Avoiding a Return to War in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

June 1st, 2022  •  Author:   International Crisis Group  •  8 minute read
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What’s new? After an informal ceasefire in late 2020, the Arakan Army used the lull in fighting to consolidate control of much of central and northern Rakhine State. Distracted by fallout from the 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military did little to oppose it at first, but rising tensions may lead to renewed combat.

Why does it matter? Many Rakhine State residents, including some Rohingya, have welcomed the shift to Arakan Army control, but the situation remains fraught. The ceasefire is fragile and the Arakan Army has grown significantly more powerful over the past eighteen months. A return to conflict would have devastating consequences for everyone in Rakhine.

What should be done? The Myanmar military and Arakan Army should avoid provoking a new war and formalise their ceasefire instead. The Arakan Army should eschew restrictions on humanitarian aid organisations, which should better coordinate their dealings with the group. Naypyitaw and Dhaka should open dialogue with the Arakan Army on Rohingya repatriation.

Executive Summary

Rakhine State has avoided the violence that has engulfed the rest of Myanmar since the February 2021 coup. The quiet owes in part to an informal ceasefire, which ended two years of fighting between the military and the Arakan Army, a pro-Rakhine ethnic armed group, and which came into force a few months before the military seized power in Naypyitaw. The Arakan Army has spurned the growing de facto alliance between the National Unity Government (NUG)-led opposition and other ethnic armed groups, focusing on getting control of much of Rakhine State. Until recently, the military has been too distracted to try loosening the Arakan Army’s grip, but tensions have started rising. The parties could soon find themselves back in conflict. While each side has reason to be leery of a formal ceasefire, both would also have reason to welcome the breathing space it would create. Most importantly, Rakhine’s people would benefit. In parallel, the Arakan Army should rein in demands on humanitarian actors, which should coordinate their interaction with it, and Dhaka and Naypyitaw should engage the group on Rohingya repatriation.

The two-year war that engulfed Rakhine State between late 2018 and 2020 significantly eroded Naypyitaw’s control of the region. Police and many other civil servants were often reluctant to leave major towns during the conflict due to the risk of attack or abduction and they remain wary of venturing into the countryside. Many local administrators resigned during this period due to threats either from the armed group or from the Myanmar military, which suspected them of collaborating with the enemy. The Arakan Army has since either replaced them with its own administrators in the areas it controls or co-opted the new appointees that the military regime has sent since the coup. As a result, the Arakan Army now directly or indirectly controls most rural areas in the centre and north of the state, while exerting significant influence in urban areas; it has also begun expanding farther south, as well as north toward the border with Bangladesh.

Over the past year, the Arakan Army has further consolidated its control by rolling out a suite of public services through its administrative branch, the Arakan People’s Authority. These include a judicial system and police force, which operate parallel to the state’s, and some health-care services (including the provision of COVID-19 vaccines). As a result, many residents are turning to Arakan Army mechanisms, rather than those run by Naypyitaw, for basic services and to resolve disputes. The service provision strategy has deepened public support for the group and its governance, but it is not without risk: it could be a major drain on the armed group’s resources, harm its popularity if the services do not live up to expectations and attract pushback from Naypyitaw.

The impact of these developments in Rakhine State has not been limited to the ethnic Rakhine community. The rise of the Arakan Army has brought positive changes for some hitherto ostracised Rohingya. While the overall situation for the Rohingya remains dire, some communities have improved access to public services and some are enjoying greater freedom of movement because of the Arakan Army’s non-enforcement of restrictions imposed by Naypyitaw. These testimonials should be considered in context, however; although Rohingya sources Crisis Group spoke to largely praised the Arakan Army and its administration, the community as a whole remains vulnerable and its members are generally not in a position to criticise the group for fear of reprisal.

 Myanmar’s military regime … made only token efforts to counter the Arakan Army’s expanding control. 

Myanmar’s military regime, which calls itself the State Administration Council, is focused on subduing resistance to the coup elsewhere in Myanmar and until recently made only token efforts to counter the Arakan Army’s expanding control. Part of the reason may be that locally based government and military officials, hunkered down in large towns, have little choice but to accept the facts on the ground. As a measure of the group’s growing influence, many state-run schools, which are still nominally under Naypyitaw’s control, have started playing an Arakan Army-written Rakhine anthem instead of the national anthem. There are even examples of active collaboration, such as Naypyitaw-controlled police working with the Arakan Army to resolve crimes and administrators from the two sides holding regular informal consultations.

But cooperation is certainly not the state’s default posture. The junta has in some instances sought to scare both Rakhine and Rohingya communities away from working with Arakan Army mechanisms and institutions. Recently, it has adopted more aggressive tactics, setting up roadblocks and searching vehicles, reinforcing troops, increasing patrols and detaining people it suspects of supporting the group.

The military is still too stretched to give much attention to Rakhine State, but there is a clear risk of a return to conflict. If the Arakan Army seeks to expand its influence consistent with its ambitious political aspirations – for example, into border areas or in southern Rakhine – it risks provoking the Myanmar military, which refers to itself as the Tatmadaw, into action. Similarly, a partnership with the NUG-led opposition – something many in Myanmar would welcome – could spark a return to war. While it would be difficult for the Tatmadaw to win this fight, the collateral effects of renewed conflict could be terrible for Rakhine State’s population, which is already reeling from neglect, a poor economy, communal violence and the earlier two-year war.

Although there is no clear path toward peace and stability for Rakhine State, one step that could offer both the parties and the region an extended respite from fighting might be to formalise the informal ceasefire that has largely kept the peace for the past eighteen months. Such an arrangement would focus primarily on maintaining the peace, in particular by demarcating territory and establishing formal communication channels to help de-escalate in the event that tensions begin to build once again.

Both the government and the Arakan Army have reason to be wary of such a step in that it would give the other party a chance to gather strength and prepare for renewed confrontation down the road. But each also has reason to embrace it. The military is preoccupied with the spiralling consequences of the coup that it launched over a year ago; a formal ceasefire would be a measure of insurance that it will not face another conflict that will stretch it further. As for the Arakan Army, such an arrangement could allow it to further consolidate its authority over the territories already under its control and gain recognition from outside actors, including both humanitarian organisations and neighbouring Bangladesh. While the extended respite could give the parties the chance to fortify themselves for further clashes, it would also create the possibility of a durable, peaceful solution emerging in the future – something outside actors could encourage.

If the parties agree to solidify the current ceasefire into a formal agreement, it will also be important to improve certain other ad hoc arrangements with implications for people in Rakhine. For example, humanitarian organisations are increasingly concerned that they may soon face parallel sets of requirements to operate in Rakhine State – some imposed by Naypyitaw and others by the Arakan Army – which could create both administrative burdens and operational difficulties. The group should work to ensure that those in need are not cut off from humanitarian assistance because of paralysing new rules and humanitarian organisations should come together to present a united front should such rules become overly burdensome. Dhaka and Naypyitaw should additionally engage with the Arakan Army on the possible return of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.

While a formal ceasefire would offer neither party precisely what it wants, there would be enough in it for both sides that it could conceivably work. That in turn would allow Rakhine State residents to get what they need most: a continued break from violence and the corresponding opportunity to build toward a more peaceful future, one in which Rakhine and Rohingya can live in relative safety side by side.

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