The Arakan Army, Myanmar Military Coup and Politics of Arakan

A Myanmar Commentary by Kyaw Lynn
10 June 2021
Article

In the aftermath of the November general election the intense fighting between the national armed forces (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army came to an unexpected halt. Since the February coup of the State Administration Council, the situation has remained delicately poised. Political sentiment is very high. But Rakhine nationalism is presently on a different cycle to political movements in other parts of the country. In this commentary Kyaw Lynn outlines why the coming months will remain a time of high tension and uncertainty in Arakan politics.

Authors

Arakan Army troops in forest training / Photo credit JG

When political analysts in Myanmar and beyond discuss the role of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) in the struggle against the military coup in February, the Arakan Army (AA) becomes one of the key political forces in shaping their dialogue and perceptions. The AA, the military wing of the United League of Arakan (ULA), is the only armed group that can challenge the power of the national armed forces (Tatmadaw) on Myanmar’s western frontiers. This became especially evident during the 2018-20 period when the ULA-AA demonstrated its sharp resistance against the power of the centralised Myanmar state. Behind the ULA rise, there were three key features: popular support among the Rakhine population, well-trained soldiers, and a younger leadership that read the evolving mood and political situation in the country perceptively well.

Since the February coup of the State Administration Council (SAC), the situation has begun to change. Many searching questions are being asked, a challenge that is facing communities in every part of the country. In particular, intense fighting between the Tatmadaw and AA came to an unexpected halt in the aftermath of the November general election when voting was cancelled in a majority of townships in Rakhine State (Arakan). As the history books will show, this cessation in hostilities was three months in advance of the military takeover, causing many people to question the political stand of the ULA in the current crisis. Indeed some have even accused the ULA-AA of cooperating with the military SAC in seeking to control civil society and pro-democracy political movements in Rakhine State and adjoining territories in Chin State.

It is important to stress, then, that the crisis is hardly black and white, and there are many local complexities with their roots in Arakan politics and Myanmar history. From what many would regard as a “realist perspective” among local leaders, the present military coup represents more of a clash and division between the central powers among the ethnic Bamar-majority in the country: in this case, between the armed forces of the Tatmadaw and National League for Democracy (NLD). In the post-coup context, some analysts believe that the political instability in central Myanmar (Burma Proper) will provide greater leverage for the ULA-AA to advance its “Way of Rakhita” philosophy in order to achieve its “Arakan Dream”.

Many cautions nevertheless remain, and it is incorrect to argue that the ULA-AA is simply practising a policy of isolationism and neutralism while it waits to see how the current crisis unfolds. The situation is highly fraught, with new challenges emerging every day. The present unilateral ceasefires are informal; AA soldiers are participating in fighting against the Tatmadaw with EAO allies in other parts of the country; and, at the same time, ULA leaders have refrained from participating in the National Unity Government (NUG), formed by NLD MPs-elect and other anti-SAC actors to challenge the legitimacy of the SAC. In a complex and fast-changing landscape, few of the political choices are easy.

There is also a further reason to consider why the ULA-AA may wish to abstain from the current political turmoil: the membership of the electoral Arakan National Party (ANP), which has won a majority of votes in the past two elections, in the SAC. For the present, the ULA-AA leadership has not made any remark on this issue publicly. But for the majority Rakhine population this is a very controversial issue.

First, the ANP’s membership in the military council is different from that of participation in – or cooperation with – a coalition government after a general election. This is because the votes that the public gave in the polls are taken away as a consequence of the military coup. Thus it is very difficult to say that the ANP is a member of the council with the mandate of the Rakhine State electorate.

And second, it is clear that ANP participation in the military council will not imminently bring about the political autonomy and economic self-development that Arakan’s peoples have long desired. Instead, if the unilateral ceasefires break down and human rights violations recur due to a resumption of conflict, ANP membership of the SAC will be challenged by a majority among the Rakhine population. In short, ANP participation in the SAC will not reflect the will of the ULA-AA but also the Rakhine public and other nationality groups in the state.

The situation is delicately poised. As in other parts of the country, the coming months will remain a time of high tension and uncertainty in Arakan politics.

The Way of Rakhita and the Arakan Dream

The “Way of Rakhita” means to complete the end-goal of the “Arakan Dream”. In linguistic terms, it is difficult to agree a common and exact definition on these two concepts. But the general understanding is that the way of Rakhita – the Arakanese way or action of the Arakanese – signifies the achievement of a long-held political vision in Arakan: the restoration of Arakan sovereignty that was taken away, by conquest, with the ending of the Mrauk-U era in the 18th century. Equally important, both the Way of Rakhita and Arakan Dream are intended to be more inclusive for all ethnic and religious groups in Arakan compared to a more conservative Rakhine tradition in which ethno-nationalism is regarded the key to political autonomy.

It needs to be added, too, that the emergence of ULA-AA movement in Arakan politics has caused the political motivation of a majority of people in Rakhine State to move more decisively towards supporting the demand for an autonomous Arakan state. Various nationalist movements have emerged to try and restore the political status of Arakan since the fall of Arakan Kingdom. But, during the following decades, none of those movements was able to bring the hope of success to the general population.

Now, however, after two years of an intensification in armed struggle, it is not just the political elites but the general population who have become more confident in their calls for autonomy in Arakan. Presently, the Arakan political movement has reached its most prominent peak. This was recognised by the ULA-AA leader Gen. Twan Mrat Naing on the 12th anniversary of the part’s founding on 10 April 2021:

“If we are to speak the reality, it can be clearly seen that it is our generation which is fighting effectively with the strongest leadership and unity among revolutionary movements since the fall of Arakan sovereignty in 1784. From this situation, let us endeavour to improve and continuously fight to achieve the highest destination with the devotion of both mental and physical strength.”

Following these remarks, Twan Mrat Naing moved on to the questions of state building and nation building in Arakan. It is therefore interesting to look at these issues in relation to the modern-day Rakhine State. In general, it is difficult to identify the territory of Arakan based upon the “white”, “brown” or “black” colour categorisations in line with government definitions.* But it is now commonly said that that the majority of areas in northern Rakhine State, apart from urban Sittwe, are now under the influence of the ULA-AA, and the de facto administrative mechanisms are regulated on the basis of ULA-AA policies. This marks a significant change in the political landscape during the past five years, raising many questions about the potential course of events in the territory.

According to Professor Redie Bereketeab, head of the “Conflict and State Building in the Horn of Africa” project, state building includes three main elements: institutionalization, bureaucratization and democratization. In definition, institutionalization refers to the enforcement of state authority over society through specifically-created political structures and organisations. Bureaucratization is associated with a process leading to a system of rule by administrative office. And democratization denotes the construction of institutions of divided power, providing the processes by which a system of democratic governance is set in motion.

Out of these three processes, the first two are the most prominent tasks that ULA-AA authorities have been building up during the past two years. These include setting out an Arakan Authority, a judiciary system, local administrative structures and divisions (which are different from Myanmar government settings), and regulating taxation, health, education and other social issues. In term of legitimacy, however, it is hard to define ULA-AA administration as the legal-rational authority because it is mixed with other important elements, including charismatic leadership, nationalism and military-political performance. As a result, to move on to the next stage of democratization, the ULA-AA – as a revolutionary movement – still has many limitations, both at the individual level and in the division of power among leadership structures.

Another main area of Twan Mrat Naing’s speech concerned nation building. Although there is no common definition, nation building is mostly defined as the task of constructing or structuring a national identity, using the power of the state as well as the participation of civil society actors. As modern history shows, this is an especially pertinent issue in Rakhine State at present.

In a multi-ethnic land such as Arakan, national identity needs to be “supra-ethnic”, based upon political values and principles rather than cultural ones. But this task has become much more complicated during the past decade, with the exodus of over a million Rohingya people into Bangladesh and the displacement in Tatmadaw operations of over 200,000 Rakhine, Chin, Mro and other peoples in Rakhine State and the Chin State borderlands. It is vital that all groups participate in the challenges creating a national identity and making decisions on the future of Arakan society. But, in these processes, much may depend on how ULA-AA administration is perceived in handling inter-ethnic relations in areas where it is the dominant authority. It will also be important to see how political and civil society organisations react among the different communities towards the objective of agreeing national goals through consensus and shared inter-communication.

For the moment, the impartiality, decisiveness and results-oriented manner, in most cases, of the current ULA judiciary system has been generally welcomed within minority communities, including the Rohingya, where its authority reaches. At least, ULA administration is not regarded as worse than Myanmar government practices. Nevertheless Arakan nation building will need to move on from the present situation of peaceful coexistence to an ethnically harmonious society which enjoys and celebrates cultural diversity of all kinds. There is still a long way to go.

In summary, to sustain legitimacy and authority in pursuit of the Arakan Dream, much will depend on how effectively the ULA can change its administrative structures from the culture of a revolutionary liberation movement to one of civic governance in which all citizens are treated on the basis of transparent and equitably-defined rules and regulations.

The Nature of Arakan Politics

In 21st century society, there are two main political pulling forces that have evolved from Arakan’s past. The first has developed since the fall of Mrauk-U and continued for over two hundred years. The ultimate goal of this political force is to build power-seeking structures and institutions, such as the creation of an independent and autonomous Arakan state, and the means to carry this out are the combined forces of nationalism and collectivism. In the modern era, this movement is mainly represented by the ULA-AA as well as some smaller political organisations among the Rakhine population.

The second force, in contrast, is quite new, developing since the second half of 20th century. But currently, following ten years of democratization, manifestations of this trend are extensive and intensive. The ultimate aim of this force is to create power-restraining institutions in the creation of an Arakan society that embraces democratic accountability and the rule of law, and the means to achieve this is liberal individualism. This grouping is broader and generally expressed by civil society organisations and individual activists, reformers and scholars.

It should be mentioned, though, that the two forces should not be regarded as distinct. ULA leaders have expressed the pro-democracy values of the second force, while political actors among the second group support the nationalist values of the first force. As a result, Arakan society is presently seen to be more united and organised than during previous governmental eras in modern history. At the same time, it needs to be qualified that the key audience for the second trend in Arakan politics are the younger generation, whereas the majority of the Arakan population are in favour of the more overt nationalism of the first force.

From this, two conclusions can be drawn. The consolidation of liberal individualism will face limitations until its supporters achieve recognisable rights and influence on the political stage. And, looking to the current trends and principles in Arakan politics and society, the politics of realism will be more impactful than those of political liberalism.

* “White” refers to government-controlled, “brown” to mixed areas, and “black” to those controlled by EAOs. Arakan was historically a territory of much greater size than the present-day Rakhine State. Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the Arakan Hill Tracts, where the ULA-AA is also active, have been included under the administration of what has become the modern-day Chin State.

Kyaw Lynn is a post-graduate student mastering in Political Science at the University of Yangon. He is also a freelance political analyst in Yangon as well as one of the founders of the Institute for Peace and Governance.