Arakan at the Crossroads: Addressing newly-emerging military and political dynamics

AA soldiers and Rohingya IDPs

First published at Transnational Institute.

Eight months after ‘Operation 1027’ by the ‘Three Brotherhood Alliance’ (3BHAs) in northern Shan State, many observers have remarked that the military and political landscape in Myanmar has entered a new stage in momentum. Before this operation started on 27 October 2023, which was conducted in collaboration with several pro-democracy resistance groups, two key military and political narratives had dominated Myanmar politics. The first started with the assumption that military competition in the country was largely at a stalemate in which the State Administration Council (SAC) regime largely controlled urban and strategic communication centres, whereas opposition groups had reached their highest peak in operational movement from which they were bound to gradually decline. Second, and related to this, it was thought that the SAC-led Myanmar military could not be defeated in political terms, and thus returning to political dialogue and an electoral path under the highly unpopular 2008 constitution is the only alternative way to move the country and its population forward.

These military and political claims, however, have been broken down by Operation 1027 in which three ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) led the attack in northern Shan State: the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA). An important role has also been played by another EAO, and 3BHA ally, in reconfiguring the landscape in the northeast of the country, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), whose main base is in Kachin State. The cumulative impact of these operations has been to produce an outstanding and unprecedented military outcome in which at least 15 towns were captured by the 3BHAs and their allies in northern Shan State until the intervention of a Beijing-initiated ceasefire on 11 January 2024.

Meanwhile resistance forces also launched military offensives on other ethnic nationality fronts – notably in Chin, Kayah (Karenni), Karen and southern Shan States – that resulted in significant advances for opposition movements. As a result, SAC control has much declined in non-Bamar territories around all Myanmar’s borders. At the same time, new anti-regime People’s Defence Forces, many of which support the opposition National Unity Government, have continued military operations in ethnic Bamar-majority areas, including Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway Regions. The military SAC, which seized power in a 2021 coup, is today widely rejected by peoples and communities across the country.

Against this backdrop, a critical military landscape has been developing in the western part of Myanmar in Arakan (Rakhine state) and adjoining territories in Chin State where the ULA/AA, a member of the 3BHAs, launched an offensive campaign on 13 November two weeks after the initiation of Operation 1027. Half a year later, the current cycle of armed conflict has witnessed a series of unprecedented military victories for the AA in its homeland base. In consequence, the ULA/AA is today the de facto administration in much of Rakhine State and the tri-border region with Bangladesh and India. Nevertheless many questions remain about how military and political contestation will unfold in western Myanmar in the near and long-term future.

This commentary is an effort to reflect the changing military and political dynamics in Arakan during a time of rapid and unparalleled change. During the past six months, a host of grave challenges have come to the fore. Urgent questions include the spread of armed conflict to every township in Rakhine State and adjoining territories, displacement among peoples of all nationalities, threats to social cohesion stemming from the SAC’s military attempts to recruit Rohingya youths, egregious human rights violations and worsening humanitarian emergency, and deepening speculation about future political scenarios for Arakan and its long-suffering peoples. Seven decades after independence from Great Britain, the struggle for freedom in Arakan has reached a critical crossroads.

The AA’s art of war

Established 15 years ago on 10 April 2009, the Arakan Army is now by some estimates the largest de facto state-ethnic nationality armed movement based upon manpower in the country. According to a recent interview with the ULA/AA leader, Maj-Gen. Twan Mrat Naing, the AA has trained around 40,000 standing troops, excluding members of a paramilitary Arakan Army Auxiliary (AAA). As of mid-May, the AA had captured ten township centres, including several smaller towns: Pauktaw, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya, Myebon, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung and Buthidaung in northern and central Rakhine State, Ramree in the centre-south, and Paletwa in southern Chin State. Meanwhile AA offensives have continued in three key military theatres: Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine State, Ann township in the centre, and Thandwe township in the south.

During the past three weeks, the AA then made further significant breakthroughs, drawing further attention to the Arakan conflict. On 18 May, it was reported that AA troops had captured the SAC’s Military Operation Command (MOC) 15 and defending battalion forces in Buthidaung, including key Border Guard Police Force positions in Maungdaw to the west. In Ann township, meanwhile, where the headquarters of the SAC’s Western Regional Command is located, the AA was reported to have surrounded the town, effectively controlling the Ann-Yangon highway. At the same time, SAC forces came under increasing AA attacks near the Tha Htay hydropower project in southern Rakhine State. In effect, the entire state is now a conflict-zone with the ULA/AA continuing to make strategic advances on every front.

Among the three warzones, armed clashes in the northern townships around Maungdaw along the northern border are the most complex and sensitive. As fighting escalates, this has been compounded by the SAC’s military recruitment of Rohingya youths during the past half year, both in the local area and from across the Naaf River frontier with Bangladesh.

To achieve its current build-up, the AA leadership initiated three waves of offensives, with their recent advances marking a fourth wave. The first clashes broke out in Rathedaung township last November, signifying the end to a tentative ceasefire which generally continued after the SAC seized power in February 2021. The first AA offensive, however, was largely centered in Paletwa township in the former Arakan Hill Tracts (today in Chin State) and ended with the capture of the whole region in mid-January. Subsequently, the second wave started in the valleys of the Kaladan and Lay Myo rivers, resulting in the defeat of all battalions under the MOC 9 in Kyauktaw and the capture of Minbya, Kyauktaw, Pauktaw, Myebon and the ancient capital of Mrauk-U by mid-February. Then, the third wave brought the towns of Ponnagyun and Rathedaung under the AA’s control in northern Rakhine State in mid-March.

These latest breakthroughs represent a remarkable rise in the strength and spread of the ULA/AA movement since its 2009 foundation. Before the present escalation in conflict, AA troops had experienced two rounds of intense fighting: the first beginning in 2018 until a ceasefire in late 2020, and a second short round when the ceasefire briefly broke down between August and November 2022. This ‘on and off’ military strategy allowed the AA to grow in military and political strength as a result of which the ULA/AA has become the only viable rival on the battlefield to the Myanmar military as well as the dominant political force in the territory. During these de facto ceasefire periods, the ULA – as the political wing of the AA – enabled the movement to become militarily stronger in parallel with its administrative build-up in areas controlled by party officials.

While preparing this political and military expansion, ULA/AA leaders say that they have been very aware of the complex socio-political landscape, especially the challenges surrounding the Rohingya residents in Arakan. In response, they claim to have approached these issues in three ways: 1) promoting social cohesion activities among the different communities; 2) improving inclusive governance in the local administrations; and 3) implementing transparent rights and judicial systems involving all communities.

In theory, then, progress had been made in AA-controlled areas in contrast to decades of social division and maladministration under Myanmar military rule that preceded. Solutions to the Rohingya question, however, remain little investigated and unknown, and the challenges became more complex in mid-January when the SAC authorities started, apparently as an act of desperation, the military recruitment of youths from Rohingya communities. As analysts warned, the loss of control in Rakhine state represented a ‘devastating economic blow’ to the finances and authority of the SAC regime under the failing leadership of Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

For the moment, the consequences of the regime’s change in tactics remain uncertain. But six years after over 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled into Bangladesh to escape killings and persecution by the Myanmar military amidst international condemnation, evidence has been growing that the SAC is attempting to use young Rohingya people to fight against the ULA/AA which is ethnic majority Rakhine. Tragically, just at the moment the peoples of Arakan had been hoping to achieve a united road towards freedom, the SAC regime – which is predominantly ethnic Bamar – appears determined to generate a new cycle of internal civil war. A dangerous moment has been reached which could set the scene for future social and political developments in the territory.

Junta’s military recruitment of the Rohingya: A challenge to social cohesion

The mounting scale of SAC losses across the country, including those on the Arakan front, witnessed the regime leadership introduce a ‘military conscription law’ on 10 February 2024. The law only mentioned official citizens as ‘eligible’ for serving under the programme. But later the SAC spokesperson, Maj-Gen. Zaw Min Tun, claimed that ‘neutralized’ and ‘associated’ citizens were also implied in line with the controversial ‘1982 citizenship law’. However, it is still unclear whether Rohingya residents, many of whom lack legal clarity or documents to prove that they are citizens under the 1982 law, are official targets for military recruitment. Indeed, the same military spokesperson claimed on February 24 that ‘there is no military recruitment from the Muslim community’. One month later he sought to explain this another way by saying that ‘military recruitment was installed due to the demand from the Rohingya community for self-defense, and the recruited personnel were not sent into the military frontline nor fighting zone.’

Few people believe any regime explanation, and many Rohingyas have been seeking to avoid conscription. But, regardless of legal status or political complexity, inter-community damage already appears to have been done by the SAC’s recruitment strategy. As the policy is rolled out, a new dynamic has been emerging with Rohingya participation in the armed conflict, and the SAC authorities have deployed newly-trained Rohingya youths to attack the ULA/AA in three ways and with three objectives.

The first is to hinder and delay the military offensives of the AA, especially in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships in the north. To carry this out, the junta has used armed Rohingya men as human shields, proxy guards and auxiliary forces. Second, the SAC has sought to gain political advantage by creating another round of communal violence. Such incidents have occurred a number of times before, mostly recently in 2012 and 2017 with the military authorities prime instigators in Rakhine State. With this in mind, the authorities have distributed ‘racial hatred’ propaganda and manipulated small but already-existing Rohingya armed groups – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Arakan Rohingya Army (ARA) and Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) – as well as other newly-recruited groups to attack civilians and burn houses belonging to ethnic Rakhine and other non-Rohingya or non-Muslim minorities. And third, the military authorities have attempted to create more misunderstandings and divisions between the ULA leadership and Rohingya Muslim population. To achieve this objective, Rohingya youths were forced to join or back anti-AA and anti-war demonstrations in Buthidaung and the state capital Sittwe.

Looking at the fall-out from these events, there appear to be three ways in which Rohingya Muslims have reacted to anti-AA and anti-Rakhine activities initiated by the SAC. First, a large number of Rohingya youths have been forcibly recruited against their will, and many have been deployed as human shields in the military frontline without sufficient military training, arms or ammunition. This is also a viewpoint and narrative that many Rohingya activists and their supporters have promoted.

There are, however, two other ways that Rohingya people have become involved with the armed conflicts in Rakhine State. First, two already-existing Rohingya armed groups, the ARSA and ARA, used their local networks to collaborate with the Myanmar military in fighting against the AA. Active since 2016, the ARSA is ostensibly an anti-Myanmar military force in the Bangladesh borderlands, while the ARA is a new militia group on the Naaf River frontier. But their cooperation with the regime has been witnessed by local people and proven by a succession of incidents in the conflict zones in Rakhine State where the Myanmar military has provided artillery and air strike support, most obviously when AA troops have clashed with the ARSA. In a Radio Free Asia report on 15 April a Rohingya villager said:

Myanmar military in collaboration with the ARSA fought against the AA. Two AA soldiers were injured and six died from the other side. The military shot artillery shelling into the boat and 25 Rohingya civilians died.

More recently the RSO, which is a fragmentary but older armed grouping, also appears to be following an SAC-backed path as supporters seek to revive.

Second, even though many international observers view the Myanmar military as a ‘Genocider’ versus the Rohingya people as a ‘Genocide Survivor’, it is important to recognise that – as with other nationalities and communities in the country – there are always pro-military administrators and businesspersons who profit from the sufferings of the people. In the Arakan case, local sources report that, with the rise of the ULA/AA movement, the SAC authorities in Sittwe have imposed higher restrictions for Rakhine businesspersons to conduct commercial and trading activities with the national business centre in Yangon. Instead, pro-junta Rohingya supporters have been more favourably permitted to conduct transactions, resulting in a dangerous ‘divisive and exclusive’ economic discrimination between the two communities. Indeed, it is these pro-regime collaborators who have been accused of helping organise anti-AA demonstrations as well as recruit Rohingya youths by coercive, deceptive or incentive means for the SAC.

It is therefore critical to note that these three activities, including forced recruitment, are not popular and hardly represent the interests of the Rohingya community as a whole, and there are also pro-ULA/AA Rohingya supporters on the ground. Indeed on 6 March a ULA spokesperson claimed that the movement was protecting Rohingya youths who were escaping to avoid the SAC’s forced recruitment. In a counter-claim, the DVB reported on 29 April that the AA also engaged in the forced recruitment of Rohingya people. The ULA/AA, however, denied this, and instead an AA spokesperson claimed that armed groups – notably the ARSA, ARA and RSO – had been recruiting Rohingya youths from the refugee camps in Bangladesh – initially, as an act of deception, in the name of the ULA/AA. Clearly, whatever the allegations, the continued spread of fighting and forced recruitment of civilians have been underpinning a new cycle of instability and division in the Arakan frontiers.

This, in turn, draws attention to the role of Bangladesh, a critical stakeholder in any peaceful resolution of the Rohingya crisis. Both in theory and practice, the Dhaka authorities might want a peaceful and stable border in order to solve the Rohingya repatriation issue. Government officials also privately say that the social burden of over one million refugees and illicit-drug trafficking in the border world is causing increasing challenges in Bangladesh society as well.

In the frontline of actions, however, there is a complexity of agendas and interests between the different security apparatuses that deal with Rohingya issues and border affairs: notably the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, National Security Intelligence and Border Guard Bangladesh. Caught between the daily challenges of refugee emergency and borderland crisis, many officials have been concentrating their energy on security fixes rather than long-term solutions.

As a result, analysts believe that the Bangladesh authorities have failed to support local capacity and representative leadership among the Rohingya population during their time of need. As a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies highlighted in late 2023: ‘Bangladesh’s support – both tacit and overt – for Rohingya armed actors has facilitated the rise of Rohingya militant groups at the expense of a more moderate, non-violent and legitimate Rohingya leadership.’ Most obviously, last year the security authorities supported the armed revival of the RSO to try and oust the ARSA from influence in the camps and Bangladesh side of the border following the killing of a respected intelligence officer.

These observations have gained increasing relevance as the political and conflict landscape became ever more unstable in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships during the first months of 2024. Local sources claim that the forced military recruitment of Rohingya refugees has been increasing – not decreasing – from the camps inside Bangladesh. On 7 May, the Dhaka Tribune reported that two armed groups, the RSO and ARA, were forcibly attempting to recruit Rohingya refugees with Bangladeshi police in apparent attendance. The following day, Radio Free Asia reported that around 500 refugees had been press-ganged in the camps to serve in the ARSA and RSO. The RSO denied the allegations, and some rumours even suggested that the Bangladesh authorities initially wanted the ARA and RSO to ally with the AA. Such suggestions are yet to be proven, only adding to the climate of ‘fear and uncertainty’ reported in the camps.

In conclusion, it is critical to observe the position taken by the Bangladesh authorities during this highly fragile time. The key struggle is in Arakan. But while condemning the malicious actions of the SAC and pro-junta Rohingya elements, the lives of innocent civilians in the conflict areas must be protected both in Arakan and the refugee camps in Bangladesh where civilians have fled to escape the impact of persecution and war. Human rights must be protected and shared by all.

The Buthidaung incident and question of communal violence

Buthidaung is the first Rohingya-majority town to be captured by the AA and the tenth on the Arakan military front. At the same time, Buthidaung township – with its population swollen by displaced people escaping the fighting – probably hosted the largest concentration of SAC military installations in Rakhine State, including Military Operations Command 15 and more than 11 military battalions under its control. However even before the town’s capture on 17 May, the majority of the houses owned by Rakhine, Khami, Hindu and other non-Muslim families had reportedly been burnt down, with claims as high as 5,000 in number and allegedly by ARSA and Muslim troops trained by the Myanmar military. Conflict tensions were rising.

The communal dimensions then reached an even more challenging and controversial phase when Rohingya houses were burnt down during the night of 17 May when AA troops attempted to capture the town. Since this time, two polarized narratives have developed regarding this incident, reflecting the divides in Arakan politics and society today.

The first opinion is represented by the ULA/AA’s position that they initiated precautions and issued early warnings before their offensive on the town and that the burning of Rohingya houses was the result of deliberate and prolonged aerial attacks by the Myanmar military as well as arson by the armed Rohingya groups on their retreat. The razing of homes has long been a standard tactic of the Myanmar military in ‘regional clearance’ operations against opposition groups across the country. In his latest comment on 3 June 2024, the ULA/AA leader Maj-Gen. Twan Mrat Naing explained that the early warnings were performed by the Muslim officers of the ULA administration. Regarding the burning of civilian houses, he added that at least 2,322 houses of non-Rohingya had already burnt down before the capture of the town by the AA on 17 May and subsequently around 500 Rohingya houses were destroyed due to the fighting.

In contrast, the second position described in a statement by a number of Rohingya diaspora groups is that the AA attacked the town before the deadline to leave and that, during the fighting, AA members looted the houses of Rohingya residents before setting them on fire. In addition, the diaspora statement listed other allegations of human rights violations by the AA, including forced recruitment, human shields, mass killings, and arson attacks, which the ULA/AA has denied. In addition, it should be noted that various domestic and external actors, including UN agencies, foreign embassies, inter-governmental organisations (IGOs), and international and domestic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), also quickly issued statements about the crisis in Buthidaung.

For the moment, it is difficult to assess all the details and different validity. Establishing culpability for the loss of civilian lives, homes and property in urban contexts where there may be several conflict actors presents many challenges. But, in an initial reading between the lines of these statements, it can be interpreted that positions taken by the foreign embassies, especially those of the USA and Europe, are mostly constructive and diplomatic in seeking to understand the complexities of unfolding events, whereas those released by the UN, IGOs and NGOs are more assertive and authoritative in presenting what they believe has taken place as factual. Clearly, much greater understanding and investigation are needed in one of the most complex conflict frontlines in the world, and this needs transparent, unrestricted and independent access under international human rights norms.

Further compounding the crisis, internet and phone communication blackouts are adding to the complexities in assessing accusations and addressing urgent issues as they unfold. Indeed, the complications are so grave that international observers have warned about the possibility of an outbreak of another round of communal violence such as Arakan experienced in 1942 and 2012. This was highlighted by an International Crisis Group report on 10 May. But while timely, reports such as this are until now lacking sufficient contextual analysis about the situation in the conflict frontline. Around 80 percent of the local population lack internet access, allegations and counter-allegations are rife, and conflicting remarks on social media platforms are hardly tangible enough to make concrete conclusions. In particular, it is vital that there is cohesion in investigation and reporting in ethno-political contexts like north Arakan and the Bangladesh borders where communal tensions can quickly be inflamed.

For the moment, taking a more positive view, it can be argued that another outbreak of communal violence is less likely during the present crisis based upon four key factors. First, as explored in a previous TNI commentary, the nature of ‘Rakhine ethno-nationalism’ has been changing over recent decades from the dark side – i.e. dislike and aggression toward ethnic Bamar and Rohingya communities as reflected in discrimination against non-Rakhine minorities – towards the bright side – i.e. political motivation and consciousness among the Rakhine population in demanding and struggling for the right to self-determination and sovereignty for all the peoples of Arakan. Such sentiments are especially marked among the political elite and middle class.

Second the ULA leadership, who possess the political concepts of authority (‘ana’) and influence (‘awza’) at the present stage in Myanmar’s transitional crisis, do not want or support the outbreak of communal violence in Arakan. In addition to the protection of human rights values, it would be morally and practically harmful to their image and interests. Under any future scenario, if communal violence breaks out, relations between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities will result in a deeply-polarized schism in which acting as a neutral authority becomes even more difficult. If the ULA authorities are seen as only protecting the Rakhine population against the Rohingya, it will be harmful to trust-building among Arakan’s peoples and in achieving international acceptance. At the same time, if the actions of the ULA are perceived as protecting only Rohingya communities over Rakhine, this would similarly result in a reduction in the group’s popularity and support. In summary, the ULA leadership has both moral and strategic interests to prevent communal violence from breaking out.

Third, social awareness and consciousness can also prevent members of both Rakhine and Rohingya communities from starting communal violence. This is a tangible result of the social cohesion efforts by the ULA leadership and other non-state and civil society actors during recent years. In Arakan today it is common sense that violence between the two communities would result in mutual destruction that could only be beneficial to the common aggressor, the Myanmar military and SAC authorities in the territory. People from all nationalities are aware that this is a divisive scenario that Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and the ruling generals are seeking to work towards. The reported massacre of over 50 villagers suspected of supporting the ULA/AA by the Myanmar military near Sittwe in late May warn that the dangers are very real.

Finally, as the fourth factor, there is also the international perspective. Unlike in 1942 and 2012, both regional and international observers and stakeholders are now well aware of the situation. As Myanmar’s tragedy continues, their precautions and warnings are positively contributing to hindering the outbreak of communal violence. A struggle for freedom is underway not only in Arakan, and young people especially are determined to end military rule and move away from Myanmar’s troubled past.

There is, however, no room for complacency, and there are still other potential ‘X factors’ that we cannot yet fully understand or determine how they will unfold in the coming days and weeks. It is critical to be always aware of how the SAC authorities, as their control diminishes, can still try different methods to instigate communal violence. The recent activities of the junta-backed ARSA, ARA, RSO and other armed Rohingya men are evidence of this divisive enterprise. A more politically complex scenario now appears to be emerging over the Maungdaw and Buthidaung areas.

At the same time, many people in Arakan find it worrisome how the Bangladesh authorities have been backing the RSO in helping its forced recruitment of more Rohingya youths – apparently to fight against the AA on the Arakan front. For the moment, it is important to note that the May policy statement by the diaspora Rohingya groups states that none of the RSO, ARSA or ARA represent the Rohingya community. Most recently, raising concerns further, AFP reported on 30 May that a teacher and student had been killed by gunmen in the main Kutupalong refugee camp for refusing to join the RSO.

Nevertheless, it is still critical to wait a little while longer and see to what extent Dhaka government policy influences the ordinary Rohingya population inside both Rakhine State and refugee camps across the Bangladesh border. Unpredictable times remain ahead and, after six months of intensive fighting, the local populations from all communities are facing an increasing burden of humanitarian suffering and emergency. Inter-community peace-building – not the provocation of more conflict – are urgently required.

Looming humanitarian crisis

During the first months of 2024, international agencies described how the daily backdrop of armed conflict was worsening the humanitarian crisis, while vulnerable and displaced people were facing water and food insecurity and a lack of shelter provision ahead of the annual cyclone season. A major humanitarian emergency is undoubtedly underway. As the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs summarized in a press release in late May:

The humanitarian situation in Rakhine is particularly alarming with fighting intensifying and inter-communal tensions simmering. Access restrictions remain severe despite soaring needs. With the peak of the dry season, water scarcity and cases of Acute Watery Diarrhoea (AWD) have been widely reported while an estimated 1.6 million people are now estimated to be without access to hospital care in central and northern Rakhine.

The severity of the situation was confirmed in local analysis from the ground by the Humanitarian and Development Coordination Office (HDCO), a branch of the ULA, which reported on 27 May that, within six months of the resumption of fighting between the SAC and AA, at least 268 civilians were killed, 640 injured and another 425 arrested. The victims came from all communities in Arakan, especially Rakhine and Rohingya. The HDCO also counted that the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from both present and past conflicts now exceeded 570,000 with only 20 percent receiving sufficient humanitarian assistance. For its part, the ULA stated on 24 May that more than 200,000 of the IDPs are located in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. In response, the movement was requesting support for six ‘key emergency humanitarian items’: food, medicine and healthcare facilities, shelter, reconstruction of houses, livelihood assistance, and demining equipment for civilian resettlement.

As these reports warn, the humanitarian catastrophe stemming from conflict in Arakan is now unprecedented. As fighting has spread, it needs to be added that sufferings have been greatly exacerbated by aerial bombardments and shelling by the Myanmar military on residential areas as well economic and security restrictions imposed by the SAC. Starting on 13 November last year, the imposition of massive blockades on almost all trade, travel and communication channels – especially between Rakhine State and other parts of Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh – has produced unproportional humanitarian consequences for the local peoples. As a result, universities and colleges have closed down, while many hospitals and clinics are dysfunctional. In addition, the regime’s severing of digital communications in many parts of the state has caused the delay of mobile money transitions, skyrocketing prices and scarcity for basic commodities, including fuel, oil, medicines, nutritional foods and other life-saving materials.

The cumulative impact of these measures has been to change the entire ecosystem of humanitarian aid, whether from the mainstream donor community or social charity organisations and individuals. As a humanitarian aid worker warned in February:

As the roads are under blockages, we can't go and donate food and shelters anymore. As the internet is cut off, donating money via mobile currency works no more. As armed conflict is going on in all northern areas, there are many IDPs. As banks are closing, no cash withdrawal is available. IDPs are now in massive danger.

The subsequent escalation in conflict and displacement have only added to this structural crisis in supporting humanitarian aid. Suffering is not limited to the IDP population, and the socio-economic situation of more than two million people across the territory is seriously impacted as well. Generally, the local Arakan economy stems from four key sources: government spending on projects and staff salaries; profits from selling agricultural crops; fishery and livestock products; humanitarian and development-related external donations; and remittances. But now, with the twin burdens of conflict and economic blockade, family incomes from all communities have experienced a huge decline, increasing the hardships of the weakest and most vulnerable segments in society. Arakan, potentially one of the richest lands in the country, is today one of the poorest.

Conclusion: Arakan at the crossroads

For any observer of Arakan, the territory poses many paradoxical questions. Located at the conjunction of South and Southeast Asia, the land is connected by the Arakan Yoma mountain range and Bay of Bengal with other parts of the world. Differently from what is seen today, Arakan was generally regarded as a peaceful and prosperous land for most of its existence before overthrow by the central Bamar kingdom in 1784 ACE, with continuing claims of civilization dating back to 1000 BCE. As the history of Mrauk-U records, the Arakan kingdom also served as a vital route for regional maritime trade, communications and cultural exchanges. As a result, nationalist supporters often claim that the return of Arakan to its rightful heritage and status is a natural and just cause after more than 200 years of ‘national humiliation’ under different waves of ‘colonial rule’, including British and Japanese.

21st-century Arakan, however, is no longer the same as its old past. Quite conversely, over seven decades after Myanmar’s independence, the situation today can be described as: ‘Arakan is rich whereas the Arakanese are poor.’ While the territory has come to host multi-million and multi-billion dollar investments from China and India during the past decade, a large proportion of the 3-4 million population is facing extreme poverty with high levels of violence, displacement and out-migration for decent livelihoods. These experiences are only escalating resistance to military rule and repression, generating a new cycle of political aspirations for freedom.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya crisis remains in the north of the territory. It is undoubtedly in the moral and practical interest of all parties to prevent the outbreak of more confrontation and bloodshed. To achieve this, the nurturing of the spirit of benevolence on all sides is greatly needed.

As a first step, controversies regarding ‘Rohingya’ group identity, population numbers and historical narratives should not be the key priorities. Rather, pragmatic elements that can heal community divisions should be promoted in the meantime, such as security protection and access to basic rights and services, including healthcare, livelihoods, education and freedom of movement. Concentration on social cohesion and peaceful coexistence should not be reduced. But it needs to be recognised that there is always more than one narrative in analyzing ULA-Rohingya or Rakhine-Rohingya relations. And the focus should not simply be along the northern border-line with Bangladesh. Attention should also be given to central Arakan townships such as Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U and Myebon where observers can see more constructive relations between the different communities today.

Looking to the future, regardless of military outcomes in the coming months, the ULA/AA is likely to remain the primary authority governing large swathes of territory in Arakan, a land two times larger than Timor-Leste. According to political trends, the upcoming ULA administration will be very different from the pre-offensive situation where the movement only controlled around 30 percent of governmental functions in the state. But now, with complete control over important township centres, the ULA authorities will have to take responsibility for almost all governmental functions, ranging from education, health and immigration to electricity, telecommunications and policing. This will require a huge amount of human and material resources where the international community can help.

In summary, Arakan is now at a crossroads where it is to be hoped that it can leave its tragic past behind for a beautiful future. All the people of Arakan – regardless of ethnic or cultural background – have long deserved these better times under a rightful and representative government. Peace-building, not the deepening of conflict, will ultimately be the only ways to achieve this.

Naing Lin is a freelance political analyst and researcher writing about peace, democracy and community relations in Rakhine State, Myanmar.