Myanmar’s Military Is Playing a Dangerous Game in Rakhine State

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Myanmar’s Military Is Playing a Dangerous Game in Rakhine State

The army’s reported plan to conscript Rohingya civilians could worsen the region’s already fragile ethnic relations.

Myanmar’s Military Is Playing a Dangerous Game in Rakhine State

A villager carries two sacks of grass for livestock in Maw Ya Wadi, Maungdaw township, Rakhine State, Myanmar, April, 27, 2016.

Credit: FAO Photo/Hkun Lat

More than three years after the Myanmar military seized power in a coup, it has become commonplace to argue that the battlefield is turning against the military and its State Administration Council (SAC). Resistance forces have enjoyed momentum since the launch of Operation 1027, an offensive launched in late October by the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic resistance groups. The offensive has since achieved outstanding political and military gains in the northern part of Shan State, which were sealed by a ceasefire that was signed in January. Since then, the focus of the fight has shifted to Rakhine State, in the western part of Myanmar.

If the junta’s losses in northern Shan State can be described as its most severe setback since the 2021 coup, how it holds up on the Rakhine front against the Arakan Army (AA) could be a key determinant in the regime’s survival. The same military that vowed to eradicate the AA from the Rakhine State in 2018, 2019 and 2020, is now facing the possibility of losing all territories under its Western command. In mid-February, the Kyauktaw-based Military Operation Command-9 (MOC-9) and all of the battalions under its command had been wiped out.

As of February 29, AA forces have captured six big towns – Paletwa, Pauktaw, Minbya, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, and Myebon – and three small towns. In addition to that, fighting in downtown Rambree has continued while the battlefields are moving near the towns where the headquarters of the SAC’s Western Divisional Command is situated. Half of the forces under the Regional Operation Command in the state capital Sittwe have also reportedly been lost and junta soldiers in the city are now preparing defensive positions.

After two waves of AA offensives in late 2023 and early 2024, the AA is now gearing up for a third offensive against junta positions across Rakhine State. If this upcoming offensive produces decisive results, it could also mean the fall of the military’s Regional Military Command in Rakhine State, which would be the first in the history of Myanmar’s armed forces. Obviously, critical moments at the Arakan military front are approaching and the junta leaders are desperate to halt the AA’s offensives.

The Junta’s Miscalculated Strategy

The Myanmar military’s forces, which are overstretched and face day-to-day attacks across the country, have little or no ground reinforcement in case of another intensive fight in the Arakan military front. Being aware of that situation, the SAC leadership seems to believe that the only way to stave off further losses to the AA is to maximize the harm to the state’s civilian population. On November 13, the day that fighting erupted in Rakhine State, the military immediately imposed an unprecedented blockade on all trade, transportation, and travel throughout the state.

Although the junta’s blockade has had negative impacts on the civilian population, it did not constrain the ability of AA forces to wage effective battle against their positions. Instead, with the fall of Paletwa Township in Chin State in mid-January, it was the junta forces and family members in many parts of the state who found themselves being surrounded and besieged by the AA. Despite the junta’s efforts, the AA’s forces were able to maneuver with ease across the state, and civilians living in its “controlled areas” now enjoy a greater degree of movement.

This change in the ground reality in Rakhine could have contributed to the SAC’s February 10 decision to begin enforcing the Military Conscription Law. Although the junta leaders and spokespersons have requested that the public remain calm, many observers have argued that conscription could have catastrophic nationwide consequences in the weeks and months to come. In war-torn Rakhine State, the junta’s conscription drive could also plant the seeds of future division and conflict.

The Rohingya: Victims Once Again

Unsurprisingly, given the state of the battlefield, it did not take much time for the junta to implement its recruitment plan in Rakhine. On February 17, a local media platform, Arakan Princess Media reported that the junta authority in Buthidaung Township held a meeting at which it urged the local Rohingya population to enlist in the military. According to the report, Brig. Thurein Tun of the Border Guard Police and a district administrator were present at the meeting. Thurein Tun reportedly addressed the Rohingya thus: “You Muslims are troubled due to the Rakhine people, and you should be armed. We guarantee not to harm your village even if armed clashes break out near the village. Rakhine villages should be burnt down and thus, if you wish to cooperate with you, you will be armed.”

According to Western News, another local media organization, SAC authorities did the same thing in Sittwe a day prior. A local Rohingya told the outlet that the junta authorities asked them to provide 50 able-bodied men from each village to enlist in the armed forces. With an AA offensive on Sittwe now a high possibility, the future of around 100,000 internally displaced Rohingya civilians in and around Sittwe is highly uncertain.

The implications of this development are very concerning. Like all other military conscripts,  Rohingya civilians, who have already suffered a lot over the past decade, could be used as human shields in the fight against the AA. It is also possible that Rohingya could easily turn against the junta military, given that the latter has committed genocidal crimes against the Rohingya community in recent years. There is a trust deficit in the relations between all of these various groups, and pressing the Rohingya into battle against Rakhine nationalists could widen this gap further.

It is important not to underestimate the frightening possibilities that could result from the enforcement of the conscription law among the Rohingya remaining inside Myanmar – for all of those who have a stake in the peace and stability of Rakhine State. It is therefore in the interests of these stakeholders to stop this from happening.

The first and most obvious of these is the Rohingya community itself. Under the military’s conscription plan, members of the community could be recruited and sent to the battlefields with the AA, where they would very likely be killed and injured in significant numbers. The AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), also stand to be affected. If the AA finds itself fighting armed Rohingya in Myanmar military uniforms, and Rakhine communities come to see the Rohingya as possible “collaborators” with the junta, it will undermine constructive social relations between the two groups, an integral part of any sustainable solution for the Rohingya crisis as well as for peace in Rakhine.

Third, Bangladesh, India, and China, three neighboring countries that each have an interest in the stability of Rakhine State, will also have to bear the negative consequences. This could include the disruption of border trade relations with Bangladesh, more challenges on the refugee repatriation issue, and challenges in implementing Chinese and Indian investments.

Therefore, trammeling the junta’s conscription of Rohingya civilians is both a moral and practical question for all domestic and international actors who strive for a stable and peaceful society in Rakhine State. The junta’s plan could be compared with the formation of the Volunteer Force (V-Force) by the retreating British during the Japanese conquest of Myanmar in 1942, which saw it arm Rohingya in order to attack the offensive Imperial Japanese army in Rakhine State. This action resulted in communal violence and helped establish historical grievances that continue to this day.

Today’s context is different, of course. Unlike the British, the junta has committed genocidal crimes against the Rohingya. More importantly, unlike the Japanese, the ULA/AA has committed itself to the promotion of social cohesion and sustainable resolution of the Rohingya crisis – a policy that could hold a better future for all communities in Rakhine State, if and when the junta is removed from power. Nonetheless, the history of Rakhine provides a warning about the potential for today’s actions to have significant effects long into the future.