With the escalation of armed conflict in Arakan State, now spreading to the whole state not to mention the fierce fighting in the adjacent Chin State of Paletwa, between the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) and junta’s army known as Tatmadaw, the Burmese saying of pre-independence period, “Ingaleik Ah Khet Bamar Ah Chet” catch word becomes the real motivation, which may be translated as, ‘English hardship is an opportunity for the Bamar’ for the Arakan main revolutionary movement represented by the AA.
Of course, one needs to paraphrase it with “Bamar” in the beginning and “Arakanese” at the end to be in tune with the Arakan situation.
Following the renewed armed conflict after the respite of two years unofficial ceasefire between the junta and AA, the latter’s leadership has become more vocal in airing their political aspirations of total independence or confederation, rather than the usual federal union echoed by the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities and Bamar democrats alike.
AA spokesman Khaing Thuka
Regarding the ULA/AA’s political goal-setting and the prevailing political situation, AA spokesman Khaing Thuka, who spelled out his organization’s position, can clearly be seen in an interview with Myanmar Now on September 2.
Recent AA war with the junta
On inquiry of the renewed fierce fighting between the AA and the junta’s army, he explained the situation as below:
“The military situation is that battles are raging continuously. Especially in Maungdaw Township. The occurrences is also in Rathetaung Township. Another place is in Paletwa Township (in Chin State). Raging fierce battles are in Paletwa and Maungdaw townships.”
“Fierce battle took place at Milestone 40 near Arakan-Bangladesh border in which our troops finally captured the strongly fortified junta’s garrison camp on August 31, in the morning at 9:12 a. m. In this encounter the 19 enemies were killed and a lot of weapons, ammunition and heavy artillery pieces were captured.”
“One seriously wounded was also captured. In addition many buried corpses that seems to have been killed during the fierce battle were found buried. They are junta soldiers’ corpses.”
He said the battle started on August 2 and ended on August 31 when the garrison was captured. The junta used heavy artillery with massive bombardment, with a daily average of some 300 to 400 heavy artillery poundings, including helicopter gunship and jet fighter strafing.
“Our troops have managed to capture the garrison under heavy guns’ bombardment and air force strafing heavy pressure,” explained the AA spokesman.
On Spring Revolution
On question of AA lack of involvement of Spring Revolution after the military coup last year February he said: “This is just general criticism and blaming if one doesn’t know the in-depth situation of the AA. We can understand this. Because we are an organization doing what we have to do. We are standing steadfastly and correctly for the people (of Arakan). In the same vein, we consider all organizations fighting for the oppressed people as friends and will cooperate as much as we can. We have this kind of optimistic view.”
“Some blame us for not participating in Spring Revolution for example. The ULA/AA is engaged in running battles with the Myanmar army for three years prior to the Spring Revolution. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in these armed engagement. I have to say that ULA/AA has been marching steadfastly according to the way of Ratkhita (Arakan Dream) long before the Spring Revolution happened.”
“Now we have accomplished two-third of the journey. And since we are marching towards our own goal and now seeing our destination, we can’t join the Spring Revolution which has just emerged.”
“Because we are marching according to The Way of Rathita together with our people all along, it is impossible to merge with the other line (Spring Revolution).”
“We have already publicize that we respect and acknowledge the struggle of the oppressed people’s liberation movement. So now the majority Myanmar people now realized the previous wrong opinion placed on ULA/AA. Besides, we fully believe that they now understand our sincere motive and correct implementations.”
On junta’s peace overtures
On the military junta’s peace overtures, he said: “We can look at the successive military governments’ peace initiatives. Military governments and NLD government were involved in peace talks. But all these peace processes have nothing tangible to show as success. It is interesting why it happened like this. The main thing is that if we talk peace all sides have to be sincere.”
“The main thing is good intentions. They need to have the policy of settlement on the basis of justice by compromising with each other in peace process. Now, there is no justice-based process in the work done by successive military regimes. In other words, while oppressing one party, it is maintaining peace with the other party. If it is pressing attack on one party, it is talking to the other party. That is why we are saying that this peace process failed because there is no honesty.”
On confederacy aspirations
On ULA/AA confederacy aspirations, he said; “We have said ULA/AA policy is confederation. We have assertively said that our political status is confederation. Even though we deserve confederation we will not beg and not begging now from any government. What we mean is that we are fighting for it (whether the adversary like it or not).”
“We are trying to materialize the thing that we want, together hand-in-hand with our people. That’s why we are not an organization begging for it, but marching towards our goal, whether any one agree or disagree, although it is best if negotiable.”
“On the other hand, the casualty will be less. If we can negotiate, we will negotiate. If we can’t negotiate, we will fight if we have to. That’s it. The main thing is to fight if we have to fight, and negotiate if we have to negotiate. Our policy is to follow the way of Ratkhita that we have set, and continue to march forward regardless of the resources we have to offer to reach the goals we want with our people. Basically that’s the point.”
On junta’s scheme to hold election in 2023
On the planned 2023 election by the junta, he said: “It is a bit too early to talk about election. I don’t have much to say on it. Previous elections were held by successive governments in Arakan State, but they haven’t been able to change the Arakan people’s social status, political status and the life style in any way until today.”
“That is why it is sure these elections have not contribute to our people’s social development in any way. Because we have already come across the elections many times. It is only supporting the Myanmar leaders to maintain their power. It only means forcing the Arakan people to give them the mandate (representation). Therefore, I can say with certainty that no election held in Arakan until now has contributed to the social life development of the people of Arakan and their lives.”
Arakan politician U Pe Than
ULA/AA basically is not interested in Arakan National Policy Consultative Committee’s (ANPCC) federal democracy ambition as it aims higher than federalism and wants to only negotiate from the position of strength, or fight for it, according to the well respected Arakan politician U Pe Than.
“U Pe Than resigned from the Arakan National Party (ANP) in August 2021, months after Myanmar’s parliamentary politics was thrown into chaos by the military coup in February of last year. His resignation from the party followed senior party members like Daw Aye Nu Sein and U Zaw Aye Maung accepting seats on the military regime’s governing body. The pair drew significant criticism for joining the junta,” according to Development Media Group report of June 22, 2022.
“U Pe Than, a 66-year-old veteran Arakanese politician who won a seat in two consecutive general elections, stepped away from party politics last year in favor of what he describes as an activism that is instead based on national interest. His decision came in the context of an era in which the popular stance increasingly seems to view party politics as having come to a dead end in Arakan State.”
He has been acting informally as an interpreter for the ULA/AA political positions and many consider that his readings have been quite accurate.
ANPCC held a workshop meeting with two Arakan revolutionary parties, Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) and Arakan National Congress (ANC), including three Arakan political parties, ANP, Arakan Front Party (AFP) and Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), representatives of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), altogether 32 participants from 19 to 21 August. But the ULA/AA although invited did not show up for the meeting.
On September 3, U Pe Than told Channel News Independent (CNI) News the reason why he thought ULA/AA has not attend the meeting.
He reasoned: “ULA/AA position isn’t the same (with ANPCC). Its minimum demand is confederate level. That’s why it is not in the condition to accept it (meaning: federalism). And if there would be a mixed discussion with many parties, for example like the ALP, they don’t seem very much like wanting to participate in the discussion. It could discuss separately and there are opportunities to do so, as there were separate invitations been already made.”
“It is like going to beg (for political concession) when you have no strength. It will only be like begging when talking and negotiating. ULA/AA opinion is that we have to build up our strength massively and then basing on this strength, we have to shape our destiny. It could be that they are not interested in the meeting because of such opinion. (Everyone) has been talking about federalism. That side said federal and this side also said federal (meaning: The military junta and National Unity Government). But no one has spelled it out. On ULA/AA part it has already said confederation. So it (federal) can be taken as under-priced, the high-priced can go as far as independence. That’s why it is possible that they are not interested in this discussion.”
Major General Twan Mrat Naing’s aspirations
AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing also called Twan Mrat Naing in Arakanese told The Irrawaddy in an interview on January 11, 2019, “We prefer [a confederation of states] like Wa State, which has a larger share of power in line with the Constitution,” referring to the status of the AA’s ally, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), adding that a confederation is “better” than federalism.
“And we think it [a confederation] is more appropriate to the history of Rakhine (Arakan) State and the hopes of the Arakanese people,” he said.
“In a confederation, we have the authority to make decisions on our own. But there would be a common defense system. And there would be cooperation on market regulation and foreign affairs. To have control over our own destiny—self-determination—is the aspiration of every ethnic group. We can try,” he said.
Again on January 18, 2022, in an exclusive interview conducted by Bertil Lintner in Asia Times he reiterated again the same position: “The right to self-determination and sovereignty is at the heart of our national movements. We will see whether a Federal Union of Myanmar will have the political space for the kind of confederation that our Arakanese people aspire for.”
“We would prefer to remain with our [ethnic] brothers and sisters, but if our rightful political status which we desire is not accommodated within this union, it would behoove us to be a member of the international community on our own.”
In a rare admission he also mentioned AA’s manpower and its controlled territories in Arakan State in the interview as follows: “We have trained over 30,000 soldiers in 13 years (since founding in 2009), and there are still more combatants undergoing training in command and control, and technical skills. Around 70% of our troops are battle-hardened and have combat experience. 5,000-6,000 thousand troops are deployed in our allies’ areas, the rest are in Arakan (Rakhine).”
“We control around 60% of the areas in the north of Arakan (Rakhine) but less in the south. In some areas, it is difficult to draw distinct lines of control between us and the Myanmar army. They still control urban areas and have to keep those for strategic reasons, but we still project our authority as required in those areas and there are still a lot of contested areas as well.”
Recent conflict situation
There is no doubt that the all-out war going against the junta by the AA is a well-timed one. It is true that the junta wasn’t happy with the AA’s administration expansion and indeed also saw it as a rivalry to replace its system of military supremacy rule, which has been rolled out since the informal ceasefire was agreed in October 2020 before the general election. There were on-and-off small clashes happening in Arakan State between the two adversaries during the two year informal ceasefire, but not an earnest one.
But the large scale war erupted when on July 4, the junta shelled one of the AA’s outposts with two fighter jets in Karen State on the Salween River in Mutraw (Hpapun) District, an area controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) Brigade 5. Several buildings, including a clinic, were destroyed, the AA said in a statement reported by Myanmar Now the following day. During the bombing spree, six AA members were killed and seven wounded, which AA vowed to take revenge for the unprovoked killings.
On July 18, AA attacked the Border Guard Force (BGF) twice in Maungdaw Township killing a number of them and capturing 14 junta personnel. Besides, several weapons, including 27 rifles and two pistols, as well as other military equipment, were also seized.
AA spokesman Khaing Thuka said the group attacked the junta-backed BGF as retaliation for the killing of six AA troops in airstrikes carried out by the regime in Karen (Kayin) State’s Mutraw (Hpapun) District earlier this month.
“The Myanmar military bombed an AA base without any valid reason at all. That’s why we attacked them back,” he said, according to the report of Myanmar Now on July 19.
From then on the fighting have spread to Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Mrauk-U
townships in Rakhine State and in Paletwa township in Chin State.
The junta is said to have lost nearly 90 bases in 17 months since the coup in fighting with resistance forces and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), according to armed groups, as reported by The Irrawaddy on September 9.
“They included key outposts in strategic locations or critical bases for the supply of weapons and food to frontline troops. The regime has lost at least 20 bases in Kachin State, three in Chin State, 19 in Kayah State, 12 in Karen State and 36 in Rakhine State, according to EAOs and conflict monitors,” according to the report.
Reportedly around 30 were in Maungdaw Township and six were in Paletwa Township, Chin State, which borders Rakhine State, according to observers.
“The National Unity Government (NUG) is at the center of a democratic revolution shaped by organizations opposed to the Myanmar military junta, or resistance organizations. These organizations are the de facto authorities across more of the territory of Myanmar and for more of the population than the junta and are administering a growing range of government functions,” writes Mizzima reflecting the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar briefing paper of September 5.
“The junta only has stable control of 22 per cent or 72 out of 330 townships in the country which equates to only 17 per cent of Myanmar’s land area, because many of these are small urban townships.”
In the mean time, the junta is trying to keep most part of the Shan State free from attacking its troops, which has the largest military concentration encampment within the whole Burma.
For now the junta is gearing up to meet within the mold of second peace talks, the first one was held about four months ago, with the UWSA, National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) or Mongla and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) which are sitting on the fence, in relation to the people’s uprising or Spring Revolution, and maintaining ceasefire. The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) is already a nationwide ceasefire agreement signatory, so there is no worry on this score. The junta may only have to convince them that everyone will come out satisfied whether it is true or not.
In a nutshell, the UWSA wants a state-level administration status; NDAA wants a self-administered zone; SSPP wants to keep its conquered territories from the RCSS, with the help of UWSA; and RCSS wants the junta to act and help to regain back its lost territories.
Of course it is a tall order and not going to be easy to compromise and make everybody happy. But the junta may at all cost try to keep all these major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) from going against it and become conflict parties, aiding the Spring Revolution, one way or the other.
Given such developments, it is hard not to believe that the AA is acting according to the motto of “strike while the iron is hot”. Thus, it is more likely that it is following the Burmese historical saying of “English hardship is an opportunity for the Bamar” of pre-independence colonial era, by paraphrasing it “Bamar’s hardship is Arakanese opportunity”, which may be interpreted as Bamar military junta’s hardship of having to fight against all ethnic-democratic forces countrywide is an opportunity for the AA to strike.
Of course, nobody knows whether the AA gamble is going to pay off, than further trying to maintain the unofficial ceasefire like the last two years. But it seems the die is cast and there is no way to revert the decision.
Coming back to AA aspirations of confederacy, it will all depend on how the ethnic-democratic forces, ethnic armed organizations and NUG forces, could work in tandem and cooperation to uproot the military dictatorship is going to pan out, as it is the first necessary step to achieve its ultimate goal. And even if AA isn’t formally in league with all the other loosely formed ethnic-democratic coalition forces, it is already doing the alliance a great favor and service, intentionally or unintentionally, for fighting the undeclared war against the military junta.
This is exactly what the late Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, the Shan political leader and academician used to preach “diverse actions, common goals”.
To sum up, the people’s struggle, including the Arakanese confederation aspirations, will not be easy and might even be a grueling protracted war. But it will do all of us good, if we could pull all our resources together and go through this with coordination and cooperation to end the era of military dictatorship, first and foremost, so that our other common aspirations may be realizable sooner than later.
And after this first step is accomplished, if we still find living together isn’t feasible anymore for whatever reason we may have in store, we may then part our ways in gentlemanly manner, as Major General Twan Mrat Naing has said in the Asia Times interview in January, without hard feelings.