Thiha Wint Aung explains why responding to the Arakan Army (AA) with full military might would be counterproductive.
Recent armed clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Arakanese Army (AA) displaced thousands of people, adding yet another humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state. With the Myanmar military, to nobody’s surprise, and the NLD government, to some’s surprise, labelling AA as a “terrorist group” and announcing a military offensive, the armed conflict will only worsen with time. The expansion of war efforts and the waging of an offensive against AA would be counterproductive to the NLD government and the Tatmadaw’s interests for three reasons. The first is that, by the Tatmadaw waging a military offensive against them, the AA would gain legitimacy and the support of the Rakhine public. The second reason is that this strategy has already been tested and has resulted in harm to the image and reputation of the government and the Tatmadaw. Last but not least, such military operations will only worsen the existing ethnic tensions in Rakhine state, which would backfire on both the NLD government and the Tatmadaw in the long run. I argue that the Arakanese Army’s power to inflict “political” damage on the Myanmar government and the Tatmadaw is greater than their power to inflict material and infrastructural damage.
The government saw the AA attacks as a stab in the back while the NLD government was working hard to achieve peace and national reconciliation, and at the same time, dealing with the fallout from the Rohingya crisis. The government spokesperson, U Zaw Htay, claimed that the AA was trying to establish a stronghold in Rakhine state, and the NLD government has approved a military offensive aimed at achieving stability in the Rakhine state. How exactly will attacking four small police stations establish physical territory for the AA?
In a typical military conflict, the objective is to reduce the enemy’s ability to retaliate by exacting considerable material and human damage. A particular objective is to significantly reduce the enemy’s weapons and options. The AA’s attacks on the four police stations can hardly dent the morale of the soldiers (the attack was actually against the Border Guard Force) let alone the Tatmadaw’s ability to strike back. I would argue that the AA, at this point, is not interested (or is less interested) in establishing physical territory— or rather that the AA seems to have other objectives in their strike against the border guard forces.
The AA is more interested in occupying the minds of the Rakhine public and capturing the Tatmadaw and the NLD government’s imagination. Despite reports that the AA has accumulated arms and weapons (which they could use against the Tatmadaw) as well as financial resources (which the government claimed have ties to the drug trade in the region), the most crucial element AA aspires to achieve from the attacks, is the Rakhine public’s support and the resultant political legitimacy. Subsequent military offensives by the NLD government and the military are paving the way for this outcome.
Right after the attacks on January 4 (a date which is in itself symbolic because it is Myanmar Independence Day), the AA’s leader, Major-General Tun Mrat Naing, and AA spokespersons conducted a series of interviews. Taking the view that in politics, nothing happens for no reason, the AA’s move is extraordinary in getting and sustaining the media coverage throughout and after the attack. The scale and extent of the damage caused by the AA’s attack is small (or at the very least not bigger) in comparison to recent insurgent attacks in the northern and eastern parts of Myanmar, yet the media coverage and the nationalist fervour (both on the part of the Rakhine public and the rest of the country) that followed the event were significantly greater.
Moreover, there is a clarity in the “political message” conveyed by the Arakanese Army. The AA claimed that they were fighting for the Rakhine people who have long suffered oppression and poverty in a resource-rich state with a proud history. That message is appealing to the Rakhine public in the sense that it addressed the legitimate grievances suffered by the Rakhine people while providing an alternative (i.e. that fighting the Tatmadaw will alleviate the suffering). Tun Mrat Naing stressed that the AA was careful not to inflict any damage on the Rakhine community: “We are very concerned for our Rakhine people. We make sure that our people’s safety is not jeopardized. Not just our people. There are also Muslim villages nearby. When our battalions came across these villages, we assured them not to worry.” He even directly communicated to the Muslim community residing in the area that AA means no harm to the Muslim villages, something the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar government could not claim with a straight face.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Rakhine hills, in Naypyidaw, the Myanmar government and the Tatmadaw scrambled to respond to the AA’s attacks on both the military and political sides. A meeting between the president’s office and the Tatmadaw’s generals was convened and their solution was simple: eradicate the AA insurgents. Moreover, U Zaw Htay, spokesman of the Office of the President, sent a warning to the Rakhine public, “I want to tell AA supporters to think about whether the AA really can make Rakhine State better. Frankly speaking, please stop your support”. How exactly would that convince the Rakhine public? Six decades of heaven under the military government and eight years of sweet social harmony under two successive civilian governments?
As if attacking the border posts were not enough, the AA’s leader said that their political ambition was to achieve “confederal status.” Why would the AA say something that would clearly provoke the Tatmadaw, who would not even allow the use of the word “federal” until the very recent past? At this point, we should step back and ask: What exactly is AA’s strategy? What do they actually want to achieve?
There are a lot of similarities between the recent AA’s attacks and the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) attacks of 2017. The Myanmar military responded with full force and the notorious clearance operations were carried out, resulting in, what is called, one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century. There might have been a military “victory,” but the political damage caused by the Tatmadaw’s response overshadowed whatever other objectives it may have achieved. The political repercussions of this military response are still felt across the country, and the political capital that would have been used in Myanmar’s democratic transition process was drained as both international and domestic attention and resources were directed to the crisis in Rakhine. Widespread international condemnations against both the Tatmadaw and Myanmar government have emerged in regard to their handling the Rohingya crisis. If the strategy of responding militarily has failed once, why should it be repeated?
It seems that the Tatmadaw feels that the attacks by the AA undermined their legitimacy. Since the armed forces are not under the control of the democratically elected civilian government according to the 2008 Constitution, where does their legitimacy come from? I argue that there are two sources – the Tatmadaw’s legitimacy is based mainly on the people’s belief that they are the “Union forces” and they preserve and protect the Union against internal and external threats. The mere presence of ethnic armed forces undermines the legitimacy of the Tatmadaw. The attacks by AA undermined both factors of the Tatmadaw’s legitimacy: that it is supposed to protect the “Rakhine” land which is part of the Union, and its function to preserve law and order. The AA attacks threatened both elements of legitimacy in the eyes of the Rakhine and the general public.
By responding with full military might and clearance operations, the Tatmadaw is bound to cause civilian collateral damage. Right after the Tatmadaw’s January 14th attacks on AA’s base, there was already an outcry that there were human rights violations and abuses against Rakhine villagers by the Tatmadaw. There is substantial ethnic resentment towards the Tatmadaw which is viewed as a Bamar-dominated institution. Even before the start of these recent attacks, the AA announced that they were documenting the human rights violations perpetrated by the Tatmadaw and vowed to protect the Rakhine people. Also, there will be more frustration from Rakhine civil society organizations if there are any obstacles to helping the displaced Rakhine villagers, which has already happened with Kachin CSOs in regard to conflicts in northern Myanmar.
The AA will only capitalize on these developments. This is certainly against the interest of the Tatmadaw, which wants to be viewed as the legitimate “Union” force protecting all the people. Second, it is true that attacks such as these undermine the law and order function of the Tatmadaw but this view, I would argue, is out of proportion. The attacks disrupted the everyday administration of the government by invoking fear among civilian and police officials. But responding with full military force might equally invoke fear and resentment as a result of the destruction and violence that follows. There are reports that some administrators and Rakhine villagers were charged with assisting the AA. In a country with an unfinished nation-building process, the conflicts will only worsen the existing ethnic divide.
So, why did the NLD government agree to the Tatmadaw’s offensive? It is understandable that any government would like to preserve law and order in any part of the country. But the NLD seems to forget to take into account the ethnic tensions between the Bamar and Rakhine. If the NLD government is frustrated with the fact that the AA didn’t respond the call to the peace dialogue despite concessions from the government and the Tatmadaw, the military offensive is still not the solution to bring the AA to the table. Another point is that the NLD government seems to have secured some support from China in dealing with the ethnic armed groups. A few days after the attack, China’s officials met with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the mentor of the AA, to pressure them to join the peace process and to stop their support to the AA. I will explain later why this support should also not be taken as a sign to ramp up the military offensives.
The escalation of the military response without clear political communication to the Rakhine public is, in my opinion, bound to backfire. The NLD government is already viewed by many ethnic groups as Bamar-dominated and that they are not capable of bringing the “change” the minority groups need. By approving the Tatmadaw’s attack, the NLD risked furthering the view that the NLD, too, cannot be trusted with peace and national reconciliation. There could be political consequences to the already stalled peace process if the hardliners in ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) felt that their worst fears were confirmed. Many ethnic scholars have also warned that the Rakhine public listens carefully to what the AA’s leader has communicated to them, while turning a deaf ear to the government and the Tatmadaw.
Finally, the NLD government should not take China’s support as a gift from a good-hearted friend. China was not reluctant to change their political support from the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) to the military junta to the NLD when they saw the changing political landscape in the country and where the political wind was blowing. They were not hesitant to roll out the red carpet to welcome the then-opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the occasion of her meeting with President Xi, a gesture China would not make without certainty that she was poised to become the next government head.
More importantly, China’s foreign policy is “China-first” despite whatever claims they might make. A few days after the news of China pressuring the KIA to withdraw support to AA, the Chinese ambassador announced that Kachin political parties had agreed to support the restart of the Myitsone Dam project. Major stakeholders in Myanmar should be wary of the fact that there is a huge dragon nearby, ready to take whatever is left after Myanmar’s infighting ends. China doesn’t mind making Myanmar a client-state nor do they mind having both ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar government as their clients.
The NLD government should go back to their roots. What allowed the NLD to withstand three decades of adversity? It was a firm belief in and commitment to non-violence, democracy and equality that put the NLD at the forefront of the opposition movement and helped the pary gain the trust of almost all ethnic groups in Myanmar. The NLD government cannot and should not take the trust and votes of minority groups for granted. Recent by-elections attest to the fact that minority groups were frustrated with the government’s policies and that many groups felt that betrayal. So far, many people still believe in democratic institutions, but this belief is quickly evaporating.
There were many incidents at both the national and sub-national levels in which ethnic minority groups felt that the NLD government did not listen to their voices or to the voices of their representatives. There were many clashes between the Rakhine state parliament, controlled by Arakan National Party (ANP), and the Rakhine state government, controlled by NLD. What would happen if ethnic minority groups no longer felt that their objectives could be achieved through elections and democratic institutions?
If violence and wars were the solution, successive governments in Myanmar, including both democratic governments and military governments, would have achieved peace already. Why would this strategy work for the NLD? If the strategy of non-violence and a firm commitment to democracy and national reconciliation worked for the NLD for three decades, why should the NLD government abandon such principles when the country needs them most?
I am not suggesting that the government and the Tatmadaw should act like “saints” and let the AA do whatever they want. My point is that the military response is not the solution and that, in the worst-case scenario, it is counterproductive to the point that it will aggravate the situation. Even if the AA were defeated decisively, another armed group would just take their place.
The door to the peace table should remain open, even when military operations are being conducted. U Zaw Htay, in a recent interview, said that the peace discussions will continue, a move that should be praised. Meanwhile, the government leaders, as well as the Tatmadaw leaders, should wage a charm offensive against the Rakhine public and win their hearts. Since assuming office, the NLD government has rightly prioritized the development of Rakhine state. They should clearly communicate to the Rakhine public about the government’s efforts and that the government is ready to listen to the grievances and concerns of Rakhine communities.
Moreover, it is crucial that the NLD government engage with Rakhine politicians and invite them to participate in making important political decisions regarding Rakhine state. It is tempting to silence politicians like Dr. Aye Maung, but it is counterproductive in the sense that his arrest only bolstered his image and legitimacy among the Rakhine public. It is more important than ever that the NLD government makes alliances with moderate Rakhine politicians at both the national and sub-national levels.
At the same time, the Rakhine public must benefit from development and infrastructure projects in resource-rich Rakhine state. They must be consulted in natural resource extractions and their concerns must be heard. It is poverty, unemployment and having no alternative future that makes the “armed solution” attractive to young people in the Rakhine state. Equally important is that Rakhine culture and identity are be allowed to be expressed freely within the larger framework of the “Union spirit.”
There is an ethnic divide in Rakhine state which needs to be addressed. Here it is important to note that the ethnic divide in and of itself does not cause the divide, rather it is about sharing political power and economic wealth, and about the need to respect cultural diversity.
In attacks like these, it is hard not to fall back into old habits and patterns of responding to force with greater force. But when have more wars achieved peace? As if the seven-decades of war in Myanmar were not enough lessons, the NLD government and the Tatmadaw are not thinking about alternative solutions. A military solution alone is bound to backfire. A comprehensive response is needed, one that addresses historical grievances as well as present concerns. The complexity of the situation and the uniqueness of Rakhine state must be taken into account in formulating a comprehensive response, which is lacking at the moment.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the Forum of Federations.
Thiha Wint Aung is a Program Officer in Forum of Federations Myanmar Office. He is responsible for program activities and also provides political analyses, reports and trainings in federalism. His interests are in the fields of politics, conflict analysis, federalism, technology and public policy.