The rebel Arakan Army has set up civil administrations in parts of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, collecting taxes and arresting illegal drug users — making good on a pledge to provide governance to underpin the ethnic Rakhine autonomy the armed group has been fighting for.
The predominantly Buddhist ethnic army has been at war with Myanmar forces in northern Rakhine state and in Paletwa township of neighboring Chin state for 19 months. It is the newest of many conflicts the national army has been waging with ethnic armies since the former Burma became independent from Britain in 1948.
The AA set up shop in 2009 in Laiza, northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, and five years later declared its long-term intention of returning to its Rakhine homeland and establishing its own government in the state.
In December 2019, AA leaders announced the formation of a Rakhine People’s Authority to levy taxes on businesses to fund the army's operations and that of its political wing, the United League of Arakan, as well as to administer areas under its control in Rakhine state. The AA is estimated to have 9,000 fighters.
At the time, AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA that the formation of the authority was legitimate because it would initiate a new form of government in a bid to reestablish the historic Arakan nation that existed centuries earlier.
“This body has an obvious revenue-generation function, but its creation is probably more important as a demonstration of the group’s de facto authority and territorial control and assertion of its legitimacy,” said a report on armed conflict and politics in Rakhine state issued in June by the International Crisis Group.
“Armed groups in other major conflicts in Myanmar over the decades have taken similar steps,” the report said.
Branded an illegal organization and terrorist group by the Myanmar government in March, the AA demanded on May 29 that all government administrative offices and the national military immediately leave northern Rakhine state.
The new administrative body is centered in Mrauk-U town, the former capital of the once powerful maritime kingdom of Arakan on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal from the 15th to the late 18th century when it was invaded and annexed by the Burmese empire.
Rakhine, a riverine land of 3.2 million people about the size of the Netherlands or the U.S. state of Maryland, is one of Myanmar’s poorest states.
RFA was unable to determine how many people or what amount of territory is currently under AA administration in Rakhine, which has become largely off-limits to reporters. Contacts with the AA have become legally risky since it was declared a terrorist group in March.
In a January 2019 interview with the online Irrawaddy news website, AA chief of staff Major General Tun Myat Naing said he wanted Rakhine to follow the example of other autonomous parts of Myanmar.
“We prefer [a confederation of states] like Wa state, which has a larger share of power in line with the constitution,” he said, referring to the AA’s ally, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which runs its affairs in part of Shan state.
“And we think it [a confederation] is more appropriate to the history of Rakhine state and the aspirations of the Arakanese people,” he said.
A welcome presence
Despite the AA’s practice of abducting civilians it believes are working with Myanmar forces, local residents have welcomed the ethnic army’s presence and its handling of crimes that police ignore, as well as the arrests of drug users and criminals.
Although openly expressing sympathy for the AA can get local people in trouble, some residents cited the ethnic army's arrest of 20 drug users in Mrauk-U on Dec. 15 and their transfer to a rehabilitation center as a welcome development.
“As I have seen, the police are no longer doing their jobs,” said Buddhist abbot Ashin Nandar Thary. “Nobody cares to report crimes to them anymore, so instead the AA is handling criminal cases.”
“We don’t see a working civil administration,” he added. “On the ground, there is only the AA’s administration and martial law. We can almost say that the government’s civil administration no longer exists.”
Myint Than, director general of the Myanmar government's General Administration Department in Naypyidaw, said last month that the situation in northern Rakhine was not lawless enough for the state to be placed under martial law.
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe said the AA’s efforts to establish its own administration are nothing new in multiethnic Myanmar, where several of the biggest ethnic armies run large territories beyond the control of the capital in Naypyidaw.
“It has occurred in other ethnic regions,” he said, citing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which formed its own civil administration in territory it controls in northern Shan state.
“The AA has just started forming the administration now, but it is still an underground administration,” Maung Maung Soe said. “If it can fully control an area, it will form an active administration.”
Filling a void
The AA's civil administrative activities have filled a void created by the resignations and detentions of local administrators by Myanmar forces in an increasingly chaotic Rakhine state.
Dozens of ward and village administrators in Rakhine’s Myebon township resigned in early June out of fear of arbitrary arrest by the Myanmar military, following the recent detentions of three of their colleagues on terrorism charges.
Scores of other administrators resigned in Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, Mrauk-U, and Minbya townships submitted resignations in 2019, following the arrests of administrative officials amid the armed conflict.
“These actions and allegations against administrators cause losses for local civilians,” said a village administrator in Minbya township who declined to be named out of fear for his safety.
“Local people are relying on administrators for leadership in the community,” he added. “If the administrators are not allowed to do their jobs, the people will suffer.”
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun blamed the recent abductions of village administrators and civilians on the AA as part of the Arakan force’s plans to replace civil administrations in the conflict zone.
“They have always said they are trying to replace the government administration with their own version,” he told RFA. “Then they murdered local ward administrators who defied their authority. They also murdered people they thought were government informers. They arrested and killed policemen who are the embodiment of law enforcement.”
In response to his comment, AA spokesman Khine Thukha said that government authorities are trying to maintain central government control by detaining those with suspected links to the Arakan force, resulting in civilian arrests and detentions on terrorism-related charges.
“Any country or race which resists or opposes [foreign] colonial rule would face this kind of oppression. It is not uncommon,” he said.
Peace talks prospects dim
An army campaign this month in the northern part of Rakhine prompted more than 3,000 civilians to join a tide of around 200,000 internally displaced persons living in living in Buddhist monasteries and crowded camps.
The ongoing fighting in northern Rakhine, meanwhile, means that a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with all the country’s armed ethnic groups will not be realized this year as Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing intended according to a statement he made in 2018, analysts said.
So far, only 10 of more than 20 ethnic armies have signed the peace pact with the national military since 2015, and the current government has not held any peace conferences since July 2018. A fourth summit, originally scheduled for late April 2020 but postponed due to the COVID-19 virus, will now be held in August despite the ongoing pandemic.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the peace process is not progressing as the national army and the government expected.
“We are aiming to complete the NCA with all ethnic armed groups signing it in 2020, but, as you know, it takes two hands to clap,” he said. “Joining the NCA is entirely up to them [the ethnic armies].”
Since 2018, the military has negotiated with non-NCA signatory armed groups, including the AA, KIA, Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — collectively known as the Northern Alliance — to join the peace pact, but the talks have not gone well, and there were disagreements over meeting venues.
The Myanmar military has announced unilateral cease-fires in regions where armed conflicts exist, except for northern Rakhine state.
Likewise, the AA, TNLA, and MNDAA, which have not signed the NCA, extended a unilateral truce to Aug. 31. In early June, the trio invited Myanmar forces to begin peace talks, but the military rejected the proposal, and fighting has continued.
The government, however, still stresses the importance of forging bilateral truces with NCA non-signatory groups.
“It is important to get bilateral cease-fire agreements with the armed groups in the northern and northeastern regions as well as in Rakhine state,” said President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay at a June 19 press conference.
“The ongoing fighting needs to stop,” he said. “After the bilateral cease-fires, we will go on to negotiate with each group. We’ve briefly agreed on the agenda.”
Myanmar political analyst Maung Maung Soe said that it will not be possible to achieve peace in 2020.
“It is now difficult to get an agreement with the Northern Alliance groups since the partial cease-fire does not include Rakhine state where the real conflicts are occurring,” he said, adding that fighting also has taken place with some of the NCA signatories such as the Restoration Council of Shan State and the Karen National Union.
“Even after signing the NCA, there are no realistic agreements on mobilizing military troops,” Maung Maung Soe said. “These weaknesses have pushed away the goal for 2020.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.