Jelvin Jose, Research Intern, ICS
The Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic armed organization (EAO), engaged in armed struggle for ethnic self-determination of the Rakhine Buddhist people has been a significant newcomer to Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. The fierce tensions between the AA and the Tatmadaw, following AA’s police station attack on 4 January 2019, led to the displacement of 157,000 people and prompted a global outrage. The public support consequent to the political marginalization of the ethnic Rakhine community, and Chinese material backing, expedited the rise of AA as a lethal outfit within a short period since 2017. In order to safeguard its economic and strategic goals in Myanmar, Beijing needs to balance both the Tatmadaw and AA.
Arakan Army and its Rise
The AA was formed in April 2009 in Laiza, a town in Kachin state. It aims to set up an autonomous territory with substantial autonomy in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, similar to the one run by the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The Rakhine State of Myanmar is one of the poorest regions in the country. AA, seeks to garner public support by upholding Rakhine nationalism, promising to bring prosperity to the region, and preserving the identity and cultural heritage of the ethnic Rakhine community.
Though the AA had been initially trained and operated under the umbrella of Kachin Independence Army (KIA), it later shifted to the fold of the powerful UWSA. After gaining training and battle experience from its operations in the Shan and Kachin states in the initial years, AA started shifting focus to Rakhine state by 2012. However, it was only after 2017 that the AA has risen to prominence in the Rakhine state.
Chinese Material Backing to AA
Although there is little evidence for direct supply of arms to AA by the Chinese government, multiple instances, including the Sittwe naval vessel attack, confirm the flow of Chinese weapons to AA’s hands. In the words of Anders Corr, around 90 percent of AA’s financial resources come from China. Chinese backing to the AA also extends in terms of uniforms, weapons, and ammunition. In the Sittwe vessel strike that AA carried out in June 2019, the AA rebels reportedly fired at least three Chinese-made 107mm surface-to-surface rockets.
The primary source of weaponry for AA is the purchase from other EAOs, mostly from UWSA and members of the Northern Alliance. UWSA- Beijing’s closest ally and most prominent beneficiary of Chinese weapon supply is said to have installed factories producing Chinese weapons in its territory. UWSA, leading the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) – a seven-member coalition of EAOs including AA – is reportedly used by Beijing to influence AA to secure its interests.
The flow of sophisticated Chinese weapons to AA’s arsenal strengthens the claim of Chinese backing of AA. In July 2020, the Thai military seized a massive stock of Chinese armaments worth US$1 million from Mae Tao district, bordering Myanmar and Thailand. The weapons reportedly were destined for the AA and insurgent groups operating in India’s North East. In November 2019, Tatmadaw captured another stock of Chinese-made weapons, including FN6 anti-aircraft guns, RPGs, and around 40,000 rounds of ammunition from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – AA’s partner in the Northern Alliance- at Homein village of Northern Shan State.
It is notable that AA rebels, who have obstructed India’s Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) at different points, have not, similarly, targeted any Chinese projects. The statement by AA spokesperson U Khaing Thukka in March 2020, that “China recognises us, but India doesn’t” further exposes Beijing’s connections with the AA.
Arakan Army and China’s Links with Ethnic Armed Organizations
Unlike several EAOs such as UWSA, Beijing has not directly backed AA. Instead, China pipelines weapons and other resources to AA via other EAOs, to secure its strategic and security interests in Myanmar. In a broader sense, Chinese indirect backing to the AA is part of Beijing’s balancing act between EAOs and the government to retain its influence in Myanmar. Keeping links with AA helps Beijing to shield its infrastructure projects from harm. Swedish Journalist Bertil Linter explains the strategy Beijing adopts in Myanmar as a “Carrot and Stick Policy.” On the one hand, China assists Myanmar with investments and necessary political cover from global human rights outcries at international bodies such as the UN Security Council. On the other hand, China also keeps links with the armed ethnic outfits, providing them with necessary political cover, funding, and weapons.
In fact, for Beijing, the existence of AA as a cause of turmoil in Rakhine is unwanted business. China critically needs a stable situation, conducive to the smooth implementation of its economic projects in Myanmar. Beijing perceives that the AA claims are implausible to be accepted by the Tatmadaw, thus posing obstacles to stability in the state by instigating prolonged political stir. As a cause of violence, the persistence of AA without striking any workable deal with the government (or at least with Tatmadaw) seriously hampers Chinese interests in Myanmar. First, violence and resultant disruption of stability would impact the rollout of Chinese projects and their functioning. Second, border security is a crucial aspect of Chinese interests in Myanmar. Beijing believes that its porous border with Myanmar is vulnerable to exploitation by external players. Thus, the extreme turmoil AA has been making, pressing for greater international involvement, is not in China’s interest. Third, the presence of AA as a formidable power would necessitate Beijing to balance between the government and AA simultaneously. Otherwise, Beijing could have much more easily secured its interests by striking a deal with the government and Tatmadaw. Fourth, though Tatmadaw and Nyaypidaw have been long suspicious of Beijing’s connections with various EAOs, Beijing’s material backing to AA seems to have further exacerbated this distrust.
Notwithstanding this, given the reality that the Tatmadaw cannot control the whole territory on its own, Beijing requires links with both the EAOs and the government to safeguard its economic and strategic interests in Myanmar. Rakhine state, the focal point of AA, is the hub of both economically and strategically important BRI projects such as Kyaukpyu port and China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline. These projects are critical for China from the geostrategic perspective to reduce its vulnerability in the crucial Malacca Strait- often described as “China’s Malacca Dilemma.” Hence, Beijing essentially requires establishing links with the AA to prevent the disruption of these ambitious projects.
Given the factors mentioned above, the Chinese backing to AA is conditional. Beijing does not see any end to Myanmar’s ethnic crises in the foreseeable future. Thus, Beijing can be expected to continue its direct or indirect engagements with EAOs, including the AA, while maintaining strong ties with Nyaypidaw in order to minimize its risks and maximize the profits from Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts.