Saturday, 22 June, 2024, Reg No- 06
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Developing ties with AA/ULA may help repatriate Rohingyas

Published : Saturday, 18 May, 2024 at 12:00 AM  Count : 602

The Operation Code Named, 1027 was launched on 27th Oct 2023 by three brotherhood alliances (3BA), namely, MN Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Taung National Liberation Army (TNLA), and Arakan Army (AA) not only took the TATMADAW (Myanmar Military) off guard but also bewildered security experts, academics, analysts and strategists from different fields.
It was clear that without some understanding with Chinese counterparts such operation in Shan State bordering China is unthinkable. However, China has allowed the 3BA to go that far where defiance of TATMADAW in Shan State is tamed and the Alliance remains within a limit that does not jeopardize the peace and stability in bordering Chinese Yunnan Province. MNDAA and TNLA depend largely on the logisticsbackup from across the Chinese border. These two groups would not dare to cross limits annoying China.

However, this is not the case for the Arakan Army (AA). They are on the westboarding Bangladesh. AA enjoys greater flexibility in decision-makingregarding conducting their military operation.

Recent Significant Events: Due to recent conflict in Shan State, China was getting uncomfortable with instability along her border in Yunnan Province as such China brokered ceasefire that came in effect from 11 January 2024. As a follow up, there was a tripartite meeting of 3BA, Junta and China at Kunming on 01 March 2024. Junta recognized MNDAA authority at Kakong Special Region an ethnic Han Chinese dominated area. This agreement has not only given political recognition to MNDAA as the legitimate administrative authority but also a huge economic right. Now MNDAA and Junta agreed to share 70%-30% of revenue at the Chinshwehawborder gate (between Myanmar and China), a significant border trading port. Meanwhile, MNDAA has taken over the capital Laukkai of the Kokang Region.

Nonetheless, Junta seems not to give concession to TNLA at another crossing at Muse in Panglong Self-Administrative Zone still under Junta control but surrounded by TNLA. Muse-Ruili is the most important trade crossing point in Shan State. Yet, practically Panglong remains under TNLA control.

Kachin Independent Army (KIA) is on the outskirts of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state (the other bordering state with China), and has taken control of the Main Supply Route to the capital, Bhamo-Myitkyina. Junta seems on the verge of capitulation here.

Along the Thai-Myanmar border, Myawaddy is a vital economic portal for all of Myanmar located in Kayin State, home of Karen. This trade crossing port accounts for over a billion dollars annually for Junta. At one point in time it used to contribute 40% of Myanmar GDP. Karen resistance group captured this important economic hub but withdrew later which is re-occupied by Junta recently. There is a different equation here involving warlords, illicit businesses, and beneficiaries.

In the west AA of 3BA captured Maruk-U the capital of the last Rakhine Kingdom lost to the Burmese conquest in 1785. This has historical and psychological significance to the Rakhines. AA primarily won control of 9 townsout of 12 including controlling most of the BD-Rakhine border since fighting resumed in November 2023. AA seems capable of capturingthe remaining towns including the capital.

TATMADAW though weakened by far from capitulation. Its maintaining its solid foot holds in the center and military industrial base. Sea ports, and airports under Junta control that is ensuring combat supply to the fronts. Interestingly, the bordering areas are contested against the junta by Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that are better equipped, experienced, and well-trained.

However, the Bamar-dominated center is being contested by the PeoplesDefense Forces (PDF) of the National Unity Government (NUG) who are ill-equipped, less experienced, and lack training. Centre is the vital ground with the main effort of TATMADAW to retain it at all costs. Finally, the regime maintains control over both government machinery and center of the country. Though, TATMADAW is no more a single decision-making factor in Myanmar present context.

Rakhine Situation and Repatriation of Rohingyas: In 2021 Major General Twan Mrat Naing in an interview was very positive and sympathetic to the Rohingya cause. He mentioned, Rohingyas are nationals of Myanmar and they shall be absorbed in Rakhine. However, now he terms them as Bengalis and makes derogative remarks and distancingaway from the repatriation issue. We need to understand he is the person calling the shots in Rakhine.

Meanwhile, TATMADAW is forced recruiting Rohingya youths from villages and Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Rakhine, and AA is also drafting Rohingya youths. Both the forces presumably like to use them as human shields/cannon fodder. This situation creates further mistrust between Rohingya and Rakhine communities to an already existing fragile trust.

My understanding of Myanmar conflict and political situation are not encouraging for Rohingya repatriation. EAOs, their political parties, NUG, and PDF all are looking for an inclusive federal democracy, many are looking for home rule, and greater autonomy meaning major decisions for the states will be taken by the states, in that situation Rakhine State will decide the fate of Rohingya repatriation.

My study on the current relationship between NUG and AA/United League of Arakan (ULA), the political wing of AA is a loosely consented coordination model, it is not a command and control relationship. I sensed NUG political leadership is mature and forward-looking, their attitude towards Rohingya repatriation is very positive. Even they would like to bring the Rohingya genocide perpetrators to justice within international and national legal system. They are looking forward to building a new Myanmar where all ethnic groups including Rohingyas get equality and justice. They have realized how TATMADAW has played ethnic differences and resorted to divide-and-rule tactics ultimately fracturing the Myanmar society. However, it seems NUGs wisdom may not be working with AA/ULA leadership as their present verbal and body language surfaced.
What is the way forward for Bangladesh?

As a student of Structural Realism my take; the position of AA/ULA in general and Major General Naing, in particular, make two senses. (1) TATMADAW by expelling Rohingyas from Rakhine State did dirty work for them and Rakhines are beneficiaries. More so, there are no incentives/interests to take back the Rohingyas. (2) Major General Naing is creating a condition/ pressure on BD to bring her to a negotiating table to address AAs needs.

Rakhine has strategic importance and AA now is a force that cannot be ignored. Both the regional powers for the future of their mega strategic projects in Rakhine (KaladanMulti-Model Project and energy pipelines, deep seaport) are collaborating with AA/ULA.

EAOs along India, China, and Thailand borders are economically becoming capable by earning/sharing revenue from border trade. Rakhine State has border with BD only where similar opportunity is absent for AA. I would tend to recommend that BD should negotiate with AA/ULA in any form as how to develop relationship in post-conflict Myanmar with neighbor Rakhine State with special emphasis on Rohingya repatriation. BD may take the support of the international community and her regional and international partners in galvanizing the relationship with AA/ULA.

Even Junta has recognized MNDAA which is pragmatic and new normal.Soon we shall see TNLA is also being recognized by the Junta because of the reality on the ground. We might see Junta in Rakhine coming with some understanding with AA to keep it within the legal fold. When these developments are unfolding BD should be pragmatic to collaborate with AA/ULA in the interest of Rohingya repatriation with the goals of promoting social cohesion, peacebuilding, long-term stability in Rakhine / Arakan and avoiding spillover effects on the BD border in the future.

The writer is former Principal Staff Officer, Armed Forces Division, Prime Ministers Office

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