Arakan Army soldiers train in Laiza, Kachin State in 2019. (Frontier)

Can the Arakan Army achieve its confederacy dream?

The AA’s demand for confederacy status seems a bridge too far for either the National Unity Government or the junta, but the group says it will achieve its goal through any means necessary.

By KYAW HSAN HLAING

More than a year since the military seized power in Myanmar, anti-coup resistance groups and their ethnic armed organisation allies continue to fight the junta with no victory in sight for either side. The military regime has been unable to crush the opposition or to take full control of administrative mechanisms in many parts of the country. But resistance groups have also been unable to overthrow the junta or fully expel it from their territory.

Few factors could break the impasse of the ongoing civil war more than the entrance of the Arakan Army – one of the country’s most powerful ethnic armed groups. The AA fought a brutal two-year war with the military before agreeing to an informal ceasefire months before the February 2021 coup. And while many continue to hope the group will throw its weight behind the broader pro-democracy movement, the question remains: which side can give the AA what it truly wants?

When the 2015 elections vaulted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy into power, there were high hopes despite the 2008 military-drafted constitution requiring a power-sharing arrangement with the military. There were expectations that the NLD would counter the military’s influence and champion democracy, human rights, and self-determination for ethnic states. For many ethnic people, especially in Rakhine, those expectations were in tatters long before the coup.

Despite winning the most seats in Rakhine State, the NLD refused to allow the Arakan National Party (ANP) to choose the state’s chief minister, a move that would have represented a key commitment to federalist reform. In 2020, the NLD vetoed a constitutional amendment that would have codified such a policy, and in 2021 was poised to again impose its own chief ministers on states where it was less popular, including Rakhine.

Rakhine people also felt that the NLD explicitly sided with the military during the war with the AA, even as the United Nations special rapporteur accused the military of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The NLD administration agreed to impose what was at the time the world’s longest internet shutdown, labeled the AA a terrorist organisation, and canceled elections in large swathes of Rakhine State.

Having been burned by the NLD, the AA has embraced the “Way of Rakhita” – a struggle for liberation and sovereignty characterised by operating independently of Myanmar’s national politics.

In January 2019, the AA commander-in-chief Major General Twan Mrat Naing declared his commitment to achieving “confederation” status for the people of Rakhine, pointing to the Wa Self-Administered Division as an example. This is a step beyond the federalist system most other ethnic groups aspire to, as the United Wa State Army runs an almost entirely autonomous enclave in Myanmar.

Playing both sides

The AA has discouraged mass protests against the coup, and Rakhine State has remained relatively peaceful even as other parts of the country are gripped by violence. Intense fighting has broken out in Chin, Kayah, Kayin and Kachin states and Sagaing and Magway regions. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said military crackdowns have killed over 1,700 civilians, including many unarmed protesters who were slaughtered in major urban centres like Yangon, Mandalay and Bago.

Ethnic armed groups including the AA condemned the coup and violence against civilians. But while some major groups, like the Kachin Independence Army and Karen National Union, have fully joined with the resistance, the AA still hesitates to commit to open warfare against the junta.

Instead, the AA’s political wing, the United League of Arakan, has taken advantage of the fact that the military has been distracted by uprisings across the country to consolidate its power. The group claimed in August last year that it had administrative control over two-thirds of the state, formalising its own taxation and judicial systems.

For the junta’s part, it seems keen to avoid antagonising the AA while it deals with a nationwide revolt. As part of its appeasement strategy, the internet blackout was lifted and the AA was removed from the list of terrorist organisations after the coup. Many political prisoners linked to the AA were released, including Twan Mrat Naing’s brother, Aung Mrat Kyaw. 

While the public in Rakhine welcomed these steps, many from the Bamar majority accused the AA of collaborating with the junta. From the perspective of many in Rakhine, however, the NLD and its supporters had spent the previous five years collaborating with the military at their expense.

The National Unity Government, the civilian cabinet appointed by lawmakers elected in the annulled 2020 polls, has also taken steps to entice the AA. The administration held informal talks with the armed group three times in the first year after the coup. But a source within the NUG told me the administration was unable to commit to granting the AA confederacy status in Rakhine State.

The NUG may be worried that other ethnic armed groups would demand similar treatment, precipitating a long-feared national disintegration into multiple ethnic micro-states.

The NUG seems to be hoping to prioritise overthrowing the junta first, saving political commitments for later. But this strategy doesn’t appeal to ethnic armed organisations, some of which supported pro-democracy movements in the past, only to feel betrayed when the NLD came to power.

While the AA may not be fully cooperating with the NUG, it is increasingly openly helping to train and arm certain resistance groups. On the AA’s 13th anniversary, five anti-coup armed groups expressed their gratitude for the AA’s support. The AA and its allies also expressed support for the Bamar People’s Liberation Army, an anti-coup armed group founded by poet Maung Saungkha, who was once arrested for protesting against the internet shutdown in Rakhine. On April 26, the Mindat Township branch of the Chinland Defence Force released footage of recruits returning from training with the AA.

Earlier this month, coup leader Min Aung Hlaing invited ethnic armed organisations to peace talks, offering to meet with representatives personally. He excluded the NUG and anti-coup armed groups known as People’s Defence Forces, both of which have been labeled terrorist organisations.

It remains to be seen whether the AA will accept this invitation. While the group remains sceptical of military-led peacekeeping initiatives, it did send a delegation to attend the junta’s Union Day celebrations and peace talks in February.

AA commander Twan Mrat Naing and his deputy visit Wa state to commemorate the 30th anniversary of peace-building efforts in 2019. (AFP)

No price tag on liberation

Since November of last year, sporadic small-scale clashes have broken out between the AA and the junta in Maungdaw Township, raising fears about the stability of the informal ceasefire. The military likely believed it would have crushed anti-coup resistance by now, allowing it to again shift focus to Rakhine State. But the unexpected level of opposition has left the junta with its hands full elsewhere.

As the AA expands its control over Rakhine, the military may not be willing to sit and watch as the entire state slips out of its grasp. But attempts to take back control of Rakhine could stretch the military beyond its capabilities, risking losing control of the country in the process.

It’s unlikely that the AA could achieve the confederacy status it desires through negotiations with the military, which has a long history of breaking promises. If the AA were to receive such a commitment from the junta, it would only mean anything if the group could defend its territory with armed force if necessary.

On multiple occasions, the AA has made it clear there is little room for compromise. During an online press conference on March 5, a spokesperson said if Rakhine cannot achieve the political status it wants within the union of Myanmar, “we will have to create it ourselves”. He added that the AA will “continue to build our government and our future nation-state in partnership with the international community”.

In an interview with the US Based Arakka Media on August 15 of last year, Twan Mrat Naing had a similarly clear message.

“We never had a price tag in attempting to wrestle back our lost sovereignty for the Arakan people,” he said. “There will not be in the future, either.”

This leaves the AA with two options. Throw its weight behind the NUG and other allied armed groups, but only with the guarantee of confederacy; or sit out the current conflict and continue reinforcing its administrative control and fortifying its defences, so that if and when fighting does return to Rakhine, it is well-positioned to limit damage and emerge victorious.

With the NUG reluctant to grant confederacy status, and the AA hoping to avoid having Rakhine ravaged by war yet again, it comes as little surprise that so far, the group is pursuing the second path.

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