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

Myanmar Regional Crime Webs Enjoy Post-Coup Resurgence: The Kokang Story

Myanmar Regional Crime Webs Enjoy Post-Coup Resurgence: The Kokang Story

Friday, August 27, 2021

By:Jason Tower;Priscilla A. Clapp

Following the coup by the Myanmar army on February 1, 2021, fighting exploded immediately in the China-Myanmar border area along a strategic trade route between the two countries. But the outbreak wasn’t about the coup — instead it was a battle between two Chinese-speaking militias over control of the Kokang Special Administrative Zone, a lucrative center for illegal business. The story behind this episode provides a small window on the rise of regional criminal networks under the army’s patronage and how they are enjoying a new lease on life under the junta.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention;Economics & Environment

How Myanmar’s Coup Opens Opportunity for National Reconciliation

How Myanmar’s Coup Opens Opportunity for National Reconciliation

Friday, August 20, 2021

By:Zarchi Oo;Hkawn Htoi;Carl Stauffer, Ph.D.

Since Myanmar’s military illegally deposed the country’s elected government on February 1, it has killed more than 1,000 people and is actively undermining efforts to manage the COVID pandemic by arresting volunteer doctors, blocking imports of medical supplies and hoarding and stealing oxygen. The military’s inhumanity and daily atrocities have created a common enemy for a divided society and a rare opportunity for the Myanmar people to initiate a much-needed nation-building process. The opposition is a loose group of organizations largely held together by a shared hatred for the military. If it is to decisively shift the trajectory of this conflict and end the military’s 70-year stranglehold on power, it will need to unify through a transformative reconciliation process.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Reconciliation

In Myanmar, the State the Generals Seized Is Coming Apart

In Myanmar, the State the Generals Seized Is Coming Apart

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By:Jason Tower

Over the past six months under the junta’s “care,” the chaos and turmoil sparked by the coup has moved the country past the brink of failed state status. Growing armed resistance is emerging in the shrinking area where the military’s unbridled brutality has preserved its veneer of control. In liberated zones and particularly in regions controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), new forms of governance and even sovereignty are taking shape in the vacuum left by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s war on political reform. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance;Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications