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

Doomed to engage? Bangladesh and the AA

The Arakan Army’s recent victories have its neighbours’ full attention, but a number of factors continue to prevent formal engagement – even as Bangladesh struggles to make headway on Rohingya repatriation efforts with the junta.


On January 14, the Arakan Army raised the Rakhine national flag over key administrative offices in southern Chin State’s Paletwa, declaring the entire township “junta-free”. In the process, the group took control of a nearly 80 kilometre long border with Bangladesh and a key node on a proposed trade route with India.

The dramatic victory came two months after the AA launched a series of attacks against security forces in Rakhine and Chin states, ending an informal ceasefire brokered a year earlier. These territorial gains bring the AA closer to its long-term objective of controlling Rakhine. But they may also prove pivotal in strengthening the group’s relationships with its neighbours – India and Bangladesh – which have long kept the AA at an arm’s length, but a close eye on its movements.

While kept under wraps, there has already been low-level, informal engagement between Bangladesh and the AA for years, a source familiar with Bangladesh’s foreign policy on Myanmar confirmed to Frontier. However, most of the communication has taken place between “field level security forces” along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, and the Bangladesh foreign ministry has “very little idea about it”.

A high-level official in the AA, who spoke to Frontier on the condition of anonymity, also confirmed the dialogue, noting that the “Bangladesh authorities are more concerned than in previous [years]” as fighting “continues near the border areas”.

He said the gains since November are “the most significant” advancements the AA has made against the military. “Now we are holding more land area than in previous years,” he added.

Bangladesh has so far refused to engage formally with a non-state actor while prioritising its relationship with the Myanmar junta, which seized power in a 2021 coup. However, sources familiar with the dynamic told Frontier that Dhaka increasingly sees the AA as a key stakeholder, especially on the thorny issue of repatriating the nearly one million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.

“If there is an autonomous region or any kind of recognition from the Myanmar army that the Arakan Army will report on border issues, that can open a negotiation for a state party to enter with a non-state actor,” said the source from Bangladesh. 

“Myanmar has a record of recognising autonomous regions and special zones. They have also engaged militia groups and armed groups in border and security related issues in earlier days. As they have a record of such incidents, a similar thing could be done in Rakhine State,” they said.

The AA has long been open about its desire to emulate the level of autonomy achieved by the United Wa State Army, which controls large swathes of territory in Shan State, some of which is formally recognised by the regime. The source said that if this were to happen then Dhaka may be more willing to engage. Another opening would be if the AA had a similar arrangement to the Border Guard Forces, paramilitary groups loosely under the military’s chain of command. 

A BGF arrangement is exceedingly unlikely, but with the military overstretched by fighting across the country, it could conceivably be forced to recognise AA territory, like the Wa, in exchange for a ceasefire.

“Until [the AA] is recognised by Myanmar, [Bangladesh] will not be in a position to open any formal channels,” the source said. 

Vessels docked at the port of a Chinese-owned oil refinery off Kyaukphyu in 2019. (AFP)

The powers that be

For its part, the AA recognises the need to cooperate with Bangladesh, but remains more dependent on its relationship with another foreign power – China. 

An international analyst focused on Rakhine, who spoke with Frontier on the condition of anonymity, explained that China is the AA’s “most important stakeholder” and “has more influence over the AA” than any other player.

Beijing also values its relationship with the AA, which has pledged to protect Chinese infrastructure projects, like the two oil and gas pipelines that run from Kyaukphyu Township to Kunming. A Chinese-backed deep sea port and Special Economic Zone are also being planned in the same township.

Showing its ability to influence the situation in Myanmar, China stepped in to broker a ceasefire with AA allies the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army in northern Shan State in mid-January, partly to stabilise the border and safeguard Chinese interests.

The other big power in the equation is India, which has also refused to publicly engage the AA. Frontier understands informal engagement is ongoing, although India’s Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment on the matter. However, the recent seizure of Paletwa could further force New Delhi’s hand.

The township is a key part of India’s multi-million dollar Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project – an ambitious endeavour to connect the port of Kolkata port with India’s landlocked northeast, using a combination of sea, river and land routes via Sittwe and Paletwa. While the project has been in development for more than a decade, it has yet to be completed, and has seemingly been overtaken by recent events.

Mr Angshuman Choudhury, an associate fellow at India’s Centre for Policy Research, said the project no longer makes practical sense, but remains politically relevant.

“Bangladesh has allowed us to use [its ports] so why do we need to take the longer circular route to get to Sittwe through Paletwa? The logic behind why the project was created no longer holds,” said Choudhury, who added the main reason to continue pursuing it would be to maintain a “competitive edge” with China’s development projects.

But the recent fighting has shown New Delhi that, to keep this edge, it may have to increase engagement with stakeholders beyond the junta. India has been frequently criticised for normalising relations with the military regime in an attempt to counter China. But as the regime loses more territory to ethnic armed groups that enjoy a close relationship with Beijing, India may also need to adjust to a new reality.

“In light of the recent offensives, Delhi is realising that it has to deal with the Arakan Army in some form. If it wants to resume the Kaladan project, there’s absolutely no way Delhi can go around the Arakan Army,” Choudhury said.

Rohingya refugees walk towards the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh in November 2017, after fleeing from Myanmar. (AFP)

The repatriation conundrum

The repatriation of Rohingya refugees also presents an opportunity for the AA, but one that comes with potential pitfalls. Nearly 700,000 members of the persecuted Muslim minority group were forced across the border in 2017, during a campaign of murder, rape and arson by the Myanmar military, at times supported by mobs of Rakhine nationalists. Most of the displaced come from Rakhine’s Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, which also share a border with Bangladesh, but one that remains contested between the AA and military.

China has attempted to broker a repatriation agreement, but the ambassador to Bangladesh, Mr Yao Wen, acknowledged in early January that efforts have “faced some difficulties”. “Under Chinese mediation we wish to have a ceasefire in the Rakhine State” as a precondition for the repatriation, he added.

Mr Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Commissioner for Refugee Relief and Repatriation, told Frontier that repatriating “the whole [Rohingya] population” is “the number one priority of Bangladesh”.

“We are struggling to address the demands of these one million people, and the number is only increasing,” he said.

Rohingya refugees refuse to return to Myanmar until they are allowed to go back to their original homes and their right to citizenship is recognised. Instead, the junta has erected enclosed villages where returnees would be closely monitored and their movements tightly restricted.

“The so-called model villages are not villages, they are detention camps. In the future, they will be like concentration camps. [Rohingya] will not be allowed to leave the area, there are fences and watchtowers,” said Ro Nay San Lwin, the founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition. “Nobody wants to move from the Bangladesh camp to the Myanmar camp.” 

Rahman said these concerns were raised directly by Rohingya communities to a Myanmar military delegation that visited the refugee camps last year, but there was “no satisfactory reply received”.

“It was good that there were talks between the two groups but there was no successful completion of the negotiations,” he said. “I have found that there is a lack of preparation and a lack of willingness [from Myanmar] so far.”

The regime’s unwillingness or inability to secure repatriation creates an opening for the AA, which has sought to portray itself as more inclusive towards the Rohingya than the central authorities or previous Rakhine nationalist movements. But many Rohingya on the ground remain sceptical and complain about being trapped in the crossfire between the military and the AA.

The AA’s purported inclusiveness has done little to attract more engagement from Dhaka, which is more concerned with who wields power.

“Dhaka has traditionally seen the Myanmar military as the most institutionalised and strongest actor in the country and also understands that the Myanmar military is a permanent actor in the country, no matter the political system,” said U Kyaw Lynn, an independent analyst focused on Rakhine. “They don’t want to jeopardise their relation with the Myanmar military, they want to appease the military leadership.”

The source familiar with Bangladesh’s foreign policy on Myanmar said since 2017, Myanmar authorities have accused Dhaka of supporting armed groups, including the AA and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

“Myanmar always tries to blame Bangladesh for assisting insurgent groups, which is a baseless allegation. But if [Bangladesh] raises any concern over the recent incidents and developments in Myanmar, that will give the space to our counterpart to raise questions again. That is why Bangladesh has refrained from taking any measure,” they said. “Our priority is to maintain friendly relations with our neighbouring countries.”

Because of this, Bangladesh has decided to wait on the military to make the first move when it comes to bringing the AA into the fold.

“They are definitely one of the most important stakeholders, but it is not our duty to engage them – it is the Myanmar authorities’ duty to engage them in this repatriation process,” said Rahman.

But Bangladesh might be waiting for a while. The international analyst said the junta, formally known as the State Administration Council, will be reluctant to hand over responsibility.

“I don’t think the SAC would be willing to give up that role because it would imply that they’ve lost control of the border or are no longer willing to enforce border control. They would be saying that the AA controls who comes and goes, which would be difficult for them to stomach,” he said.

“The AA also hasn’t really delved into the repatriation issue, the conditions aren’t there and it isn’t a priority for the AA. It’s also a poisoned chalice. They want to let the SAC deal with it – they’re going to look bad on the international stage and it will strain their relationship with Bangladesh, so letting the SAC deal with it is strategic from the AA side,” he added.

Between a rock and a hard place

Taking ownership of the repatriation process could put the AA between a rock and a hard place in terms of international and domestic expectations, as many Rakhine Buddhists are still deeply hostile towards the persecuted Muslim minority.

For now, fighting continues to rage in Rakhine, which the AA has used as justification to put off the issue. Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin said the AA has not yet sat down with Rohingya representatives, even though it’s vying for control over the population. 

“They haven’t offered to have any dialogue yet. If they are ready to sit with us, we are always ready,” he said. “In the media they are saying that they respect the human rights [of Rohingya] but the reality is we have to wait and see.”

When asked whether repatriation was a priority for the AA, the high-level AA official referenced the fighting and alluded to a long-held Rakhine nationalist grievance, that posits the Rohingya are actually more privileged than the Rakhine, despite facing decades of state-sanctioned persecution that Amnesty International has labelled an apartheid.

“The Arakanese people are also running away from their towns, away from the military bombardment… Whenever there are problems in border areas, the Muslims have the ability to run away to Bangladesh but the Rakhine have nowhere to run out. So it is more serious and you see more problems for the Rakhine people at this time,” said the official. (Many Rakhine use the term “Muslim” to refer to Rohingya because they refuse to recognise it as an ethnic group.)

But despite the official’s claims, much of the fighting is occurring in Rohingya villages, and the community was disproportionately affected by Cyclone Mocha last year.

While the foreign analyst said that it’s difficult to predict what role the AA will have in repatriating Rohingya, “it’s inevitable at some point in the future that the AA will administer control over large parts of central and northern Rakhine” and with this will come a level of responsibility – one that could potentially jolt Bangladesh out of its complacency.

“The AA taking more positions and more territory from the SAC has been the trajectory. It’s safe to say whatever happens over the next few months, the AA will definitely have spread its position vis-a-vis the SAC in northern Rakhine – the SAC will come out weaker and the AA will come out stronger.”

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