Rumbles in Rakhine amid strains between Myanmar military, rebels

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Recent clashes between the Arakan Army and the military have raised concerns about the stability of the unofficial year-long ceasefire.

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Since Myanmar’s military launched a coup against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, sparking widespread unrest, the formerly turbulent far-western state of Rakhine has remained relatively peaceful.

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But recent clashes have raised concerns that an informal ceasefire broke out in the long-troubled region in November last year, even as armed insurgency escalates in other parts of the country.

Fighting was reported for several days in the second week of November, with Arakan Army (AA) spokesman Khing Thu Kha only admitting that the rebel group was involved in a two-hour skirmish on 9 November, when regime troops ” intentionally” entered. AA-controlled area.

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“There was a brief struggle to defend the area,” Khing Thu Kha said, adding that the situation had calmed down and the army did not want to continue its advance.

For its part, the military has denied any confrontation with the AA, saying it instead fought with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the same Rohingya armed group that attacked a police post in 2017. which sent more than spark a brutal counter-argument. 700,000 Rohingya citizens are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. The action is now the subject of an international genocide case.

“It didn’t happen with AA,” military spokesman General Zaw Min Tun told Radio Free Asia on 10 November. On 15 November, the ARSA issued a statement that it was involved in combat with the military on 7 November, 9 and 11 November. ,

The AA is a more formidable adversary than the ARSA, which fought Myanmar’s military to a standstill after two years of brutal conflict, which many describe as the country’s fiercest civil war in decades.

Rakhine has been one of the more peaceful parts of Myanmar since the military seized power in February, with the rebel Arakan army expanding its political control of the long-distressed state. [File: Stringer/EPA]

Richard Horsey, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, says a ceasefire is mostly for a year, but the objectives of the two sides differ greatly.

“The AA has used the ceasefire to restore its forces and strengthen its administrative apparatus, and at some point the military will take steps to enforce its red lines,” he told Al Jazeera. “The trigger for the recent clashes may have been a random event, but there is clearly room for serious escalation.”

tussle over business

The fight reportedly took place in Maungdaw township near the Bangladesh border.

Khing Koung San, executive director of the Rakhine-based human rights group Van Lark Foundation, said it could be due to a dispute over control of trade routes.

He also noted that the military may hesitate to fully confront the AA when it is facing “aggressive attacks” from other armed groups throughout the country, adding that it is the AA’s demand for “greater autonomy” within Myanmar. Can’t accept either.

“If the fighting that happened in 2018-20 resumes, there will be more destruction and more internally displaced people,” said Khoung Koung San.

Horsey agreed that should the army take over the AA, it could be “severely overburdened”, allowing other resistance groups to advance.

Although most analysts expect both sides in Rakhine to avoid a return to war, there are other signs that the ceasefire is under tension.

While the military government is releasing political prisoners who were accused of “terrorism” for allegedly being affiliated with the AA, it has begun arresting people accused of having links to the People’s Defense Force, armed A loose network of resistance groups that emerged later. coup

Following the alleged clashes in Rakhine, authorities have reportedly begun a search for journalists and are investigating local outlets Narinjara and Western News. Western News reporters have since gone into hiding. Action on the local media was a common tactic even during the two-year conflict.

The AA, established in 2009 and representing the majority of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, is one of dozens of ethnic armed groups operating mainly in Myanmar’s border areas, who make up the majority of the state’s population.

Fighting between the military and the AA intensified in 2018, following crackdowns on the predominantly Muslim Rohingya, driven primarily by local grievances with the central government and a desire for greater political autonomy. According to Radio Free Asia, the fighting forced thousands of people from their homes, and about 1,000 civilians were seriously injured or killed by artillery shelling, gunfire and landmine explosions, including more than 170 children.

The violence only ended after the two sides agreed to an informal ceasefire ahead of the 2020 election, amid shared opposition to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Those accused of having links to the AA were among the thousands released by the military after the February coup [File: Nyunt Win/EPA]

The NLD’s government designated the AA a “terrorist organization” and called in the army to crush the group. It also pulled the AA out of its historic peace conference, blocked humanitarian aid to conflict-affected people, and canceled voting in many parts of the state.

Kyaw Lin, a 24-year-old youth activist from Rakhine, told Al Jazeera that the NLD’s stance on the armed conflict and political problems in Rakhine made most people feel that they were actually losing nothing as a result of the coup, largely Despite there being protests and rebellions elsewhere in the country.

AA enhances the effect

In Rakhine, the turmoil has allowed the AA to further consolidate its position, while the military’s focus remains elusive.

The AA’s deputy commander-in-chief, Nyo Twan Awang, told Frontier Myanmar in August that the group had de facto power over two-thirds of the state and was now operating its own administrative and judicial system.

The AA has publicly committed to building an inclusive administration that includes marginalized Rohingya.

Spokesperson Khing Thu Kha said some of the group’s political arm, the United League of Arakan, has been involved in COVID-19 prevention, repatriation and drug rehabilitation programs of displaced people.

While the AA has refrained from engaging in the anti-military revolution, it has condemned the coup and subsequent violent crackdown on peaceful protesters.

Khing Thu Kha said, “On one hand the people could live peacefully without war for a year.” “On the other hand, what is happening in Myanmar is shameful and depressing.”

Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing detained Aung San Suu Kyi and several senior members of his government in February, hours before the new parliament was convened.

Following brutal armed forces crackdown on the Rohingyas a year earlier, fighting broke out between the AA and the Myanmar military in 2018, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. [File: AP Photo]

The power grab has fueled a mass movement of civil disobedience along with protests against the coup in much of the country. The military has responded with force and has killed at least 1,270 people and arrested more than 10,000, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is monitoring the situation.

The AA said in early April that there should be no street protests or activities linked to the civil disobedience movement in the state to avoid distracting from the primary goal of establishing administrative control. Kyaw Lin said that AA has a “huge impact” on the local population and that some would go against such a request.

A prominent Burmese political and military analyst, who requested anonymity for fear of arrest, told Al Jazeera: “The ceasefire in Rakhine state was an advantage for both. For Myanmar’s military, the end of the fighting allowed them to stage a coup. while for the AA it allowed them to build their own military position and their own administration in Rakhine State.

The analyst believes the military hoped the ceasefire would provide stability as it cracked its voter fraud story and prepared to seize power.

But the generals probably expected that they would eliminate popular resistance before the AA could consolidate control of Rakhine. Nearly 10 months after the coup, the military government still has not been able to fully take control of the country.

Soon after the November clashes, Japan’s envoy for reconciliation in Myanmar Yohei Sasakawa met with coup leader Min Aung Hling in Naypyidaw and traveled to Rakhine State.

As well as meeting the Rohingya and Rakhine people displaced by the conflict, he held talks with AA leaders, urging them to avoid conflict. On 16 November, the AA released a total of 15 police officers and soldiers.

But analysts say maintaining the ceasefire could prove difficult as the AA seeks self-determination within Myanmar, and that is more than the generals are willing to accept.

“To achieve the political goals of the AA, they must choose an armed path,” said the political analyst. “It is not possible to achieve this through talks with the Myanmar government,” he said.

An escalation in fighting elsewhere in the country could buy Rakhine for some time.

But it may not take long to rekindle conflict in a region that has already endured years of violence.

“Whether the conflict will escalate depends on the military,” AA spokesman Khing Thu Kha warned. “If they get into any area of ​​AA there will be war.”

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