It would be in the interest of all stakeholders, including India, to drive the agenda for peace to ensure the insurgency does not spiral into an uncontrollable cycle of violence which engulfs the region, writes Jaideep Chanda for South Asia Monitor
The Rakhine conflict, underway in western Myanmar in the Rakhine and Chin states since 2015 between the ethnic Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces), has brought out new trends in the nature of operations being conducted by both belligerents in this insurgency. These trends portend a bitter and long drawn conflict in the region which, some reckon, in intensity is at par with the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka.
The network of rivers, comprising the Kaladan, Mayu and other smaller rivers in the region, provides a classical riverine terrain which has been used by the AA in attacking and hijacking transport and passenger vessels plying on these rivers. Riverine warfare effectively interdicts movement of vessels in the region thus jeopardising local inland water transportation systems. This is critical in the Rakhine and Chin states, which are notorious for poor road connectivity. This effectively impedes movement of government troops and developmental work associated with the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transportation Project. Since March 2019, over half a dozen major attacks (involving use of rockets) and several minor attacks on vessels sailing in the rivers have been recorded, with both civilian and Tatmadaw casualties. The AA has developed considerable competence in this riverine form of combat.
Abduction of civilians and adversaries is evolving as an accepted norm in the Rakhine war zone. It ranges from mass abductions (58 passengers abducted from the passenger vessel Shwe Nadi) to the selective kidnapping of high value targets like that of National League for Democracy (NLD) Member of Parliament for Chin State, U Wei Tin, kidnapped ostensibly for use as a bargaining chip during negotiations. The MP was released after 79 days at the behest of the Indian Government, using the good offices of the Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga.
The use of landmines is another trend which has caused casualties to the MA. In a major attack on February 27, 2019, AA executed a landmine ambush targeting four vehicles of the Myanmar Police on the Yangon-Sittwe Road, killing two drivers and injuring two in the explosion. Indiscriminate laying of mines by both the AA and the Tatmadaw has rendered the region unsafe for agriculture and other civilian activities.
The Myanmar Army’s use of airpower to engage the AA has now evolved as standard practice. The Regional Commander is now apparently authorized to launch airstrikes without permission from Nay Pyi Taw. The Tatmadaw has conducted airstrikes using MI-35, MI-17, and MI-2 gunships in the conflict often causing casualties to civilians and even to its own troops (during the Shwe Nadi operation). Given the nature of the terrain, the low speed and height of the helicopters, it is but a matter of time before the AA manages to bring down one…which will change the approach of the Tatmadaw to this operation totally. The seizure of a Chinese made FN-6 surface-to-air missile is a game changer for the conflict.
The presence of Chinese Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) in the Tatmadaw inventory was first reported in 2016. had not been used against the AA. In January 2020, sketchy reports of these UCAVs having been used against the AA have emerged. Using these force multiplier weapon systems in a counter-insurgency role actually crosses a red line and is open to criticism from all quarters.
The superior intelligence network of the AA will be of concern to the Tatmadaw. The identification of the speedboat on which the Chin MP was travelling leading to his abduction is a case in point. This is understandable given the local ethnic support for the AA and the total disregard for human rights and brutal behaviour of the Tatmadaw in the region. Local Rakhine residents who interacted with the author during a visit to Myanmar in December 2019, were candid, saying the draconian Sedition Law (Section 124A of the Burmese Penal Code) forced most locals to stay aloof outwardly. However, almost all Rakhine nationals and political parties were sympathetic towards the AA cause. The arrogant and abusive conduct of Tatmadaw troops only serves to reinforce support for the AA.
The rampant shelling on civilian settlements, use of pagodas as cover for gun positions and total lack of control on the troops operating on the frontline is a recipe for disaster for the Tatmadaw. Regular civilian casualties, including of children, and persistent reports of rapes and human rights violations effectively alienates the Tatmadaw from its intelligence sources and renders them devoid of information.
Finally, there is a distinct southward shift in extent of operations with encounters being reported from close to Ann, the headquarters of the Western Command, the regional command leading operations in Rakhine. This has two implications; it threatens the headquarters and also threatens Kyaukphyu and the associated Chinese economic infrastructure, which has major economic, diplomatic and international ramifications. This turns the wheel full circle, as the weapons supplied by the Chinese to the ethnic armed groups in Myanmar are now coming to bear on them.
Thus as events unfold, a distinct pattern is evident where the Tatmadaw is at the lower end of the operational learning curve whilst the AA comes across as more agile, confident and competent in various forms of warfare, including on the perception front. The Tatmadaw may have the luxury of disregarding unprofessional conduct by its soldiers, however, unless it gains control over its frontline troops and changes the ethos of its counter-insurgency strategy, it is doomed to flounder. Presently, both belligerents have not yet reached their culmination points of battle weariness. Unless the peace efforts work, the Rakhine region is doomed to suffer, with innocent civilians caught in the crossfire suffering most.
It would be in the interest of all stakeholders, including India, to drive the agenda for peace to ensure the insurgency does not spiral into an uncontrollable cycle of violence that engulfs the region.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal)