Smouldering debris of burned houses is seen in Warpait village, a Muslim village in Maungdaw located in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 14 October, 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Report 283 / Asia

Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

Recent attacks by an émigré-led force of trained Rohingya fighters mark a dangerous turn. To remove a main root of the violence – Rohingya despair – the government must reverse longstanding discrimination against the Muslim minority, moderate its military tactics, and reach out to Myanmar’s Muslim allies.

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Executive Summary

The deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) bases in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State on 9 October 2016 and the days following, and a serious escalation on 12 November when a senior army officer was killed, signify the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency there. The current violence is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades, seriously threatens the prospects of stability and development in the state and has serious implications for Myanmar as a whole. The government faces a huge challenge in calibrating and integrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are kept under control. It requires also taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.

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Failure to get this right would carry enormous risks. While the government has a clear duty to maintain security and take action against the attackers, it needs, if its response is to be effective, to make more judicious use of force and focus on a political and policy approach that addresses the sense of hopelessness and despair underlying the anger of many Muslims in Rakhine State. Complicating this is that Aung San Suu Kyi has some influence, but under the constitution no direct control over the military.

The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this well-organised, apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine State, which include longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, denial of rights and lack of citizenship. The current use of disproportionate military force in response to the attacks, which fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, together with denial of humanitarian assistance to an extremely vulnerable population and the lack of an overarching political strategy that would offer them some hope for the future, is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence and potential mass displacement.

HaY would not have been able to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local leaders and communities. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population, and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years rather than any sort of inevitability.

A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive.

It is important for the government’s response to start from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some Muslims in Rakhine State has emerged. The population has seen its rights progressively eroded, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. This has become particularly acute since the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. Disenfranchisement prior to the 2015 elections severed the last link with politics and means of influence. At the same time, the disruption of maritime migration routes to Malaysia closed a vital escape valve, particularly for young men whose only tangible hope for the future was dashed. An increasing sense of despair has driven more people to consider a violent response, but it is not too late for the government to reverse the trend.

It requires recognising first that these people have lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so. Ways must be found to give them a place in the nation’s life. A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive. It will likely create further despair and animosity, increasing support for HaY and further entrenching violence. International experience strongly suggests that an aggressive military response, particularly if not embedded in a broader policy framework, will be ineffective against the armed group and has the potential to considerably aggravate matters.

So far, though there are indications of some training and solidarity, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. But there are risks that if the government mishandles the situation, including by continued use of disproportionate force that has driven tens of thousands from their homes or across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for further radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit to pursue their own agendas in the country. To avoid that requires subordinating the security response and integrating it into a well-crafted, overarching political strategy – building stronger, more positive relations between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

I. Introduction

This report examines the emergence of a new form of organised violent resistance in the Muslim-majority northern parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.[fn]For recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Asia Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote It follows up Crisis Group’s detailed examination in 2014 of Rakhine politics, which should be referred to for a broader analysis of the dynamics in the state as a whole. It is important to know and acknowledge the perspectives of Rakhine Buddhists and their strongly-felt grievances.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote The current violence, however, is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades and has fundamental implications for the situation in the troubled state and potentially for Myanmar’s transition as a whole.

The report looks at the establishment of a new armed group, its objectives and international links; the response of the government and security forces; and the implications for the people of Rakhine State and the country. It is based on extensive research and interviews in Yangon; interviews with several members of the armed group in northern Rakhine State and villagers and key sources in the area; interviews with other sources connected to the group living outside Myanmar; interviews with members of the Rohingya diaspora, including in the Middle East; interviews with recent arrivals in Bangladesh who have fled Rakhine; and analysis of conversations on messaging applications such as WhatsApp over the last six months. Much research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the local dialect spoken by Muslims in northern Rakhine State. In cases of particularly sensitive information and to protect the identities of interviewees and researchers, details of locations and dates have been withheld, replaced by a general description of the sourcing for a paragraph or section.

The term “Rohingya” is highly contested within Myanmar, because it is perceived as a claim of indigenous ethnic status by a community most Rakhine Buddhists, indeed most people in Myanmar, regard as immigrants from Bangladesh, and whom they therefore prefer to refer to as “Bengali”.[fn]Ibid, Section V.C, including for more detailed discussion of the term’s sensitivity.Hide Footnote The government has asked its officials and the international community to refrain from either term. “Rohingya” is used in this report not to imply endorsement of any particular historical narrative or political claim but because it is the term that community overwhelmingly refers to itself by, and because other terms such as “Muslims from Rakhine State” are less precise: several Muslim communities in the state do not identify as “Rohingya”, including (but not only) the Kaman, a recognised indigenous Muslim group. It is Muslims in the northern parts of Rakhine State that most strongly identify as “Rohingya”; those in the diaspora who so identify are overwhelmingly from this area, rather than central or southern parts of the state.[fn]For detailed discussion of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, see ibid.Hide Footnote

II. Previous Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

During the Second World War, Rakhine was the front line between the Japanese invaders and allied forces. Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were on opposing sides; most of the former remained pro-British, while the latter supported the Japanese until a last-minute switch enabled the eventual allied reoccupation of Rakhine. Both communities formed armed units and attacked the other, with accounts of massacres on both sides in 1942-1943. Muslims fled to the north, where they were the majority, and Rakhine Buddhists moved south.[fn]Mary Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma (Ithaca, 2003), chapter 2; Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group (Wiesbaden, 1972).Hide Footnote

A mujahidin rebellion erupted in April 1948, a few months after independence. The rebels initially explored the possibility of annexing northern Rakhine State to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), but Pakistan rejected this. They then sought the right of the population to live as full citizens in an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the state and an end to what they saw as discrimination by the Rakhine Buddhist officials who replaced the colonial administrators. The immigration authorities placed restrictions on the movement of Muslims from northern Rakhine to Sittwe, the state capital. Some 13,000 Muslims who fled during the war and were living in refugee camps in India and East Pakistan were not permitted to return; those who did were considered illegal immigrants.[fn]Yegar, op. cit. On the eve of independence some Rakhine intellectuals led by barrister Hla Tun Pru were demanding an independent “Arakanistan” for the Rakhine people. See Aye Chan, “The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar)”, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, vol. 3, no. 2 (2005), p. 410.Hide Footnote

The rebels targeted Rakhine Buddhist interests as well as the government, quickly seizing control of large parts of the north and expelling many Buddhist villagers. Law and order almost completely broke down, with two communist insurgencies (Red Flag and White Flag) in addition to the mujahidin, as well as Rakhine nationalist groups, including the (Marxist) Arakan People’s Liberation Party, in the south of the state.[fn]Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (London, 1999), p. 28.Hide Footnote An embattled Burmese army, facing ethnic insurgencies across the country, controlled little of Rakhine other than Sittwe. In the violence and chaos, relations between Buddhist and Muslim communities deteriorated further. Many moderate Rakhine Muslim leaders rejected the mujahidin insurgency, even vainly asking the government for arms to fight back.

It was not until 1954 that the army launched a massive offensive, Operation Monsoon, that captured most of the mujahidin mountain strongholds on the East Pakistan border. The rebellion was eventually ended through ceasefires in 1961 and defeat of remaining groups, leaving only small-scale armed resistance and banditry. Partly in response to mujahidin demands, partly for electoral reasons, in 1961 the government established a Mayu Frontier Administration in northern Rakhine, administered by army officers rather than Rakhine officials.[fn]Martin Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, unpublished article, 1995. Yegar, op. cit.Hide Footnote But the 1962 military coup led to a more hardline stance toward minorities, and the Mayu Frontier Administration was dissolved. This prompted attempts to re-form the mujahidin movement that failed to gain significant local support.

In 1974, inspired by the rise of pan-Islamist movements in the world, the Rohingya Patriotic Front armed group was formed from remnants of earlier failures. It split into several factions, one of the more radical of which became the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) armed group in 1982. The RSO split in 1986, giving rise to the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) splinter; in 1998, the two groups formed a loose alliance, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the RSO had small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the Myanmar border but was not thought to have any inside Myanmar. In its highest-profile attack, in April 1994, several dozen fighters entered Maungdaw from Bangladesh, including a group landed by boat in Myin Hlut village-tract, south Maungdaw. On 28 April, bombs they planted in Maungdaw town caused damage and several civilian injuries, and fighters followed up with attacks on the town’s outskirts. The group did not receive strong local support, and security forces, alerted by informants, quickly defeated them.[fn]Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Regional security analysts viewed the RSO as essentially defunct as an armed group by the end of the 1990s, though it kept an organisational structure in Bangladesh and did training and occasional small attacks on Myanmar security forces into the early 2000s. A Myanmar military intelligence report, cited in a U.S. diplomatic cable in 2002, made the “generally plausible” claim that 90 RSO/ARIF members attended a guerrilla war course, and thirteen also participated in explosives and heavy weapons courses in Libya and Afghanistan in August 2001. Also in the early 2000s, the RSO had an active weapons and explosives training exchange with the militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, regional security analysts, Dhaka, July-August 2014, November 2016. “Arakan Rohingya National Organization contacts with Al Qaeda and with Burmese insurgent groups on the Thai border”, U.S. embassy Rangoon cable, 10 October 2002, as made public by WikiLeaks. Crisis Group Asia Report N°187, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, 1 March 2010.Hide Footnote

More recently, the authorities have continued to blame the RSO for occasional attacks on security forces in northern Rakhine State, for example deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) patrols in northern Maungdaw in February and May 2014, including one on 17 May that killed four officers.[fn]Internal UN security management team note, Bangladesh, June 2014. See also, “All not quiet on the Burmese front”, Probe Weekly, 6 June 2014.Hide Footnote However, there is no evidence that it retained operational capability after the early-2000s, and armed criminal gangs operate on the border, smuggling drugs and other contraband. The RSO has also become something of a Rohingya militant brand that anyone can use, regardless of connections to the original organisation.

III. Deepening Despair

The anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine State in June and October 2012, though it did not primarily affect the north of the state, seriously strained intercommunal relations.[fn]For analysis, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 238, Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, 12 November 2012; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013.Hide Footnote It generated feelings of insecurity in Buddhist and Muslim communities but had the biggest impact on the latter. It also hardened anti-Muslim sentiment and led to increases in Buddhist nationalist hate speech. There were multiple cases of serious anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar the following year, as well as nationalist lobbying for a package of “protection of race and religion” laws widely seen as targeting Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Dark Side of Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote

These were in addition to longstanding restrictions on access to citizenship for most Muslims in Rakhine State. This has led to serious discrimination against these communities, particularly the Rohingya. Permission to marry must be obtained from the authorities, and there are also severe restrictions on freedom of movement outside the village-tract or between townships, limiting work opportunities and access to government services.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In the lead-up to the 2015 elections, the Muslim population in Rakhine State without citizenship cards – nearly all other than some Kaman – was disenfranchised, severing its last connection to politics and peaceful influence. Even those without citizenship cards had voted in previous elections. Crisis Group warned in advance that this risked organised violence.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Compounding the sense among many Rohingya that politics had failed them was that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) did not take a strong stand on minority religious rights in general or the Rohingya’s specific plight in the campaign. After coming to power, she did make it a top government priority, chairing a committee on Rakhine State and appointing former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head an advisory commission, but some Rohingya had already concluded there was little hope the new administration would address their demands.[fn]Myanmar election: Aung San Suu Kyi campaigns in contentious Rakhine state”, The Guardian, 16 October 2015; “Burma elections: Aung San Suu Kyi steers clear of ‘stateless’ minority the Rohingya”, The Independent, 17 October 2015; “After Myanmar election, few signs of a better life for Muslims”, The New York Times, 18 November 2015; “Aung San Suu Kyi aide: Rohingya are not our priority”, The Telegraph, 19 November 2015. Crisis Group interviews, analysts specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November-December 2015.Hide Footnote

In May 2015, a maritime migration crisis escalated in the Andaman Sea, after a Thai crackdown disrupted people smuggling networks, causing smugglers and crew to abandon boats laden with migrants from Myanmar (mostly Rohingya) and Bangladesh; hundreds were feared to have died. This shut down smuggling routes to Malaysia. When these routes had not reopened by the start of the post-monsoon sailing season in September, it meant a critical escape valve for Rohingya had closed and caused despair among young men who saw migration as their only chance of a better future.[fn]“Mixed maritime movements, April-June 2015”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Office for South-East Asia. Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Yangon, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Emergence of a New Organised Violent Resistance

A. The 9 October Attacks

In the early hours of 9 October, several hundred local Muslim men, armed mostly with knives and slingshots and about 30 firearms, launched simultaneous attacks on three BGP posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships near the north-western border with Bangladesh. According to the authorities, nine police were killed; and the attackers, eight of whom were killed and two captured, made off with 62 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition.[fn]Government press conference, Naypyitaw, 9 October, reported in Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), 10 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote

One of the targets was BGP headquarters, a major installation in Kyee Kan Pyin (just north of Maungdaw town) that was overrun in a multi-phase attack, and from where the majority of weapons were looted. In another indication of the preparation level, the group planted an improvised explosive device (IED) and set an ambush on the approach road to the headquarters, delaying reinforcements and damaging vehicles. The two other targets were a BGP sector headquarters at Nga Khu Ya in north Maungdaw and a BGP outpost at Koe Dan Kauk in Rathedaung, just south of Maungdaw township. The government estimated the total attackers at 400.[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016. See also “Operation Backdoor”, Yehtun Blog, 20 October 2010.Hide Footnote Several further clashes occurred 10-12 October, including one on 11 October in which four soldiers were killed.[fn]Troops fight back violent armed attackers, kill four”, GNLM, 11 October 2016, p. 1; “Tatmadaw attacked by 300 armed men, four soldiers killed”, GNLM, 12 October 2016, p. 1; “Troops kill 10 violent armed attackers in area clearance operation in Maungdaw tsp” and “Armed men violently attack Kyikanpyin border outpost, set fire to 25 houses in Warpaik Village”, GNLM, 13 October 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote Two attacks on 3 November that state media reported as linked to the attackers are more uncertain.[fn]As reported in GNLM, 5 November 2016, p. 2, the incidents occurred in south rather than north Maungdaw where the other attacks and subsequent clashes took place. One was the burning down of a disused BGP post, the other allegedly on a BGP base. There are competing narratives about the latter incident: village sources said it was a shooting between two police officers, not an attack. Crisis Group interviews, November 2016, and information from a non-government source with contacts in the area.Hide Footnote

The attacks marked a major escalation of violence in Rakhine and reflected an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that had seen little organised violent resistance from the Muslim population. They caused widespread fear in both communities, particularly among Buddhist Rakhine villagers, who are the minority in the northern part of the state; some 3,000 of them fled to towns.[fn]Myanmar - New displacement in Rakhine State”, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, Daily Flash, 21 October 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Response from Government and Security Forces

The military and BGP launched a major operation aimed at recovering the looted weapons, capturing those involved and arresting their helpers. Its intensity likely reflected both the exigencies of the security situation and that the initial attacks and subsequent deadly clashes were seen as a major affront to security forces’ dignity. The BGP commander, Police Brigadier-General Maung Maung Khaing, was removed for “poor performance”, probably due to both intelligence failures (see Section IV.C) and losing his headquarters and its armoury during the attacks; his replacement is a brigadier-general transferred from the regular police.[fn]Government press conference, 17 October, reported in GNLM, 18 October 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote

The Myanmar authorities have consistently referred to “joint operations”, usually indicating that the military is supporting BGP operations. This language began to be used in particular following a “special meeting on national defence and security” on 14 October that brought together the president, Aung San Suu Kyi, the commander-in-chief and others. The normal constitutional mechanism for activating military involvement in such a situation would be declaration of a state of emergency by the president, with National Defence and Security Council approval, as happened three times under the Thein Sein administration. However, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to regard the Council as politically illegitimate, and it has not met under her government, so no state of emergency can be declared.[fn]Ibid; see also “Special meeting on national defence and security”, GNLM, 15 October 2016, p. 1. Under Section 413(a) of the constitution, a state of emergency in a state/region empowers local civilian authorities and civil service bodies to obtain military help in carrying out their duties. The reason for Suu Kyi’s view is that the military has the majority of the Council’s eleven seats (five uniformed officers plus the military-nominated vice president, a retired senior officer), so can outvote civilian government representatives. She may also have protocol concerns: it is chaired by the president; her membership is as foreign minister, not state counsellor.Hide Footnote In practice, though joint BGP-army patrols take place, the army has authority over the security response, under its western commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the response, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The military has indicated it is conducting “area clearance operations” across a section of northern Maungdaw township, which it has sealed off. On the basis of reports from the authorities and non-government sources, it appears to be using something akin to its standard counter-insurgency “four cuts” strategy developed in the 1960s to cut off rebel forces from their four main support sources (food, funds, intelligence, recruits) and largely unchanged since. It involves cordoning off territory for concentrated operations, a “calculated policy of terror” to force populations to move, destruction of villages in sensitive areas and confiscation or destruction of food stocks that could support insurgents.[fn]For details, see Smith, Insurgency, op. cit. p. 288 ff.; Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces (Norwalk, 2001), pp. 91-91; and Maung Aung Myoe, “Military Doctrine and Strategy in Myanmar” Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, working paper 339, 1999, p. 10.Hide Footnote

 

Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers … as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security.

Operations in the sealed-off area bear many hallmarks of that strategy. After the 9 October attacks, there were multiple reports of suspects shot on sight, burning of many houses, looting of property and seizure or destruction of food stocks – as well as of women and girls raped.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, villagers and community leaders in the operations area, October 2016. Also, Arakan Project, internal notes nos. 1 and 2, October and November 2016.Hide Footnote Humanitarian agencies have been denied access to some 30,000 people in the sealed-off area, displaced as a result of the attacks and their aftermath, as well as 130,000 previously receiving life-saving aid, with the exception of a one-time food delivery to four villages (6,500 people) on 6 November and the following days by the World Food Programme (WFP); and a food delivery by the government on 18 November to an IDP camp that had formed spontaneously in Thu U Lar village-tract.[fn]Situation in northern Rakhine State”, WFP, Situation Report no. 3, November 2016; “Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 12 December 2016; Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, December 2016; “Food provided to residents of Maungtaw”, GNLM, 21 November 2016, p. 3. Government permission for WFP to deliver a two-week supply of rations was granted following a government-led visit to the affected area by the UN Resident Coordinator and nine ambassadors on 2-3 November.Hide Footnote

Another common element of counter-insurgency operations in other parts of Myanmar is army establishment of local militias. Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers, particularly since the 2012 violence, as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security. This is particularly serious in the current context, because arming Buddhist villagers could lead the Muslim armed group, which has avoided attacking Buddhist civilians, to view them as combatant targets.

That would be a major escalation. Worryingly, the security forces have been contemplating the initiative. They have recruited some 120 local non-Muslims in what was initially presented to the Rakhine community and so likely interpreted by local Muslims as raising a BGP militia. The government has clarified that it is an accelerated BGP training program with loosened admission criteria, and trainees will be deployed as regular BGP.[fn]Militia call a shot in the arm for Rakhine armies”, Myanmar Times, 12 May 2014. “Myanmar police to arm and train non-Muslims in conflict-torn Rakhine region”, Reuters, 3 November 2016. “Myanmar's training for non-Muslim police stokes fear in Rakhine”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote But a significant risk remains of blurring lines between civilian villagers and security personnel, even if only in perception. One Rakhine armed group, the Arakan Liberation Army, has been attempting to increase its armed strength in the area to counter a perceived Muslim threat.[fn]Authorities seize cache of weapons and ammunition in Hpa-an bust”, The Irrawaddy, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The government denies allegations of human rights violations.[fn]See, for example, “False allegations on violating human rights exposed to the world”, GNLM, 3 November 2016, p. 1; “Local residents’ accounts differ from fabricated media stories”, GNLM, 7 November 2016, p. 1; “Military’s information team refutes fabrication about massive destruction in Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 November 2016, p. 3; “Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2o16, p. 1; “Reports of hundreds fleeing Myanmar being pushed back by Bangladesh said to be false” and “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote Lack of media and other independent access makes verification hard, but blanket denials, even of factual claims based on satellite imagery or international media reports from the ground of flight to Bangladesh, are not plausible and undermine the credibility of its other claims.[fn]Credible evidence that has been denied includes: “Satellite-based damage assessment of affected villages in Maungdaw District”, Human Rights Watch, 10 November 2016; an updated damage assessment, 18 November 2016; and “Hundreds of Rohingya flee Myanmar army crackdown to Bangladesh – sources”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote Some counter-narratives clash with satellite data, for example that local Muslim villagers are torching their own homes to get international sympathy or that it is the armed group’s arson. Analysis of that data shows destruction of at least 1,500 buildings.[fn]Burma: Military burned villages in Rakhine State”, Human Rights Watch, 13 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Some villages were systematically destroyed over days, rather than isolated, geographically dispersed events as would be expected from individuals or small-group hit-and-run attacks. Moreover, much arson took place during military operations when many troops were present – not only at the time of attacks, but also over subsequent days. Troops also have security motivation (denial of access to villages in insecure areas is a standard counter-insurgency tactic, often achieved in the past in other parts of Myanmar by burning villages), while the armed group is reliant on at least some local civilian support.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Human Rights Watch staffer, November 2016. Selth, op. cit., p. 163.Hide Footnote

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working ‘hand in glove’ with the attackers.

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working “hand in glove” with the attackers. The government reportedly interceded with the Myanmar Times when one of its experienced foreign journalists reported on allegations of rapes by military personnel. She was fired shortly thereafter, and the paper’s owner put a moratorium on reporting on the Rakhine State conflict. An opinion piece in state media called the reporting “an act of gross unethical journalism” but added that “credit should be given to the media group for … immediately firing that journalist”.[fn]Fourth estate must abide by ‘code of ethics’: minister for information”, Myanmar Times, 9 November 2016. “Myanmar journalist says she was fired over story on military rape allegations”, The Guardian, 4 November 2016; “Reporter’s sacking followed MoI [Ministry of Information] phone call, sparking press freedom fears”, Frontier Myanmar, 4 November 2016. “Myanmar press under pressure as paper bans Rakhine reports”, Agence France-Presse, 8 November 2016. Khin Maung Myint, “Morality and ethics”, GNLM, 24 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote Such intimidation has a chilling effect on reporting by other journalists and publications. For example, a reporter from a prominent local English-language publication interviewed a member of the BGP who admitted burning down Muslim homes in the operations area but self-censored the account.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual with direct knowledge of the incident, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Potentially even more serious is that the repeated blanket government denials, widely disseminated via the state media in English and Burmese, reinforce a climate of impunity for troops that is particularly dangerous in a context of widespread negative sentiments toward the Muslim population at all levels of the military and in society as a whole. The state media has published disturbing opinion pieces, for example one that referred to the Rakhine State situation as caused by “detestable human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench”.[fn]A flea cannot make a whirl of dust, but …”, GNLM, 27 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote

C. A Spiral of Violence

A further serious escalation on 12 November made clear that the attacks on security forces were not one-off and that the armed group was still operational despite a month of intensive military operations.

Government accounts and Crisis Group interviews with villagers, other local sources and members of the armed group paint a broadly consistent picture.[fn]A government account is given in “One officer, one soldier dead, several injured [as] fighting continuously erupts in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote At 6:45am, an army column clashed with some 60 members of the armed group in a valley near Pwint Hpyu Chaung village; one soldier died and several were wounded; six attackers were reportedly killed. There were several other skirmishes as the attackers retreated to Gwa Son village. When troops approached the village, the armed group shot at them. Several hundred villagers, armed with whatever they had to hand (knives and farming implements), supported the attackers, seemingly spontaneously. A lieutenant-colonel was shot dead, and the troops retreated, calling in air support from two attack helicopters with mounted machine guns.[fn]Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p.1.Hide Footnote The helicopters allegedly fired indiscriminately, including at villagers fleeing across paddy fields; videos taken by villagers show several bodies in fields, including women and children.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The same day, there were at least two IED attacks on government forces in the area. A BGP convoy was struck as it crossed a bridge, then came under attack by armed combatants; the authorities report the attackers were repelled and that there were no casualties. In the second incident, an army column was struck by an IED, reportedly damaging a vehicle but without casualties.[fn]Violent armed attackers ambush convoy of border guards and government staffs, explode a bridge in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1. “Government troops attacked with improvised mines in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 14 November 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote The authorities have reported several other IED incidents and said that explosives/IEDs were also used tactically in the initial attack on the BGP headquarters.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November 2016; also, for example, “IED discovered on village road in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote

Following the 12 November clashes, the military considerably stepped up its operations. In addition to using attack helicopters in areas with many civilian non-combatants, ground troops became much more aggressive. Troops entered Gwa Son and surrounding villages on 13 November, shooting at villagers who fled. Videos taken by villagers show several charred bodies discovered the next day in the remains of a house, in circumstances that remain unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote Many villages were also partially or completely destroyed by arson.

The impact of a “four cuts” operation on civilians is far greater in Maungdaw than in the mountains of the eastern border, where it has been used in the past. Those areas are sparsely populated, communities often have decades of conflict experience, well-developed coping mechanisms and generally better food security. Even there, the toll is heavy. But Maungdaw is densely populated predominantly lowland, communities have almost no experience of armed conflict, and there is pre-existing malnutrition and food insecurity well above critical emergency thresholds.[fn]According to UN 2015 data, the global acute malnutrition rate (measured in children under five) in Maungdaw is 19 per cent, by far the worst in Myanmar and well above the World Health Organisation’s emergency critical threshold of 15 per cent. See also “Myanmar aid curbs hit children in Muslim-majority region: U.N.”, Reuters, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote The population was already living on the edge; fear of conflict and abuses combined with a serious livelihoods shock – humanitarian support is almost completely blocked, and food imports from Bangladesh have been disrupted – have led many to flee across the border. At least 27,000 are known to have done so in recent weeks; it would not take much for this to become a mass exodus like 1978 (200,000) or 1991 (250,000).[fn]Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UNOCHA, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Violence and abuses are likely to boost support for the armed group. People pushed to desperation and anger, with no hope for the future, are more likely to embrace extremist responses, however counterproductive. With an armed militant group in place and ready to capitalise, the current security response is likely to drive a dangerous spiral of attacks, military responses and increased popular radicalisation. This would also seriously impact the Rakhine and Burman Buddhist communities’ security and livelihoods in northern Rakhine State, where they have long felt themselves an embattled and fearful minority.

V. The Armed Group and its Motivations

A. The Group and its Objectives

Crisis Group has interviewed six persons linked to the armed group: four members in northern Maungdaw and two outside Myanmar. Separate discussions with them, as well as others involved in chat groups on secure messaging applications and analysis of videos released by the group have revealed a partial picture of its origins, structure and objectives.

The group refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY, “Faith Movement” in Arabic). The government calls it Aqa Mul Mujahidin, a generic Arabic phrase meaning “communities of fighters” that it gleaned from interrogations of suspects. Prior to the attacks, even members and supporters at village level were not aware of the real name and referred to it by this generic phrase (and perhaps also “RSO”, which may be why the government claimed that old group’s involvement). After the 9 October attacks, Rohingya communities in Saudi Arabia, other Middle Eastern countries and Malaysia began to ask who carried them out. According to HaY, people associated with the RSO began to falsely claim responsibility and to collect donations on this basis from the Rohingya diaspora and large private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. This, they say, was what prompted the group to reveal its name, show some of its faces on camera and prove that it was on the ground.

The first video, circulated to Rohingya networks on 11 October and leaked on YouTube the next day, has the name Harakah al-Yaqin overlaid in Arabic script. In the second, uploaded to YouTube on 14 October, the group used this name and warned donors not to trust other groups claiming to be behind the attacks, saying that “some people tried to sell our movement and our community”, a reference to the RSO. Further videos were subsequently released, showing their continued actions in north Maungdaw and stating their demands.[fn]The first video is James MMT. “Islamic terrorist asked Rohingya to join them for jihad to Myanmar Burma Rakhine Arakan”. 12 October 2016. YouTube: Harlz Erdogan. “Rohginya mujahideen call for weapons”. 14 October 2016. YouTube. There have been nine so far, the latest filmed after the 12 November escalation and uploaded to YouTube 20 November.Hide Footnote

HaY was established and is overseen by a committee of some twenty senior leaders headquartered in Mecca, with at least one member based in Medina. All are Rohingya émigrés or have Rohingya heritage. They are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and possibly India. Some or all have visited Bangladesh and northern Rakhine State at different times in the last two years.

… the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise.

The main speaker in the videos is Ata Ullah (alias Ameer Abu Amar, and, within the armed group, Abu Amar Jununi, the name mentioned in a number of the videos); the government identifies him as Hafiz Tohar, presumably another alias. His father, a Muslim from northern Rakhine State, went to Karachi, where Ata Ullah was born. The family then moved to Saudi Arabia, and he grew up in Mecca, receiving a Madrassa education. This is consistent with the fact that on the videos he shows fluent command of both the Bengali dialect spoken in northern Rakhine State and Peninsular Arabic. He disappeared from Saudi Arabia in 2012 shortly after violence erupted in Rakhine State. Though not confirmed, there are indications he went to Pakistan and possibly elsewhere, and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare.[fn]In Arabic, Abu Amar Jununi means “mad father of Amar”, perhaps an indication his eldest son is named Amar. The government spells Hafiz Tohar as Havistoohar. It said he attended a six-month Taliban training course in Pakistan (government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3); In Crisis Group interviews, HaY members suggested he went from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and from there to other countries (possibly including Libya) for training, but no further details or confirmation were obtained.Hide Footnote Some twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia (separate from the leadership committee), including Ata Ullah, are leading operations on the ground. Like him, they are thought to have experience from other conflicts, possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Rohingya returned from the camps (official and informal) in Bangladesh before 9 October to join the group. A registered refugee from Nayapara camp in Bangladesh stood beside Ata Ullah in the first video; he disappeared from the camp the night of a 13 May attack on its guard post in which a commander was killed and eleven weapons stolen.[fn]Attackers kill guard at Bangladesh Rohingya refugee camp”, Agence France-Presse, 13 May 2016.Hide Footnote Since 9 October, several hundred young Rohingya men from Bangladesh have joined the fight. However, the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise. These are mostly led by young Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) from those villages.

Though it does not appear to have religious motivations, HaY has sought religious legitimacy for its attacks. At its prompting, senior Rohingya clerics and several foreign clerics have ruled that, given the persecution Muslim communities face in Rakhine State, the campaign against the security forces is legal in Islam, and anyone opposing it is in opposition to Islam. Fatwas (religious rulings) to this effect were apparently obtained shortly after 9 October in several countries with a significant Rohingya diaspora, including Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. These have significantly influenced many Muslim religious leaders in northern Rakhine State to endorse HaY despite earlier feeling violence to be  counterproductive. The group also has a senior Islamic scholar with it in Maungdaw, a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, Mufti Ziabur Rahman, who brings religious legitimacy to operations and has authority to issue fatwas.[fn]The foreign clerics are from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other places. The mufti is the main speaker in the third video and identifies himself: “Islamic terrorist Rohingya act like villagers”. 12 October 2016. YouTube.Hide Footnote

Information from members and analysis of its methods indicate that its approach and objective are not transnational jihadist terrorism.[fn]This report uses “international jihadist” to refer to groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and their affiliates. The Arabic root of “jihad” refers to striving in God’s service. Many Muslims find its use in the political violence context imprecise and offensive, reducing a complex religious concept, which over centuries has had many, often peaceful forms, to war-making. Even when used in the organised violence context, it can refer to insurgency and guerrilla war, not only terrorism. For the vast majority of Muslims, today’s “jihadists” pervert Islam’s tenets. But it is hard to escape the term. Groups such as al-Qaeda and IS self-identify as “jihadist”; and while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent “jihadist” ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that could constrain fighting tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: fighting to return society to a purer Islam; violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them; and belief in duty to use violence if Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. This report’s use of “jihadist” is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. It uses “terrorism” and “terrorist” only to describe non-state actors’ attempt to use violence or intimidation, especially of civilians, to achieve political goals by manipulating fear. See Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote It has only attacked security forces (and perceived threats in its own community), not religious targets, Buddhist villagers or civilians and family members at the BGP bases it hit on 9 October. It has called for jihad in some videos, but there are no indications this means terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Unlike all previous such insurgent groups (see above) and for unclear reasons, it does not include “Rohingya” in its name. Its stated aim is not to impose Sharia (Islamic law), but rather to stop persecution of Rohingya and secure their rights and greater autonomy as Myanmar citizens, notwithstanding that its approach is likely to harden attitudes in the country and seriously set back those goals. It is possible, however, that its objectives could evolve, given its appeals to religious legitimacy and links to international jihadist groups, so it is essential that government efforts do not focus only or primarily on military approaches, but also address underlying community grievances and suffering.

HaY’s modus operandi is similar to the now-defunct RSO as well as many ethnic armed groups in Myanmar – but it faces much greater hurdles than the latter given rejection of Rohingya identity by the government and most of the country. Though the government has claimed close links with RSO, it is a distinct group that is more a reaction to perceived RSO failures than an evolution of that group (see Section IV.C below) – hence Ata Ullah’s RSO criticism in the second video. As the RSO has become something of a brand associated with Rohingya militancy by both Muslims and the authorities, it is not surprising that the government has identified the attackers as linked to it.[fn]Government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote But institutional ties do not appear to exist, though there are some efforts to recruit around 200 Rohingya in Bangladesh trained since 2012 by an ex-RSO military commander, but never deployed due to lack of an organisational structure that HaY may potentially now offer.[fn]There is also information that some former RSO members acting on their own have been providing very basic training to Rohingya refugees interested in joining HaY. This started only after the first attacks. All indications are it is not linked institutionally to either the RSO or HaY. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh), November 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Communications and Social Media Environment

Much of HaY’s communications and planning was over encrypted messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Viber, as well as WeChat (which does not have end-to-end encryption).[fn]Crisis Group observation of Rohingya WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. On Viber use, see “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, pp. 1, 3. A Myanmar Muslim has been warning members of the diplomatic and aid communities about the use of WeChat to promote extremism in the country since the 9 October attacks. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Use of these has become widespread across Myanmar over the last few years, as mobile voice and data connectivity have been rolled out along with $20 smartphones (people close to the border have had access to these opportunities for much longer, by connecting to Bangladeshi networks). Myanmar is one of the only countries where Viber is the dominant messaging app: the company claims 25 million unique users as of October 2016, out of a 51.5 million population. Such tools have significantly lowered communication and organisation barriers for communities in northern Rakhine State, something that the draconian movement restrictions in place for decades can no longer prevent.[fn]Buddhist nationalists also use messaging applications to organise and disseminate views; Viber has long been their preferred application, but recently WhatsApp has been gaining popularity. Crisis Group interview, technology industry source, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The preferred messaging app among Rohingya is WhatsApp. This is probably due to its much greater popularity internationally and the fact that Rohingya use these apps to keep in touch with family overseas and the diaspora more generally. Crisis Group identified more than 50 WhatsApp groups in use in northern Rakhine State, each with as many as 250 members, and including diaspora Rohingya around the world. These are mainly used for social interaction and information sharing, not nefarious purposes. Some individuals are members of ten to twenty WhatsApp groups and can also easily share information from group chats with their individual contacts. In the wake of the 9 October attacks, these have been used to quickly disseminate information about security threats and other urgent issues. They are likely also an important source of HaY operational intelligence.

Since the Rohingya dialect of Bengali does not have a written form, much of the communication over these applications uses audio files or voice messages.

C. Planning and Operational Strategy for the Attacks

Crisis Group interviews with HaY members and other well-informed sources in Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Middle East, cross-referenced with additional information, including Myanmar government reports based on interrogations of captured HaY and from regional diplomats and security analysts, have revealed a fairly detailed picture of the planning and operational strategy behind the attacks.

HaY’s formation and planning for operations were initiated in the wake of the 2012 violence. Active recruitment of local leaders began in 2013, then training of hundreds of villagers they recruited, mainly from Maungdaw township, since 2014, initially in Bangladesh and then more intensively in northern Rakhine State. Training was in small batches to avoid attention, a village at a time, so members would not know the identities of other trainees, and primarily in the hills of the Mayu range along the border of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, as well as possibly in the compounds of some large houses in villages. It included weapons use, guerrilla tactics and, HaY members and trainees report, a particular focus on explosives and IEDs. It was given by Rohingya veterans and Pakistanis or Afghans with experience of recent operations in those countries and possibly elsewhere and took more than two years to complete.[fn]For a map with village tracts in Maungdaw township, see “Village Tracts of Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State”, Myanmar Information Management Unit, 22 November 2011. Some RSO veterans have explosives expertise, from training by Bangladeshi militants in the early 2000s in an exchange program. Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

During this period, the group apparently killed several informers among the Muslim villages of north and south Maungdaw and others they feared might reveal their plans. It also paid significant hush money to potential informers. Following the training, two Saudi-based senior leaders spent a month in northern Rakhine State, around August 2016, selecting targets and determining how and when the attacks would take place.[fn]A different source claims that only one of the men was a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, and the other was a foreigner.Hide Footnote Once they left, the intention was to obtain weapons and ammunition for the hundreds of trainees. Plans were also made to deploy at least four experienced doctors with medicines and supplies and to train locals as medics to assist them. From roughly late August, there was an increase in the killing of known informers within the Rohingya community.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights monitor, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The claimed objective of the operation was to take complete control of Maungdaw township, cut off communications with Buthidaung to the east and establish military posts on the ridges of the Mayu range between Maungdaw and Buthidaung, creating a defendable liberated area in the same manner as the larger ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s eastern borderlands. After this, the intent was to attack the northern part of Buthidaung – a very ambitious plan that would give complete control of the Bangladesh border – as well as parts of Rathedaung.

Now that it [HaY] has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints.

This plan had to be changed. In early September, after the two senior leaders left, two informers in U Shey Kya village-tract, close to Nga Khu Ya where one of the 9 October attacks occurred, revealed the identities of eight local HaY members to the BGP, which arrested them on 12 September. They were interrogated and allegedly tortured (including electric shocks and denailing). HaY arranged a bribe to the BGP of 3 million kyat (about $2,300), and five were released on 16 September. The remaining three were freed on 28 September, after a bribe of more than 40 million kyat (over $30,000).[fn]This is the highest known bribe ever paid to the BGP to release a detainee. Crisis Group interviews, local researcher, well-informed locals, Maungdaw, September-November 2016.Hide Footnote On 30 September, HaY reportedly killed the two informants, leading to BGP night raids and arrests in the area that prompted several families to flee to Bangladesh. The authorities subsequently began large payments to informers in north Maungdaw to draw up lists of villagers in their area engaged in illegal activity, some of whom fled.

Additionally, local people say, an IED that accidentally exploded in Ngar Sar Kyu village-tract around 7 October while it was being prepared drew the attention of the security forces. According to members of the group, HaY saw that the net was closing and decided that though its preparations were not yet complete, it had to make an emergency plan and launch its operation on 9 October, ahead of schedule.

Though done hastily, the attacks showed some sophistication, including diversionary tactics; blocking reinforcements with a complex attack (IEDs plus armed assault) on a convoy some distance away; and felling of trees across roads to halt military vehicles. It is unclear where the explosives came from, but a foreign expert described the IEDs as crude but not completely amateurish.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the matter, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The group was able to organise widely, pay numerous potential informers in northern Rakhine State prior to the attacks to keep them quiet and large bribes to the security forces to free detained militants. Now that it has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints. It seems to be receiving funds from the Rohingya diaspora and major private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the group and sources in the Rohingya diaspora, October-November 2016.Hide Footnote It may also attract the attention of international groups interested in more than funding (see Section IV.E below).

D. Level of Local Support

It would not have been possible for HaY to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local, particularly religious leaders and local communities in northern Rakhine State. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population; that some now embrace violence reflects deep policy failures over many years.

The community follows a conservative Islam, but not in general a radicalised one, and even as people saw their rights, livelihoods and hopes eroded, the vast majority of religious leaders and the population as a whole continued to eschew violence, which they considered likely to prompt further discrimination and undermine the objective of achieving recognition and rights within Myanmar. But in the wake of the 2012 violence, a segment of the population began more active consideration of organised violent responses. While a minority view, it was driven by influential individuals, including some of the younger generation of religious leaders in northern Rakhine State, who began to break with the views of community elders and older clerics. It was these people and their followers who started the organisational and training activities on the ground that were well under way by mid-2014.[fn]See Crisis Group report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A.Hide Footnote

With the 9 October attacks, views began to shift. Initially, there were intense debates within the community, which played out on WhatsApp group chats. Some felt they were “dying slowly day by day”, and that after years of desperation and hopelessness, someone was standing up for them.[fn]The group chats were monitored by Crisis Group researchers since mid-2016. Crisis Group interview, villager in Maungdaw, October 2016.Hide Footnote But there was considerable criticism of the group in WhatsApp for not consulting or warning the community before the attacks and not considering the very serious consequences. It appears to have been the issuance of fatwas shortly after the attacks that was decisive in convincing many throughout Maungdaw to support HaY’s approach.

Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

HaY leaders also seem to have been effective in this regard. The local commanders, about twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia including Ata Ullah, had been working on the ground with the trainees and local leaders for a long time, living with local people unlike the leaders of Rohingya armed groups in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers in several villages in north and south Maungdaw, recent arrivals in Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh) and observation of discussions on WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. These are not the same twenty as the approximately twenty-member leadership committee based in Mecca, mentioned in Section IV.A above.Hide Footnote Several village leaders who have observed the activities of HaY’s leaders say they were impressed by their dedication, sincerity and strong commitment to their cause; as a result, they gained increasing trust and support from villagers. Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

An important part of HaY’s success, local community members say, is that these twenty or so leaders had good, secure lives in Saudi Arabia, the dream of many Rohingya, but were seen to have sacrificed comfort and prosperity to live beside impoverished villagers, without wearing shoes or good clothes and eating the same meagre food. That persons with so many other options were willing to take such risks convinced many locals the group was sincere and committed. This overcame doubts about joining or supporting an armed insurgency. Now, after two rounds of attacks and a brutal security response, it appears that a sizeable proportion of the area’s Muslim population and the diaspora support or are sympathetic to HaY, even if the ferocity of the military’s response causes some to flee.

At the same time, HaY also relied on threats and intimidation to ensure its survival. It has killed some suspected informers and drawn up a hit list of others. In addition to the killings in the lead up to the 9 October attacks, a Muslim man who used to work as a BGP cook was abducted by fellow villagers in Laungdon village-tract and found in a paddy field on 31 October with his throat cut; on 3 November, a former U Shey Kya village administrator was similarly found dead, as was a 100-household leader in south Maungdaw on 17 November.[fn]Arakan Project, internal note no. 2, op. cit.; “54-year old man found dead in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 6 November 2016, p. 2; and “Elder village leader murdered in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote These killings were done in the same gruesome way, presumably to inspire fear, while there have been no attacks on Buddhist civilians.

E. Links with International Jihadist Groups

There is some limited information on links between HaY and international jihadist groups. It is not surprising that such links exist, given the recruitment over several decades of vulnerable and marginalised Rohingya refugees and migrants by militant groups, initially mostly in Bangladesh, for deployment there and elsewhere.[fn]For example, it is known that Muslims from Myanmar were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, 1999-2001, Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A; that Rohingya fighters have been operating, and one was killed, in Indian Kashmir, “Killing of Burmese militant ups ante of intelligence agencies”, The Tribune, 13 November 2015; and that there is information ISIS has been recruiting among the Rohingya diaspora for Iraq and Syria, “ISIS look to recruit Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar”, Newsweek, 6 February 2015.Hide Footnote However, HaY’s public statements and modus operandi, as well as interviews with its members, all point to this being an insurgent group targeting Myanmar security forces and aiming – albeit in a way likely to be counterproductive – to obtain rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar, along the lines of previous mujahidin groups in Myanmar (see Section II above).

With that important caveat, the information on connections with international groups is as follows. First, members of HaY say Ata Ullah and the non-local fighters with him are well trained and experienced in guerrilla warfare; their tactics and operational success appear to confirm this, particularly their use of asymmetric methods and weapons such as IEDs, albeit crude ones. Such training and experience imply at least some links with international extremist groups. HaY members confirm that their leaders are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, India; the Myanmar government says its interrogations reveal that training was provided in Bangladesh and Pakistan. HaY recruits have also been instructed in Rakhine State by both Rohingya and Pakistani or Afghan trainers, according to members of the group and local people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and Myanmar government press release, 14 October 2016, op. cit. There are unconfirmed indications that the group may have a leader in Syria. Based on the profiles of other leaders and their connections, if this is true it might be a Rohingya fighter with a jihadist group rather than implying non-Rohingya leadership. Others have noted the raised index finger gesture, commonly associated with IS, displayed by Ata Ullah and some other fighters in several videos; however, this is a common gesture in South Asia and does not in itself imply any such links. See Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Conflict: Foreign Jihadi Brewing”, RSIS Commentary no. 259, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Secondly, the Rohingya cause has been used propagandistically by international jihadist groups for several years. Examples include threats against Myanmar by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (2012); calls by an Indonesian extremist leader for Muslims to wage jihad in Myanmar (2013); threats by the IS leader to take revenge on Myanmar and several other countries for abuses against their Muslims; promises to rescue Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere from “injustice and oppression” in the formation announcement of “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”; frequent citations in speeches as recently as 2015 by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, to the “atrocities on Rohingya Muslims” and calls for revenge; offers of resources and training facilities by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in June 2015 to help Myanmar Muslims “take up the sword”; and a call in the April 2016 issue of IS’s Dabiq magazine by Bangladeshi militant Abu Ibrahim to help oppressed Muslims in Myanmar in every possible way, but stating that it was not a current operational focus.[fn]Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan threaten Myanmar over Rohingya”, Agence France-Presse, 26 July 2012; a 23 April 2013 call by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir from his prison cell in Indonesia, mentioned in Crisis Group interview, security analyst, Jakarta, July 2014; “ISIS leader calls on Muslims to ‘build Islamic state’”, BBC, 1 July 2014; “Pakistani terror group active on Myanmar-Bangladesh border”, Mizzima News, 28 July 2015; “Pakistani Taliban attempts to recruit Rohingyas to kill Myanmar's rulers”, Agence France-Presse, 9 June 2015; and Dabiq Magazine (English edition), issue 14, April 2016, p. 62.Hide Footnote

Beyond these statements of solidarity and calls for support, there has been little evidence that Myanmar is an operational priority for such groups. There appear to be some other forms of cooperation or assistance, including training (discussed above) and funding, as well, potentially, as provision of weapons and explosives, which HaY currently seeks in Bangladesh. According to security analysts, small arms and military-grade explosives are available there, and procuring them should not be too difficult if the group has connections with regional arms traffickers or Bangladeshi or regional militant entities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, HaY members, November 2016; security analysts, Yangon, Dhaka, November 2016. Illegal shipments of small arms are regularly intercepted in Bangladesh; their use in domestic crimes has increased markedly in recent years. “Use of illegal firearms on rise”, Dhaka Tribune, 13 November 2016; and “New JMB planned big attack for Dhaka”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote There are no indications of any significant presence of non-Rohingya fighters.[fn]There is unconfirmed information from a credible source that about a dozen Patani Malays went to Maungdaw before 9 October to fight with HaY, apparently in solidarity and on their own initiative. Crisis Group correspondence, analyst, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Such links appear driven by umma (Islamic community) solidarity and do not imply convergence between HaY and international jihadist groups on ideology, strategy or tactics. HaY’s objectives and tactics and its focus on security targets suggest that it is Rohingya rather than transnationally focused. It is necessary to be careful not to over-interpret the significance of the international links noted above or leave unchallenged efforts by some Myanmar officials, politicians and other leaders to portray HaY as part of the global jihadist movement. Nevertheless, the longer violence continues, the greater the risks become of such links deepening and potentially becoming operational.

Recent minor explosions in Yangon do not appear directly linked to Rakhine State. Crude homemade devices were set off on 17, 20, 24 and 26 November at two shopping centres and two immigration offices, one inside the fairly secure regional government office. There were no casualties, only minor damage. The location of the devices in bins and toilets and the timing of blasts (after work hours or on public holidays) appeared designed to avoid casualties. Police arrested several suspects said to be Muslims on 26 November, but no further details have been released.[fn]Mayangone bomb intended to scare, not hurt, say police”, Frontier Myanmar, 21 November 2016; “Myanmar police arrest Muslims over Yangon bombings”, Agence France-Presse, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote Targeting of immigration offices, which are also responsible for citizenship verification, suggests a possible link to the Rakhine situation. If so, however, it more plausibly was an unsolicited expression of solidarity or anger at the security response than a direct attack, which might be expected to have been more dramatic. However, it does perhaps indicate existence of individuals with an intent and capability to access (semi-)secure locations that potentially could be utilised by those with the technical expertise and materials for a major attack.

VI. How Should the Government Respond?

Emergence of a new Muslim armed group in Rakhine State is a serious threat to prospects for stability and development there. The government faces a big challenge in calibrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are not inflamed. It also requires taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section IV. See also Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments in “Focus on resolving difficulties in Rakhine rather than exaggerating them, says Suu Kyi”, Channel NewsAsia, 2 December 2016. As regards the risk of intercommunal violence, monitors report a significant increase in hate speech posts after 9 October and their spread to pages and networks where that had not previously been observed. Crisis Group interview, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Failure to get this right carries enormous risks, so it is important that any response starts from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some in the Muslim population of Rakhine State has emerged now. For many years, this population has seen its rights eroded and its progressive marginalisation from social and political life. This became particularly acute at the time of the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. In the wake of that violence, and seeing no likelihood of improvement, some Rohingya in northern Rakhine State and the diaspora began contemplating taking up arms and made initial preparations to launch a new insurgency (see Section IV.C above). A leader of this initiative with whom Crisis Group met in Bangladesh in 2014 described the group’s plans and made clear the objective was for the community to live as Myanmar citizens with rights respected by the state, and was not separatist, anti-Buddhist or transnational jihadist.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A. At the time, he described the group as a “new RSO”, with a generation of younger leaders based in Rakhine State. It is now clear that he was describing HaY.Hide Footnote

Three key developments in 2015 are likely to have cemented the group’s resolve to launch an insurgency and created a much more fertile recruiting ground for it: disenfranchisement of Muslim voters, lack of hope of a political solution and the shutting down of migration routes to Malaysia (see Section III above). The authorities have a responsibility to respond to the deadly attacks on BGP bases. At the same time, an effective security response must be set within an overarching policy that addresses the sense of hopelessness of Muslims in Rakhine State. This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. While increasing despair has driven more to consider violence, it is not too late for the government to reverse this if it recognises that the population has lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so and resolves to give them a place in the nation’s life.

This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive.

All indications are that HaY is preparing further attacks on security forces and retains the capability to do so. Heavy-handed security measures would directly contradict the above objectives, likely creating more despair and animosity among local Muslims, increasing support for HaY and provoking a deepening cycle of violence. There is likewise a very real prospect of even larger population displacements to Bangladesh. In this respect, it is also vital to open up the conflict-affected part of north Maungdaw for aid workers and independent media.

Experience from other countries strongly suggests an aggressive military response not embedded in a broader policy framework would also be ineffective against the armed group and risk greater attention from international jihadist groups.[fn]For experiences elsewhere, see, for example, Crisis Group Europe & Central Asia Briefing N°77, A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks, 17 December 2015; Middle East & North Africa Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009; and Special Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., Section V.A.Hide Footnote The presence of a well-organised, effective, internationally connected insurgency in Rakhine State could then provide channels that did not previously exist for terrorism. This does not appear to be the HaY’s objective, but the situation could give international jihadists opportunities to insert their own agendas, for example by recruiting Rohingya (particularly in Bangladesh) to carry out such actions on Myanmar soil, or attracting foreign fighters, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent who could blend in easily, to do so.

It is also possible that the spotlight on the Rohingya’s plight might prompt foreign groups unconnected with HaY to conduct a terrorist attack; there has been a foiled attempt to bomb Myanmar’s Jakarta embassy, and the individual who carried out the recent attack at Ohio State University in the U.S. claimed to have been inspired at least in part by oppression of the Rohingya.[fn]See “Indonesia foil plan to attack embassy”, Agence France-Presse, 27 November 2016; “‘I can’t take it anymore’: Ohio State attacker said abuses of Burma’s Muslims led to ‘boiling point’”, The Washington Post, 29 November 2016.Hide Footnote To mitigate these risks requires political, not military responses: building stronger, more positive ties between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and improving cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Such cooperation is essential to ensure security and effectively address potential transnational jihadist threats. On the western border in particular, arms, narcotics and human smuggling networks are intertwined and could be used by insurgent and jihadist groups to transport weapons, materiel and personnel. The current security operation has strained relations with countries that have large Muslim populations and with which there are practical needs for close ties. There have been big protest demonstrations in Bangladesh (including by Islamist parties) as well as in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and Indonesia. Deep concerns have been expressed by the Bangladeshi and Malaysian governments. Western countries are also alarmed at the Rakhine State situation and the lacklustre government response.[fn]Malaysia to summon Burmese ambassador as protests mount over treatment of Rohingya”, Reuters, 25 November 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis stirs regional protests”, Nikkei Asian Review, 26 November 2016; “Malaysia says Myanmar violence against Muslim Rohingya ‘ethnic cleansing’”, Reuters, 2 December 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya issue a ‘humanitarian crisis’: Malaysia”, Channel NewsAsia, 3 December 2016; “Malaysian PM urges intervention to stop ‘genocide’ of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims” Reuters, 4 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Yangon, December 2016. “Regional criticism of Myanmar's Rohingya policy risks ASEAN split”, Nikkei Asian Review, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State.

In the Malaysian case, this became a public spat after Prime Minister Najib Razak indicated he would join a major protest in Kuala Lumpur. Myanmar accused him of violating ASEAN non-interference principles and using the issue for domestic politics; Malaysia retorted that Myanmar was pursuing “ethnic cleansing” and destabilising South East Asia. At the 4 December demonstration, Najib called for international intervention to stop “genocide”, directly criticised Suu Kyi and said “enough is enough”.

While this was seen in many quarters as having a primarily domestic political objective for Najib, the anger against Myanmar in much of the Muslim world is real. ASEAN, in particular Indonesia, has a potentially important role in helping to de-escalate the situation. This would be of great benefit to Myanmar; it would also be in the interests of ASEAN, which has long carried the burden of large numbers of Rohingya refugees and migrants, a flow that will increase if the violence continues and lead to radicalisation risks for the region. There is also fear that the issue could be destabilising for ASEAN as a whole.[fn]Surin Pitsuwan, “Asia’s moral duty to the Rohingya”, The Wall Street Journal, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote In response to regional concerns, Myanmar has called a special retreat for ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon on 19 December, so Aung San Suu Kyi can brief them on the situation.[fn]Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Myanmar to brief ASEAN amid alarm over Rakhine”, Nikkei Asian Review, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote Myanmar should use this opportunity to set out a credible political strategy for addressing the violence.

Suu Kyi’s flagship initiative for addressing the situation, the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission established in August, faces major further challenges after the 9 October attacks.[fn]Press release, Office of the State Counsellor, reproduced in GNLM, 24 August 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State. The commission lacks the composition, expert staff and mandate to address the current crisis. On 1 December, the government announced another (national) commission to investigate the attacks and security forces’ response and consider measures to prevent new incidents. It is chaired by the military’s pick for vice president, Myint Swe, a retired army lieutenant-general and former military intelligence chief, widely regarded as a hardliner. That its membership is mainly serving or retired government officials suggests it is unlikely to challenge or contradict government and military narratives.[fn]Formation of Investigation Commission”, President’s Office, notification 89/2016, 1 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and observers, Yangon, December 2016.Hide Footnote How it will work or liaise with the Annan commission is unclear.

VII. Conclusion

The violent attacks on BGP bases on 9 October 2016, and further clashes in the next days and on 12 November, when a senior army officer was killed, represent the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency in northern Rakhine State. The HaY group is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and commanded on the ground by other Rohingya, who have international training and experience in modern guerrilla tactics, the legitimacy of supportive local and international fatwas and considerable sympathy and backing from the local Muslim population, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this organised, well-funded group is a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address Rakhine State’s complex challenges, including longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, with denial of rights and citizenship status. The government’s response to the attacks – injudicious use of military force that fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, denial of humanitarian aid to an extremely vulnerable population and lack of an overarching political strategy that offers it some hope – is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence.

Though there are indications of some training and support links, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. If the government mishandles the situation, however, including by continued use of disproportionate military force that has driven thousands across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that jihadist groups might exploit for their own agendas. To avoid that risk requires a moderated military response, well-crafted political strategy and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with Myanmar’s neighbours and the ASEAN bloc.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Crisis Group. Based on UN map 4168, rev. 3, June 2012.
A Myanmar soldier guards an area at the Sittwe airport in Rakhine state, September 2018. Ye Aung THU / POOL / AFP
Report 325 / Asia

Avoiding a Return to War in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

An unofficial ceasefire has kept Rakhine State quiet compared to much of Myanmar following the 2021 coup. But friction is building between the military and ethnic Rakhine fighters. The parties should strike a formal deal to avert a return to war.

What’s new? After an informal ceasefire in late 2020, the Arakan Army used the lull in fighting to consolidate control of much of central and northern Rakhine State. Distracted by fallout from the 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military did little to oppose it at first, but rising tensions may lead to renewed combat.

Why does it matter? Many Rakhine State residents, including some Rohingya, have welcomed the shift to Arakan Army control, but the situation remains fraught. The ceasefire is fragile and the Arakan Army has grown significantly more powerful over the past eighteen months. A return to conflict would have devastating consequences for everyone in Rakhine.

What should be done? The Myanmar military and Arakan Army should avoid provoking a new war and formalise their ceasefire instead. The Arakan Army should eschew restrictions on humanitarian aid organisations, which should better coordinate their dealings with the group. Naypyitaw and Dhaka should open dialogue with the Arakan Army on Rohingya repatriation.

Executive Summary

Rakhine State has avoided the violence that has engulfed the rest of Myanmar since the February 2021 coup. The quiet owes in part to an informal ceasefire, which ended two years of fighting between the military and the Arakan Army, a pro-Rakhine ethnic armed group, and which came into force a few months before the military seized power in Naypyitaw. The Arakan Army has spurned the growing de facto alliance between the National Unity Government (NUG)-led opposition and other ethnic armed groups, focusing on getting control of much of Rakhine State. Until recently, the military has been too distracted to try loosening the Arakan Army’s grip, but tensions have started rising. The parties could soon find themselves back in conflict. While each side has reason to be leery of a formal ceasefire, both would also have reason to welcome the breathing space it would create. Most importantly, Rakhine’s people would benefit. In parallel, the Arakan Army should rein in demands on humanitarian actors, which should coordinate their interaction with it, and Dhaka and Naypyitaw should engage the group on Rohingya repatriation.

The two-year war that engulfed Rakhine State between late 2018 and 2020 significantly eroded Naypyitaw’s control of the region. Police and many other civil servants were often reluctant to leave major towns during the conflict due to the risk of attack or abduction and they remain wary of venturing into the countryside. Many local administrators resigned during this period due to threats either from the armed group or from the Myanmar military, which suspected them of collaborating with the enemy. The Arakan Army has since either replaced them with its own administrators in the areas it controls or co-opted the new appointees that the military regime has sent since the coup. As a result, the Arakan Army now directly or indirectly controls most rural areas in the centre and north of the state, while exerting significant influence in urban areas; it has also begun expanding farther south, as well as north toward the border with Bangladesh.

Over the past year, the Arakan Army has further consolidated its control by rolling out a suite of public services through its administrative branch, the Arakan People’s Authority. These include a judicial system and police force, which operate parallel to the state’s, and some health-care services (including the provision of COVID-19 vaccines). As a result, many residents are turning to Arakan Army mechanisms, rather than those run by Naypyitaw, for basic services and to resolve disputes. The service provision strategy has deepened public support for the group and its governance, but it is not without risk: it could be a major drain on the armed group’s resources, harm its popularity if the services do not live up to expectations and attract pushback from Naypyitaw.

The impact of these developments in Rakhine State has not been limited to the ethnic Rakhine community. The rise of the Arakan Army has brought positive changes for some hitherto ostracised Rohingya. While the overall situation for the Rohingya remains dire, some communities have improved access to public services and some are enjoying greater freedom of movement because of the Arakan Army’s non-enforcement of restrictions imposed by Naypyitaw. These testimonials should be considered in context, however; although Rohingya sources Crisis Group spoke to largely praised the Arakan Army and its administration, the community as a whole remains vulnerable and its members are generally not in a position to criticise the group for fear of reprisal.

Myanmar’s military regime … made only token efforts to counter the Arakan Army’s expanding control.

Myanmar’s military regime, which calls itself the State Administration Council, is focused on subduing resistance to the coup elsewhere in Myanmar and until recently made only token efforts to counter the Arakan Army’s expanding control. Part of the reason may be that locally based government and military officials, hunkered down in large towns, have little choice but to accept the facts on the ground. As a measure of the group’s growing influence, many state-run schools, which are still nominally under Naypyitaw’s control, have started playing an Arakan Army-written Rakhine anthem instead of the national anthem. There are even examples of active collaboration, such as Naypyitaw-controlled police working with the Arakan Army to resolve crimes and administrators from the two sides holding regular informal consultations.

But cooperation is certainly not the state’s default posture. The junta has in some instances sought to scare both Rakhine and Rohingya communities away from working with Arakan Army mechanisms and institutions. Recently, it has adopted more aggressive tactics, setting up roadblocks and searching vehicles, reinforcing troops, increasing patrols and detaining people it suspects of supporting the group.

The military is still too stretched to give much attention to Rakhine State, but there is a clear risk of a return to conflict. If the Arakan Army seeks to expand its influence consistent with its ambitious political aspirations – for example, into border areas or in southern Rakhine – it risks provoking the Myanmar military, which refers to itself as the Tatmadaw, into action. Similarly, a partnership with the NUG-led opposition – something many in Myanmar would welcome – could spark a return to war. While it would be difficult for the Tatmadaw to win this fight, the collateral effects of renewed conflict could be terrible for Rakhine State’s population, which is already reeling from neglect, a poor economy, communal violence and the earlier two-year war.

Although there is no clear path toward peace and stability for Rakhine State, one step that could offer both the parties and the region an extended respite from fighting might be to formalise the informal ceasefire that has largely kept the peace for the past eighteen months. Such an arrangement would focus primarily on maintaining the peace, in particular by demarcating territory and establishing formal communication channels to help de-escalate in the event that tensions begin to build once again.

Both the government and the Arakan Army have reason to be wary of such a step in that it would give the other party a chance to gather strength and prepare for renewed confrontation down the road. But each also has reason to embrace it. The military is preoccupied with the spiralling consequences of the coup that it launched over a year ago; a formal ceasefire would be a measure of insurance that it will not face another conflict that will stretch it further. As for the Arakan Army, such an arrangement could allow it to further consolidate its authority over the territories already under its control and gain recognition from outside actors, including both humanitarian organisations and neighbouring Bangladesh. While the extended respite could give the parties the chance to fortify themselves for further clashes, it would also create the possibility of a durable, peaceful solution emerging in the future – something outside actors could encourage.

If the parties agree to solidify the current ceasefire into a formal agreement, it will also be important to improve certain other ad hoc arrangements with implications for people in Rakhine. For example, humanitarian organisations are increasingly concerned that they may soon face parallel sets of requirements to operate in Rakhine State – some imposed by Naypyitaw and others by the Arakan Army – which could create both administrative burdens and operational difficulties. The group should work to ensure that those in need are not cut off from humanitarian assistance because of paralysing new rules and humanitarian organisations should come together to present a united front should such rules become overly burdensome. Dhaka and Naypyitaw should additionally engage with the Arakan Army on the possible return of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.

While a formal ceasefire would offer neither party precisely what it wants, there would be enough in it for both sides that it could conceivably work. That in turn would allow Rakhine State residents to get what they need most: a continued break from violence and the corresponding opportunity to build toward a more peaceful future, one in which Rakhine and Rohingya can live in relative safety side by side.

Brussels, 1 June 2022

I. Introduction

Since independence in 1948, the Myanmar state has never been in full control of all the territory within its borders; at times, it has controlled little more than the major cities and key infrastructure, with the rest in dispute or in the hands of various non-state armed groups. Over the decades, some of these armed groups have created state-like enclaves in the country’s borderlands within which they provide services, issue laws, maintain law and order, collect taxes and do business. The United Wa State Army, the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Karen National Union are among those with well-developed governance systems, but even the smaller of Myanmar’s twenty-plus ethnic armed groups exert control over some territory.

Rakhine State has been an outlier. There, insurgency largely failed to take root and the state was firmly entrenched. Unlike most other minorities, the ethnic Rakhine attained high-ranking positions in both the military and the civil service, alongside the majority Burmans. But the Rakhine also harboured deep grievances toward the Burmans, dating back centuries to the conquest of the Arakan kingdom of Mrauk-U in 1784 by a Burman king, Bodawpaya. They pointed to Rakhine’s deep poverty as evidence of the Burman-dominated state’s neglect of the people of Rakhine, both Buddhist and Muslim.

Their anger, though, has instead often been directed toward the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Rakhine. In 2012, communal conflict in the state left close to 200 people dead – mostly Muslims – and almost 150,000 displaced. The communities were segregated and tensions regularly threatened to boil over into further violence. Some Rakhine were implicated in the military’s deadly campaign against the Rohingya in August-September 2017 that sent more than 700,000 Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh.

State control had dissipated in much of the centre and north, leaving a vacuum that the Arakan Army set out to fill.

Against this backdrop, a group of young Rakhine exiles established the Arakan Army in 2009, with the support of the Kachin Independence Army, and quietly built up their forces in northern Myanmar. From 2014, they began inserting their troops into Rakhine State and spreading an ethno-nationalist ideology that shifted the blame for Rakhine’s woes back to Naypyitaw. A brutal war erupted in December 2018; when the two sides reached a surprise ceasefire in November 2020, state control had dissipated in much of the centre and north, leaving a vacuum that the Arakan Army set out to fill.

This report examines how the Arakan Army has used the February 2021 coup to cement control over much of Rakhine State and why Myanmar’s military regime has not taken decisive action to stop it. It looks at the impact this shift in control has had on the lives of both Rakhine and Rohingya residents, as well as the implications for humanitarian aid and the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. It is based on research conducted between January and May 2022 and builds on Crisis Group’s years of fieldwork and analysis on conflict dynamics in Myanmar. Given the constraints on travel due to COVID-19 and the military takeover, research was conducted remotely, using pre-existing networks of contacts. Sources included Rohingya and Rakhine residents of Rakhine State, members of civil society organisations and NGOs, diplomats and aid workers, and analysts and individuals close to the key protagonists.[fn]For Crisis Group reporting on the rise of the Arakan Army, see Crisis Group Asia Briefings N°s 154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019; 164, From Elections to Ceasefire in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 23 December 2020; and Asia Report N°307, An Avoidable War: Politics and Armed Conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 9 June 2020.Hide Footnote

II. The Arakan Army: From Conflict to Control

A. A Productive Peace

After fighting erupted in Rakhine and southern Chin State in late 2018, the Arakan Army began systematically dismantling Naypyitaw’s administrative system through a campaign of violence and intimidation. Local administrators resigned en masse due to safety concerns, while township-level officials and other civil servants, including police, were often unwilling to travel outside of urban areas.[fn]Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War, op. cit. See also, for example, “Local officials resign en masse in Myanmar’s conflict-torn Rakhine State”, The Irrawaddy, 22 June 2020.Hide Footnote  In December 2019, the group formed a wing called the Arakan People’s Authority to administer recently captured territory and began actively recruiting ethnic Rakhine with administrative experience from elsewhere in Myanmar (and even abroad).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rakhine journalist close to the Arakan Army, September 2020. See also Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War, op. cit.; “Arakan Army seizes ferry, unveils taxation agency, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Radio Free Asia, 31 December 2019; and “Arakan Army collects taxes, polices streets in parts of Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine State”, Radio Free Asia, 20 July 2020.Hide Footnote  But with war raging across much of the region, implementation proved challenging.

The November 2020 de facto ceasefire changed the equation.[fn]Crisis Group Report, From Elections to Ceasefire, op. cit.Hide Footnote  With the fighting on pause and the new military regime focused on subduing resistance to its rule in other parts of the country, the Arakan Army has been able to strengthen its grip upon much of the centre and north of the state.[fn]Myanmar Edges Toward State Collapse, 1 April 2021; 168, Taking Aim at the Tatmadaw: The New Armed Resistance to Myanmar’s Coup, 28 June 2021; 170, The Deadly Stalemate in Post-Coup Myanmar, 20 October 2021; and 171, Resisting the Resistance: Myanmar’s Pro-Military Pyusawhti Militias, 6 April 2022; Asia Reports N°s 314, Myanmar’s Military Struggles to Control the Virtual Battlefield, 18 May 2021 and 319, Myanmar’s Coup Shakes Up Its Ethnic Conflicts, 12 January 2022. See also Richard Horsey, “A Close-up View of Myanmar’s Leaderless Mass Protests”, Crisis Group Commentary, 26 February 2021 and Richard Horsey, “One Year On from the Myanmar Coup, Crisis Group Commentary, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote It created new administrative boundaries and appointed political officers, senior administrators, judicial officers and police officers.[fn]The new administrative districts are known as Alpha, Victor and Nova. Within each of these, there are three township equivalents, known as Alpha-1, Alpha-2 and so on. Crisis Group interviews, various sources familiar with the situation in Rakhine State, February-March 2022.Hide Footnote  Strong support for the armed group among the majority Rakhine population made the task significantly easier, to the extent that it has received support from some of the civil servants on Naypyitaw’s payroll. The rapid and relatively successful rollout of services to rural communities has only further enhanced its legitimacy and popularity, particularly among ethnic Rakhine, even though this expansion has not been without teething problems.

The Arakan Army is also making a concerted effort to formally separate its military and political/administrative functions and to reduce the influence of military officers over administrative activities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rakhine researcher and Rakhine journalist, February 2022.Hide Footnote  This attempt to transform itself from an army into a state-like entity, and the group’s growing role in the everyday lives of ordinary people in Rakhine State, is reflected in the local vernacular. Residents in Rakhine now generally use the name of the group’s political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA) – which oversees the Arakan People’s Authority – rather than the Arakan Army, the armed wing, when referring to the group’s non-military activities. Within only a couple of years, the group’s governance apparatus has begun to resemble those of much more established ethnic armed groups that have long governed sizeable territory, such as the Karen National Union in south-eastern Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Organisation in northern Myanmar.

The [Arakan Army] now has de facto authority over somewhere from 50 to 75 per cent of the territory of Rakhine State.

Given the speed with which its administrative expansion has unfolded and the lack of territorial demarcation, it is difficult to pinpoint how much territory the Arakan Army actually controls. But it appears the insurgent group now has de facto authority over somewhere from 50 to 75 per cent of the territory of Rakhine State. Generally speaking, Naypyitaw still controls cities and most of southern Rakhine, particularly Gwa, Thandwe, Taungup and Munaung townships. In the north, rural areas of Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, Buthidaung and Ponnagyun townships are either under total Arakan Army control, with no remaining state structures, or under its sway in effect, with state structures co-opted to serve its agenda. The strategically important border areas in Maungdaw Township, as well as parts of central and southern Rakhine, such as Kyaukpyu, Taungup and Ann townships, are more contested, with competing power structures.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various sources familiar with the situation in Rakhine State, January-March 2022.Hide Footnote

Notably, the group has not taken a strong position against the February 2021 military coup. Its leadership has actively discouraged anti-regime protests and civil disobedience, urging the public to focus on the goal of Rakhine autonomy while paying less attention to political developments elsewhere in the country.[fn]"AA chief does not want Myanmar’s strikes and protests in Rakhine State”, The Irrawaddy, 12 April 2021.Hide Footnote  Unlike some other ethnic armed groups, it has also not cooperated with the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) formed by lawmakers ousted by the coup, despite public invitations from the latter to join the struggle against the regime.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s Coup Shakes Up Its Ethnic Conflicts, op. cit.; and “အမျိုးသားညီညွတ်ရေးအစိုးရ NUG ယာယီသမ္မတနှင့်ဇနီးတို့ အိမ်ထောင်သက် နှစ် ၄၀ ပြည့် မင်္ဂလာအထိမ်းအမှတ် AA က မင်္ဂလာဆုတောင်းသဝဏ်လွှာပို့ [Arakan Army sends congratulatory message to National Unity Government acting president and wife on 40th wedding anniversary]”, Khit Thit Media, 12 December 2021.Hide Footnote  The Arakan Army has also insisted that it is has no contact with the anti-coup militias (many of which are known as People’s Defence Forces) that have emerged in opposition to the regime.[fn]“Rebel yell: Arakan Army leader speaks to Asia Times”, Asia Times, 18 January 2022.Hide Footnote  As tensions with the military have increased in recent months, however, it has held informal talks with the NUG and publicly acknowledged training some anti-coup resistance forces.[fn]Crisis Group interview, source close to the Arakan Army, March 2022. When the Arakan Army marked its thirteenth anniversary on 10 April 2022, it published congratulatory statements from five resistance groups in which they thanked the Army for its training and support. Most of these groups are based in the mountain ranges on the edge of Rakhine State; the Arakan Army appears to be using them to create a buffer zone between its forces and the rest of the country, particularly Magway Region and Chin State.Hide Footnote

B. Acting Like a State

The Arakan Army’s state-building aspirations in Rakhine State long predate the November 2020 de facto ceasefire. Leader Twan Mrat Naing has described the group’s political goal as a “confederate” status for Rakhine State under which the territory would enjoy almost complete autonomy. Appealing to memories of Rakhine’s status as an independent kingdom, Twan Mrat Naing describes the Arakan Army’s revolutionary struggle as the “Way of Rakhita” and its goal as the “Arakan Dream”.[fn]The “Way of Rakhita” refers to the method – revolutionary struggle – of achieving the “Arakan Dream” of an independent or autonomous state. “Arakan” is the historical name for “Rakhine”, a term Myanmar’s military regime adopted in 1989. For a more detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War, op. cit.; and Kyaw Lynn, “The Arakan Army, Myanmar military coup and politics of Arakan”, Transnational Institute, 10 June 2021.Hide Footnote  More recently, he has articulated phases of revolutionary struggle, including a state-building phase, and spoken of the need to anchor the movement in strong institutions rather than simply in ethno-nationalist ideology and its leaders’ popularity.[fn]“ရက္ခိုင်အမျိုးသားအဖွဲချုပ် ULA ဥက္ကဌ ရက္ခိုင့်တပ်တော်တပ်မှူးချုပ် ဗိုလ်ချုပ်ထွန်းမြတ်နိုင်နန့် အင်တာ [Interview with ULA chairman and AA commander-in-chief Twan Mrat Naing]”, Arrakha Media, 15 August 2021.Hide Footnote  He has also warned that the group will push for independence if “our rightful political status … is not accommodated within this union”.[fn]“Rebel yell”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The Arakan Army’s first priority was to establish an administrative system for the areas it controls.

The Arakan People’s Authority is the embodiment of these aspirations. The body has a range of functions, but the Arakan Army’s first priority was to establish an administrative system for the areas it controls. The group moved quickly to fill the void left by the mass resignation of civil servants in 2019-2020, appointing its own administrators, who sit in offices under the ULA flag and often have little or no contact with the military regime. These local administrators head committees comprising community leaders who carry out a range of functions, including tax collection, dispute resolution and criminal investigations, and answer to higher-ranking administrators and political officers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various sources familiar with the situation in Rakhine State, January-March 2022.Hide Footnote

In many areas, though, the Arakan Army has instead co-opted incumbent administrators appointed since the coup by the General Administration Department under Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs. Although they still nominally serve Naypyitaw, these administrators are in effect under the Arakan People’s Authority’s control, seeking its guidance in local decision-making and reporting back after meetings with their township superiors.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  Because one of these local administrators’ responsibilities is to recommend how public funding should be allocated and oversee how it is spent, working through them allows the Arakan Army access to state funds to develop its newly gained territory, and thus reduce its own expenses. Similarly, these administrators have enabled local farmers in insurgent-held areas to obtain state agricultural loans.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher focused on Rakhine State, January 2022.Hide Footnote

The enlargement of the Arakan Army’s administrative footprint has enabled it to expand and formalise tax collection. Previously, the group collected taxes in an ad hoc manner, but since early 2021 it has nominally established fixed rates for both households and businesses. Households are expected to pay a flat tax, which is usually 3,000 kyat a month (about $1.50). Businesses, meanwhile, are supposed to pay between 2 and 5 per cent of their “total investment” on an annual basis; this term appears to refer to their capitalisation, but the precise means of calculating the amount are unclear and in practice it is usually just a negotiated sum. Sources indicate that, for now at least, households are generally willing to pay; some business owners are more reluctant, but fear of arrest means they usually hand over the money as well.[fn]A resident of Mrauk-U Township related that the Arakan Army detained a relative for refusing to pay a 5 per cent tax on their business, but later released him after he agreed to pay 3 per cent. Crisis Group interview, January 2022.Hide Footnote

While they are paying taxes, residents are also benefiting from new services, particularly improved law and order. With its administrative network in place, the Arakan Army has made judicial services and law enforcement a primary focus. The group was already fulfilling these roles to some extent prior to the November 2020 ceasefire by occasionally acting on complaints from the public to apprehend (and punish) alleged criminals.[fn]Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Over the past year, however, it has established both a judiciary and police force that are separate from its armed wing, falling under the Arakan People’s Authority. Disputes that cannot be resolved by village administration committees are referred to newly created ULA courts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rakhine residents and journalist, January-March 2022.Hide Footnote

The judicial system, in particular, has seen high uptake among Rakhine State residents, who have long been frustrated at the corruption, partiality and inefficiency in the Naypyitaw-controlled judiciary. Cases that would have taken a year or more to resolve through the state system, and incurred significant expenses in bribes and fees, can now be resolved in as little as a month, at minimal expense.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rakhine State based researcher and political analyst, January 2022.Hide Footnote  Sources Crisis Group spoke to estimated that in areas where the Arakan Army system operates, over three fourths of criminal and non-criminal disputes are resolved through these mechanisms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Mrauk-U, Sittwe and Ramree townships, January 2022.Hide Footnote  Many judicial officials have actually resigned to join the Arakan People’s Authority, providing it with some trained judges. As one civil society leader in Ramree Township noted:

The Arakan People’s Authority oversees around 90 per cent of criminal and non-criminal cases here – even some that happen in downtown Ramree. Only people related to the military or civil service use the junta courts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, resident of Ramree township, January 2022.Hide Footnote

C. Strategic Rollout

Because state structures still exist in most parts of Rakhine State, the Arakan Army has been able to pick which services it will offer and which it will leave to Naypyitaw. It has chosen in a strategic manner, allocating its resources for maximum effectiveness. Replacing or co-opting the state administrative apparatus is not only an important symbol of Arakan Army control, but also a means of depriving Naypyitaw of a physical presence on the ground and access to intelligence.[fn]For a detailed examination of the General Administration Department, see “Administering the State in Myanmar: An Overview of the General Administration Department, The Asia Foundation, March 2015.Hide Footnote  Tax collection flows from administrative control, providing the group with an important source of funding and boosting its legitimacy when it uses the money for effective service delivery in a kind of “virtuous circle”. Complaints about police and judicial corruption, and the general breakdown of law enforcement in many areas due to the 2019-2020 conflict, had created an obvious vacuum for the armed group to fill.

In contrast, the Arakan Army has let Naypyitaw continue to provide most health and education services in areas it controls. Both require significant financial and human resources, and providing them would likely be well beyond the armed group’s capacity. Nevertheless, its influence – and that of Rakhine nationalism more broadly – permeates the classroom. Over the past two years, the Rakhine national anthem, written by the Arakan Army, has replaced the Myanmar national anthem in government-run schools in many areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various sources in Rakhine State, January-March 2022. See also “Some schools opt for Arakha national anthem over its Myanmar counterpart”, Development Media Group, 20 January 2022.Hide Footnote  The armed group does not appear to have forced the anthem change, but it has obviously inspired the switch with its Rakhine nationalist ideology. “We started singing it [the Rakhine anthem] at our school because we wanted students to know our identity”, said a teacher.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ethnic Rakhine state schoolteacher from Buthidaung Township, January 2022.Hide Footnote  In some places, though not as many, the ULA flag has also replaced the national flag.

The Arakan Army’s administrative and governance structures are far from unique in Myanmar. For decades, ethnic armed groups in the country’s borderlands have run their own schools, courts and administrative systems in territories under their control.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°52, Myanmar Backgrounder: Ethnic Minority Politics, 7 May 2003. See also Aung Naing Oo, “A cold war in Myanmar and the dangers of a protracted ceasefire”, Frontier Myanmar, 1 February 2019.Hide Footnote  These services have been important for building acceptance of these insurgent movements, creating what some have described as a “social contract” between their leaders and the population.[fn]For a detailed examination of this issue and how it has affected the Kachin and Karen insurgencies in recent decades, see David Brenner, Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands (Ithaca, 2019). See also the work of Kim Jolliffe, including “Ethnic Conflict and Social Services in Myanmar’s Contested Regions”, The Asia Foundation, 2014.Hide Footnote  Although it has not yet seriously started to take on responsibility for health and education, the Arakan Army is thus following a well-worn path, and interviews with Rakhine State residents suggest that the group is indeed benefiting in terms of enhanced acceptance and stronger buy-in to its vision for Rakhine State. Significantly, this support is not limited to the majority Rakhine Buddhists, but can also be found to some degree among the state’s Rohingya Muslim population as well (see Section IV for more).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rakhine State residents, January-February 2022.Hide Footnote

D. The Risk of Overreach

The rapid expansion of the Arakan People’s Authority has inevitably created challenges for what was, until less than two years ago, an exclusively military organisation. Lack of human resources has been a chronic problem, with the group heavily relying on civil servants who have quit the state system or who are still working for Naypyitaw. Many policies and structures are still not formalised or uniformly enforced, as reflected in the differing tax rates from locality to locality. Unlike other ethnic armed groups, the Arakan Army has not yet developed its own laws or school curriculum. The judicial system also remains relatively informal, with disputes still often resolved through mediation. The high caseload and the pressure to deliver results means that the courts emphasise speed rather than procedure.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various sources with knowledge of Rakhine State, January-March 2022.Hide Footnote

Since early 2022, criticism of the system’s shortcomings has emerged. Rakhine-based media organisations have reported claims of corruption and bias within the Arakan People’s Authority, particularly in the judicial system, and negative posts have started proliferating on social media.[fn]See, for example, “ရက္ခိုင်ပြည်သူ့အာဏာပိုင်အဖွဲ့ လက်အောက်ရှိ တရားရေးဌာနအချို့၏ အမှုဖြေရှင်းပေးမှုနှင့် တရားစီရင်မှုပိုင်းတို့၌ အမှုတချို့တွင် မကျေနပ်မှု ရှိနေ [Dissatisfaction with the handling of some cases by the Arakan People’s Authority judiciary]”, Western Media, 22 February 2021.Hide Footnote  In March 2022, the Arakan Army responded with the first of what it said would be regular monthly press conferences – an unusual move for an ethnic armed group in Myanmar – at which it acknowledged challenges in its governance system.[fn]Ahead of the press conference, the group issued five reasons for meeting journalists, one of which was to address criticism of its judiciary and to help the public “better understand the weaknesses” of its administrative system. “သတင်းစာရှင်းလင်းပွဲပြုလုပ်ရသည့် ရည်ရွယ်ချက်များ [Objectives of holding the press conference]”, ULA/AA Press Briefing Info, 5 March 2022.Hide Footnote  In particular, spokesman Khaing Thu Kha admitted that some officials had abused their powers and promised that the group would take action, before inviting those criticising the Arakan People’s Authority to join its ranks and help improve the civil service.[fn]“အုပ်ချုပ်ရေး၊ တရားစီရင်ရေးမဏ္ဍိုင်များတွင် ခေတ်ပညာတက်လူငယ်များပါဝင်ရန် ULA/AA ဖိတ်ခေါ် [ULA invites educated youth to join administration, judiciary]”, Western Media, 5 March 2022.Hide Footnote

Despite its rapid strides, the Arakan Army will face a constant battle to meet the expectations it has created among its constituents.

Despite its rapid strides, the Arakan Army will face a constant battle to meet the expectations it has created among its constituents. Particularly at a time of relative peace, it runs the risk of losing public support if its officials appear to underperform. So far, however, many Rakhine appear to be willing to overlook shortcomings; instead, they take pride in the Arakan Army’s achievements and express confidence in the group’s ability to improve the new system and, eventually, achieve its goal of autonomy or independence. A Buthidaung teacher complained, for instance, that when she was a student, she was “taught nonsense Burmese history at school”. Her students now sing the Rakhine national anthem, though for the moment she still teaches them using the same state curriculum she disparages.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Buthidaung teacher, January 2022.Hide Footnote  Nonetheless, the Arakan Army’s influence has already changed the way she does her job.

The Arakan Army’s administrative expansion could also place it under financial strain that could either hinder its activities or force it to take steps to increase its revenues. Both are fraught with risk. Present tax receipts are insufficient to support the group’s expansion, but levying higher taxes could create hardship and resentment among its supporters, particularly given high poverty levels in Rakhine State.[fn]Rakhine is Myanmar’s poorest state or region, with 78 per cent of the population below the poverty line, compared to a national average of 37.5 per cent. See “Myanmar: Ending Poverty and Boosting Shared Prosperity in a Time of Transition”, World Bank, November 2014.Hide Footnote  As for finding new sources of funding, the Arakan Army could well be tempted to venture further into illicit activities, as many armed groups in Myanmar (including the military and its allies) have done to sustain their operations. The Arakan Army has previously been accused of involvement in drug trafficking.[fn]Crisis Group Report, A New Dimension of Violence, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Deepening such involvement could harm its public image – indeed, the military has in the past used allegations of involvement in the drug trade to delegitimise the group. But Rakhine State offers only limited opportunities to pursue legitimate business opportunities or more accepted illicit activities, such as informal border crossings, or the taxing of timber or mining, as is common elsewhere in Myanmar.[fn]Crisis Group interview, source close to the State Administration Council, March 2022.Hide Footnote

Arakan Army leaders will likely be aware of the risks that accompany the current transition, given the experience of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which supported the Arakan Army’s creation and with which it maintains close ties.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, A New Dimension of Violence and An Avoidable War, both op. cit.Hide Footnote  The KIO underwent a similar transition from active guerrilla warfare to a focus on governance after signing a 1994 ceasefire with the military. In subsequent years, KIO leaders lost the support of the public and the group’s rank-and-file after engaging in business deals with military elites and regime cronies that made them and their families wealthy but brought few benefits to – and even often hurt – their Kachin constituency. They also failed to properly fund the group’s administrative functions, adding to community frustrations. Eventually, the KIO leadership that signed the ceasefire was overthrown. The new, younger generation of leaders rejected the Tatmadaw’s demands in 2009 to become a military-affiliated Border Guard Force, leading to the breakdown of the 1994 ceasefire two years later.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°140, A Tentative Peace in Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict, 12 June 2013, Section III. See also Brenner, op. cit., chapter 4.Hide Footnote

III. Naypyitaw’s Long Leash

The Myanmar military’s seizure of power in February 2021 has created ideal conditions for the Arakan Army’s state-building agenda.[fn]It is ironic that the military takeover would have this effect, given that the November 2020 de facto ceasefire likely emboldened Min Aung Hlaing to launch the coup because it meant the military was no longer engaged in a major conflict anywhere in Myanmar.Hide Footnote  Typically, the military would try to disrupt any attempt by an armed group to weaken state control and establish parallel administrative structures; it has done so for decades in various parts of the country where ethnic armed groups operate and has over the past year used brute force to crush similar “people’s administrations” set up by anti-coup forces.[fn]“Leading from the shadows: The successes and failures of the CRPH”, Frontier Myanmar, 20 March 2021.Hide Footnote  But more than fifteen months after the coup, the military remains locked in a potentially existential struggle elsewhere in the country with Burman and ethnic minority armed resistance forces that are increasingly coordinating on political and military affairs.[fn]Horsey, “One Year On from the Myanmar Coup”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  At a time when the regime’s forces are already stretched, it can ill afford to open another front – least of all with an opponent like the Arakan Army, which ranks among the country’s most powerful armed groups. It has thus largely refrained from confronting the Arakan Army militarily, making it much easier for the group to consolidate control.[fn]A similar phenomenon has unfolded in northern Shan State, where the military has not intervened to stop the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Shan State Progress Party from seizing territory from a rival armed group, the Restoration Council of Shan State, that is considered closer to the regime. Having dislodged the third group, the TNLA is presently building an administrative system similar to that of the Arakan Army. See “Rising dragon: TNLA declares ‘victory’ in northern Shan”, Frontier Myanmar, 4 February 2022, and “Wa an early winner of Myanmar’s post-coup war”, Asia Times, 22 February 2022.Hide Footnote

The military has at times gone even further, actively seeking to maintain cordial relations with the Rakhine armed group. It has, for example, taken the Arakan Army off its list of terrorist organisations, freed scores of people arrested for alleged links to the group, invited its representatives to peace talks alongside other ethnic armed groups, welcomed its representatives to Union Day celebrations in Naypyitaw, and even cooperated in distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in rebel-controlled areas.[fn]See, for example, “China facilitates Myanmar junta and ethnic armies’ talks”, The Irrawaddy, 16 December 2021; “Why the Arakan Army attended Myanmar junta’s Union Day event”, The Irrawaddy, 16 February 2022; and “Northern Arakan targeted in vaccine push jointly undertaken by AA and military govt”, Development Media Group, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote  On the few occasions when there have been confrontations between military and Arakan Army forces on the ground – such as the clashes that erupted in November 2021 and February 2022 in northern Maungdaw Township – local commanders from both sides moved quickly to de-escalate tensions.[fn]“Rumbles in Rakhine amid strains between Myanmar military, rebels”, Al Jazeera, 24 November 2021; “Junta troops clash with Arakan Army in western Myanmar”, The Irrawaddy, 8 February 2022; and “Military, Arakan Army confront each other near Kyauktaw”, Myanmar Now, 19 January 2022.Hide Footnote

“Rumbles in Rakhine amid strains between Myanmar military, rebels”, Al Jazeera, 24 November 2021; “Junta troops clash with Arakan Army in western Myanmar”, The Irrawaddy, 8 February 2022; and “Military, Arakan Army confront each other near Kyauktaw”, Myanmar Now, 19 January 2022.

Their alacrity reflects a shared desire to avoid a return to war, at least for now.

The Arakan Army’s task has been made much easier by the composition of the civil service in Rakhine State, where the vast majority of civil servants are local, including in some of the highest positions of the state’s bureaucracy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various Rakhine-based sources, January 2022.Hide Footnote  In most other ethnic minority states, by contrast, ethnic Burmans deployed from the country’s Bamar heartland make up a much higher proportion of the civil service.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  Due to ethnic solidarity, many civil servants in Rakhine have thus been willing to cooperate with, if not actively support, the Arakan Army. A teacher observed: “I don’t think the Arakan Army needs to take over the running of schools – because over 90 per cent of teachers in Rakhine State are ethnic Rakhine, they are basically under the Arakan Army’s influence already”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, state schoolteacher, January 2022.Hide Footnote

Even those unsympathetic to the Arakan Army cause are … willing to cooperate with the group’s governance structures.

Since the fighting ended in November 2020, some civil servants have resigned to join the Arakan People’s Authority, including members of the judiciary, as mentioned above, but also police officers and administrators. Many others work for the group while continuing to nominally serve Naypyitaw. Even those unsympathetic to the Arakan Army’s cause are in many cases willing to cooperate with the group’s governance structures. “On the ground, many [regime-employed] officials cooperate with the ULA political and governance system. Only those from the military side and high-ranking civil servants resist”, said one Rakhine-based political analyst.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rakhine-based political analyst, January 2022.Hide Footnote  Several interviewees also noted that it was common for state-employed civil servants to pay taxes to the Arakan Army.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various Rakhine-based sources, January 2022.Hide Footnote

The military regime has not given the Arakan Army an entirely free hand, however. Particularly since late 2021, it has increased troop deployments in some strategically important areas of the state – notably in Maungdaw Township on the border with Bangladesh and Kyauktaw township, which is the main gateway to Paletwa in neighbouring Chin State. It has also pressured Rakhine and Rohingya community leaders to avoid interacting with the Arakan Army and Arakan People’s Authority (see section V below) and set up new checkpoints in several townships in an apparent effort to prevent the insurgents from moving forces around the state.[fn]See, for example, “Military tightens security checks on travellers in some Arakan townships”, Development Media Group, 4 January 2022.Hide Footnote  It has also detained young Rakhine suspected of training with the Arakan Army, as well as others thought to be providing support. [fn]See “Dozens arrested at northern Maungdaw security checkpoint”, Development Media Group, 31 January 2022; and “Regime troops’ visits to Arakan State villages are increasingly common, and unsettling, for locals”, Development Media Group, 9 May 2022.Hide Footnote  The Arakan Army does not seem deterred by these measures, as underscored by Twan Mrat Naing’s expletive-filled May 2022 tweet warning the local military commander not to go “too far”.[fn]See tweet by Twan Mrat Naing, @TwanMrat, Arakan Army leader, 5:25am, 6 May 2021.Hide Footnote  All this evidence points to rising tensions in Rakhine State in recent months and raises the risk of a return to war (see Section VI.A below).

IV. The Rohingya: Caught in the Middle

The rise of the Arakan Army has also had an impact on the fate of Rakhine state’s Rohingya Muslim population, now estimated at approximately 620,000 after over 700,000 fled to Bangladesh in 2016-2017.[fn]“Humanitarian Response Plan Myanmar”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, January 2022.Hide Footnote  On paper, central government regulations ban Rohingya from travelling freely outside the township in which they reside and significantly limit their access to public services, including education and health care. But given that most Rohingya live in the state’s north, a significant number are now in areas largely under Arakan Army control, particularly in Buthidaung and Kyauktaw townships. Many also live in contested areas where the group exerts significant influence but not outright control, such as northern Maungdaw and Pauktaw townships. Rohingya Crisis Group spoke to report mixed outcomes from the erosion of state control: many consider it an improvement, particularly in terms of freedom of movement and access to Arakan People’s Authority services, but it has also come at a cost, as it has resulted in threats and new restrictions from the military.

Even prior to the Arakan Army asserting control in Rakhine State, its rise opened the way for an amelioration in relations with the Rakhine Buddhist majority. In 2012, communal conflict between Rakhine and Rohingya had resulted in around 200 deaths and 140,000 people – mostly Rohingya – being displaced, leaving the state’s Buddhists and Muslims deeply divided, often to the point of segregation.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014, Section III.B.Hide Footnote  Since then, neither local Rakhine politicians nor Naypyitaw appeared to have the political will to mend the damage done to communal relations. Rakhine civilians were implicated in attacks on Rohingya during the military’s 2017 campaign of targeted violence. The International Court of Justice is presently hearing claims that this campaign violated Myanmar’s obligations under the Genocide Convention.[fn]Notably, the National League for Democracy government failed to follow key recommendations made by the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. On the ICJ case, see Richard Horsey, “Myanmar at the International Court of Justice”, Crisis Group Commentary, 10 December 2019. On Rakhine militias, see Crisis Group Report, Resisting the Resistance, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The Arakan Army leadership has, by contrast, sought to build more positive relations with the Rohingya in recent years. In particular, its leadership has reframed the Rakhine struggle as a fight with the Burmans, Myanmar’s largest ethnic group, and explicitly said the state’s Rohingya population should not be seen as the enemy. Arakan Army figures have also articulated a “nation-building” agenda that includes the creation of a more tolerant, inclusive “Arakan” identity that encompasses all groups living in the state, including Muslims.[fn]“Interview with ULA chairman and AA commander-in-chief Twan Mrat Naing”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Although they have stopped short of officially endorsing the term “Rohingya”, which is highly contested in Myanmar, the top leader, Twan Mrat Naing, has used it in interviews.[fn]See “‘We recognise the human rights and citizen rights of the Rohingyas’”, Prothom Alo English, 3 January 2022.Hide Footnote

The outbreak of war between the Arakan Army and military in late 2018 reinforced a narrative that cast Burmans as the enemy, and Rakhine anger at the Rohingya almost immediately shifted to civilian and military leaders in Naypyitaw. Numerous sources noted that relations between Rohingya and Rakhine have improved since then, although interactions are still often limited to economic activities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various sources based in Rakhine State, January-March 2022.Hide Footnote

The Arakan Army has not always appeared so sympathetic to the Rohingya.

The Arakan Army has not always appeared so sympathetic to the Rohingya. After the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police outposts in October 2016, the Arakan Army described the group as “savage Bengali Muslim terrorists”; Bengali is considered offensive by many Rohingya, as it implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh.[fn]ULA/AA press release, 20 October 2016, as cited in David Scott Mathieson, “The Arakan Army in Myanmar: Deadly Conflict Rises in Rakhine State”, U.S. Institute of Peace, November 2020.Hide Footnote  The following year, Twan Mrat Naing used the derogatory term kalar when he described the Rohingya “problem” as a “political trap” for the Rakhine.[fn]“AA chief urges Arakanese not to fall into army trap in Rakhine”, The Irrawaddy, 11 December 2017. The word kalar was originally used to describe all foreigners who had come to Myanmar (then Burma) by sea, but in modern times it is used primarily to denote South Asians, particularly Muslims, and is widely considered racist. For a further discussion of the etymology, see Matt Schissler, Matthew J. Walton and Phyu Phyu Thi, “Reconciling Contradictions: Buddhist-Muslim Violence, Narrative Making and Memory in Myanmar”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 47, no. 3 (2017). In 2020, activists launched a campaign, “Don’t call me kalar”, to highlight its racist connotations. See “Challenging entrenched racism in Myanmar: Don’t call me ‘kalar’”, Progressive Voice, 18 June 2020.Hide Footnote  But by August 2020, Twan Mrat Naing was tweeting “Happy Eid Mubarak to you all!”, a holiday greeting to Muslims that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier.[fn]Tweet by Twan Mrat Naing, @TwanMrat, Arakan Army leader, 5:54pm, 2 August 2020.Hide Footnote  Similarly, the group issued condolences following the death of Wakar Uddin, a prominent Rohingya leader based in the U.S. in April 2022.[fn]“Letter of Condolences”, United League of Arakan, 1 May 2022.Hide Footnote

This seemingly pragmatic evolution reflects the different stages of the Arakan Army’s struggle. In earlier phases, the group pitched a more exclusionary Rakhine ethno-nationalism to the Rakhine people as it sought to build support for its cause. After fighting with the military erupted in December 2018, it became increasingly concerned about its international image, and sought to present itself as more tolerant of the Rohingya than the Myanmar state and the Tatmadaw. During the conflict, it also made sense to have cordial, if not positive, relations with the Rohingya.[fn]For a closer examination of the Arakan Army’s position on the Rohingya, see Mathieson, op. cit., p. 16.Hide Footnote  Fighting a guerrilla war, the rebels depended on their capacity to conceal their forces and to survive on support from residents of the areas where they were operating. It therefore helped not to have the Rohingya as an enemy.

The armed group’s relationship with the Rohingya became even more important after it began administering territory in which Rohingya lived. As it has rolled out administrative structures, the group has worked to include Rohingya leaders in local administration, including on committees that resolve disputes. Rohingya administrators told Crisis Group they preferred working with these new structures to engaging with the military regime. As one noted:

Because the Arakan Army is working for all communities, we prefer their system, and we work together. We ignore the orders from the junta.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya administrator from Kyauktaw, January 2022.Hide Footnote


Although these comments reflect a degree of genuine improvement in living conditions for Rohingya in areas under Arakan Army control, such as reduced restrictions on movement, they should be understood in context. The expression of positive sentiments about the Arakan Army needs to be considered in light of the extreme repression that Naypyitaw has inflicted on the Rohingya for decades, which makes even modest betterment of the situation seem quite positive. Rohingya may also not feel comfortable openly criticising the Arakan Army, given that they are living in areas under its control. Moreover, reports are not uniformly positive. Some sources suggest that Rohingya experiences with Arakan People’s Authority structures, such as its judicial system, have been uneven, with complaints of bribes being requested in some areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various sources in Rakhine State, January-March 2022.Hide Footnote

Some Rohingya may also perceive the new parallel governance structures as an extra burden, forcing them to pay taxes to the armed group while they still need to interact with state bureaucrats – and pay bribes – for example to obtain permits to travel to the state capital, Sittwe, or other military-controlled areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, January 2022.Hide Footnote  Another complaint about the Arakan People’s Authority is the lack of inclusion of Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in its middle and upper levels.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various sources in Rakhine State, January-March 2022.Hide Footnote

Beginning in August 2021, military officials based in Rakhine began warning Rohingya community leaders not to have any contact with the Arakan Army or the Arakan People’s Authority.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various Rohingya sources in Rakhine State, January 2022: and local media reports.Hide Footnote  At one meeting in Kyauktaw Township, officers claimed that the Rohingya could rely on the state’s administration and judicial systems. But a Rohingya community leader present at the meeting told Crisis Group there was little choice but to use the Arakan People’s Authority, because state structures no longer exist in the area. “Officially I work for the [regime], but I haven’t seen any officials in our area for at least two years. Even since the coup, junta members have been too scared to come to our village”, he said, adding: “The Arakan Army is good for us. If we have problems, they come and solve them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya administrator from Kyauktaw, January 2022.Hide Footnote

Beyond repeated warnings to community leaders, the military has imposed increased restrictions on the Rohingya. In November 2021, it tightened the process of issuing travel permits for movement beyond township limits in Maungdaw and Buthidaung, where the vast majority of Rohingya live. Community members in these areas now need to get permits from local Immigration Department branches, in addition to the longstanding requirement that they obtain approval from local state administrators.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya community leader from Buthidaung, January 2022.Hide Footnote

The modest improvements some Rohingya have seen in territory controlled by the Arakan Army should not obscure the economic plight that the community faces.

Finally, the modest improvements some Rohingya have seen in territory controlled by the Arakan Army should not obscure the economic plight that the community faces throughout Rakhine State. The two-year war in Rakhine, the COVID-19 pandemic and Myanmar’s post-coup economic crisis have created further financial hardship for the Muslim minority, which was already among the most impoverished groups in Myanmar. “Since the coup, we don’t have any work – we are just trying to survive, trying not to die”, said the Rohingya community leader from Buthidaung.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya community leader from Buthidaung, January 2022.Hide Footnote

Combined with the political uncertainty the community faces, this hardship is prompting many to try to leave the state, often in the hope of reaching Malaysia, which already has a large Rohingya community. This illegal journey is expensive and risky; police regularly detain large groups of Rohingya in other parts of the country and charge them with travelling outside their home township without permission, an offence usually punished with two years’ imprisonment.[fn]Several hundred Rohingya have already been arrested in 2022 in other parts of Myanmar, nearly all of them while attempting to reach a third country (usually Malaysia). In one notable example, regime police arrested 65 Rohingya in the town of Myawaddy, on the border with Thailand, as they sought to reach Malaysia. See “65 Muslims arrested in Myawaddy for illegally travelling to Malaysia”, Narinjara, 3 March 2022.Hide Footnote  Those who try to escape by sea face a perilous voyage at the hands of human traffickers.

V. A Clouded Future

A. A Return to War?

Despite the calm in Rakhine State since the November 2020 informal ceasefire and the subsequent coup, a return to conflict remains possible, even likely. The lack of a formal ceasefire, particularly one with clearly demarcated lines to separate the forces, means that troop movements can easily result in clashes in disputed areas, as was the case with fighting in Maungdaw in late 2021 and early 2022.

The Arakan Army’s objective of confederacy, if not independence, is anathema to the military, which envisions a centralised, unitary state, and has sought to maintain control of the country’s border areas. Although the military has largely tolerated the Arakan Army’s state-building agenda since the coup, the scale of the undertaking is beginning to provoke stronger pushback from the regime, particularly as the Arakan Army seeks to expand into areas that the military deems strategic. Interviews with Rakhine and Rohingya residents and other sources in the state indicate that many believe a return to war is only a matter of time.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, various sources in Rakhine State, January-March 2022.Hide Footnote  After first seeking to downplay its administrative expansion, the Arakan Army has grown increasingly bold by attempting to expand into the Bangladesh border region, talking more publicly about its parallel administrative system and openly describing itself as a “government”.[fn]The Arakan Army has described itself as a “Rakhine transitional government” to aid workers and at the 5 March press conference Khaing Thu Kha referred to it as a pyithu asoya, or “people’s government”.Hide Footnote

A renewed outbreak of conflict could be even more devastating than the two-year war that ravaged parts of Rakhine State in 2018-2020. The Arakan Army has significantly built up its armed forces since the ceasefire, with as many as 30,000 people having now undergone training.[fn]Crisis Group interview, source close to the military regime, March 2022. See also “Rebel yell”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Newer members lack combat experience, and possibly also arms and equipment, but the insurgency will nevertheless be an even more formidable opponent for the regime than it was during the earlier conflict, when it inflicted significant casualties on the military. The strength of popular support it enjoys will enable its fighters to remain highly mobile; they will also benefit from Rakhine communities providing intelligence and supplies, thus making a Tatmadaw victory close to impossible. Still, the humanitarian consequences of renewed fighting would likely be devastating for both Rakhine and Rohingya residents, leading to large-scale displacement.

War is not inevitable, however, at least not in the near term. All will depend on the political will of the junta and Arakan Army leadership to find a mutually acceptable near-term arrangement that moves beyond the fragile status quo. A formal ceasefire agreement that demarcates territory in Rakhine State could avert a return to conflict and create greater stability for local populations. It would preserve both parties’ current positions, allowing for the possibility of more substantive negotiations on an Arakan Army-controlled autonomous region to take place at a later date.

The regime has not only been forced to accept the fact of the Arakan Army’s presence, but ... appears to be open to an agreement that would formally recognise it.

A formal ceasefire agreement had seemed highly unlikely before the coup: Myanmar’s military leadership had demanded that the Arakan Army withdraw from Rakhine State and return to Kachin State, where the group was first established.[fn]Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The informal ceasefire, though, reflected a shift in the Tatmadaw’s position and this has only solidified amid post-coup realities. The regime has not only been forced to accept the fact of the Arakan Army’s presence, but according to several sources Crisis Group spoke to, appears to be open to an agreement that would formally recognise it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, sources with knowledge of informal discussions between the military and the Arakan Army, January-April 2022.Hide Footnote  Although meetings between the two sides are rare, both mid-level military commanders and political intermediaries are in regular contact.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, sources close to the military regime, March and April 2022.Hide Footnote  Such a shift in approach from the military means a formal ceasefire is now possible.

To place these developments in context, late last year, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing also launched a new peace initiative and has declared 2022 a “year of peace”. His primary motive is to undermine opposition to the coup by enticing ethnic armed groups from the battlefield to the negotiating table, enabling the military to focus its forces on newly formed resistance groups, many of which are aligned with the NUG. He also hopes the initiative will distract outside actors and stave off pressure to open talks with the NUG and other resistance groups. The process lacks legitimacy and is highly unlikely to lead to a comprehensive settlement that ends Myanmar’s internal conflicts. But Min Aung Hlaing’s eagerness to cut deals and the junta’s overall weak position create an opportunity for the Arakan Army to use this initiative to negotiate an arrangement that might otherwise be unattainable.

Past experience in Myanmar suggests that the parties could reach such an agreement quickly. With the exception of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, most ceasefires are light on detail – if they are written down at all – and are instead based on understandings or “gentlemen’s agreements” between military officials and armed group leaders. In some cases, these understandings have endured for decades.

Still, the two sides are likely to be some distance apart on the key terms of such an arrangement. In particular, the military may not accept the present geographic extent of Arakan Army control or meet the group’s demands on the level of autonomy it wishes to enjoy. There are also other reasons for both sides to be wary; in particular, a ceasefire without an explicit political element would enable their opponents to build up their forces and prepare for renewed confrontation down the road.

Nevertheless, both sides have compelling reasons to try reaching a deal. The regime’s new peace process has so far had limited buy-in from the country’s ethnic armed groups; if the Arakan Army were to engage in ceasefire negotiations through this process, it would give the process a major boost that the military would likely welcome.[fn]The military invited all ethnic armed groups – but not the National Unity Government or its People’s Defence Forces – to a ceremony to mark Union Day on 12 February in Naypyitaw, but only ten of Myanmar’s twenty or so ethnic armies sent delegations. One of them was the Arakan Army.Hide Footnote  A ceasefire would also deprive the military’s opponents, particularly the NUG, of a potentially powerful ally, at least for now. For the insurgents, a formal ceasefire would be an opportunity to further consolidate control over their newly won territory. Moreover, any agreement that explicitly or implicitly recognises their authority would represent a major political victory, even if at first it does not deliver the level of autonomy that they seek. It would also enable other actors, such as humanitarian aid groups and Bangladesh, to more openly engage with the Arakan Army, something the armed group has been seeking.

While the coup has put a previously unattainable deal within reach, it also complicates negotiations.

But while the coup has put a previously unattainable deal within reach, it also complicates negotiations. The Arakan Army leadership has already been forced to walk a fine line between engaging the junta in pursuit of its own political agenda and avoiding the appearance that it is legitimising the regime, which remains extremely unpopular in Rakhine State and Myanmar more broadly. At the 5 March press conference, Khaing Thu Kha asserted that the Arakan Army does not recognise the junta as the legitimate government and that it was “impossible” to hold a “political dialogue” with an administration that had seized power in a coup. Any political agreement, for example on autonomy and related issues, may therefore have to wait, at least until after a planned 2023 election. But in the interim, both sides could hold negotiations on a ceasefire focused on military matters, particularly demarcation of territory.

Pending the result of such negotiations, both sides should avoid taking steps that might provoke a return to fighting. The red lines for the military are blurry, but they are likely to include any attempt by the Arakan Army to gain control of the northern border areas with Bangladesh, townships in southern Rakhine (including Ann) or urban centres in the centre and north of the state. Optics are also likely to be important for the junta, so the group should refrain from showcasing the extent of its military and administrative control, so as not to portray itself as a de facto government. The military, meanwhile, will need to accept the fact of Arakan Army control in most rural areas of the state. It should stop aggressive troop movements and its attempts to disrupt the activities of the Arakan People’s Authority through arrests and other forms of pressure on civilians.

One alternative for the Arakan Army is to increase political and military cooperation with the NUG, as some other ethnic armed groups have done since the coup. The Arakan Army has held numerous informal meetings with the NUG, which hopes to entice the pro-Rakhine group to join the anti-military resistance. Many in Myanmar see the Arakan Army as a potential game-changer in the battle with the military regime. But the NUG has been unwilling to meet the Arakan Army’s demands for autonomy, which goes beyond the federal system that the rebel administration is negotiating with ethnic armed groups and other stakeholders.[fn]Crisis Group interview, NUG sources, March 2022.Hide Footnote  There is also still deep antagonism among many Rakhine, including the Arakan Army leadership, toward the National League for Democracy (NLD) for supporting the military’s war against the Arakan Army in 2018-2020.[fn]Crisis Group Report, An Avoidable War, op. cit.Hide Footnote  By joining with the NUG, the Arakan Army risks provoking a return to war with the junta, something it still seems keen to avoid, and which would exact a heavy toll on the people of Rakhine State.

There are other potential pathways forward as well. The Arakan Army might, for example, pursue a formal ceasefire with the military while also continuing to engage the NUG, as well as other resistance forces and ethnic armed groups. The group might see strategic benefit in keeping its options open, given the uncertainty about how Myanmar’s broader conflicts will play out. If the Arakan Army tries to go this route, however, it could make the military regime less amenable to its ceasefire demands, particularly if the latter continues to publicise its talks with the NUG and support for resistance groups. Conversely, the decision to pursue negotiations within Min Aung Hlaing’s peace initiative or separate from it would likely increase the military’s willingness to meet the Arakan Army’s terms, as it will clearly prefer that the armed group join the talks, thus bolstering their credibility.

B. Implications for Aid Delivery

Rakhine State has historically been a major destination for humanitarian aid in Myanmar, due to its high overall poverty and the needs of its Rohingya population in light of discriminatory policies. But humanitarian activities have been impeded by post-2012 communal tensions, the military’s violent campaign against the Rohingya in 2016-2017, the war between the Arakan Army and the military between 2018 and 2020, and the outbreak of COVID-19.

After taking power, the military regime relaxed some restrictions, likely in an attempt to improve its international image vis-à-vis the previous NLD government.[fn]Crisis Group interview, aid agency official, March 2022. Close to 150,000 Rohingya displaced by the 2012 communal violence remain in camps, villages and other displacement sites, almost entirely dependent on international humanitarian aid. “Number of internally displaced in Myanmar doubles, to 800,000”, UN News, 11 February 2022.Hide Footnote Despite these limited improvements, however, at the time of writing, aid workers estimated that around 75 per cent of humanitarian activities in the state were still facing constraints, including insecurity, blanket bans on access to certain areas, denials or delays in approving travel authorisations, conditions or limitations on the authorisations that are issued, or demands from the authorities for detailed reports.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers and aid agency officials, March 2022.Hide Footnote  Some organisations have scaled back operations or even closed entirely due to these restrictions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, aid agency official, March 2022.Hide Footnote

In general, the Arakan Army’s increased assertion of administrative control has not significantly affected humanitarian operations. Aid workers have been able to pass through rebel checkpoints by showing Naypyitaw-issued travel authorisations and the armed group has not otherwise sought to stop them from carrying out their activities.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  Local civil society organisations, which are not subject to the travel authorisation system, similarly report few restrictions. “Arakan Army officials just asked us not to take too many photos while we are in their areas. They said this is for security reasons – they don’t want outsiders to get too much information about what they are doing”, said one civil society leader, whose organisation works mostly in areas under the group’s control.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader in Rakhine State, January 2022.Hide Footnote  Another civil society leader from Ramree said that, when his staff informs regime officials about their planned activities, they are usually given a long list of restrictions, whereas the Arakan Army always gives permission. “We prefer to work with the Arakan Army’s administration. … The [regime] restricts and prohibits many things”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader in Ramree Township, January 2022.Hide Footnote

Recently, however, the Arakan Army has begun exerting greater control over aid activities within the territory it controls, particularly those implemented or funded by international organisations. Foreign aid workers report that the armed group has been contacting local implementing partners to seek information about their activities and personnel, and in some cases asking them to register with its parallel administration.[fn]Crisis Group interview, aid agency official, March 2022.Hide Footnote  The group has set up a dedicated Humanitarian and Development Coordination Office to engage with the UN and international NGOs but has not elaborated on how this office will work in practice.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  The office reflects both the insurgency’s desire to be treated as a state-like entity and the significant role that humanitarian actors play in Rakhine State. The Arakan Army has claimed the plan would ease operational difficulties they are facing, but some fear that introducing such reporting requirements could further constrict the humanitarian space in Rakhine State by forcing aid agencies to report to two parallel administrations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers and aid agency officials, March 2022. Aside from adding an extra layer of bureaucracy that restricts humanitarian activities and consumes resources, a parallel system would be impractical unless travel authorisations issued by the regime and the Arakan Army were near identical. Travel authorisations are for a specific time period, for example, and the time period would need to align on both authorisations for activities to be implemented.Hide Footnote

The Arakan Army should ... tread carefully as it devises a system to interact with aid organisations.

The Arakan Army should therefore tread carefully as it devises a system to interact with aid organisations, avoiding the introduction of new rules that in practice restrict their capacity to operate, and respecting the need for these organisations to work with Naypyitaw, especially as many of them have operations in other parts of the country. In particular, it should not force them to register, pay taxes or obtain travel authorisations from a parallel system it would introduce. Unworkable rules that force aid groups to scale back support to the people of Rakhine State would harm its own interests – negatively affecting how the Arakan Army is perceived by both residents of Rakhine State, who would be deprived of aid, and by foreign governments, many of whom have provided humanitarian funding to Rakhine for years.

For their part, international organisations working in Rakhine, including UN agencies, should forge a common approach to how and in what circumstances to engage the Arakan Army. Because Rakhine has certain unique features relative to other parts of Myanmar where ethnic armed groups are also present, there is no template to borrow from; this framework will have to be developed more or less from scratch.[fn]There are key differences in both scale and timing. Although humanitarian organisations are active to some degree in other insurgent-controlled areas of Myanmar, they usually operate only through local implementing partners and on a much smaller scale than in Rakhine. Further, because most of these other insurgencies date back decades, aid agencies were generally not present prior to an armed group establishing control, as has been the case in Rakhine. A further difference is that humanitarian aid has been at times a highly divisive issue in Rakhine State, with many ethnic Rakhine feeling that the Rohingya have received preferential treatment from aid actors.Hide Footnote  In addition to bringing them together to work on this framework, such a coordinated approach will give aid organisations maximum leverage if they need to push back against a parallel system of authorisations. Engagement with the Arakan Army should not be seen as just a risk, however; it could also be an opportunity to positively influence the group’s policies and practices.

C. Rohingya Repatriation

The rise of the Arakan Army in Rakhine State will inevitably affect prospects for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, particularly over the long term. An estimated 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2016-2017 due to the Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown on the community in northern Rakhine State. Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a bilateral repatriation agreement in November 2017, but no refugees have yet returned through formal channels despite two high-profile attempts by Bangladesh in November 2018 and August 2019.[fn]For a detailed examination of the issues around repatriation prior to the military coup, see Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°153, Bangladesh-Myanmar: The Danger of Force Rohingya Repatriation, 12 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Refugees have cited the failure of the Myanmar authorities to guarantee their safety in Rakhine State and the inability to get citizenship as the main reasons for refusing to return. At the time, the NLD government largely ignored these demands and instead blamed Bangladesh for bureaucratic delays that it said were holding up repatriation.[fn]“Myanmar blames Bangladesh for Rohingya repatriation failure”, The Irrawaddy, 18 November 2019.Hide Footnote  Myanmar has also said ARSA militants in the camps that house hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in southern Bangladesh have been threatening refugees into rejecting repatriation; Bangladesh has acknowledged that some refugees are using force to oppose repatriation, but until very recently it rejected the suggestion ARSA is active in the camps.[fn]See, for example, “Bangladesh’s harboring of terrorists continues to hinder Rohingya repatriation process”, The Irrawaddy, 13 October 2020. Bangladesh maintained for years that ARSA was not present in the camps and that alleged ARSA members there were actually criminals using the group’s name. After the killing of Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya political activist, in September 2021, Dhaka has acknowledged ARSA’s presence in the camps. See “Armed group behind Rohingya leader’s murder: Bangladesh police”, Al Jazeera, 16 March 2022.Hide Footnote  Despite China’s efforts to mediate between Dhaka and Naypyitaw, the repatriation process stalled entirely after large-scale fighting erupted in Rakhine state in 2019.

The coup has only made the situation more challenging. It dealt a further blow to prospects of large-scale repatriation, as many refugees will likely remain reluctant to return with the military that was directly responsible for the mass violence that drove them from the country in power.

The coup also delayed the resumption of bilateral negotiations with Bangladesh on repatriation, but it has not derailed the process entirely. Dhaka has been understandably anxious to start sending refugees back – or at least avoid the process being derailed entirely – and has ensured repatriation remains the central issue in bilateral relations. For its part, the Myanmar military has stated since shortly after the coup that it will continue repatriation efforts. Although this is almost certainly an attempt to improve its international image, it leaves the door open for further discussions.[fn]In his first major public address after the coup, Min Aung Hlaing said his administration would “continue receiving the displaced persons in Bangladesh in accord with the bilateral agreement”. Since then, the regime has blamed Bangladesh for further delays in repatriations. See “Republic of the Union of Myanmar State Administration Council Chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing makes speech to public”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 9 February 2021; “MOFA Press Release on ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting Retreat”, Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 20 February 2022; and “Rohingya refugees reject return to Myanmar without assurances”, Radio Free Asia, 24 February 2022.Hide Footnote  In January 2022, Myanmar and Bangladesh resumed talks via a virtual coordination meeting and in March the Rakhine State Administration Council said it had received a list of what it referred to as 700 “Muslims” to be repatriated, though no further details have since been released by either country.[fn]See “Bangladesh, Myanmar resume talks over Rohingya verification”, The Independent, 28 January 2022; and “ဘင်္ဂလားဒေ့ရှ်မှ မူဆလင် ၇ဝဝ ကျော်ကို ပြန်လည်လက်ခံရန်ရှိဟု ရခိုင်ပြည်နယ်ကောင်စီပြော [More than 700 Muslims who fled to Bangladesh to be repatriated, says Rakhine State Administration Council]”, Narinjara, 8 March 2022.Hide Footnote

[The return of some Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State] mostly reflects the deterioration of conditions in the camps in southern Bangladesh.

Despite reservations about returning to military-controlled Myanmar without guarantees on citizenship and other issues, some Rohingya refugees may be willing to consider heading back to Rakhine State. Indeed, an unknown number – possibly in the low thousands – have already returned informally, crossing the border on their own. While their return may be partly due to the November 2020 de facto ceasefire, which brought some level of stability in Rakhine State, it mostly reflects the deterioration of conditions in the camps in southern Bangladesh, where reports of crime and violence have been steadily increasing.[fn]“Bangladesh concerned by growing crimes, unrest at Rohingya camps”, Dhaka Tribune, 2 October 2021.Hide Footnote  Dhaka has also been taking a tougher approach to the refugees, closing some schools, destroying shops in the camps.[fn]See “Bangladesh destroys 3,000 shops belonging to Rohingya Muslim refugees”, The Independent, 5 January 2022; “Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugee Schools Face Closure”, Human Rights Watch, 18 December 2021; and “Bangladesh shuts largest private school in Rohingya camps”, Agence France-Presse, 28 March 2022.Hide Footnote  It has also moved close to 28,000 Rohingya to the island settlement of Bhasan Char.[fn]The Bangladesh government has set a target of relocating 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char.Hide Footnote  Any formal repatriation would, however, likely involve only a small number of refugees, at least at first, for the reasons noted above.[fn]“Rohingya refugees reject return to Myanmar without assurances”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Given the extent of Arakan Army influence in Rakhine, its explicit or tacit approval will likely be required to enable any large-scale organised repatriation to proceed. In line with its efforts to appeal to the Rohingya and improve its image abroad, leader Twan Mrat Naing has insisted his group does not oppose repatriation, saying it is “only natural” that Rohingya refugees would want to return. But he has also cautioned that the situation is not yet stable enough to initiate such a process and that a “massive” number of returns could lead to “unrest”.[fn]“‘We recognize the human rights and citizen rights of the Rohingya’”, op. cit. and “Rebel yell”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Agreeing to support repatriation will be politically fraught for the group, as it is likely to draw complaints from its harder-line Rakhine supporters, who still consider most Rohingya to be illegal immigrants. Nevertheless, it may be willing to support limited formal returns if it believes it will gain enough, principally in enhanced legitimacy and international recognition. International actors should encourage it in that direction.

The emergence of the Arakan Army as a governance actor raises important questions for Bangladesh. The Arakan Army has long sought to build relations with the Bangladesh government, but Dhaka has rebuffed the overtures, because it has a policy of eschewing engagement with insurgencies that undermine the sovereignty of neighbouring states.[fn]“‘We recognize the human rights and citizen rights of the Rohingya’”, op. cit. On 21 February 2022, the United League of Arakan also issued a “statement of solidarity”, ostensibly to mark Bangladesh Language Martyrs Day, in which it spoke of the “natural bond between the people and regions of Bangladesh and Arakan”. It issued a similar statement to mark Bangladesh Independence Day the following month.Hide Footnote  With the Arakan Army and military regime no longer fighting and the armed group in partial or full control of much of the territory the Rohingya refugees on its soil originated from, Dhaka may wish to reconsider that approach in this particular case. Should the Arakan Army and Naypyitaw arrive at a formal ceasefire, Dhaka may reconsider it sooner.

VI. Conclusion

The two-year war and the subsequent de facto ceasefire between the Arakan Army and Myanmar military has radically reshaped the balance of power in Rakhine State. Taking advantage of the February 2021 coup, the armed group has eroded state control across much of Rakhine, and in its place rolled out its own governance and service delivery structures. Although these new mechanisms have faced some criticisms, support for the Arakan Army remains strong, particularly among the ethnic Rakhine. The Rohingya have also benefited from the group’s rise to some extent, but they remain vulnerable and wary of military retaliation for cooperating with the parallel administration.

Although under strain due to the nationwide uprising against the coup, the military is unlikely to tolerate an autonomous entity in Rakhine State. It may therefore attempt to dislodge the Arakan Army at some point. Another war would be devastating for everyone in Rakhine, and the Arakan Army is so well entrenched that Naypyitaw is unlikely to be able to wrest back power anyway. To avoid further conflict, both sides should reach a ceasefire agreement that recognises the armed group’s territory and increases stability in the state. Such an agreement would not only reduce the risk of further humanitarian disaster in Rakhine, but it would also bolster the prospects of return for at least some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees presently lingering in refugee camps across the border.

Brussels, 1 June 2022

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar