Why Has the Arakan Army Achieved Major Success in War against the Junta?

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In the complex and tumultuous landscape of Myanmar’s political unrest, the Arakan Army has emerged as a formidable force, achieving notable success against the military junta in the recent times. Understanding the Arakan Army’s success against the Juntas requires delving into a multifaceted interplay of regional dynamics, local support, strategic alliances, and historical roots.

Background of the Ongoing Conflict

Since Myanmar achieved independence from British rule in 1948, the country had been facing challenges in effectively governing its diverse society with multiple ethnic groups. The struggle between the military and various ethnic armed organizations has remained a key issue of national security and integration. Following almost 50 years of military dictatorship starting in 1962, a period of political liberalization, fiscal modification, and development took place from 2011 to 2021. The military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), suffered electoral losses in the 2020 elections, prompting Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and other military officials to stage a coup in February 2021. The de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other parliamentarians from her party- the National League for Democracy (NLD) were detained as a result of the coup on suspicion of corruption. This triggered a civil war.

The National Unity Government (NUG) was subsequently established by ousted NLD MPs, protest organizers, activists, and members of other minority groups in order to bring the opposition forces together against the junta, improve interethnic harmony, create a post-junta agenda, and secure foreign assistance. In September, the NUG declared war on the junta and formed the People’s Defense Force (PDF) as its armed division. A significant development occurred with Operation 1027, conducted by the “Three Brotherhood Alliance” – consisting of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA). This coordinated offensive in the northern Shan state resulted in the capture of numerous towns and the occupation of hundreds of military outposts by the end of October 2023. Recently, the Arakan Army announced that the Myanmar junta is strategically withdrawing troops from northern Rakhine due to perceived failures in the ongoing conflict. The Arakan Army emphasized its commitment to continuing attacks on junta targets until the withdrawal of troops inside.

Unraveling The Factors

Despite being 35th in military power, why is Myanmar’s military losing out to the Arakan Army? To understand this, we need to scrutinize some factors carefully. First, the Arakan Army is originally from Myanmar’s Rakhine state and is an armed group of the Rakhine people. They are currently the most heavily armed insurgent group in Myanmar. According to the Arakan Army, founded in 2009, they are fighting for the sovereignty of the multi-ethnic Arakanese in Rakhine State. The Arakan Army also includes Rohingya rebels. According to Myanmar newspaper Irrawaddy, the Arakan Army has several powerful battalions and about 30,000 soldiers under them. It is the largest and most trained armed group among the Three Brotherhood Alliance. They recounted the historical injustices faced by the Rohingyas and highlighted the need for peaceful coexistence with other ethnic groups, particularly the Rakhine.

The Arakan Army’s leaders have tactically and politically mobilized the Rakhine people in favor of further autonomy for the Rakhine State by utilizing ideas like “the Arakan Dream 2020”. Termed as “the effort to achieve national liberation and regain sovereignty for the people of Arakan,” the Arakan Dream was first introduced by the Arakan Army (AA) in early 2017. It advocates for the establishment of a Rakhine People’s Authority to govern Rakhine State. Such mottos and slogans epitomize the new era of revolutionary movements for the people of Rakhine State. Second, along with terrain advantage, the tactics of Arakan Army are quite impressive. Operating in the rugged and densely forested terrain of the Rakhine State, the Arakan Army has leveraged its familiarity with the local topography to mount effective guerilla warfare. The challenging landscape makes it difficult for the junta forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations.

Third, the Arakan Army has strategically formed alliances with other ethnic armed groups, fostering a united front against the junta. This collaboration has not only increased the group’s military capabilities but has also created a formidable opposition force with shared objectives. The “Three Brotherhood Alliance” is aligned with the People’s Defense Force, National Unity Government, and various ethnic armed groups and thus provides homemade weapons. According to an article by the United States Institute of Peace, most rebel groups begin fighting with handmade weapons. These include guns, gas rifles, and hand-made firearms. The organization says the international community has not provided any arms support to Myanmar’s armed groups. Instead, these groups rely heavily on weapons obtained from local armed groups and weapons purchased from the black market. This type of alliance-building strategy gives special advantages to the Arakan Army.

Fourth, the Junta of Myanmar recently announced that all young men and women must serve in the military, a move that sparked a wide range of opinions. Specialists such as doctors up to 45 years old must service for three years in the army, while men with ages between 18 to 35 and women 18 to 27 must enlist for a maximum of two years. According to state television in Myanmar, the service could be maintained under the present state of emergency for at least five more years. The junta keeps sowing the seeds of unrest and division by pressuring young people to pick up arms against their fellow citizens. It exacerbates societal divisions and puts Myanmar in danger of collapsing. As a result, the populace supported the Arakan Army and other ethnic armed groups, solidifying their positions.

Finally, the reluctance of ASEAN nations to engage in resolving the issue makes this situation more critical. It is allegedly reported in the media that China is playing a ‘dual-role’ here by offering support to both the military Junta and ethnic armed groups along with the Arakan Army. China has specific interests in the Rakhine state as China has hugely invested in various oil and gas pipeline projects and wants to build special economic zone here under the strategy of the “Belt and Road’’ initiative. Amid the ongoing conflict, China is trying to protect its interests by providing substantial support to the Arakan Army including money and arms, and might see the conflict as a way to maximize its influence in Myanmar.

Underlying Ramifications of Arakan Army’s Success

Amid the ongoing conflict between the Arakan Army and the Junta, at least 340 members of Myanmar’s security forces have fled to Bangladesh and Rohingyas also tried to influx here which poses a severe security threat to Bangladesh. There are reports that Rohingyas are also joining the Arakan Army in Myanmar. Rohingya youth believe that if the junta government is ousted from Rakhine State and Rakhine is liberated, Rohingyas will be able to return to their homeland. Rohingyas will get back their properties and homes. However, many Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh are skeptical about their future. Because the Arakan Army (AA) has not yet recognized the Rohingya’s right to citizenship.

So, even if the Arakan Army wins in Rakhine, the fate of the Rohingyas remains uncertain. On the other hand, there is India’s Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. An important point of this project is Paletwa Township in Chin State. The place is occupied by the Arakan Army. The Indian project is important not only for economic reasons, but also for countering Chinese influence in Myanmar and its strong presence in the Bay of Bengal, an integral part of the Indian Ocean. Many claim that China is secretly supporting the Arakan Army (AA) which creates acute security concerns for India.

In conclusion, the Arakan Army’s success against the Juntas in Myanmar carries profound implications for the nation’s political landscape and regional stability. This victory signifies a shift in power dynamics, potentially altering the trajectory of Myanmar’s political future. The Arakan Army’s triumph may fuel aspirations for autonomy among other ethnic groups, leading to increased demands for self-determination and reshaping the balance of power within the country. On a global scale, this victory raises questions about the efficacy of authoritarian regimes and the international community may find itself compelled to reassess its stance on Myanmar, with potential shifts in diplomatic relations and foreign policy considerations.

– Iffat Ara Jasmin is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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