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

China, the Arakan Army, and a Myanmar solution

Popular support in Rakhine State for the Arakan Army has been a game changer for the conflict there and is one reason why the ethnic armed group is increasingly impervious to pressure from China.


The emergence of the Arakan Army has created the most acute problem for the stalled peace process and Myanmar’s efforts to end decades of conflict.

The severe fighting between the AA and Tatmadaw in Rakhine and Chin States since January 2019 has not only caused instability, insecurity and casualties. It has also sucked up all the attention and resources that stakeholders could otherwise have devoted to negotiations and political dialogue.

The conflict involving the AA is complicating this year’s general elections at the national level and hindering voting at the local level. The fighting is also obstructing progress in addressing the Rohingya crisis because repatriating refugees to conflict zones is neither desirable nor feasible.

The basic question

The prevailing question about the AA is this: when will China intervene to stop the AA?

It’s a question with some legitimacy because the AA’s existence has been closely linked to groups with strong ties to China. The AA was created by the Kachin Independence Army at its headquarters at Laiza, on the Myanmar-China border, and its development has been fostered by the KIA and more recently the United Wa State Army. These are the two biggest and strongest ethnic armed organisations based along Myanmar’s border with China. The KIA and UWSA are subject to China’s influence and arguably, to China’s preferences (although to different degrees).

Politically, the AA is a member of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, a grouping of seven EAOs in northern Myanmar headed by the UWSA. Militarily, the AA is a member of the Northern Alliance, which includes the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

The argument that China could stop the AA’s attacks is centred on the basic inference that because the AA is the proxy of China’s proxies (especially the UWSA), China has the unequivocal ability to impose its preference either directly on the AA or indirectly through the UWSA. Even if the AA does not completely rely on the UWSA and KIA for funding, because it has established independent revenue sources such as weapons and drug trafficking, the UWSA is assumed to possess a determining influence over the AA through the supply of arms. The logic is therefore simple: if China wants to shut down the AA’s ability to fight, it could tell the UWSA to stop supplying it with weapons.

The secondary question

An obvious question therefore arises: why has China not stopped the AA and the fighting in Rakhine State?

It’s a reasonable question. The attacks by the AA are not in China’s interest. Aside from China’s general distaste for conflict and instability, the AA’s military operations are creating real problems for China. The AA is fighting across Rakhine State and with its Northern Alliance partners has been involved in offensives in northern Shan State and in Mandalay Region, a strategic corridor through which China accesses the Indian Ocean from its southwestern Yunnan Province.

Other than damaging the investment environment for China’s infrastructure projects in the region, the fighting has disrupted traffic on the main highway linking Mandalay with the border trade town of Muse. The highway is the most important artery for bilateral trade and is the thoroughfare most vulnerable to attack. Last August, after the coordinated attacks by the AA, TNLA and MNDAA on the Defence Services Technological Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin and on police posts and other targets in neighbouring Shan State, the highway was closed for days.

Is the AA stoppable?

After the August attacks, China reportedly articulated its concerns and exerted pressure on the AA, but to no avail. In fact, there is growing evidence that China’s ability to control the AA is limited. One reason is that the UWSA is not entirely subject to pressure from China and can sell the AA weapons made within its territory, which it controls with great autonomy. Another reason is that the UWSA does not have a monopoly on the supply of weapons to the AA. As long as the AA has the financial capacity, it can buy weapons on the black market, including from other countries.

Despite early weaknesses, the AA’s growing capability, battlefield successes and gradual acquisition of territory has made it ineliminable. It is economically strong, with significant financial resources acquired from trafficking and other illegal activities, as well as donations from its supporters inside and outside Myanmar. The economic and political appeal of the AA has enabled it to recruit increasing numbers of troops. It is no longer a small, weak ethnic armed group struggling for survival.

One of the most important factors in the rise of the AA has been its steadily increasing popularity among the Rakhine people, who are the fundamental source of its legitimacy, strength and sustainability. The Rakhine people are disappointed by what they regard as the denial of their political rights and are disillusioned by the democratic process.

Although the Arakan National Party won 22 of the 35 elected seats in the 47-member Rakhine Hluttaw in the general election in November 2015, the Bamar-dominated National League for Democracy exercised its right under the constitution to appoint one of its own as chief minister, despite winning only nine state hluttaw seats.

There is also bitterness among the Rakhine over the sentencing in March last year of former ANP leader Dr Aye Maung to 20 years’ imprisonment for high treason over a speech in which he reportedly accused the NLD of treating the Rakhine people like “slaves”.  The long prison term eliminated any hope of a negotiated solution to ethnic reconciliation in Rakhine.

This political disaffection has increased support for the AA, which at the same time was emerging as a more powerful force. The people’s support for the AA has fundamentally changed the game. The AA no longer lives off the patronage of larger groups. Instead, it is gaining legitimacy as the representative of the Rakhine people, who comprise the majority of  the state’s population – a much higher percentage than the number of Kachin in Kachin State. The support of the people who comprise most of the state’s population is the most important reason for the sustainability and tenacity of the AA.

The popular support has significantly influenced China’s attitude towards the AA. As the creator and promoter of “people’s war”, the Communist Party of China is deeply sensitive to the power and importance of popular support. The AA’s growing constituency and support in Rakhine dictates that China will not antagonise it at the risk of alienating the majority population of a state in which it has important economic interests, even if that means China has to bear the costs of the AA’s attacks in the short term.

The fundamental question

Despite their desire and rationale to deny the AA legitimacy and recognition, the Myanmar government and the Tatmadaw will have to grapple with the reality that the group’s political legitimacy and military tenacity have grown beyond their control.

If a decisive military victory is not attainable, the only other option is a political solution involving dialogue and negotiations. Whether that happens after a prolonged war of attrition is Myanmar’s choice. But holding China responsible for the situation in Rakhine is unlikely to bring about a solution, because the AA’s ability to wage war does not depend on China.

A resolution to the conflict will eventually need a Myanmar solution.

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