Armed conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, the national army, has escalated sharply in the past two years. This development has been largely eclipsed, however, by the continuing international focus on the human rights crisis of the Rohingya Muslim minority. As this report explains, if this new conflict continues to expand in scope and ferocity, the hope of repatriating Rohingya refugees will recede into the future and the rest of the country will suffer from the increasing violence and destabilization.

Kyaw Han, general secretary of United League of Arakan/Arakan Army, attends a March 2019 meeting with government, military, and ethnic armed organizations. (Aung Shine Oo/AP)
Kyaw Han, general secretary of United League of Arakan/Arakan Army, attends a March 2019 meeting with government, military, and ethnic armed organizations. (Aung Shine Oo/AP)

Summary

  • Myanmar’s most serious conflict in many decades has emerged in Rakhine State between the Myanmar armed forces (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA), demanding self-determination for the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic minority. It leaves Rohingya refugees with little chance of a safe return.
  • The AA’s guerrilla tactics have caused many military and civilian casualties, evoking a typically fierce armed response from the Tatmadaw and compounding the human and physical damage.
  • The AA’s sophisticated communications strategies use social media to swell its recruitment base, build civilian support, trade insults with the Tatmadaw, and reach an international audience.
  • Government efforts to marginalize and demonize the AA are counterproductive with the Rakhine population, hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities for political solutions. This conflict will continue to escalate absent the AA’s inclusion in the peace process, sending Rakhine State into a downward spiral that could seriously damage the rest of the country.
  • With strategic investments to protect in Rakhine’s Kyaukphyu port, influence on other armed groups, and an interest in the peace process, China is the only external player that can influence the AA.

About the Report

In the most serious conflict currently active in Myanmar, the Arakan Army, a Buddhist Rakhine ethnic minority insurgent group, is fighting the Myanmar security forces. This report, commissioned by USIP’s Burma program, explains why any hope for reconciliation and for the safe return of Rohingya refugees will require political negotiation and inclusion of the Arakan Army in the nationwide peace process.

About the Author

David Scott Mathieson is a Myanmar-based independent analyst working on conflict, peace, humanitarian and human rights issues, and the drug trade. From 2006 to 2016 he was the senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch based in Thailand and Myanmar. He has contributed articles to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Irrawaddy, Foreign Policy, and is a regular contributor to Asia Times.

Related Publications

Visions for Peace in Burma

Visions for Peace in Burma

Monday, January 11, 2021

By: Billy Ford

Burma has faced various ethnic conflicts since shortly after its independence in 1948. In that time, five different peace efforts have failed, leaving Burma in what constitutes the world’s longest running civil war. However, since the country’s November 8 elections, there has been a flurry of meetings between ethnic-armed organizations and the military, known as the Tatmadaw. These unexpected talks are the first signs of progress toward a resolution of the seemingly intractable war—that is, if the sides can learn from the past and create a fresh, inclusive renewal of the peace process that draws on the country’s diverse voices advocating for peace.

Type: Blog

Peace Processes; Reconciliation

Myanmar Elections 2020: Ethnic Tensions and a Military Hand

Myanmar Elections 2020: Ethnic Tensions and a Military Hand

Saturday, November 7, 2020

By: Jason Tower

The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) is expected to win Myanmar’s general elections on November 8, but the 2020 race is much more hotly contested than 2015. The growing political frustration of the country’s non-Burma ethnic nationalities is fueling insurgencies and the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party, and its armed forces patrons, are criticizing the government and attacking the country’s feeble electoral institutions. The way Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities experience the process will have major implications for peacemaking efforts moving forward.   

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance; Electoral Violence

Election Cancellations in Rakhine State Could Signal Trouble for Myanmar

Election Cancellations in Rakhine State Could Signal Trouble for Myanmar

Thursday, November 5, 2020

By: Priscilla A. Clapp; Jason Tower

On October 16, when it took the stunning and sweeping decision to cancel most of the vote in Rakhine State on November 8, the Union Election Commission (UEC) disenfranchised an estimated 73% of Rakhine voters, in addition to the Rohingya who had been stripped of voting rights in 2015. The UEC justified its decision on the grounds that the election could be neither free nor fair because of ongoing armed conflict in the state. When critics asked why the elections had not been cancelled in war-stricken Paletwa, where security concerns are most acute, the UEC called off elections in parts of that Chin State town and restored them in a few village tracts in Rakhine.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

Why Burma’s Peace Efforts Have Failed to End Its Internal Wars

Why Burma’s Peace Efforts Have Failed to End Its Internal Wars

Friday, October 2, 2020

By: Bertil Lintner

After seven decades of civil war and five failed peace efforts, Burma is no closer than before to reaching an agreement that would bring an end to its many conflicts. Analysis of those previous attempts shows that they all foundered on immutable attitudes on both sides. This report suggests that the peace process needs a fresh start, learning from the past and seeking to resolve underlying political disparities while prioritizing community interests and sustainable development.

Type: Peaceworks

Peace Processes

View All Publications