Decoding the Arakan Army: Emergence and Political Framing (Part-1)
25 Feb, 2019 · 5561
Angshuman Choudhury investigates the group's origins, motivations, and vision for the future of Rakhine State in Myanmar
Angshuman ChoudhurySenior Researcher, and Coordinator, Southeast Asia Research Programme (SEARP)
On 4 January 2019, as Myanmar celebrated its 71st Independence Day, hundreds of Arakan Army (AA) insurgents launched coordinated attacks on four border police outposts in Northern Rakhine’s Buthidaung Township, killing 13 policemen and injuring nine others.
This was the fiercest attack launched by the ethnic Rakhine (or Arakanese) Ethnic Armed Organisation (EAO) on any state force since armed clashes between the group and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) erupted in Northern Rakhine in 2018.
The AA’s rise in Rakhine State reflects a crisis of democracy in the state that has only worsened since the current civilian government came to power in 2015. Behind the group’s daring offensives lies a radical political agenda of decentralisation that challenges Naypyitaw’s centralising impulses. To propagate this, the AA has initiated a complex narrative-building exercise that entails forging cultural solidarity and discrediting the military.
The Political Context of AA’s Rise
The AA is the first major organised armed movement led by ethnic Rakhines after the now-disarmed Arakan Liberation Army (ALA). It was formed in Laiza, Kachin State in 2009 and has trained under the guidance of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since then. Beginning 2014, it began to move its assets southwards to Chin State and northern Rakhine State.
The AA emerged from a longstanding movement for Rakhine self-determination, born out of an entrenched sense of political, economic, and cultural alienation from the dominant Bamar majority. Historically, this was first triggered by the collective humiliation that the Rakhine people suffered after the violent invasion of the 18th century Arakan Kingdom by the Bamar King Bodawpaya.
Rakhine State's economic underdevelopment and harsh state repression under centralised regimes, including the Bamar-dominated military junta, only sharpened local disenfranchisement. An absence of political agency to assert the Rakhine agenda gradually spurred the growth of ethno-nationalism in the form of locally-based political parties and armed groups, of which AA is the latest manifestation.
In the current context, AA owes its emergence to a critical political void that emerged in Rakhine politics after the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power in 2015. Following the formal transition to quasi-civilian rule, there was much hope for political reconciliation amongst the Arakanese. But, when the Bamar-dominated NLD installed its own minority government in Rakhine despite a majority of the local votes going to the Arakan National Party (ANP), the disillusionment with the traditional Burmese state returned.
This was made worse by internal rifts within local parties, a seemingly ineffective state parliament, and the widespread perception amongst ethnic Rakhines of negative targeting by the international community during the Rohingya crisis.
The final hammer was the January 2018 police shootings in Mrauk U that led to the deaths of seven Arakanese protestors, and the subsequent arrest of popular local leader and former Chairman of ANP, Dr Aye Maung, on charges of sedition. The political-cultural disenfranchisement was now compounded by a sense of injustice.
The net outcome was sharply declining faith in the democratic system among not just the common Rakhine people, but also sections of the local political elite. The AA stepped in as a viable popular alternative by projecting itself as the only legitimate ‘liberator’ of the Rakhine people.
The AA’s stated political objective, as enunciated by its chief, Tun Myat Naing, is to replace the federal system for Rakhine State with a confederacy, much like the self-administration regime constitutionally guaranteed to the Wa people in Shan State under the aegis of the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
According to Naing, this confederate arrangement would entail a framework where the Arakan people have the “authority to make decisions on [their] own” while maintaining a “common defence system” and cooperating on “market regulation and foreign affairs” with Naypyitaw.
The UWSA commands significant sway over decision-making in core sectors in the Wa self-administered division, which is jointly controlled by the UWSA and a local 'leading body'. The AA’s citing of the Shan-based group as its reference point reflects its own aspirations of political-territorial control of Rakhine State in the future, although its leaders have not made any clear statements in this regard.
Nevertheless, a demand for confederacy keeps the AA out of the NCA-led dialogue process, which is predominantly based on a federal arrangement. Further, the AA carries less firepower than the UWSA, which means reduced leverage at the negotiating table.
The AA’s political framing is complemented by a popular cultural agenda that aims to revive the 'Rakhine way of life', locally referred to as "Way of Rakhita." By entrenching the phrase in popular culture, the group hopes to broaden local consensus on self-determination, and at the same time, widen its own support base. For this, it has relied heavily on mainstream and social media.
Together, the political and cultural frames aggregate into what the AA calls the 'Arakan Dream 2020', an ethnic project to restore the rights and dignity of the Arakan people. The AA’s recent activities - from attacking state forces to publicly asserting the demand for autonomy - are all geared at positioning the group as the torchbearer of this politico-cultural struggle.
Further, as revealed by Naing, the AA has also been collecting evidence of use of disproportionate force by Tatmadaw troops against Rakhine civilians, instances of which were also reported separately by the independent media. The intent is to discredit the Tatmadaw - not just locally, but possible even before national and international audiences. Given its already damaged international reputation after the Rohingya crisis, such a campaign by the AA could reduce the military’s overall leverage in Rakhine State and beyond. As a corollary, the AA emerges as the protector of the rights of the common Arakanese people.
For now, the AA remains popular and credible in Rakhine State, including amongst the local ethnic political class. This was particularly visible when the military blamed the AA of colluding with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), drawing furious reactions from the local public and politicians.
These make the AA a formidable and resilient insurgent actor that can challenge the union military-political establishment head on. In such a situation, a single-track military response from the state cannot bring peace in Rakhine, and could, in fact, drive more local support for the group. Political dialogue under the ongoing peace process must take precedence.