Renewed fighting in Myanmar’s far west between the military and a powerful rebel group is opening another deadly front in the country’s post-coup chaos, piling pressure on a junta still struggling to consolidate power.
The military’s February 2021 coup and subsequent crackdown on peaceful protests set off a wave or armed resistance across Myanmar that has been stretching the junta’s forces thin. By some estimates they now hold effective control over less than half the country.
The western state of Rakhine had been a pocket of relative calm owing to a late 2020 informal cease-fire between the military and the Arakan Army. The deal followed two years of heavy fighting in northern Rakhine and parts of neighboring Chin state, where the AA wants to establish autonomy over the ancient homeland of the ethnic Rakhine, also known as Arakanese.
The pre-coup détente started cracking in July, giving way to regular fighting by late August.
Figures analyzed by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, show attacks and armed clashes across Rakhine and southern Chin jumping from two to 44 from July to August, then to 51 in September and 66 in October. The U.K.-based Burma Human Rights Network counted a dozen civilians killed by the fighting just last month.
The United Nations says over 16,000 people have fled their homes to escape the violence since August.
‘Into the fray’
With the cease-fire now in tatters, the fighting in Rakhine is poised to only get worse, said Jason Tower, Myanmar analyst and program director at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a think tank established by the U.S. Congress.
Boasting thousands of armed fighters and support from some of Myanmar’s other powerful rebel groups, he said, the AA looks intent on defending and adding to the gains it has made cementing its control over Rakhine’s north in recent years, complete with its own police, courts and other state-like trappings. However, the military will be loath to give more ground as the AA moves farther south, he added, especially if it means giving up the area’s lucrative oil and gas resources.
“That’s very unlikely to happen,” he said. “At the same time, with the popular legitimacy the AA has, with the funding it has, with the level of troops it has, the consolidation it’s made, it really sees where the trends are in [its] favor to be able to consolidate further and to move farther. So, I ... see the overall trajectory of one where you’re likely to see higher levels of conflict in Rakhine state.”
Tower said the fighting in Rakhine may also give the overall resistance movement across Myanmar a boost by forcing the military to defend yet another flank as it continues “leaking like a sponge” from casualties, defections and recruitment shortfalls.
“This does add a lot of additional stress, given that one of the reasons why the military negotiated the cease-fire in the first place was because the Arakan Army had done so well on the battlefield against the military” he said. “So, the AA coming kind of fully into the fray does present a major challenge to the military.”
The renewed fighting in Rakhine may not put much stress on the military’s ground troops yet, as it left most of the divisions it deployed to the state in 2019 and 2020 in place after the cease-fire, said Min Zaw Oo, who runs the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security.
“However, one of the burdens could be on airstrike capabilities,” he said. “If the AA decides to go for all-out war, the Tatmadaw [military] has to reallocate some of its air assets, so that could be a potential burden to the Tatmadaw.”
The International Institute for Strategic Studies data show air and drone strikes in Rakhine and southern Chin spiking from one to 18 from August to September, and another nine last month.
The same data show much of the fighting concentrated on Rakhine’s western border with Bangladesh.
Tower and Min Zaw Oo say the AA is keen to take control of at least part of the border, both to establish a reliable supply route from Bangladesh and to cash in on taxing the cross-border trade. Min Zaw Oo said he has seen photos and satellite images suggesting the AA has even set up some bases inside Bangladesh to support its operations in Rakhine.
Tower said the AA is hoping its control of the border will also win it some international respect by forcing authorities in Bangladesh to deal with it and not just the junta. At a news conference in September, AA spokesman Khine Thu Kha even dangled the offer of helping Bangladesh repatriate the ethnic Rohingya refugees it is hosting in exchange for official recognition as the area’s “main actor.”
More than 1 million mostly Muslim Rohingya have fled Rakhine for Bangladesh over the past several years to escape repeated raids by the Myanmar military, whose ranks are drawn mainly from the country’s predominantly Buddhist ethnic majority Burmese.
The military has denied foreign accusations of committing genocide against the Rohingya and says it has been using proportionate force in fighting since the coup to restore order.
In the meantime, northern Rakhine’s civilians are bearing the brunt of the latest violence there.
A Rohingya aid worker recounted the military’s October 25 attack on his village, Sein Hnyin Pyar, just south of the town of Buthidaung.
“When the military came into the village, the Arakan Army attacked to them, and then the fighting started,” he told VOA. “Immediately the Burmese helicopter came to attack and launched the air strike. Then the military troops came from Buthidaung and the situation became very horrific.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety, the young man said he saw junta soldiers shoot and kill a farmer running home from his field, and that a bomb injured two young children, including a 5-year-old boy the villagers tried to rush to the nearest hospital, only to be blocked by soldiers at a checkpoint outside of Buthidaung.
“When checkpoints were blocked, even this child can’t be allowed to admit [to] hospital, and this time on the way the child died,” he said.
Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya rights activist, said the junta’s security forces are blocking not just most humanitarian aid headed for northern Rakhine, but the bulk of food as basic supplies as well.
“In short term people are surviving in worse situations,” he said. “But in the long run there will be starvation and there will be malnutrition and there will be hunger.”