Since the Myanmar military launched a coup d’etat against Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government on February 1, causing large-scale riots, the once turbulent western Rakhine State has been relatively peaceful.
But the recent skirmishes have raised concerns that the informal ceasefire agreement reached in this long-troubled area in November last year began to break down, despite the surge in armed insurgency in other parts of the country.
Although fighting was reported on several days in the second week of November, Khaing Thu Kha, spokesman for the Arakan Army (AA), only admitted that the army in the regime “deliberately” entered the November 9 AA control zone.
“There was a brief conflict to defend the territory,” Khaing Thu Kha said, adding that the situation has calmed down and the military does not seem to want to move on.
As far as the military is concerned, the military denies any confrontation with the AA, saying that it is fighting the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which is the same as the Rohingya armed group that attacked police outposts in 2017, triggering a cruelty In the counter-insurgency, more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians were sent across the border to Bangladesh. Repression is now the subject of international genocide cases.
“This did not happen with AA,” military spokesman General Zaw Min Tun told Radio Free Asia on November 10. On November 15, ARSA issued a statement stating that it had clashed with the military on November 7, 9 and 11. .
AA is a stronger opponent than ARSA. After two years of brutal conflict, it has reached a deadlock with the Myanmar military. Many people describe it as the country’s most intense civil war in decades.
Richard Horsey, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, said that although the ceasefire has lasted for a year, there are still big differences in the goals of the two sides.
“The AA used the ceasefire to redeploy its troops and strengthen its administrative structure, and at some point the military will step in to enforce its red line,” he told Al Jazeera. “The trigger of the recent conflict may be a random event, but there is clearly room for serious escalation.”
According to reports, the fighting took place in the town of Maung Thu near the border of Bangladesh.
Khaing Kaung San, executive director of the Wanrak Foundation, a human rights organization based in Rakhine State, said this may have been triggered by a fight for control of trade routes.
He also said that given that the military is facing “offensive attacks” from other armed groups across the country, the military may hesitate to fully confront the AA, but it cannot accept the AA’s request for “greater autonomy” in Myanmar.
“If the fighting in 2018-20 resumes, there will be more destruction and more internally displaced persons,” Khaung Kaung San said.
Horsey agreed that if the military took over the AA, it could become “seriously excessive”, allowing other resistance groups to make progress.
Although most analysts believe that both sides in Rakhine State want to avoid a renewed war, there are other signs that the ceasefire is under pressure.
Although the military government has been releasing political prisoners accused of “terrorism” because of ties to the AA, it has begun arresting those accused of ties to the People’s Defense Forces, which is a loosely armed force. Resistance organization network coup.
According to reports, after the conflict in Rakhine State, the authorities reportedly began hunting down journalists and investigating local media Narinjara and Western News. The Western News reporter went into hiding afterwards. Suppression of the local media was also a common strategy deployed during the two-year conflict.
Established in 2009, AA is one of dozens of ethnic minority armed groups that mainly operate in the border areas of Myanmar. It mainly represents the Rakhine Buddhists who make up the majority of the population of the state.
After the suppression of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya, the fighting between the military and the AA intensified in 2018, mainly due to local dissatisfaction with the central government and desire for greater political autonomy. According to Radio Free Asia, the fighting forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes, and nearly 1,000 civilians were seriously injured or killed by shelling, gunfire and landmine explosions, including more than 170 children.
Due to the common dislike of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the violence ended after the two sides agreed to an informal ceasefire before the 2020 general election.
The National League for Democracy government has designated AA as a “terrorist organization” and called on the military to crush the organization. It also excluded the AA from its landmark peace conference, prevented humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict, and cancelled voting in many areas of the state.
Kyaw Lynn, a 24-year-old youth activist from Rakhine State, told Al Jazeera that the position of the National League for Democracy on armed conflicts and political issues in Rakhine State made most people feel that they had not really lost anything because of the coup d’etat. The scale of protests and rebellions in other parts of the country.
AA expands influence
In Rakhine State, the turmoil allowed the AA to further strengthen its position, while the army was distracted.
The deputy commander-in-chief of the AA, Nyo Twan Awng, told the Myanmar border in August that the organization actually owns more than two-thirds of the state’s power and is now operating its own administrative and judicial system.
The AA also publicly pledged to establish a government that tolerates marginalized Rohingya.
Spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha said that some political factions of the organization, the Arakan Coalition, have been involved in COVID-19 prevention, repatriation of displaced persons and drug rehabilitation programs.
Although the AA avoided joining the counter-military revolution, it condemned the coup and subsequent violent suppression of peaceful protesters.
“On the one hand, people can live in peace for a year without war,” Khaing Thu Kha said. “On the other hand, what is happening in Myanmar is shameful and disappointing.”
Army Commander Min Aung Lai detained Aung San Suu Kyi and many senior members of his government a few hours before the new parliament will be held in February.
The seizure of power triggered anti-coup protests and mass movements of civil disobedience in most parts of the country. According to the Political Prisoners Aid Association, which is tracking the situation, the military has responded with force, with at least 1,270 people killed and more than 10,000 arrested.
The AA stated as early as April that there should be no street protests or activities related to the civil disobedience movement in the state, so as not to decentralize the main objective of establishing administrative control. Kyaw Lynn stated that AA has a “huge impact” on the local population, and few people would object to such a request.
A well-known Myanmar political and military analyst who requested anonymity for fear of arrest told Al Jazeera: “The ceasefire in Rakhine State is good for both parties. For the Myanmar military, the end of the fighting allowed them to launch a coup. For the AA, this allows them to establish their own military status and their own government in Rakhine State.”
The analyst believes that the military hopes that the ceasefire will provide stability because it turns the narrative of voter fraud and prepares to seize power.
But the generals may hope that they can suppress popular resistance before the AA can consolidate control of Rakhine State. Nearly 10 months after the coup, the military government has not been able to completely put the country under its control.
Soon after the conflict in November, the Japanese-Burmese Reconciliation Special Envoy Yohei Sasagawa met with the coup leader Min Aung Lai in Nay Pyi and went to Rakhine State.
In addition to visiting Rohingya and Rakhine displaced by the conflict, he also held talks with AA leaders to urge them to avoid conflict. On November 16, the AA released a total of 15 police officers and soldiers.
But analysts said that maintaining the ceasefire may become more and more difficult because the AA hopes to achieve self-determination in Myanmar, which is beyond the wishes of the generals.
“In order to achieve the AA’s political goals, they must choose the path of armed forces,” said political analysts. “It is impossible to get this from the negotiations with the Myanmar military government,” he said.
The escalation of fighting elsewhere in the country may give Rakhine State some time.
However, in a region that has endured violence for many years, it may not take much time to lead to new conflicts.
“Whether the conflict will intensify depends on the military,” AA spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha warned. “If they enter any territory of the AA, there will be war.”