19 July 2019

The conflict in Rakhine state: Is Myanmar's military fighting a losing battle?

Heavy fighting in Rakhine state between the Arakan Army and Myanmar's military – that has largely fallen under the international radar – is developing into an open-ended military conflict that has the potential to destabilise the country.

By Aaron Kunaraja

The ongoing conflict between the Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw, has intensified in Rakhine state over the last several months. While the fighting has mainly been centred in the northern hinterland of Rakhine state, the well-equipped and organised AA has managed to make inroads further south into areas that were relatively untouched by the conflict earlier, such as the tourist centre of Mrauk-U. On 21 June 2019, a brazen attack using surface-to-surface rockets on a military jetty just outside the state capital Sittwe demonstrated the rebel group's new capability to operate freely and launch attacks within earshot of the state's centre of administrative and political power, where the Tatmadaw maintains a strong grip. The very same day, military authorities implemented an internet black-out across northern Rakhine (which includes the townships of Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun and Rathedaung) which has been in force ever since. Additionally, at least 10,000 reinforcing troops were deployed into Rakhine since the conflict escalated. These developments indicate that the insurgency in Rakhine has developed into an open-ended military conflict with serious social, economic and human costs.

The AA was formed in Kachin state in 2009, with the support of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and alleged Chinese-backing. The group's stated aim is to fight for self-determination of the ethnic Arakanese or Rakhine people, who constitute a majority of the Rakhine state population and who they believe have been sidelined by the central government, which is dominated by the country's Bamar ethnic majority.

In 2015, the AA moved some of its soldiers from Kachin state to southwestern Chin state and began launching attacks on Tatmadaw security bases in Chin state and northern Rakhine state. In late 2017, the AA shifted more of its forces into northeastern Rakhine state, establishing bases in northern townships. The group gradually began attacking Tatmadaw locations further south in early 2019. Since then, clashes with Myanmar's military forces have increased significantly, leading to heavy casualties on both sides.

While the government has tightly quarantined news coverage of the ongoing conflict, and the military does not release official casualty figures, unofficial estimates by foreign intelligence officials monitoring the conflict indicate over 400 government troops and upwards of 100 AA rebels were killed in fighting between December 2018 and June 2019. Despite these significant losses, restricted access into Rakhine state, coupled with the government's tight surveillance of student and civil society organisations –typically the catalysts for any national protest movement – has prevented the development of nationwide discontent over the conflict and has largely isolated the conflict from the national mainstream.

Despite this, there are real social costs to the conflict. The continued presence and brutal military tactics of the Tatmadaw has eroded its legitimacy among the local Arakenese population. In contrast, the AA has considerable popular support among the majority Arakanese population and has little problem in recruiting new fighters from local youth. Indeed, the sympathy and legitimacy it enjoys from the local population is one of the key reasons that have allowed the rebel group to sustain the conflict.

As it stands, the AA has an estimated fighting force of over 6,000 troops. This gives rise to fear of divided loyalties within the Tatmadaw's own ranks, as it contains a significant ethnic Rakhine component which poses obvious security risks as ethnic polarization grows. In addition to this, there is a sizeable sympathetic diaspora of ethnic Rakhine labourers in major cities in central Myanmar, most notably in Yangon. If the rebels somehow managed to recruit these sympathisers to carry out attacks in urban centres in the country’s heartland – a capacity it already has given its propensity to conduct similar attacks outside its base of operations such as in Sittwe – it would have serious implications for foreign investment and the economy. Given all this, it is very likely that the conflict in Rakhine state will continue as the government and the Tatmadaw seem unconcerned about its potential impact on the stability of the country.

Aaron Kunaraja is a Malaysia-based political and security risk analyst covering Southeast Asia.