While the ULA-AA continues its activities, the main transportation and communication channels in Rakhine State remain under SAC authority. These principally include bus stations, seaports and border gates with Bangladesh as well as land routes connecting to Magway, Bago and Ayeyarwady Regions in central Myanmar to the east. Despite the 2020 ceasefire, the SAC continues to impose restrictions on trade imports to Rakhine State, with the Ministry of Border Affairs the main agency responsible for enforcing this task. Even in poor rural areas such as Paletwa township, the transportation of rice – the main item of local consumption – is not allowed without official permission. There are also restrictions on the transport of cement, fuel and iron-related materials to this township without certificates from the municipal authorities.
In the meantime, the SAC is continuing to upgrade its military bases in Rakhine State, redeploy its security forces and reinforce local units with weapons and supplies. As a result, local people believe that it will be more difficult for AA soldiers, in the event of a return to conflict, to destroy new bunkers and defences built by the Tatmadaw in Border Guard Police areas in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. At the same time, civil society groups are coming under increased repression by the SAC across Rakhine State, including media, community-based and other non-governmental organisations. Despite the ceasefire, there has not been a liberalisation in the political atmosphere in SAC-controlled areas.
Further complicating the security landscape, the SAC is closely watching and has arrested a number of Rakhine locals during the past few months on account of suspicions of their having links with People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) which have sprung up across the country to resist the SAC since the coup. In Arakan, this has especially happened in the south of the state in areas like Thandwe, Gwa, Taungup and Kyaukphyu townships. In general, the Rakhine people have responded quite passively in these cases, and there are some divisions in local opinion, with support for the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) – as well as opposition National Unity Government (NUG: formed April 2021) – generally weaker in the north and centre of the state than the south. As a result, it is believed that the SAC is trying to limit the establishment of any PDF-related movements in Rakhine State, which remain active in most of the 14 regions and ethnic states in the country today.
At the same time, in the event of political impasse, Arakan leaders are aware that it could become harder for the ULA-AA to sustain its support for ceasefires in Rakhine State if the SAC continues to use despotic methods to maintain its power over the Rakhine people. During the past year, Rakhine State has been regarded one of the most stable areas under the military SAC, and the latter has profited from this situation in a number of ways. These include reducing military activity (and potentially transferring troops to other conflict-zones), normalising official trade with Bangladesh, taxing local businesses and earning revenues from the oil and gas pipelines that pass from Kyaukphyu to Yunnan Province in China.
On the surface, then, it can be argued that both the ULA-AA and SAC have gained from the 2020 ceasefire. But underpinning the decrease in conflict is a political paradox. Stability in Rakhine State does not from the legitimatisation of the SAC by the people nor the regime’s monopoly of power. Rather, stability has been gained by the current path chosen by the ULA-AA leadership in pursuit of their “Way of Rakhita” ideology. In essence, Rakhine State has an informal ceasefire, but this has brought neither peace nor reform.
Spheres of influence, “state capture” and administrative vacuums
The boundaries or systems of parallel governance are not fixed, but have constantly been contested by both sides since the 2020 ceasefire. The degree of contest was revealed in a recent interview by the ULA Chairman Twan Mrat Naing with Pro Thomalo News (Bangladesh), when he claimed that the Myanmar military can only travel out of a town or military base in Arakan if they move in the strength with more than two battalions. This, though, is not a situation that the Tatmadaw leadership have militarily accepted, and security forces have continued to try and enter rural villages whenever they can, ordering the people not to support the ULA-AA. But the Tatmadaw’s behaviour in such manoeuvres underlines the regime’s weakness and the fragility of the situation. It is not a sign of strength.
A December operation by the security forces in Pauktaw township revealed the underlying tensions. The backdrop to these events is thus worth investigating. Until the December incident, armed conflict had dropped to near zero in the township, and it also avoided the most intense fighting before the 2020 ceasefire. As a sign of military authority, however, Tatmadaw commanders appeared to try and take advantage of the “San-Daw-Rhin Pagoda Festival” that takes place in mid-December every year in the locality just 17 kilometers from Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital. On this occasion, Myanmar security forces came to the festival site in combination with both soldiers and police on 3 December – a week in advance of the actual festival – claiming that they were going to repair the road to the pagoda. They took this action, despite objections by local people and responsible officials at the pagoda.
Having arrived in strength, however, the security forces prolonged their stay till the scheduled end of the week-long festival, even though road repairs had been completed or did not seen necessary. As tensions rose, the AA released a statement on 10 December reminding of the need to avoid conflict. But already the damage had been done. Few people chose to attend the annual celebration, and the festival finished in silence. For local people, the security deployment clearly showed the extent to which the Myanmar military appear determined to project power by force to demonstrate their sphere of influence.
A month earlier, in contrast, Tatmadaw commanders had behaved very differently at a similar pagoda festival, known as the “Bay-Nga-Rar” hiking event in Ponnagyun township. This was also celebrated near to the main highway, but on this occasion there was no such action by the security forces. Here the difference appears not to come from the proximity of the festival to the road or state capital but the degree of armed conflict in the past. Ponnagyun had been a high-conflict area. In the case of Pauktaw, which has seen little or no conflict, the Myanmar military seems determined to prove that they have the right to patrol even though a ceasefire is supposed to be in place. The message is clear. Only in townships like Pauktaw, where AA presence is less visible, do army and police commanders dare to show their objection to the ULA’s administrative growth.
It should be noted, then, that this shadow-boxing for influence and territory is not one way. The administrative outreach projected by the ULA authority goes well beyond areas in which armed conflict happened or where AA bases are situated. Today administrative mechanisms under the influence of ULA authority can be found throughout northern and central Arakan, except in Tatmadaw-controlled towns. In recent interviews, AA leaders have claimed that as much as 75 per cent of Rakhine State is under ULA control, with authority now penetrating into urban areas. In confirmation of this, local sources say that more than 80 per cent of judiciary cases in the state are taking place through the ULA court system because the people believe in the legitimacy of its courts and judges – not those under the SAC.
The parallel legal situation was explained to Channel News Independent in January this year by U Pe Than, a former MP from Myebon township:
“Even the urban areas are within the reach of ULA governing mechanisms. For instance, big cases like homicide and robbery in the urban area, the people don’t go to the military council’s judiciary system. They only come to ULA authority. If they complain at their courts (military council), the courts can’t follow up because their administrative functions have broken down. Neither the complainant, the accused nor the witness comes to their courts despite their orders. But as the ULA authority can arrest and take actions, the people, even in urban areas, come to resolve their disputes only through the ULA judiciary mechanisms.”
It is important to add, however, that deficiencies can be observed in terms of human resources and infrastructure in ULA administrative and judicial processes. For this reason, the concept of “state-captured” control is useful in political language to understand how parallel administrations have developed in Arakan. Although the term was mostly coined from the economic perspective of controlling state decision-making processes by private interest groups, the bureaucracy of Myanmar authority – in the current Arakan context – has been increasingly “captured” by the ULA administration, especially in areas where AA organisation is pervasive. Step by step, the ULA-AA has been seeking to become the leading authority in Arakan by taking administrative control.
Finally, while the struggle between the Tatmadaw and ULA-AA continues, there are also parts of Rakhine State where a phenomenon of “administrative vacuum” exists. In these cases, none of the rival authorities has concrete control of law enforcement. These territories mostly lie in the borderlands with Bangladesh where the ARSA also sometimes shows its presence as well rural areas in southern parts of the state, such as Taungup township, where the ULA-AA is seeking to spread its outreach.
In summary, while an informal ceasefire has been in place for 15 months, contestation for administrative influence and control is by no means at an end, and conditions of parallel governance are extensive in townships across the state.
Reconstruction of a modern Arakan national identity
A further distinguishing feature of the trends in Arakan politics since the 2020 ceasefire is the way in which momentum for the promotion of a modern national identity has accelerated. Developments since the SAC coup have furthered these aspirations. In Articles (1) and (3), Part II of Chapter IV, Federal Democracy Charter (Part-1) by the National Unity Government, two important declarations were made:
“The member states of the Union and the people in these states are the original owners of sovereignty”; “Member states of the Union have the right to enact their own respective State Constitution."
From the perspective of non-Bamar peoples, these two clauses made important and recognisable progress in terms of political principle, and they differ from other documents by Bamar-centric parties in the past, allowing for the necessity of a separate national identity at the state level in Arakan and other parts of the country.
There is, however, a long way to go. The call for a “Confederated Arakan State” by the ULA leadership has not been accomplished by the NUG declaration, and during the past few years the ULA-AA have laid down their own way of creating a new “Arakan national identity”. Arguably, until the fall of Mrauk-U kingdom in 1784, Arakan had only a “semi-nation status” although it possessed its own independence and sovereignty. Then, during over two 200 years of colonisation and external rule, it never gained the status of a separate nation but was rather a sub-nation of a larger territory, which is today configured as Myanmar. Thus, with the rise of the ULA-AA, endeavours are underway to construct a modern Arakan national identity that is applicable to the movement’s political dream of “confederation”.
This leads to a number of conceptual questions. In a multi-ethnic region like Arakan, national identity should be mainly based on political and territorial characteristics that all peoples and communities agree with: in this case, the “Arakan Dream” initiated by the ULA leadership. But for this to happen, the reconstruction of “Arakan national identity” must include at least two further steps: first: acceptance by the Rakhine majority of the political goals of the “Arakan Dream” as envisioned by the ULA-AA; and second, belief and cooperation by non-Rakhine people in Arakan who will also support the same goals.
For the moment, it is obvious that the great majority of Rakhine-speaking people have already been providing strong support to the ULA-AA movement. But, within the second group, perceptions can vary, and these differences are based on a number of factors.
As in other parts of Myanmar, population statistics are uncertain and can often be contentious. But in the Arakan region, the Rohingya comprise the second largest group while the Chin are considered to be the third with around 100,000 people, followed by Kaman (over 50,000), Mro (40,000), Khami (30,000), Daignet (20,000), Maramagri (9,000) and Thet (3,000) – all figures approximate. But notions of ethnicity and identity can vary, and there are also such terms as “Arakanese Muslims” and Myedu Muslims as well as Bamar populations in urban areas. Among the minority groups, the Rohingya are generally best known due to their deprived situation and political advocacy. So it is important to note that all non-Bamar groups in Arakan – including the Rakhine, Rohingya and Chin – believe that they have been subjected to political exclusion, cultural disappearance and extreme poverty for many decades. Despite its potential, Rakhine State is one of the most impoverished territories in modern-day Myanmar.
For these reasons, it is crucial to account for all communities in a balanced approach in determining political and socio-economic rights in a nation-building process for Arakan. Minority groups also believe that they have been neglected by mainstream Rakhine or Bamar-centric political parties when votes have been cast in past elections. There was thus great interest when the ULA-AA leader Twan Mrat Naing recently spoke about the future of minority rights in Arakan in comparison to China’s nationality system that he has seen in Yunnan Province. It marks the first time in many years that the leader of a powerful political movement in Arakan spoke publicly about the rights of non-Rakhine groups.
Behind this increased visibility for minority peoples and the need for progress in inter-community relations is the rise of a new revolutionary movement, the ULA-AA. During its emergence, ULA leaders have recruited members from ethnic minorities, including Rohingya, into both its military wing, the AA, and administrative branch, the APA. This new prominence has come about to due to four key factors, marking a difference from electoral and Bamar-centric parties that have generally dominated the constitutional and government discourse since independence.
First, the current revolutionary leaders – unlike other leaders in Arakan – have a broader political vision. In essence, the ULA-AA leadership define the present revolutionary challenge as a liberation movement for all the people of Arakan, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
This leads to the second factor: the need for cooperation by minority peoples in revolutionary rather than party politics during the present phase of struggle. A new trend is emerging. Under an electoral system, the path to power for political leaders may be achieved by gaining enough votes from the Rakhine-speaking majority whereas revolutionary leaders recognise that they need support and participation by minority peoples who live in or near mountainous areas that transect the Arakan region. In the case of Rohingya-inhabited areas, for example, political party leaders simply think of ideology as an issue to mobilize support and votes from the Rakhine or, for example, Rohingya communities, whereas the revolutionary leadership consider it important to have a future vision for the whole of Arakan. This, they recognise, is also an important requirement in political dealings with the international community.
This then has impact on the third new trend in the definitions of modern Arakan identity: the differing ways in which electoral and revolutionary movements frame their ambitions in terms of national goals. A divergence has appeared. For electoral leaders, the highest slogan that can be declared within the current constitutional framework is “self-determination” under a “federal system”. In contrast, revolutionary leaders, who are seeking to implement their mission through armed struggle, can make a politically greater call: from confederation to independence. In practice, this means the higher the political ambition, the more important it is to set broader goals for minority peoples and to achieve their support.
Finally, a revolutionary group that is fighting for such a high political ambition needs – unlike an electoral party – a much stronger representation among all communities and peoples in Arakan. Such a party will also be treated by the international community with greater respect as a movement that can resolve the long-standing state failures in Arakan and Myanmar more generally.
In summary, the security and political landscape presently remains very uncertain. But, little noticed in the world outside, these differences in approaches between political parties and a revolutionary group in dealing with the nationality question has resulted in a change in the political discourse in Arakan. And, for this reason, many political actors in the state believe that substantive progress is being achieved in the construction of a modern Arakan national identity.
Critical times lie ahead. Essential challenges remain in politics and society; there are still grievances from the past; and the challenges are especially acute in rebuilding relations between Rakhine and Rohingya communities. In the Rakhine community, there are still minor social and political groups that are conservative and hardline concerning Rohingya relations. After the rise of the ULA-AA, though, the landscape has changed and the door to inter-community reconciliation is open. At the same time, there are stakeholders in the Rohingya population who can read the changing political situation and seek to be pragmatic and constructive in solving such long-standing divisions.
In the future, to achieve a successful nation-building process, it is important that hardliners in both communities are not at centre stage, and the international community also needs to adhere to this principle. Meanwhile many aspects of governance and administration are in national breakdown in Myanmar more generally.
Looking to the future, there remain reasons to be hopeful. In line with the theory of the “Thucydides’ Trap”** popularized by American political scientist Graham T. Allison, conflict emerges when the hegemonic power in an existing system is challenged by the rising power. In applying this theory to the Arakan-Myanmar nexus, the opening of the trap has already taken place with Arakan’s re-emergence under the ULA-AA movement. Thus if broader conflict is going to break out again in the future, it will be due to the lack of political will by one of the parties to maintain the current status quo that has existed post-ceasefire – not necessarily due to a competition over power per se.
Equally resonant, what happens in Arakan will inevitably have impact for the rest of the country – as well as vice versa. Since the SAC coup, the political pendulum has been swinging, causing huge impact on the political calculations of the different parties. But, for the moment, there appear no definitive outcomes. This was highlighted during the attendance by a low-level representative team from the ULA at the recent “Union Day” held by the SAC in Nay Pyi Taw which did not produce any progress or development. Rather, the ULA presence on that day was regarded as a trade-off for the release of over 40 of its members arrested during the conflict.
In the meantime, the military SAC will continue to try and step up political and security repression while re-building its security apparatus in Arakan and the country at large. In contrast, the ULA-AA’s journey of building a modern state and national identity will only accelerate more in the coming weeks and months. History, they believe, is now on the side of the Arakan people.
* Until Myanmar’s independence in 1948, Paletwa township in modern-day Chin State was administered under the Arakan Hill Tracts.
** There are various translations and versions of Thucydides words. The trap is generally summarised as: “When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.”
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.