Arakan Army, not military junta, run the show in Myanmar’s Rakhine state

An armed ethnic group in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine has wrested administrative and judicial control from the country’s military junta, which has been in power for almost one year, residents of the state told RFA.

The Arakan Army (AA) began as a humble resistance group in 2009 but has grown to be one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic military forces. It launched an insurgency in Rakhine before agreeing to an uneasy ceasefire with the military in 2020.

When the country was taken over by the military in a coup on Feb. 1, 2021, Rakhine was largely spared the violence that sprung up everywhere else in Myanmar. During that time, the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), established a parallel administration that is now in de-facto control of the state, especially in the northern parts of it.

It is now common to hear the Rakhine national anthem before major events and in schools before class starts, even in areas that once were the sight of intense fighting between Myanmar’s military and the AA.

Zaw Tun, a resident of Rakhine’s Mrauk-U township, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that his state typically followed the priorities as set by Myanmar’s national government, without “our own identity, our own beliefs, or our dreams.”

“After two or three years of ULA and AA military operations, we are now surprised to find that Rakhine state has gone down its own path. Now we sing our own national anthem. We understand that this new state of affairs is based largely on the growing power of the ULA and AA,” Zaw Tun said.

Tun Win, a former member of Myanmar’s lower house from Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township, told RFA that it has become clear to Rakhine’s residents that they “have to create our destiny by shaping it with our own hands.”

“We find that more and more people here have accepted this concept of strengthening our own political beliefs. These sentiments are found in most people. We see a lot of confidence that we can achieve our desired political goals based on a strong national organization," he said.

During the ceasefire, the AA has controlled the state’s administrative machinery.  The judiciary in most areas is governed by the AA and the AA has urged residents to report all criminal incidents in Rakhine state to them since Aug 1 last year.

Another former member of Myanmar’s lower house, Aung Thaung Shwe, told RFA that more people rely on the courts run by the ULA than those of the Myanmar junta.

“Now we can see that the government’s judiciary and the administrative machinery of the junta is getting weaker. On the other hand, people are relying on the ULA to seek justice. It can be said that this is a big change,” Aung Thaung Shwe said.

He also said that crime had dropped significantly in rural areas since the AA took over the judiciary.

A third former lower house member, Pe Than, estimated that the AA was in control of two-thirds of the state.

“In the past, Myanmar’s military occupied the whole of Rakhine state. It controlled the region with about 80 regiments,” he said. “Today, they have lost much of the territory and some of the regiments have even found it difficult to get out of their bases. The military can no longer operate effectively in the region.”

Several residents of the state told RFA that the junta has warned some of the townships not to support the AA or file lawsuits in its courts and to report all AA activities in their areas.

But junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said the military has a strong relationship with the AA.

“We have seen many instigations by our enemies to try to get the AA to become involved in fighting. This has created various misunderstandings between the military and the AA at the ground level. I would like to say that we have a strong relationship at both the top and bottom levels,” he said.

Meanwhile, the AA’s commander-in-chief, Gen. Tun Myat Naing, said in recent speeches that he was working on a step-by-step approach to reclaiming the lost sovereignty of the Rakhine people so that they can sculpt their own identity.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.