Does the future of Rakhine lie with the Arakan Army?

Arakan ArmyReuters file photo

For the second time, three members of the Myanmar army including a captain as well as 179 members of the Border Guard Police (BGP) have fled into Bangladesh and surrendered here, to save themselves from the hands of the warring Arakan Army. As this article is being written, they still have not been sent back. However, it has been learnt that contact is being maintained with the other side as part of the process for them to return.

Meanwhile, just 65km north from Sittwe and the settlement south of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, Rathedaung, has fallen. At present the two other large settlements of North Rakhine, Buthidaung and Maungdaw, are under siege. Notably, the 179 members of BGP who entered Bangladesh were posted in Maungdaw.

The Arakan Army have drawn up their plans on lines of a guerilla war. That is why they have surrounded these two areas where the Tatmadaw has a strong hold. It was because of this strategy that there was no retreat other than to enter Bangladesh. However, the only path of retreat from Buthidaung leads into the Bay of Bengal. Till now, the Arakan Army has taken control of Paletwa, an important town of the Chin state, and 10 towns of North Arakan, including Rathedaung.

If things continue in this matter, it is speculated that within this year North Rakhine will be free of the Tatmadaw. If North Rakhine can be taken over, that will be a springboard to take control of South Rakhine. To all appearances, there are all reasons to believe that if Maungdaw and Buthidaung are taken over, Arakan Army will be unstoppable. The present condition of the Arakan state has given rise to many questions that are linked to the future of Bangladesh, Rakhine, the Rohingya population and greater Myanmar.

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Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal are two routes for Arakan or the Rakhine state’s contact with the outside world. This matter is important to both Bangladesh and the Arakan Army. Due to the location of Saint Martin’s, most of the north Bay of Bengal are is within Bangladesh’s maritime boundary. And so the future Rakhine state will have to remain much dependent on Bangladesh.

However, much of this issue depends on the plans of the Arakan Army and its political patron United League of Arakan. The first important question here is whether the objective of the Arakan Army’s activities is to separate away from Myanmar, or to earn greater autonomy. Till now the target declared by the Arakan Army is autonomy of Arakan. No matter what their objective may be, the fact remains that Arakan will have to build friendly ties with Bangladesh.

The second important question is whether the Arakan Army will be able to create a space for safe coexistence of all the ethnic groups in Arakan in the future. They should certainly be able to do so. If not, their long armed struggle will be meaningless. The residents of Arakan must remember that the Rohingya have been living in Rakhine for a thousand years. The Myanmar army and government have used their divide-and-rule strategy to create a divide among the people. Other than the Rohingya, also living there are the Kaman, Muslims, Chakma, Hajong and Mro ethnic communities. The stability of future Rakhine depends on creating a multi-ethnic state of all these communities, no matter how small.

The Arakan Army, ULA and the people of Rakhine must realise that the ethnic divide created by the Myanmar army over the past few decades in Arakan, has obstructed development in Arakan. The state has lost its power. It is felt that since the Arakan Army and ULA chief General Twan Myat Naing himself has been through must struggle and suffering, he will certainly have plans for future Rakhine.

The third question is, what are the thoughts of the most oppressed population there, the Rohingyas, concerning the future Rakhine? This is not just about the Rohingya who have taken shelter in Bangladesh. Thought must also be given to the Rohingya people and their leaders scattered all over the world. After all, this is the land of their ancestors. These must think of themselves not just as Rohingyas, but as Arakanese as well. They must think of the possibilities open before them.

There are not too many paths open ahead for the Rohingyas. There is no point in just clutching on to history, but the Rohingyas must certainly take lessons from 1940 and 1942. They must look ahead to the future. At this point of time while the Arakan people are fighting against the Tatmadaw, the Rohingyas must certainly lend them support. Silent support is not enough, they must lend active support. They have no future ahead but to dispose of all differences among themselves and stand by the Arakan Army. If they do not stand by the Arakanese at this difficult time, they will be considered ‘razakars’ or collaborators.

In the case of international relations, it is said that you can’t change your neighbours. However, policies change on various geopolitical considerations. We must bear in mind that there is a massive geopolitical change in the offing

The other alternative for the Rohingyas is to support the Myanmar army of Tatmadaw. That would be suicidal. No doubt there are hard times ahead for the Rohingya. The army will try to use the Rohingya to create another civil war in Rakhine and they are already doing so. The Rohingyas must be on alert in this regard. The Rohingya leaders must join hands and exert their solidarity with the Arakan Army, that is, the Arakanese, in this struggle. Unless they take the right decision, there are all chances of the Rohingyas facing extinction as a race.

Bangladesh is the only country with whom Arakan or Rakhine share a common border. For the development and growth of Rakhine, it will certainly need Bangladesh in the future, just as in the time of Giasuddin Azam Shah back in the 14th century. The coins of independent Arakan back in those days have influence of the Bengal Sultanate, which is part of the Rakhine history.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh must from now start thinking of how its relations will be with future Rakhine. If Rakhine becomes a more autonomous region of Myanmar, then diplomatic equations must be given due importance. Just as Myanmar is considered to be a window in China’s foreign policy, I feel that the Rakhine state will be Bangladesh’s door to Myanmar and the East. So our diplomats and leaders need to give though about what Bangladesh should do in the context of the present Rakhine too.

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In the case of international relations, it is said that you can’t change your neighbours. However, policies change on various geopolitical considerations. We must bear in mind that there is a massive geopolitical change in the offing.                               

* M Sakhawat Hossain is former election commissioner and SIPG senior research fellow (NSU). [email protected]


* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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