Seminar on “Whither Myanmar’s Rakhine State”

The seminar will address the implications of unfolding realities in Rakhine State, with attention to Myanmar’s national politics and international interest in the state and to local communities’ efforts to cope with the combined impacts of renewed military rule, Covid-19, and the humanitarian challenges of protracted warfare.


Tuesday, 14 Jun 2022 – the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme convened a webinar inviting Dr Jacques P.Leider and Mr Aung Tun to reflect on the situation in Rakhine State located in the western part of Myanmar. The hybrid seminar, moderated by Ms Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme, attracted the interest of 63 webinar attendees as well as 16 attendees in person. The discussion explored three thematic questions: 1) the current situation in Rakhine state, 2) how the 2021 military coup and AA’s moves affect the Muslim communities in Rakhine and 3) the international community’s interests in Rakhine from different actors’ viewpoints.

Mr Aung Tun (on stage, right) and Dr Jacques P. Leider (onscreen) spoke on the implications of the unfolding realities in Rakhine State. Ms Moe Thuzar (on stage, left) moderated the panel. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Key discussions include the following:

  • To understand the Rakhine State crisis of the last decade, it is not enough to recall that Rakhine State is a mainly agricultural and very underdeveloped region. The frustration among the Rakhine people was not just there, but it grew when Rakhine State started to open and connect to the rest of Myanmar.
  • For the international community, Rakhine has been known as a place of oppression and injustice. The images of communal violence loomed all over the internet. Explaining Rakhine has always been a complex task.
  • International audience has little information on the context of Rakhine. The oppression of Rohingyas has been the highlight of Rakhine issues for the past decade. The United League of Arakan (ULA) has gained more popularity in the Bamar heartlands after the coup.
  • The Arakan Army (AA) can be considered a relatively new Ethnic Armed Organization (EAO) compared to other EAOs. AA was founded in 2009 with support from Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and ULA is the civil branch of AA founded several years after AA’s inception.
  • AA has had good public support during the warfare but not firepower like the military’s, but in the end, public support has become a critical determinant in the warfare as being seen now. At the same time, AA has started engaging in informal dialogue with the Tatmadaw upon its military leverage in a general term. AA has utilized their firepower as military leverage while leaving enough leeway for dialogue – a strategic ‘carrot and stick’ approach.
  • AA has informal control over Rakhine territory which enables AA to collect taxes and implement a judiciary system parallel to that of SAC. There is a significant number of people who choose to go to AA’s judiciary system rather than the SAC’s which explains the support and legitimacy AA enjoys in Rakhine state. AA is also providing policing services in the territory they control.
  • The AA’s creed called “The Way of Rakhita” emphasises AA’s aim to achieve increased autonomy (and ultimately independence) for the Arakanese – not only through armed struggle but also by implementing their own administration and judiciary as first steps on this road towards increased autonomy.
  • Northern and Central Rakhine are AA’s stronghold. On the other hand, National League of Democracy (NLD) supporters can be found in southern townships such as Thandwe, Toungup, and Gwa. The Southern Rakhine is much closer to the Ayeyarwaddy state and therefore shares similar political views to those living in the delta region.
  • AA does not allow either Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) or People Defence Force (PDF) activity in their territory. Only a few PDF activities can be found here and there in the Southern Rakhine. As a rough estimate, AA may have territorial control over 75 percent of Rakhine State, but Rakhine is still divided in terms of political views. Looking ahead, the SAC might potentially use the divided politics to their advantage and push for legitimacy with the 2023 election, assuming SAC has plans to hold election in Rakhine state.
  • AA was formally declared a terrorist organisation in 2020 not only by the Myanmar military but also by the NLD administration at that time. There was an outcry from the Rakhine community against the declaration. The frustration of the Rakhine people was not a simple outburst but a built-up tension of being neglected for several years for Rakhine’s development. Impoverished Rakhine people had to leave their homeland and looked for job opportunities in faraway places such as Yangon, Mandalay and foreign countries.
  • AA enjoyed popular support since the Kyaukphyu National conference in 2014 that asked for a national Arakanese defence force, though the general population outside Rakhine may not have been aware of the extent of this support. The Tatmadaw’s operations in 2018 shot AA into more prominence, as local news outlets started picking up the AA’s social media campaign of ‘the Arakan Dream’.
  • Journalists writing today that AA triumphed following a war between 2018 and 2020 convey a wrong perspective, because the drivers of that struggle go back to frustrations twenty years ago. Without the pool of Rakhine labour migrants living outside the state, AA could not efficiently recruit and organize its troops and without the solidarity of local popular support, it could not implement its strategy of territorial control.
  • AA has formally declared that they wish to recreate a similar type of independence Rakhine enjoyed in the former Arakan Kingdom 200 years ago. Contrary to the popular belief, AA has shifted away from the ethno-nationalism that dominated the Rakhine community for the last thirty years. AA advocates for a secular state and is not chauvinistic. AA represents a nationalism that emphasises the local identity and is based on ethnic grievances against a central authority. AA envisions a self-administrative status that is independent from the Bamar Kingdom as well as the colonial rule of the Japanese and the British. After all, Rakhine was not formally recognised as an ethnic group until the 1950s.
  • Muslim communities in Rakhine were not much united either. Different Muslim ethnic groups ignored each other, and each group only thought about its own survival and concerns. There was not much dialogue happening between each other. During WWII between the Japanese arrival and the British departure, there were incidents of communal violence in the Rakhine state between Rakhine communities and Muslim communities. Thus, post-colonial Muslims tried to unify their identities, but the efforts were minimal mainly because Muslims did not have territorial control and they were in a predominantly ethno-nationalist region.
  • General Ne Win’s socialist administration channelled nationalist endeavours to the cultural sphere, away from political expressions. Thus literature on Rakhine Kingdom and Buddhism in Rakhine over the experiences of communities in Rakhine. Even during the past decade, the plight of Rohingyas took the centre stage in terms of issues in Rakhine state, while experiences of other communities in Rakhine were hardly discussed.
  • For the Rohingya issues, AA is hardly considered a stakeholder during the past decade because AA is not considered a state actor. However, AA has a pragmatic approach to the Muslim communities. To promote peace and development, Kofi Annan Commission’s Report in 2017 had 88 recommendations ranging from inclusive politics, social cohesion, dialogue, freedom of movement and protection of human rights. After the 2021 coup, AA has taken some initial steps that reflect some of these recommendations within their territory such as providing higher education opportunities for Muslim communities.
  • AA made clear that it advocates a secular state where people of different religions can find their place. What we have seen until now via its daily politics illustrates essentially a sense of pragmatism. AA’s leadership are nationalists, but they are not Islamophobic chauvinists.
  • Chinese investments in Rakhine state are massive in scale. Most prominent is the Kyauk Phyu SEZ, a union level project. Since AA controls parts of the project area, the logistics for the Kyauk Phyu project would need to be negotiated with AA as well. AA has yet to be seen associating themselves with the Kyauk Phyu project. Initially, the project investment was supposed to be 7 billion US dollars, but the NLD administration slashed the project size down to 1.3 billion US dollars since the NLD administration was cautious of the debt trap.
  • After the coup, the Kyauk Phyu project was hardly mentioned in the news. However, the project activities on the ground have resumed. Some locals believe that the project can produce more job opportunities and economic development for the Rakhine state. However, locals need to deal with the land grabbing and labour issues first before the economic outlooks improve. Locals are asking to upgrade their qualifications and skills necessary for entry into industries which are under construction before them.
  • In terms of regional and bilateral perspectives, Rakhine is positioned in a strategic location between India and China’s pivotal interests in the region.  While monitoring China’s infrastructure investments in Myanmar, India is also rebuilding the port of Sittway and pursuing the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project. India is thus active in Rakhine State and Rakhine State is important to India. Bangladesh’s concerns are focused on Rohingya repatriation, other migration issues, and drug trafficking concerns. Bangladesh may most likely stay in a neutral relationship with Myanmar in the near future.
  •  AA did not contest any of the foreign investments but asked from India the same level of recognition that it has gotten from China. But in 2019 India’s military was cooperating with Myanmar’s army to evict AA from camps along the shared border but this cooperation did ultimately not endanger AA’s military progress.
  • China is a key player not only in the security in the region but also in infrastructure development. India also has a stake in Sittwe Port, a first step in Kaladan Project. AA does not contest any development project in the region. AA also has never invested in relationships with any international organisations. AA does not also spend time lobbying the international audience on Rakhine’s perspectives either.
  • AA has been doing parallel diplomacy with both the anti-SAC forces and the SAC. AA keeps the education system running, whether it is schools run by SAC or by AA. AA declined the SAC’s invitation for peace talk while attending the Union Day activities. AA also had conversations with National Unity Government (NUG) even though AA did not say anything of substance about the meeting. AA has a tactical implementation of the Arakan Dream amidst all the chaos happening around Myanmar. There were IDP camps all around Sittwe and thus Rakhine population is not yet ready for another armed conflict in their homeland.
  • AA is part of the Northern Brotherhood Alliance with EAOs who have been in some form of armed conflict with the Myanmar military in past decades. AA’s achievement is unprecedented considering how AA is the latest newcomer to the resistance scene. Through the Northern Alliance, AA already has a spot in national politics.

The general discussion that followed the panel discussion further probed questions into Ukraine war’s impact on Myanmar’s resistance movement in terms of international media’s attention, Rakhine’s political parties and political divisions, relationship between other EAOs and AA, AA’s political ideologies and inspirations.

About 80 participants attended the hybrid seminar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)