Since Myanmar’s army staged a coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on February 1, causing mass unrest, the formerly quiet far-western state of Rakhine has remained relatively peaceful.
But recent skirmishes have raised concerns that an informal ceasefire agreed in November in the long-haunted area is beginning to break down, even if armed rebellion increases in other parts of the country.
While fighting broke out on several days in the second week of November, Khaing Thu Kha, spokesman for the Arakan Army (AA), only admitted that the rebel group was involved in one two-hour clash on November 9, after the regime’s troops “intentionally” an AA-controlled area.
“There was a brief clash to defend the area,” Khaing Thu Kha said, adding that the situation had calmed down and that the army did not appear to want to continue its march.
The army, in turn, denied any confrontation with the AA, saying they had rather fought with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the same Rohingya-armed group that attacked a police outpost in 2017, which sparked a brutal uprising caused more than 700,000 Rohingya citizens fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. The oppression is now the subject of a international genocide case.
“This did not happen to the AA,” military spokesman General Zaw Min Tun told Radio Free Asia on November 10. On November 15, ARSA issued a statement that it was involved in fighting with the military on November 7, 9 and 11.
The AA is a more formidable opponent than ARSA, which fought the Myanmar army to a stalemate after two years of brutal conflict, described by many as the country’s most violent civil war in decades.
Richard Horsey, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, says that although the ceasefire has mostly lasted for a year, the two sides’ goals remain very much in conflict.
“The AA has used the ceasefire to reposition its forces and strengthen its administrative apparatus, and at some point the military will step in to enforce its red lines,” he told Al Jazeera. “The trigger for the recent collisions may have been a random event, but there is clearly room for serious escalation.”
Wrestling over trade
The fighting apparently took place in Maungdaw township, near the border with Bangladesh.
Khaing Kaung San, executive director of the Rakhine-based human rights group Wan Lark Foundation, said it was possibly caused by a struggle over trade routes.
He also said that although the military may be reluctant to fully confront the AA as it faces “offensive attacks” from other armed groups across the country, it also cannot accept the AA’s demand for “greater autonomy” within Myanmar do not accept.
“If the fighting that took place in 2018-’20 resumes, there will be more destruction and more internally displaced people,” Khaung Kaung San said.
Horsey agreed that should the military take on the AA, it could be “severely overthrown,” allowing other resistance groups to make progress.
Although most analysts believe both sides in Rakhine hope to avoid a return to war, there are other signs that the ceasefire is under tension.
While the military government has released political prisoners charged with “terrorism” for allegedly being affiliated with the AA, it has begun arresting people accused of being linked to the AA. People’s Defense Force, a loose network of armed resistance groups that emerged after the coup.
Following the reported clashes in Rakhine, authorities apparently also started hunting down journalists and investigating local outlets Narinjara and Western News. Western News reporters have since gone into hiding. Suppression of local media was also a common tactic deployed during the two-year conflict.
The AA, founded in 2009 and one of dozens of ethnic armed groups operating mainly in Myanmar’s border areas, represents mostly ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who make up the majority of the state’s population.
After the suppression of the predominantly Muslim-Rohingya, fighting between the army and the AA intensified in 2018, driven mainly by local grievances with the central government and a desire for greater political autonomy. The fighting tens of thousands forced out of their homes, and nearly 1,000 civilians were seriously injured or killed by artillery shelling, gunfire and landmine explosions, including more than 170 children, according to Radio Free Asia.
The violence only came to an end after the two parties agreed to an informal ceasefire before the 2020 election, amid a shared antipathy against Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
The NLD’s government has designated the AA as a “terrorist organization”And called on the military to crush the group. It also excluded the AA from its landmark peace conference, blocked humanitarian aid to conflict-affected people and canceled votes in many parts of the state.
Kyaw Lynn, a 24-year-old youth activist from Rakhine, told Al Jazeera that the NLD’s stance on armed conflict and political problems in Rakhine made most people feel that they were not really losing anything as a result of the coup, despite of the mass protests and rebellions elsewhere in the country.
AA expands influence
In Rakhine, the unrest allowed the AA to further entrench its position while diverting the army’s attention.
Nyo Twan Awng, the AA’s deputy commander, told Frontier Myanmar in August that the group had de facto power over two-thirds of the state and now operates its own administrative and legal systems.
The AA has also publicly committed to building an inclusive administration that includes the marginalized Rohingya.
Spokesman Khaing Thu Kha said some of the group’s political wing, the United League of Arakan, was involved in COVID-19 prevention, the repatriation of displaced persons and drug rehabilitation programs.
While the AA avoided joining the anti-military revolution, it condemned the coup and the subsequent violent repression of peaceful protesters.
“On the one hand, the people could live peacefully without war for a year,” Khaing Thu Kha said. “On the other hand, what is happening in Myanmar is shameful and disappointing.”
Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing detained Aung San Suu Kyi and many senior members of her government hours before the new parliament was due to convene in February.
The abuses of power fueled protests against coup d’etat in much of the country, as well as a mass movement of civil disobedience. The military responded violently, killing at least 1,270 people and arresting more than 10,000, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is monitoring the situation.
The AA already said in April that there should be no street protests or activities related to the Civil Disobedience Movement in the state to prevent distraction from being diverted from the primary objective of establishing administrative control. Kyaw Lynn said the AA has a “huge influence” over the local population and few would go against such a request.
A leading Burmese political and military analyst, who requested anonymity for fear of arrest, told Al Jazeera: “The ceasefire in Rakhine state has been an advantage for both. For the Myanmar army, the end of the fighting has allowed them to to carry out a coup, while allowing the AA to rebuild its military status and its own administration in Rakhine State. “
The analyst believes the military hoped the ceasefire would provide stability as it spun its voter fraud narrative and prepared to seize power.
But the generals would probably have hoped they could thwart popular resistance before the AA could consolidate control over Rakhine. Nearly 10 months since the coup, the military government has not been able to bring the country completely under its control.
Shortly after the November clashes, Yohei Sasakawa, Japan’s envoy for reconciliation in Myanmar, met with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw and traveled to Rakhine state.
In addition to the visit of Rohingya and Rakhine people displaced by the conflict, he held talks with AA leaders and encouraged them to avoid conflict. On November 16, the AA released a total of 15 police officers and soldiers.
But analysts say maintaining the ceasefire could be increasingly difficult because the AA wants self-determination in Myanmar, and that is more than the generals are willing to accept.
“To achieve the AA’s political goals, they must choose the armed path,” the political analyst said. “It is not possible to get it out of negotiations with the Myanmar junta,” he said.
The escalation in fighting elsewhere in the country could buy Rakhine some time.
But it may not take much to lead to renewed conflict in a region that has already endured years of violence.
“Whether the clash will escalate depends on the military,” Khaing Thu Kha, a spokesman for the AA, warned. “If they get into any of the AA’s territory, there will be war.”