The “Arakan Army” & “Rohingya”: “Unholy Alliance” Or Tatmadaw’s “Divide-And-Rule” Tactic?

The Myanmarese military’s accusation that the Buddhist-believing “Arakan Army” insurgents are working hand-in-hand with their Muslim “Rohingya” counterparts is either a sign that these two seemingly opposed anti-government forces have struck an “unholy alliance” with one another or a clever attempt by the Tatmadaw to “divide and rule” its enemies.

Background Briefing

Myanmar’s conflict-prone coastal state of Rakhine has been rocked by another round of violent unrest, albeit this time it’s not the “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Front” (ARSA) that’s to blame like back at the end of 2017 but the Buddhist-believing “Arakan Army” (AA). The AA killed 13 policemen last Friday in their latest attack against the central government’s authority in the peripheral region, prompting State Counsellor and de-facto civilian leader Suu Kyi to vow that the Myanmarese military (popularly known as the Tatmadaw) will “crush” what Naypyidaw officially considers to be a terrorist group. Just like ARSA, the AA is fighting to secede from the Union State of Myanmar, which has been plagued by the world’s longest-running civil war in some form or another since shortly after its 1948 independence, but this is where the two armed groups’ similarities supposedly end.

ARSA is comprised of the Muslim “Rohingya” and is accused of killing local Buddhists, while the AA is formed from those same local Buddhist groups that were victimized by ARSA but precedes its creation by a few years. It sounds unbelievable that the two organizations would reach a deal with one another despite their diametrically opposed visions of what their desired separatist state would look like, but that’s exactly what the Tatmadaw accused them of doing just the other day. Spokesperson for the President’s Office Zaw Htay said earlier this week that the authorities caught wind of them cooperating with one another, adding that the state’s sources claimed that ARSA and the AA agreed to “divvy up territories”. The reason for this is said to be that “AA’s vision of an independent Rakhine Country (would include) a portion such as the Mayu District given for ARSA to control”.

“Unholy Alliance” Or “Divide-And-Rule” Tactic?

If the government’s reports are true, then this would surely indicate a so-called “unholy alliance” between seemingly “natural” enemies ideologically opposed to one another but putting aside their differences (for the moment at least) in order to advance their shared goal of separatism, after which they might reach a “pragmatic understanding” with one another when it comes to administratively managing their future state. The AA denied these claims, but there’s a hint of circumstantial credibility to them because one would ordinarily have expected the AA to fight against ARSA and not ally with it against the Tatmadaw. At the same time, however, the Tatmadaw might be seeking to exploit the curious fact that the two groups aren’t killing one another for whatever their reasons may be in order to sow the seeds of doubt among their supporters and “divide and rule” these organizations from their civilian base.

In the intangible “battle for hearts and minds” that accompanies any kinetic conflict, raising legitimate questions about the intentions of one’s adversaries – especially regarding something as controversial as seemingly allying with their ideological nemesis – could go a long way in eroding their support among civilians, which could in this case possibly result in more of the majority-Buddhist population in Rakhine State tilting closer towards the Tatmadaw and away from the AA. The Muslim-minority “Rohingya” are probably a lost cause at this moment but Naypyidaw might be attempting to drive a wedge between them and ARSA if it can get the former to wonder why the armed group that purports to represent them would jointly work together with an organization that they tacitly regard as hostile. Should this “unholy alliance” actually be true, then it might cause rifts that the Tatmadaw could exploit.

Geostrategic Crossroads

Whatever the case may be, the importance in paying attention to the latest events in Rakhine State is because both China and India have large-scale infrastructure projects traversing through it. The first-mentioned developed the port of Kyaukphyu and plans to build a so-called “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor” (CMEC) in parallel with the oil and gas pipelines that connect the Bay of Bengal with Yunnan Province while the latter is moving forward with the Kaladan Multimodal Corridor that aims to eventually link the port of Sittwe to India’s restive Northeast. Furthermore, the two rising Asian Great Powers could potentially collaborate across Myanmar’s territory through either the dormant BCIM Corridor or the recently suggested “China-India-Plus-One” format in order to merge the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) with the “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor”. That scenario, however, could be offset by another outbreak of violence in Rakhine State, especially if ARSA and AA ally with one another.

While a mostly military solution might have been sufficient for mitigating the threat posed by ARSA (for better or for worse, and irrespective of its proportionality), the same can’t be said when it comes to countering the AA which sees itself as representative of the region’s majority Buddhist-believing ethnic Rakhine people, which might explain why the Tatmadaw either saw it necessary to publicize the two groups’ “unholy alliance” or is speculating about it as part of an infowar designed to “divide and rule” the organization from its “constituency”. If their civilian supporters are upset enough by these claims, and provided that they aren’t true, then the AA and ARSA might feel pressured to clash with one another in order to prove that they didn’t “sell out” and that no “unholy alliance” exists. Along those same lines, they might even stage an armed encounter if an alliance exist but proves unpopular.

A “Decentralized” Solution?

It’s obvious that Myanmar will not allow the ultra-strategic state of Rakhine to secede from the union, but it’s unclear what non-kinetic means it could employ apart from infowars to assist the Tatmadaw in its stabilization operations there. One possibility could be that the incipient Panglong 2.0  discussions on possible “decentralization” might result in the implementation of a very liberal form of “Identity Federalism” whereby each of the country’s minority-majority and resource-rich regions in the periphery receive broad (and potentially asymmetric) “autonomy” along the lines of what the author wrote about in his extensive book-length Hybrid War article series about Myanmar in 2016 (Part I, II, III, IV). That, however, could deprive the geographically central majority-Bamar people of the natural riches upon which they’ve built their state and inadvertently catalyze a Hobbesian conflict among the various minorities as they fight for their share of the periphery’s riches.

Having outlined the risks and recognizing the likelihood that such an outcome might prove enormously unpopular with the Bamar, it might just be the case that the state decides to “decentralize” along that model or something similar as the “least-bad” option available so long as it’ll at least nominally retain the country’s unity in the event that the ongoing unilateral ceasefire with the northern and eastern rebel groups falters and the country slides back into a more intensified civil war. It’s probably only under those desperate circumstances that the Tatmadaw would go against public opinion by “compromising” in such an extreme way, though even then they’d probably fight as much as possible until the end in order to not give up what they believe is theirs. This makes the aforementioned scenario of substantive “decentralization” unrealistic for the time being even if that’s what many armed groups want to achieve.

Concluding Thoughts

As it stands, there’s no proof other than (somewhat convincing) circumstantial evidence that ARSA and AA are in an “unholy alliance” with one another, though the larger point to focus on is that the Tatmadaw says that they might be, whether it sincerely believes this or is just utilizing a “divide-and-rule” infowar tactic. The only reason why any of this is attracting attention, however, is because the AA has been on the upswing over the past month and just recently staged a deadly attack against local policemen in Rakhine State, showing that the region has much more than just ARSA to worry about when it comes to unconventional threats. This is important because Rakhine State is the terminal point for Chinese and Indian megaprojects traversing Myanmar, thus imbuing it with heightened strategic significance for both rising Asian Great Powers.

While the Tatmadaw’s reputation shows that they aren’t to be messed with, they’re tip-toeing a bit around the issue of the AA in order to avoid inflaming local sensitivities among the group’s supporters if they unleash a kinetic response akin to what they undertook a year and a half ago against ARSA. The key difference between then and now is that ARSA purports to represent a minority group while the AA counts members of the majority-Buddhist and ethnic Rakhine population among its members, raising the dangerous prospect of a state-wide rebellion if the Tatmadaw “goes too far” in its security operations. Furthermore, the optics of all-out Buddhist-on-Buddhist warfare between the Tatmadaw and the AA could be manipulated to provoke anti-government hostility among the Rakhines’ Bamar co-confessionals, which is a worst-case Hybrid War scenario that the state is desperate to avoid.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

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