On February 8, the rebel Arakan Army (AA) seized Mrauk-U, the former capital of the Arakan kingdom in Rakhine State, western Myanmar, along with the towns of Minbya and Kyauktaw. In fact, since the resumption of war between the AA and the country’s military junta on November 13, the AA has now successfully taken over six cities in the state, as well as two cities in neighboring southern Chin state, while destroying at least seven navy vessels and a helicopter. These ongoing victories have invigorated the long-standing dreams of Rakhine nationalists for an independent Arakan.
The victory of February 8 was highly symbolic. It is the first time that Mrauk-U has fallen since the Arakan kingdom fell to the Burmese Mandalay kingdom in 1785, although there have been numerous uprisings and rebellions against Burmese rulers in the intervening years. Even during the periods of British and Japanese occupation, the people of Rakhine State fervently resisted these colonial powers. Following Myanmar’s independence from Great Britain in 1948, the Rakhine people were among the earliest to challenge the central government. Nevertheless, these past achievements have been overshadowed by the considerable strides made by the AA in more recent times.
The emergence of the AA in 2009 under the charismatic leadership of Maj. Gen. Twan Mrat Naing and Brig. Gen. Dr. Nyo Twan Awng kindled a new hope for the people of the state, as the existing leadership of the Arakan Liberation Army/Arakan Liberation Party had failed to make much headway in creating an independent Arakan. Despite entering Rakhine from Kachin State, on Myanmar’s border with China, where the AA was established, in early 2014, the AA gained a popular following after publishing a political roadmap called the “Arakan Dream 2020” in late 2016.
The “Arakan Dream 2020” plan was clear: to create through force of arms a liberated base area in Rakhine State, where it would establish its own administrative institutions. Every individual in Rakhine, whether inside or outside of the country, was called upon to participate in this movement. This prompted two years of intensive fighting in the state with the Myanmar military from late 2018 to 2020, resulting in massive civilian displacement and the arrest and killing of hundreds of Rakhine people. Additionally, the people also endured an internet shutdown, imposed by the civilian government from June 2019 to February 2021, which was then described as the world’s longest.
By the end of 2020, the AA had managed to accomplish a good deal of its plan, which made the people of Rakhine more supportive of its leadership. Within a decade, the AA, backed up by its political wing, the United League of Arakan, had also established itself as one of the strongest ethnic armies in Myanmar. It is also worth noting that unlike other existing ethnic armed organizations, the AA did not experience difficulties in recruiting new members, a reflection of its broad legitimacy among the Rakhine people.
In November, the state gained attention from the national and international community when the AA broke a shaky ceasefire with the military, seizing Paletwa and Sami townships in southern Chin State in January, as well as Pauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Myebone, and Taung Pyo townships in northern Rakhine earlier this month. The AA is also currently engaging in fighting in many other parts of the state, including Rambree, Kyaukphyu, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, and Maungdaw townships. Last month, during fighting in Maungdaw township, nearly 400 junta regime border guards fled to neighboring Bangladesh. This came after hundreds of junta forces also fled to India the month prior.
Despite the increasing attention on the ongoing war in Rakhine, the true story is hard to determine given the shroud of internet blackouts and telephone restrictions. However, on the day of the seizure of Mrauk-U, Rakhine netizens across the globe took to social media, mostly celebrating the triumph and expressing it as the beginning of the fulfillment of their long-standing dream of Arakan autonomy.
Of course, many challenges remain. Rakhine has long been a crucible of ethnic tensions and political unrest. Its diverse population, composed of the majority Rakhine and Rohingya as well as various other ethnic minority groups, has been subjected to decades of marginalization and discrimination under the successive Burmese regimes. Additionally, the state is infamous for the Myanmar military’s genocidal “clearance operation” against the Rohingya of northern Rakhine in 2017. And the recent and current series of resurgence of violence has served to reopen and deepen these wounds, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis.
Yet, amidst the chaos and despair, there are glimmers of hope. The AA’s steady military progress has brought with it the possibility of a different future for Rakhine and its inhabitants. Questions have inevitably arisen regarding what this future might look like: what kind of society does the AA envision? How will the AA treat the minorities of Rakhine, including the Rohingya? Or should such questions be left, as some argue, until after the defeat of the military junta?
I believe it is neither too early nor too late for a discussion of these issues. In early 2020, the leader of the AA hinted that the group planned to establish a social democratic state for the people of Rakhine. Nevertheless, he didn’t specify what model of a social democratic state the AA intends to advocate for, whether independently or in collaboration with the possible emergence of a new federal government in Myanmar. While it’s conceivable that the group is leaning towards a one-party system politically, the current situation on the ground suggests that preparing for an election may be a lengthy process.
No doubt, the broader political landscape of mainland Myanmar is likely to shape its actions. However, in my conversations with some Rakhine stakeholders, they have appeared to be inspired, like many before them, by Singapore’s model of governance. In my view, any unfolding of governance in Rakhine should entail responsibility and accountability, and ensure equal treatment and democratic principles, including civil rights, liberty, and dignity, given the political and geographic context of the Rakhine. The future remains uncertain, and only time will tell what direction Rakhine’s political trajectory will take.
At the heart of this new era are the people of Rakhine themselves. Despite the many challenges they have faced on a daily basis during wartime, it can be said that they remain resilient and determined to shape their own destiny, with the hope of a new era initiated by the AA leadership. Moreover, divergent communities have come together to provide support and solidarity, bridging divides that have long separated them. Grassroots initiatives are emerging, offering a glimmer of hope amid despair.
Yet, the path to sustainable development and peace in Rakhine will be still fraught with many obstacles. It is reasonable to assume that deep-seated grievances, fueled by years of oppression, cannot be easily overcome. Political actors, both domestic and international, will vie for influence, complicating efforts to find common ground. Additionally, the specter of extremism looms large, threatening to derail fragile peace and state-building processes. In the face of these challenges, all stakeholders must come together in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue. In my view, the people of Rakhine deserve nothing less than a future of peace, prosperity, and dignity. Achieving this will require bold leadership, unwavering commitment, and a willingness to confront the hard truths of the past.
While the capture of Mrauk-U offers new hope to the people of Rakhine, they will undoubtedly face more brutal tactics of the junta regime in the weeks and months to come, including artillery shelling, airstrikes, and arbitrary arrests. However, the sun is slowly rising over Rakhine, casting its golden light upon a land scarred by conflict. In light of this new era, the people of the region will have an opportunity to break free from the shackles of the past and forge a path toward a brighter future for all who call this region home.