Rakhine: the new front in Myanmar’s violent ethnic conflicts

A year ago, four police stations in the conflict-ridden western Rakhine State of Myanmar came under attack from the Arakan Army (AA) leaving an estimated 13 officers dead and nine injured.

The response was swift.

Myanmar’s military (also known as the Tatmadaw) promised to “crush the terrorists”, marking the beginning of the latest bloody chapter in the country’s never-ending conflicts, waged primarily between the Tatmadaw and various ethnic rebel groups.

Rakhine has become notorious as the location of the military’s brutal campaign against the mostly Muslim Rohingya, which led to the exodus of 740,000 people and accusations of genocide.

What the military called “clearance operations” were partially justified by claims that the Muslims posed a threat to Rakhine Buddhists and their way of life, but the AA, founded in 2009 is an ethnic Rakhine, religiously Buddhist armed group.

Its move against the central government is rooted in Myanmar’s history, recent and ancient, experts say.

David Brenner, who researches ethnic armed conflict in Myanmar, met AA commander-in-chief Tun Myat Naing in 2014 when the group was still operating in Kachin State, along the Chinese border in northern Myanmar.

At that time, the AA was receiving support and training from another ethnic armed group, the Kachin Independence Army.

“They were looking for a kind of united front against the Tatmadaw, they offered training to armed movements around the country,” said Brenner, now a lecturer in International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London, in a recent interview with Al Jazeera.

The AA’s presence in Kachin was always meant to be temporary, and in 2018 they returned to Rakhine, precipitating the escalation of the conflict.

Specific incidents of Tatmadaw aggression helped stoke tensions, including a violent crackdown that year on an event commemorating the ancient Arakan kingdom, which left seven civilians dead and led to the arrest of popular Rakhine politician Aye Maung for treason. Last year he was found guilty and jailed for 20 years.


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