An Avoidable War: Politics and Armed Conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
The armed conflict being waged between government forces and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army in western Myanmar is currently the most serious by far of the country’s multiple, decades-old internal wars, with some of the most sustained and intense fighting seen in many years. After the conflict escalated significantly in early 2019, the government ordered a tough military response and on 23 March designated the Arakan Army as a terrorist organisation. These measures have exacerbated the grievances underlying the conflict and made a negotiated end to the fighting more difficult to attain. At the same time, neither side will be able to achieve their military objectives. The government needs a political strategy, now missing, to negotiate with Rakhine leaders, address their community’s grievances, and demonstrate that electoral democracy and political negotiation offer a realistic and effective path to realising their aspirations.
The trajectory of the armed conflict is alarming, complicating problems in a state already traumatised by the separate crisis that resulted in the violent expulsion of more than 700,000 minority Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2016-2017. Over the last eighteen months, clashes have increased in regularity and intensity, their geographical scope has expanded and the civilian toll has grown. Despite the significant loss of life on both sides, nothing suggests that Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, is wearing down the Arakan Army or degrading its ability to operate. But nor is there reason to believe that the Arakan Army can achieve its aim of greater political autonomy on the battlefield. Civilians are paying a heavy price, caught in the crossfire or targeted as Arakan Army partisans or for harbouring fighters in their villages. Schools and medical facilities have been hit with alarming regularity, with each side usually blaming the other. It is difficult to see how general elections, which were provisionally slated for November, could be held in many parts of Rakhine State, the conflict’s locus.
There are no prospects for near-term de-escalation. The Arakan Army feels that it is in the ascendant and appears determined to press its advantage. The Tatmadaw will not admit that it is not winning, and continues to insert more troops, heavy weapons and airpower into the fray. The threat posed by COVID-19, which could easily overwhelm Rakhine State’s under-resourced health infrastructure, has brought no change in stance from either the Tatmadaw or the insurgents. A ceasefire the Tatmadaw announced on 9 May to encourage pandemic preparedness and response does not include the conflict with the Arakan Army.
Beyond directing a series of heavy-handed and counterproductive measures, government leaders appear to be paying little attention to the conflict. After ordering military action to ratchet up, and then acceding to Tatmadaw requests to shut down the internet in Rakhine State and designate the Arakan Army as a terrorist group, the civilian authorities have mainly delegated their own response to the ministry of social welfare. The ministry has been delivering some relief items to displaced populations but has neither the mandate nor the institutional heft to address the complex political issues at play. What is missing is any sense of urgency at the most senior levels of government or any political strategy for turning the situation around.
On top of the armed conflict, the coronavirus could add another deadly dimension to the crisis in Rakhine State. Although the state has not yet seen a major outbreak of the illness, it remains highly vulnerable to one. Should the disease begin to take hold, authorities would be ill-equipped to stop its spread or provide services to its victims. Rakhine State’s health sector is already under-resourced and overstretched, and the conflict has drawn its attention away from pandemic preparedness and response. Movement restrictions in the conflict zone (and almost everywhere, for Rohingya) make the region’s inadequate health facilities that much more difficult for residents to reach, and the April 2020 killing of a World Health Organization driver who was transporting COVID-19 swabs for testing (for which the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army have blamed each other) demonstrates the life-threatening challenges of delivering medical assistance to the area.
At the same time, an internet blackout across half of Rakhine State hampers both the effective dissemination of public health information and disease surveillance, while the designation of the Arakan Army as a terrorist organisation complicates critical health sector coordination and information sharing in areas that the group controls.
The government needs to take a dramatically different approach to the situation in Rakhine State, moving it to the top tier of the government’s priorities, and recognising that its two major crises – the Arakan Army armed conflict and the plight of the Rohingya – are interlinked and must be tackled together in order to restore the region’s stability and economy. So long as the region remains a war zone, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh cannot be repatriated, even if other obstacles are removed. Nor will any repatriation, or improvement in the lives of the 600,000 Rohingya still in Rakhine State, be possible unless the government consults with Rakhine communities and reaches agreement with them on modalities – a consultation process that is far from being possible in the current context of armed conflict.
Naypyitaw must also come to appreciate that the Arakan Army insurgency and the support the group is receiving in ethnic Rakhine communities do not reflect a desire for war. Rather, they reflect the fact that many Rakhine people are supporting armed struggle despite deep misgivings and see no other option available to them to achieve greater political rights and autonomy. The government needs a strategy that recognises the genuine grievances of the Rakhine people and offers a credible and effective path for them to pursue their goals peacefully. The government’s current approach of giving the military the lead role in managing the situation in Rakhine State, perhaps with the hope or anticipation that things will improve with the passing of time, is not a strategy so much as a recipe for an even deeper crisis.