Myanmar’s Buddhist Rakhine Rebels

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Myanmar’s Buddhist Rakhine Rebels

The army empowered the Rakhine to commit atrocities against the Rohingya. Now the Rakhine are turning against the state.

Myanmar’s Buddhist Rakhine Rebels

A Myanmar police officer stands watch as journalists arrive in Shwe Zar village in the suburb of Maungdaw town, northern Rakhine state of Myanmar (Sept. 6, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo

Last week three bomb blasts hit Sittwe, the regional capital of Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state, just as the international media began marking the fact it had been six months since the Tatmadaw (as Myanmar’s armed forces are called) had begun its ethnic cleansing operations in the north of the state against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Government officials told Reuters that three other unexploded bombs had been found in the city; the bombs that exploded targeted a local government official’s home, a land record office, and the local high court building. A police officer was slightly injured in one of the blasts, though fortunately there were no other casualties.

While the north of Rakhine state has been wracked with ethnic violence since August, the most recent bombings did not seem to be the work of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the religious-nationalist group whose attacks on Myanmar’s border posts sparked the Tatmadaw’s latest crackdown on their community. In fact the bombings seem to have been the work of local Rakhine Buddhist nationalists, others of whom had previously helped the Tatmadaw in their crackdown against their Muslim Rohingya neighbors.

Unlike the Muslim Rohingya, the majority-Buddhist Rakhine (also known as the Arakanese) are officially recognized by the central government as an ethnic minority, but they still feel marginalized in a country historically dominated by the Bamar ethnic majority. Following the forced expulsion of 90 percent of Rakhine state’s Muslim population, ethnic tensions between the Bamar-dominated Tatmadaw and the Buddhist Rakhine are rising, perhaps due to the boost the attacks on the Rohingya have given to both local Rakhine nationalists and the Bamar nationalism espoused by the armed forces.

Things turned ugly in January, when Rakhine nationalist commemorations to mark the 233-year anniversary of the fall of the Arakan kingdom to Burmese invaders in the Rakhine heartland town of Mrauk U ended in violence. After demonstrators tried to seize the local General Administration Department building (the GAD is a powerful civilian agency controlled bureaucratically by the military) in Mrauk U, the security forces responded by shooting dead seven ethnic Rakhine protesters. The incident highlighted the historical conflicts between the 2 million-strong Rakhine ethnic group and Myanmar’s armed forces, even if they sometimes cooperate as well. With ethnic tensions in the state sent through the roof in the aftermath of the massacre, Mrauk U’s former town administrator was later murdered and his body left to be discovered by the side of a road.

The January civilian deaths also drew explicit threats of revenge from Rakhine state’s most organized rebel group, the Arakan Army (AA). Founded in 2009, this Rakhine rebel group has been fighting with the Tatmadaw for almost a decade. The group “killed scores of members of the security forces from late 2015 to late 2016,” according to AFP. The AA began not in Rakhine but in conflict-torn Kachin state, where the group forms part of the Chinese-backed, United Wa State Army (UWSA)-dominated Northern Alliance. However its militants are much better armed and organized than the ARSA, and observers believe the group was almost certainly behind the recent bombings in Sittwe. Like the other groups in the Northern Alliance, the AA rejects the Tatmadaw’s national ceasefire and regards the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong process backed by Aung San Suu Kyi with suspicion. The AA has continued fighting with the government inside and outside of Rakhine state, including being behind “a series of small explosions on the main Sittwe-Yangon road and in central Mrauk U township,” according to the Asia Times.

Other signs pointing to the AA as the author of the recent terrorist attacks in the state capital include the fact that, as reported by the BBC, the most recent bombings took place about 100 kilometers (60 miles) “south of where most of the violence against Rohingya has taken place,” rather than say, against the border posts in northern Rakhine state where previous ARSA attacks have taken place. Indeed the bombings may signal an expansion of AA militant operations into central Rakhine state from the more remote parts of Myanmar where the majority of its fighters have concealed themselves.

The AA has denied any involvement in the murder of Bo Bo Min Thaik, the former township administrator for Mrauk U, who was found stabbed to death in the burning remnants of his car on January 30. But a spokesman for the group has publicly claimed that the ex-administer “was a leading authority [involved in] the crackdown” against civilian demonstrators on January 16 that ended in seven deaths.

Meanwhile Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement tying the AA to the ex-official’s murder after five suspects were arrested, several of whom allegedly had ties to the insurgent group. These included two men whom the Ministry accused of drug trafficking and of procuring and transporting arms for the AA.

In the latest developments on February 27, the authorities also announced the arrests of six Rakhine Buddhist suspects in the Sittwe bombings. While no rebel group has yet taken responsibility for any of the recent terrorist attacks, after recent explosions in three different parts of the country where separate ethnic insurgencies are raging, one possibility is that the rebels have agreed to step up their attacks in a coordinated fashion, probably through the mechanism of the Northern Alliance umbrella group.

The Northern Alliance (NA) is a coalition of ethnic revolutionary armies comprising an alphabet soup of different organizations. At present it includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA). Interestingly, in the group’s most recent (English language) press release, the NA talks of conflicts between the coalition members and the Tatmadaw in “northern Burma” (Myanmar’s former name) and “Arakan” (today’s Rakhine state). Since the Arakan Army itself began life in Kachin state (rather than Rakhine state, the historical home of the Rakhinese community), the inclusion of Arakan in the NA’s communiqués highlights how the northern coastline of Myanmar is being drawn back into the country’s long-running civil wars, in a way that is separate from the Rohingya conflict, which currently preoccupies the United Nations and Western states monitoring developments in Myanmar. Alongisde the ethnic cleansing of Rakhine state’s Rohingya community and even the ARSA attacks that sparked them (this time around), the NA’s better armed and organized united front is now  extending into central Rakhine state.

In fact, from the Tatmadaw’s point of view, the AA and its allies are of more concern. Unlike the poorly armed Rohingya militants it has occasionally faced in Rakhine, the NA can fight back in those parts of the country where it is present; or at least cause chaos in Myanmar’s provincial cities by using militant cells to plant explosives and target security and government officials, which is almost as good from the rebels’ point of view. Moreover, the rebel coalition also boasts strong ties to the Chinese-backed UWSA, the largest ethnic armed group in the country, which helped set up the NA in the first place. The UWSA and Northern Alliance both seek political legitimacy from the Chinese government, which has also provided political cover for Myanmar’s government and armed forces at the UN. This makes it politically difficult for Naypyidaw to target the NA communities and uproot them as freely as it has the Rohingya.

This suggests that Rakhine state’s other insurgency can’t be solved simply by expelling the civilian population from which the insurgents are drawn. This time Myanmar’s rulers may have to use words rather than guns if they want to resolve matters.

Neil Thompson is a freelance journalist and analyst. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the International Security Network, the Independent, and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and is presently based in London.