Since Friday, violent clashes have taken place between the Myanmar military and one of the country’s largest rebel groups in Rakhine State, threatening to undermine a ceasefire that is vital to the military junta’s control of the country.
In a report yesterday, AFP quoted a spokesperson for the Arakan Army (AA) as saying that troops from the Myanmar armed forces had entered an AA base in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw township on Friday, prompting three hours of clashes.
The spokesperson accused the junta forces of trying to destabilize a region of the country that, due to a 15-month-long ceasefire between the army and the AA, has been relatively stable since last February’s military coup. “There is high tension militarily, which could break out any time,” the spokesperson said. “It seems as if the military wants to destabilize Rakhine’s stability and calm.”
The clashes reportedly resumed on Sunday, as junta troops renewed their assault on the AA base. A report by Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service quoted a local resident as saying there had been “intense fighting” on February 6 in the vicinity of Metike village, around 48 kilometers from the township seat. Myanmar Now quoted several local residents who reported that fighting raged in three areas of the township around the villages of Thinbawhla and Metike, in which “both sides” used heavy and light weapons, trapping local residents in the area.
The clashes were reportedly the first between the AA and military for more than a year, and threaten to break an informal 2020 ceasefire that represents one of the few signs of progress in Myanmar over the past 18 months. Prior to the ceasefire, fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) had raged across Rakhine for more than two years, killing or injuring hundreds and forcing some 226,000 people from their homes, in a region that had only recently seen the forced expulsion of more than 700,000 Muslim Rohingya.
With help from the Japanese government, the AA and the Myanmar armed forces agreed to the informal ceasefire shortly after national elections in November 2020, which saw a thundering win for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). The deal enabled tens of thousands of displaced people to return home and brought the two sides back to the negotiating table.
The ceasefire has largely held in the year since the military’s subsequent coup against the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi allowing the Myanmar military to redeploly key units to quell resistance in other parts of the country. (Indeed, some have speculated that the ceasefire was brokered precisely with the coup in mind.) Meanwhile, the AA administration has taken advantage of the ceasefire to entrench its control of the territories under its jurisdiction, where it now possesses an elaborate administrative and bureaucratic apparatus.
But the informal halt to the conflict in Rakhine does not suggest that the political disagreements between the AA and Tatmadaw are even close to being resolved. Indeed, while the ceasefire held across the annus horribilis of 2021, it has come under strain in recent months, which have seen a series of tense incidents between the two forces.
While the AA has been reluctant to follow other ethnic armed groups in allying itself with the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) and aiding its efforts to overthrow the coup government, a reigniting of the war between the Tatmadaw and AA could alter the contours of the Myanmar’s nationwide conflict.
As Allegra Mendelson wrote in this month’s issue of The Diplomat magazine (to which you can subscribe here), “If the AA were to engage militarily, it would significantly alter the current landscape of Myanmar’s civil war given the group’s manpower and weaponry, and how overstretched the military has become.”
The AA has its own Rakhine nationalist program, and it remains to be seen how much this aligns with the revolutionary agenda of the NUG and its allies. But even if it is acting purely in its own interests, taking up arms against the military could mark a significant turning point in Myanmar’s post-coup crisis.