It Isn’t Just the Rohingya. Myanmar Is Now Attacking Buddhists in Rakhine State, Too.

This latest battle could be the army’s undoing.

By Jonathan Gorvett, a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs.
Three people walking along a road are seen during a government-organized visit for journalists in Buthidaung townships close to the surge of fighting between the Arakan Army and government troops in the restive Rakhine state on Jan. 25.
Three people walking along a road are seen during a government-organized visit for journalists in Buthidaung townships close to the surge of fighting between the Arakan Army and government troops in the restive Rakhine state on Jan. 25. Richard Sargent/AFP/Getty Images

MRAUK U, Myanmar—Here in the town of Mrauk U, in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, there has been little to celebrate during this October’s Thadingyut, the second-most important annual festival of the Buddhist calendar. Normally, the auspicious full moon would be hailed with a floating armada of delicate candlelit paper lanterns and song, theater, and dance.

Yet this year, there are no celebrations.

Instead, at 9 p.m. sharp, a curfew falls as soldiers from the Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw, emerge from their posts to pull barbed wire and steel barricades across roads. Shops and businesses shutter, the streets empty and lights flickering out. 

Under the looming gaze of hundreds of medieval temples—relics of a time when this was the capital of one of the richest and most powerful states in Southeast Asia—parents gather up their children by flashlight and head into makeshift bunkers, dug into the soft clay beneath their houses. These gimcrack dugouts, ringed with old sand-filled cement bags, may not look much, but they provide at least some shelter from the shells, rockets, and bullets now increasingly flying between the Tatmadaw and local rebels, up above.

“We don’t know what will happen after dark,” said one local resident, afraid to give his name for fear of reprisals, “and we’re terrified.”

For the last nine months, fighting has been intensifying all over northern and central Rakhine.

The state, Myanmar’s poorest, is no stranger to violence, either. It first came to the world’s attention back in 2012, when intercommunal conflict between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims broke out. Even now, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, some 128,000 people who fled the violence back then are still living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the state.

In 2016-2017, too, further waves of violence against the Rohingya broke out, this time orchestrated by the Tatmadaw itself, which said it was responding to attacks by the radical Islamist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Then-U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein described this wave as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Some 700,000 Rohingya fled the violence to neighboring Bangladesh, where most remain to this day. Exact numbers for those killed are controversial, but according to Médecins Sans Frontières, some 6,700 Rohingya were killed in August and September 2017 alone. The official government figure for the same period was 400.

Less well known outside Myanmar, however, has been a third wave of violence, which began around the start of this year and has continued ever since.

In this, the Tatmadaw has been fighting the Arakan Army, a Buddhist insurgent force formed back in 2009 that has perhaps 4,000 guerrillas under arms. Staging hit-and-run attacks from the state’s dense jungles and rugged mountains, the Arakan Army is fighting for an independent Rakhine, based on the ancient medieval state that once centered here on Mrauk U. 

This historic state—Arakan, as it was known—became part of Myanmar (then imperial Burma) only in 1784. The Arakan Army has picked up on popular resentment against the Bamar, the majority ethnic group in Myanmar that dominates the central government, economy, and military. This resentment has been growing since the first largely democratic elections were held in Myanmar, back in 2015.

In that vote, the majority of Rakhine, who are ethnically related to the Bamar, their Buddhist co-religionists, voted for Rakhine nationalist parties. At a national level, they expected that, with the Bamar in charge in the capital, they would be in charge at a regional level. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 elections, appointed an NLD governor for the state, Chief Minister U Nyi Pu, against the wishes of the Rakhine majority.

“Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t trust anyone for the job,” Laetitia van den Assum, who was part of a U.N. commission sent to Rakhine to investigate the violence in 2016-2017, told me in late October. “She just wanted control, so she put someone in charge who she could tell what to do. This alienated Rakhine even more from the center.”

At the same time, the state is fertile in agriculture and fisheries and rich in natural resources. It also occupies a key geostrategic location, with India and Bangladesh to the north, China to the northwest, and the countries of the Mekong valley to the south. Yet its poverty rate is twice the Myanmar average at 78 percent, according to a 2014 World Bank Group report. Many in the region believe that its resources are being used to enrich the central government. A particular case in point for many here are the 480-mile, $2.5 billion Chinese dual pipelines, which since 2013-2014 have taken oil and natural gas from Rakhine’s offshore Shwe fields to China’s energy-hungry western province of Yunnan. 

The pipelines are operated jointly by China National Petroleum Corp. and Myanmar’s state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. They can carry 12 million metric tons of crude and 12 billion cubic meters of gas per year, according to Reuters, with the first six months of 2019 alone seeing $2.5 billion of oil sent to China via this route, according to Chinese customs’ figures. 

The pipelines come ashore near the port town of Kyaukpyu, on Rakhine’s southern coast, a town whose Rohingya quarter is now a flattened wasteland after violence in 2012. The Chinese have built many projects here, Aung Mu, a Kyaukpyu businessman and Arakan Army sympathizer, who is using a pseudonym, told me this month. “We don’t see a penny from them. All of the oil goes to China, and the payment goes to Myanmar, to the Burmese [Bamar] government and the military. Meanwhile, none of the jobs go to us, and instead our land gets taken without compensation.” Indeed, “it’s money from our oil that is paying for the shells and rockets that the military is now using against us,” Mu added. 

Privately, Chinese officials in Yangon say they have, however, paid compensation for land used in their projects but to the Myanmar government, rather than directly to locals. 

With a long list of grievances and broad popular support, the Arakan Army took the opportunity of Myanmar’s national day on Jan. 4 to launch a major new offensive.

The group attacked four police and army posts across the state, killing 13 soldiers and police. Aung San Suu Kyi responded by ordering the Tatmadaw to “crush” the insurgents, whom she labeled “terrorists.”

Yet, in the nine months since, the Arakan Army has shown it is still very much in the field.

In the week of Thadingyut alone, 18 Arakan Army fighters, disguised as soccer players, hijacked a bus heading out of Mrauk U, taking 31 passengers hostage. Shortly after, two days of clashes west of the main highway between Mrauk U and the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, saw the Tatmadaw deploy helicopters and artillery against the Arakan Army, who claim to have inflicted 40 casualties on the Tatmadaw between Oct. 11 and 16, across northern Rakhine.

Maj. Gen. Twan Mrat Naing, the Arakan Army commander in chief, has also announced that 2020 will see his forces establish their headquarters in Mrauk U, the symbolic heart of the old Rakhine kingdom. Meanwhile, the Arakan Army’s slick website shows deserters from the Tatmadaw—which relies heavily on local ethnic Rakhine recruits in the state—talking about atrocities against local people they were allegedly ordered to commit by their ethnic Bamar commanders.

“I think the greatest recruiter for the Arakan Army is the Tatmadaw,” said Pin Meng, whose name has been changed, a food stall owner in Mrauk U. Stories abound here of soldiers looting nearby villages, harassing and arbitrarily detaining locals, and of beatings and disappearances.

“A few days ago, soldiers came, firing their guns, and we ran,” said one woman sheltering in the grounds of a monastery in Mruak U. Afraid to give any name, even that of her village, she said that when they returned home later, “our house had been turned upside down. Even the little rice we have had been stolen.” Along the road between Mrauk U and Sittwe, too, burnt-out trucks and crashed vehicles punctuate the roadside, along with makeshift camps set up to house those fleeing the violence.

Such scenes appeared, too, around the fourth anniversary of the nationwide cease-fire agreement between the Myanmar government and a range of other ethnic armed organizations. The agreement, signed in October 2015, broadly halted some of the country’s longest-running insurgencies yet failed to include many groups—including the Arakan Army. Now, on Oct. 29, the Arakan Army threatened to widen its insurgency beyond Rakhine via an alliance with other cease-fire holdouts, notably the Taang National Liberation Army, active in the country’s northeastern Shan state, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, based near the country’s border with China. 

At the same time, the insurgency threatens to undermine any attempt by the government to convince international governments and organizations that it is safe for Rohingya to return home. The growing violence also undermines government efforts to entice further foreign and local investment in Rakhine.

Exact numbers of the latest IDPs in Myanmar are hard to gather. But Stephan Sakalian, the head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Myanmar, told me in October that his organization had been helping more than 50,000 people displaced by the current conflict. The ICRC and the World Food Program are the only international relief organizations that the Myanmar authorities allow to operate in this part of the state. 

This lack of access—and the international focus on the Rohingya—means that “no one seems even aware that Rakhine state is a war zone,” van den Assum said. That makes current efforts by the Myanmar government to encourage Rohingya to return to the state from Bangladesh particularly dangerous, likely only to add to a regionwide conflagration.

At Sittwe’s airport, the evening flight down to Yangon now features a sorry sight. 

Just before takeoff, an ambulance arrives, and a handful of wounded civilians and soldiers, bandaged for impact wounds, flash burns, and other traumas, are helped onto the plane. Advanced medical care is scarce in Rakhine, with Yangon, which has the nearest well-equipped hospitals, an hour away by plane or 20 hours by road. 

“They say,” van den Assum had told me days before, “that Rakhine could well become Myanmar’s Vietnam.” An escalating conflict in a region of rugged mountains and jungles, where the insurgents enjoy much popular support, could indeed become a terrible quagmire for Myanmar’s military.

Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs, currently based in Cyprus.