Sunday, July 21st 2024

Assessing the Arakan Army

Animesh Paul Published: April 30, 2023


Dhaka Tribune (Opinion)


It has been 14 years since the insurgent group Arakan Army (AA) took control of Myanmar's Rakhine region. The armed group claims to be fighting for the people of Rakhine. The National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG) recently congratulated the group on its 14th anniversary. Other armed groups and political parties involved in the anti-junta fight also congratulated the AA.


Analysts also say that the Arakan Army is doing well in the fight against the junta. However, Myanmar's internal affairs have left room to wonder whether the repatriation of the more than 1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh will have any impact. Especially after the NUG recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic group in Myanmar, the matter deserves to be taken more seriously.


Before discussing the internal crisis in Myanmar, it is necessary to highlight the global issues or influences that may affect Rohingya repatriation. Some of the biggest influencers on Rohingya repatriation are China, India, the US, and the UN. Beyond this, there is the influence of ASEAN as a regional organization.


China has the biggest influence in Myanmar. The country has ties to both junta and anti-junta governments. China also has huge investments in the country. China has more influence on the junta government than any other country or organization in the world. China has taken several steps to repatriate the Rohingya. The first two rounds of initiatives failed. Still, China is moving forward with a third round, but its effect remains to be seen.


The most significant move made by China on the Rohingya issue is that the country has said that the issue of Rohingya repatriation should be viewed as a bilateral issue between the two countries rather than an international forum. 


China's position here is clear. The country wants the Rohingya issue to be resolved through direct talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Simply put, China wants to establish its influence in both Bangladesh and Myanmar.


The US government passed the “Burma Act” to aid Myanmar's anti-junta government. Direct support to the NUG, the People's Defense Force (PDF), and ethnic armed organizations (EAOS) has been mentioned. 


The Arakan Army belongs to EAOS. So, US aid will also reach the Arakan Army. As a result, fighting in the Rakhine region between the junta government and the Arakan Army could intensify.


Another concern is that if the junta forces increase the use of force in Rakhine while suppressing the Arakan Army, it may pose a threat to Bangladesh. Because Myanmar has a 300-kilometer border with Bangladesh -- most of which are remote, hilly areas -- the fighting between the Junta Army and the Arakan Army in these areas could destabilize the mountainous region of Bangladesh. 


However, during a visit to Dhaka last February, the top US diplomat assured Bangladesh that the aid they will provide to Myanmar will not affect Bangladesh. But the reality is that Rakhine's unrest means the repatriation of the Rohingya is uncertain.


The European Union (EU) has followed the same path as the United States. They have imposed sanctions on about 100 individuals and 18 institutions associated with the junta government in Myanmar. All in all, the US and EU positions will turn Myanmar's junta government towards China and, at the same time, Russia. 


An example of which we have already found. Myanmar is buying weapons from Russia, including several warplanes, indicating Russia's close ties with Myanmar. And the Western world is already engaged in a “proxy war” with Russia in Ukraine. Western intelligence assessments suggest that this war will not yield any results this year.


In such a situation, the Western world, led by the United States, will take steps around the world to pressure Russia -- including in Myanmar. The more the West puts the sword on the junta, the closer Myanmar and Russia will be, which will create a dialectical position for Bangladesh. In particular, Bangladesh's foreign policy of “friendship with all, not enmity with others” will come under some pressure here due to the dynamic nature of global geopolitics.


Apart from this, ASEAN could have played an effective role in exerting pressure on Myanmar. Myanmar was not invited to the alliance's latest summit. Consensus was reached to resolve the ongoing violent power struggle between the junta and the NUG. But the Rohingya crisis was not specifically mentioned. 


A summit statement described the Rohingya as "displaced people of Rakhine" and emphasized the implementation of Myanmar's bilateral agreement with Bangladesh to begin the repatriation process. But the coalition could not exert much pressure on Myanmar in this regard.


The rise of the Arakan Army can have both positive and negative results for Bangladesh. On the positive side, since the National Unity Government of Myanmar recognizes the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Myanmar. 


If the Arakan Army wins over the junta forces in Rakhine and the NUG comes to power in Myanmar, the repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar may be easier. But the victory of the Arakan Army and the coming to power of the NUG depend on many ifs and buts. There is no other possibility of this happening so quickly in the current global-political context.


On the negative side, if the NUG and the armed wing of other ethnic groups continue to fight against the junta government with the support of the Western world, the fight is bound to be prolonged. Because the junta government will definitely not give up, which will block the repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh in the long run,

Another thing to note here is how Bangladesh, China, and India are treating the Arakan Army. According to an article in the Asia Times, the relationship between the Arakan Army and Bangladesh, China, and India is more important than that between the countries of the Western world. 


If somehow the Arakan Army prevails over the junta forces in Rakhine and the National Unity Government is installed in the central power of Myanmar, Bangladesh must rethink. Because then the political wing of the Arakan Army will be in the policy-making role.


One more thing to consider: The NUG is mainly made up of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) and other pro-democracy parties. The Arakan Army has a bitter past with the NLD government. 


The NLD has simply rejected the political, economic, and social demands of the Arakan Army while in power. As a result, it is difficult to imagine that the Arakan Army will so easily forget the past and forgive the National Unity Government and trust them.


It is clear that the rise or advance of the Arakan Army in Myanmar will create a diplomatically complicated situation for Bangladesh. Because the rise or fall of this armed organization will affect the repatriation of the Rohingya. Now it remains to be seen how Bangladesh will deal with the upcoming situation.


Animesh Paul is a Bangladeshi writer, translator, and non-resident fellow at the National University of Singapore.


you may also like