Rakhine is boiling again. Will we look away?
After a two-year pause, the conflict between the Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar's military junta has resurged in Rakhine. In the context of the ongoing nationwide armed protests against the Sit-tat, the military of Myanmar, AA's struggle for autonomy bears significance for all stakeholders in the region. The fate of more than three million people in Rakhine and more than one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is now hanging in the balance.
How the conflict evolves in Rakhine will shape not only the future course of Myanmar, but also the regional and global power struggle surrounding the Bay of Bengal region. Bangladesh, located in the eye of the storm, can no longer be a passive onlooker.
In early June this year, tension between the AA and Sit-tat escalated following the reinforcement of junta troops across Rakhine, and the former's refusal to participate in peace talks. Since then, both sides have engaged in deadly offensives. In a recent social media post, Brig Gen Dr Nyo Twan Awng, deputy commander-in-chief of the AA, termed their return to war "a final war and decisive war" for building "the state of Arakan."
Founded in 2009, AA is a relatively new ethnic armed organisation (EAO). Starting with only 26 members and one gun, it now boasts having 30,000 troops under arms and controlling a major part of the Rakhine state. Their vision of restoring sovereignty of Arakan, which was lost to the Burmese Konbaung dynasty in 1784, has gained popular support from the Arakanese, who have historical grievances against the Burmese. Notably, in 1989, the military junta changed the name of Arakan to Rakhine.
Although the AA is led by Buddhist Rakhines who have a historical enmity with Muslim Rohingyas, they now seek to build an inclusive administration in Rakhine accommodating the latter. They have also assured the safe rehabilitation of Rohingya refugees. Experts believe that they will be an "ally" and "collaborator" for Rohingyas seeking justice and a peaceful homeland.
AA is also expanding its ties with the ongoing national resistance movement, and its support for the anti-junta National Unity Government (NUG) is now explicit.
Let's look at other key players active in Rakhine.
China, as a part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is constructing Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (KPSEZ) and Kyaukphyu deep-sea port in Rakhine. The port will provide China with direct access to the Bay of Bengal, and thus allow China's maritime traffic to bypass the Malacca Strait, which is largely controlled by the US. Considering its pivotal interest in Rakhine, the country seems to be pursuing, as alleged by India repeatedly, the "hunting with the hounds and running with the foxes" strategy: backing the military regime and, at the same time, supplying arms and ammunition to anti-junta resistance forces like the AA.
The issue was even raised by Min Aung Hlaing, the current junta chief and the commander-in-chief of Myanmar Defence Services, during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in January 2020. It may be noted that the AA has always welcomed Chinese investment in Rakhine.
India also has major investments in Rakhine. Its Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project aims to create sea-to-land access to the country's northeast region. As a part of this project, India has already constructed a deep-sea port in Rakhine's Sittwe. India has so far maintained bonhomie with the military junta and even conducted joint military operations targeting militant groups, including the AA. On the other hand, there have been several instances of AA attacking the Kaladan project.
India claims that China uses the armed group to limit India's presence in Rakhine. However, AA has always kept its anti-Kaladan activities below a certain threshold, and they are now eager to deal with India as the key protector of Rakhine. As the military junta is losing its grip over Myanmar, prominent Indian strategy analysts, including Subir Bhaumik and Praveen Swamy, are impressing upon the Modi government the importance of rethinking its Myanmar policy and opening some sort of dialogue with the AA.
The Western powers, particularly the US, have been critical of the military junta since the coup and have imposed multiple sanctions. The junta's growing affinity with Russia has provoked further punitive actions from the US and its allies. Most recently, on October 6, the US imposed sanctions against three Myanmarese individuals and a company for their "roles related to the procurement of Russian-produced military arms from Belarus for the Burmese regime."
However, the Western powers are still shy of engaging with the NUG and armed resistance groups robustly. They have been, instead, sticking to Asean's failed five-point consensus to promote dialogue among all parties. Malaysia has already suggested scrapping the consensus which, according to the key Asean member, is doing more harm than good by conferring a degree of legitimacy on the junta.
Human rights activists and Myanmar experts are urging governments, particularly Western powers, to join efforts of pursuing international legal action against the junta, including by joining the Gambia's case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The Gambia accused Myanmar of breaching the Genocide Convention during "clearance operations" against the Rohingyas in Rakhine in 2017.
Now, let's assess Bangladesh's response to the escalating conflict on its doorstep.
So far, the Bangladesh government has followed a wait-and-watch policy, which has proven to be fruitless, if not counterproductive. Its foreign ministry has summoned the Myanmar envoy several times and protested the violation of land and airspace by the military, but to no avail. It has failed to move much of international public opinion in its favour. There is also no progress in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees as per the tripartite commitment agreed upon by Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar. Bangladesh must rethink its approach towards Myanmar.
Two immediate measures deserve special mention here. First, the recent ICJ verdict (July 22, 2022) created an unprecedented opportunity for countries to join and support the Gambia's legal action against Myanmar. Unfortunately, no state has filed a formal declaration of intervention with the ICJ yet. Bangladesh should go all-out to mobilise states, particularly key global players, to join the case.
Secondly, the government should seriously consider the International Crisis Group's suggestion to open dialogue with the AA on Rohingya repatriation. Similarly, they should initiate some sort of engagement with the NUG and assure them of Bangladesh's support for the democratic transformation of Myanmar.
There is no doubt that Myanmar is a difficult country to deal with, but Bangladesh can't shrug off its responsibility. Myanmar has long been the blind spot in Bangladesh's foreign policy, and the country has failed to develop a consistent Myanmar policy. There is a serious lack of trust and cooperation between the two neighbours, and that's the source of all the malaises Bangladesh suffers at the hand of Myanmar.
In the long run, Bangladesh must find ways to build strong relations with Myanmar encompassing all aspects of bilateral relations. There are already many expert opinions on how to achieve that goal; I want to highlight only one: build a robust understanding of Myanmar.
Shamsuddoza Sajen is a journalist and researcher.