine-based ethnic armed organisation operating since 2009 alongside its political wing, the United League of Arakan — has emerged as one of Rakhine’s key political and military actors.
Since then, the AA has maintained an unofficial ceasefire with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military regime). The AA has also started to recruit Rohingya peoples into its organisational structure and has been officially claiming to be creating an inclusive, federalist government to counter the Tatmadaw’s dominance in Rakhine.
In a recent interview with Prothom Alo, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper, the AA’s Commander in Chief General Twan Mrat Naing discussed the AA’s stance on the Rohingya issue and the current situation in Rakhine. Naing claimed that the AA was distancing itself from other Rakhine-based ‘terrorist’ organisations. Violent extremist organisations such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization are losing ground in Rakhine after the recent killing of Rohingya Leader Mohib Ullah as well as a violent attack on a Rohingya camp that took six lives .
According to analyst Angshuman Choudhury, ‘the AA wants to break the Tatmadaw’s hegemony as a legitimate security actor in Rakhine’. The AA currently has approximately 30,000 members and controls two-thirds of Rakhine. Recent reports suggest that they have created a parallel government structure in Rakhine by establishing an administration and judiciary. They are also working on COVID-19 prevention measures. While explaining the current situation, Naing said that since the ceasefire, the situation in Rakhine has been stable. Apart from establishing its administrative structure, the AA has also gained control over most townships and has established its own police force and taxation system.
Though the AA and Tatmadaw are currently maintaining an unofficial ceasefire, the situation may change at any time. The Tatmadaw has objected to the AA’s parallel administration and judiciary. Reports suggest that clashes have taken place between the parties over disputes regarding the control of trade routes near the border with Bangladesh, which may jeopardise this informal agreement.
On the question of the AA’s objectives, Naing clarified that, considering the current geopolitics of the region, the AA has contained its objective to achieving internal sovereignty, not forming a separate state. But in the long run, its ultimate goal is to emerge as a state.
Naing believes that the AA’s isolationist policy in current national turmoil is a smart one because engagement in ‘Burmese affairs’ has never benefitted Rakhine. Since 1945, the region had engaged considerably in Burma’s national politics, but had failed to achieve its rightful political share. Hence the AA has decided not to follow the same path and has stuck to only attempting to achieve Rakhita (described by Naing as ‘the struggle for national liberation and the restoration of Arakan’s sovereignty to the people of Arakan’).
But while the AA has decided against direct participation in national politics, through affiliated organisations it has engaged with pro-democracy actors. By mobilising these affiliates, the AA has ensured a stake in the pro- and anti-democracy clash.
Since gaining control over a significant portion of Rakhine, the AA has also announced its intention to create an ‘inclusive’ administration to accommodate all ethnic groups in Rakhine. On many occasions the AA has announced that it intends to incorporate the Rohingya community. After the National Unity Government — a government in exile representing the pro-democracy parties ousted in the coup — recognised the Rohingya’s citizenship rights and the AA clarified on its stance on the Rohingya, it seems that in Rakhine and Myanmar as a whole, political narratives about the Rohingya are changing.
As political narratives about the Rohingya issue improve in Myanmar, and as Rakhine remains stable under an informal ceasefire, the Tatmadaw is under pressure regarding the Rohingya — both internally and externally. It is high time for global and regional actors to increase their diplomatic engagement in Rakhine to sustain this stability. The international community must reach out to all parties and encourage them to sustain the ceasefire. With a long-term vision, the global community should attempt to uphold the dignity of the Rohingya community before the situation in Rakhine deteriorates.
MD Mufassir Rashid is an independent researcher based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He holds an MSS in international political economy from the University of Dhaka.
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