The ongoing active armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) has deteriorated in terms of frequency, number of casualties, and victimization of innocent civilians. This is unprecedented in the history of Myanmar’s ethnic armed conflicts since 1948. Chin and Rakhine/Arakan States are two of the least developed states in Myanmar, but are usually regarded as the regions with the least active armed conflict between the central government and the ethnic armed groups. That image has changed with this constant escalation of intense fighting between the military and the AA, as Rakhine State now becomes the central focus of the battlefield for the Myanmar military. Unless both parties become serious about reaching an agreement to sign a bilateral ceasefire, the fighting will continue unabated. As one of the central committee members of the AA stated: “As long as we are denied our rightful place to be represented in the political dialogue just like other legitimate armed groups of Karen, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, and others, we have no choice but to resort to military means to demand what we want.”
Currently, the government is conducting ceasefire talks with the four members of the Northern Alliance (NA), which includes the AA. The NA consists of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA). At its last meeting on 30 June 2019 in Mong La, where the general headquarters of the Peace and Solidarity Committee/National Democratic Alliance Army (PSC/NDAA) is located, the government delegation presented a second proposal for a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the NA members. So far, the four NA members have not given an official response. Although it is encouraging to see the government delegation present a concrete ceasefire proposal for the second time, it remains difficult to find a common ground for a final deal on the signing of a bilateral ceasefire agreement.
There are two fundamental difficulties that need to be addressed. The first difficulty concerns the common position of all four NA members for the potential signing of a bilateral ceasefire agreement. The common agreement and pledge of the four members of the NA is that none of the members will sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government unless all four members agree to do so. Although the four of them have one common ceasefire proposal originally developed by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), each of them also has additional provisions specific to their respective region. Even if the government could reach an agreement on the common ceasefire proposal of the four, there must also be agreement on the additional demands of each member. If they stick to their common position, this means that the KIA will not sign unless there is agreement between the AA and the government on what the AA separately demands for its bilateral ceasefire agreement. This complication suggests that the attempt to establish a ceasefire with the NA forming a single block is not very promising. Bilateral talks between the government and every member of the NA may be more pragmatic.
The second difficulty concerns the content of the specific demand of territorial demarcation in Arakan/Rakhine State by the AA. It has long been clear that the Myanmar military does not tolerate the deployment of ethnic armed groups in Rakhine State. Not allowing ethnic armed groups to operate within the territory of Rakhine State has been an uncompromising position for the Myanmar military, especially after the unfortunate catastrophic intercommunal violence in the past. Even one of the oldest Arakan armed groups, the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), has not been allowed to organize a Rakhine national dialogue in Rakhine State, let alone to raise the question of demarcation of territory for ALP troops, even though the ALP has been a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) since October 2015. All in all, it seems unlikely that the Myanmar military will accept the territorial demarcation demands of the AA in Rakhine State. In hindsight, if the government were to include the AA to sign the NCA just like the ALP back in 2015, this contentious issue of territorial demarcation would not have been as difficult as it is today.
At the same time, it is worth noting the lack of trust of the AA leadership in the Myanmar military’s effort to establish a ceasefire. For instance, when the Myanmar military repeatedly excluded Rakhine State from the list of regions where they declared a unilateral ceasefire, the AA leadership interpreted these actions as a declaration of an all-out war against the AA. This is why they see the ongoing military campaign against the AA in Rakhine State as a no-brainer. With so much hostility and growing animosity built up plus the increased actual fighting between the military and the AA, the leadership of the AA would not accept a ceasefire agreement without territorial demarcation for AA troops for their deployment in Rakhine State. In future negotiations between the government and the AA for a ceasefire, finding a solution to this issue of territorial demarcation is the most important, since a ceasefire between the two parties may not be achieved without. Right now, all of the AA’s statements have suggested that they feel they are winning the current war because they feel encouraged by the growing mass support they believe they receive from the Rakhine people. Even in this difficult time of hardship as a result of actual fighting on the ground in Rakhine State, the AA claims that the Rakhine people do not blame them, which they regard as a sign of support from their people.
In fact, the AA has long been trying to relocate its troops to Rakhine territory. Although their current military headquarters are in Laiza in Kachin State, at the general headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the AA does not intend to have a permanent military base in Laiza. They have always wanted to establish their military base in Rakhine territory, and they will continue to pursue ways and means to do so. One of the central committee members said: “We are not Kachin. We are Arakanese and we have initiated this armed struggle for our Rakhine people and Rakhine territory. We want and plan to be in our Rakhine territory.” In fact, against all restrictions and efforts to constrain their movements, they are convinced that they have achieved a certain degree of transfer of their troops to Rakhine State, where they want a permanent base.
Looking at the current
trend of the armed conflict and its complexities, resorting to military means
or military-to-military confrontation between the two parties is not a
plausible way to stop further bloodshed. What is absolutely necessary is a
ceasefire between the Myanmar military and the AA. Both parties have to sit
down face-to-face and make a genuine effort to reach a mutually acceptable deal
to sign a bilateral ceasefire and a peaceful way forward for the best interests
of the country and Rakhine State. While trying to negotiate a solution, both
parties need to empathize with the core values and rationale behind each
other’s respective positions, rather than just sticking to their uncompromising
positions. Otherwise, it may not be possible to reach a ceasefire between the