Seizing Myanmar’s borders with Bangladesh and India has become central to the Arakan Army’s dream of autonomy and has driven its strategy during times of war and peace.
In February last year, fighting briefly flared between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military in Mee Tike village, near the border with Bangladesh in northern Rakhine State.
“This was the first time fighting between the AA and military took place in Maungdaw Township,” said Ko Min San*, a merchant who exports fish products to Bangladesh from Rakhine’s northernmost township.
But these four days of fighting were just a taste of things to come, as one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed groups sought to seize control of sections of the border between Rakhine and Bangladesh, and between southern Chin State and India to the north.
“At the time we were worried about the clashes, but the real fighting came five months later,” Min San said.
An informal ceasefire agreed to in November 2020, after two years of vicious fighting, completely broke down between July and November last year, with clashes spreading across Rakhine and neighbouring Paletwa Township in Chin.
About a month after the fighting restarted, Min San was forced to suspend his business operations, because the military banned travel on several important roads in an apparent attempt to starve the AA and Rakhine civilians of essential supplies. This included the road connecting the state capital of Sittwe to Maungdaw Township, an important route for trade with Bangladesh.
“I had a hard time when all transport was stopped,” Min San said, adding that trade only partially resumed in December.
By the end of November, the two sides reach another informal ceasefire, which has held ever since but remains precarious. While the four-month window of fighting was difficult for merchants and ordinary civilians, it was critical for the AA’s ultimate goal of establishing an autonomous or independent Rakhine.
“The AA is trying to control the borders [with] Bangladesh and India. This is a strategic step for them,” explained Ko Zin Tun*, a political activist who works for a civil society organisation monitoring the Rakhine conflict.
Maungdaw is the main gateway for goods from Myanmar to Bangladesh, while Paletwa borders India’s Mizoram state and is an important part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project. A US$484 million infrastructure project being jointly implemented by India and Myanmar, it aims to supply India’s isolated northeastern states with goods shipped from the Indian port city of Kolkata to the Rakhine capital Sittwe by sea, and then by river to Paletwa and road to Mizoram.
“If an ethnic armed force wants to operate for a long time, it needs to gain a foothold in the border area near a neighbouring country,” Zin Tun said. “By dominating these areas, the AA will play an important role in trade with Bangladesh and India.”
Local sources told Frontier that during last year’s clashes, the AA seized control of two major military outposts on the Bangladesh-Maungdaw border and surrounded one on the India-Paletwa border.
Ko Aung Kyaw Thu*, a resident of Taung Pyo Letwe village in northern Maungdaw, said fighting surged between milestones 40-50 along the border in late July and early August. He said the AA blockaded and surrounded the military’s border posts, while the regime responded by severely restricting movement of civilians.
“The fighting there became very intense,” said Aung Kyaw Thu. “Hardly a day went by without the sound of gunfire.”
After nearly a month of heavy fighting, the AA released a statement declaring that it had seized the Milestone 40 base on August 31 and killed 19 enemy troops.
“The AA won’t give that place up,” said a source close to the armed group who asked to remain anonymous. He said the AA had deployed thousands of soldiers to Maungdaw alone.
In mid-September, the AA also seized control of the Mee Tike outpost near Milestone 37 on the Bangladesh border. While local media reports indicated the AA overran at least 30 military outposts during the fighting, locals said Milestone 40 and Mee Tike are two of the six most important border posts, and the AA remains in control of both.
In early September, the AA also launched an assault on the Myeik Wa border camp in Paletwa, on the Indian border. The group was unable to seize it, but has established control of the surrounding area, leaving the military in a precarious position should fighting resume.
“If the AA continues to capture more camps, it could control the entire border between Bangladesh and Maungdaw,” said Aung Kyaw Thu. “Until now, the military has not been able to retake those two stations.”
Zin Tun said the military may one day seek to retake them, but resumed fighting could also lead to the AA seizing more border posts.
“If the fighting doesn’t happen again, the AA can consolidate dominance over that part of the border. If fighting continues, they can attack other border guard stations,” he said, adding that the AA is “firmly in control” of parts of northern Maungdaw.
“The military will try to get those places back, so there may be fighting again.”
War by other means
This practice of using ceasefires to consolidate control is a familiar one for the AA. After the November 2020 ceasefire, the group did the same thing in areas where it had a strong presence, mainly rural parts of Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Ann and Ponnagyun townships in Rakhine.
“Apart from urban areas, the [townships] are controlled by the AA. The military can’t easily leave the towns,” said U Pe Than, a former member of the Rakhine parliament. In recent months, Pe Than has emerged as a frequent media commentator, often speaking positively of the AA and its civilian wing, the United League of Arakan. He told Frontier he is “not a member of the ULA/AA but will work with it for the interests of the Rakhine people”.
Shortly after the ceasefire, in February 2021, the military overthrew the elected civilian government, sparking a major political crisis that has spiralled into a civil war. The AA took advantage of the military being distracted by armed uprisings elsewhere to establish administrative and judicial structures in central and northern parts of Rakhine.
Initially this process faced little resistance, but the regime eventually tried to disrupt it via a mass arrest campaign, which led to the breakdown of the ceasefire. But by then, the AA’s administration was already “quite strong”, and public support was “very high”, said Pe Than.
Last year’s fighting displaced more than 16,000 civilians, mostly in Maungdaw. In addition, the military blocked travel by boat and road in northern Rakhine State, depriving rural communities of food and medicine and raising the price of goods elsewhere.
“When the roads are closed, the prices go up,” Min San said.
The AA ultimately cited this blockade’s toll on civilians when agreeing to another informal ceasefire on November 26 last year.
“Because of the difficulties experienced by the people of Rakhine due to the war… we agreed to a temporary humanitarian ceasefire,” said AA spokesman Khaing Thu Kha at a press conference.
The new ceasefire has allowed the AA to resume its process of quietly consolidating control in Maungdaw and Paletwa without needing to spill blood.
“The AA has been able to dominate in those areas,” said Zin Tun, adding that control over border areas will help the AA source weapons and other supplies more easily.
Frontier understands that the AA still largely sources weapons and ammunition from the United Wa State Army, an allied armed group based hundreds of kilometres away in Shan State, and that it agreed to the 2020 ceasefire partly because it was struggling to resupply itself amid a Tatmadaw land and naval blockade strangling Rakhine. Efforts to take control of the border, therefore, may be an attempt to open a new overland arms supply route from areas of Bangladesh where domestic insurgent groups have operated for decades.
“Thailand is important for the Karen National Union. Similarly, the Chinese border is important for Wa,” said Zin Tun, referring to two of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed groups, which are believed to partially source their weapons from Thailand and China respectively.
Pe Than agreed, pointing out that the military problems the AA faced when the junta shut down internal transport routes could have been partially avoided if it had control over international trade routes.
“The military can [block] internal transport routes but they can’t cut them from abroad,” he said.
However, growing cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladeshi security forces may block substantial cross-border arms smuggling. In November last year, around two months after the AA took the border posts, Bangladesh and the junta agreed to a “zero tolerance policy” to address “terrorist groups” operating either side of the border.
The AA has long sought to emulate the UWSA, which is Myanmar’s most powerful non-state armed group and controls an autonomous region on the Chinese border with strong support from Chinese security agencies. But the AA has no such backing, or even formal engagement, from Bangladesh or India, both of which are dealing with their own border-based insurgent groups and wouldn’t want to encourage other states to engage with them. The AA may be hoping that increased control of the borders will force Bangladesh and India to engage, even if they’re reluctant to do so.
In an effort to open talks with Bangladesh, the AA has insisted that its cooperation is necessary to repatriate Rohingya refugees. Dhaka is increasingly desperate to send back the hundreds of thousands of refugees driven out of Myanmar by a violent military crackdown in 2017.
Economic pressure may also be a winning strategy.
“If the AA dominates Paletwa, then India will be forced to negotiate with them,” said U Kyaw Oo*, a merchant in Sittwe. He added that this would accelerate the realisation of the “Rakhita dream” – defined by the AA as the “struggle for national liberation”.
At the core of this dynamic is the Kaladan project. Running nine years behind schedule and severely over-budget, it is unclear whether it can meet a new deadline for completion this year. India’s Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways Sarbananda Sonowal announced this month that a core component, a new port in Sittwe, was “ready for operation”, and the Kaladan River from Sittwe to Paletwa has been dredged to accommodate trade vessels. More than 100km of mountainous highway from Paletwa to the border at Mizoram, however, remains to be built.
The AA was never likely to control sea trade from Kolkata to Sittwe, given the military retains a tight grip of the state capital and the AA has no ships to rival the Tatmadaw’s navy. However, it could exert control over trade going overland to Paletwa and on to Mizoram. On August 11 last year, Khaing Thu Kha said the AA was already holding back-channel discussions with India about the Kaladan project, although he didn’t elaborate.
The volume of trade passing between Bangladesh and Myanmar offers another opportunity.
According to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, $164.07 million worth of goods was traded between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2021 via all routes, including land and sea. The balance heavily favoured Myanmar, which exported $125.32 million and imported $38.75 million.
But the return of fighting, and uncertainty that the current ceasefire will hold, severely curbed trade.
U Khin Maung Gyi, chairman of the Rakhine State Chamber of Commerce, said that before fighting returned in July, around $10 million worth of goods were being exported from Rakhine to Bangladesh each month on average. The main exports were food products, like seafood, onions and rice. Khin Maung Gyi said the bulk of this trade was going by sea via Sittwe, with about $2 million going overland via Maungdaw.
Despite the new ceasefire, exports remain a fraction of what they were before, down to $1.3 million in December last year over land and sea, demonstrating that instability in the state also constrained sea trade.
The spectre of war
But Pe Than warned that control over border areas alone will not be enough for the AA to secure autonomy.
“Even if the AA could control the Maungdaw and Paletwa borders, the military could still shut down the transport route to Sittwe and other townships. Then residents and local businesses would face many difficulties,” he said.
It’s also unlikely the military will accept the border losses without retaliation. While it remains overstretched dealing with conflict elsewhere, the spectre of renewed fighting in Rakhine still looms.
“Right now, the AA may dominate. But the military will try hard to recapture the camps it lost,” Zin Tun said, claiming the military is still moving troops into Maungdaw and Paletwa from other areas.
Kyaw Oo and other residents said they had also observed troop movements that indicated the military had not abandoned hope of regaining its lost territory.
“We saw the military sent their troops to that area from Sittwe with trucks and ships. The ceasefire is no guarantee,” he said.
Ko Kyaw Tun*, a container truck driver who plies the route between Maungdaw and Sittwe, worries the war isn’t over.
“From August to November, we couldn’t drive so I had no income. During that time, goods did not arrive from central Myanmar, and prices went up, making life even more difficult,” he said. “We don’t want fighting to happen again.”
*denotes use of a pseudonym for security reasons.
This article was supported by UK aid from the UK government via the Cross-Border Conflict: Evidence, policy and Trends programme. All views are those of Frontier.