In Buddhist Myanmar, Buddhist rebels are fighting a Buddhist army

15 January 2019 12:10 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • Over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims forcibly sent to Bangladesh in the past year or two
  • Arakanese Buddhists team up with Christian Kachins to fight fellow Bamar Buddhists

 

 

Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has a 70-year long history of internal armed conflicts between its predominantly-Buddhist armed forces and the Muslim and Christian separatist ethnic groups like the Rohingyas, the Kachins and the Shans in the Northern and North-Eastern parts of the country.   


But of late, the army has been fighting a Buddhist group too. It is called the Arakan Army.   


The Arakan Army’s grievance is that the two million Arakanese Buddhists, also called Rakhine Buddhists, are being discriminated against by mainstream Myanmarese Buddhists called “Bamar” who are ensconced in power in the national capital, Yangon.   


On January 4 this year, the Arakan Army carried out coordinated assaults on four posts manned by the Myanmarese paramilitary Border Guard Police at Buthidaung Township in Rakhine state, close to the border with Bangladesh.   


At least 13 policemen were killed and nine wounded in the attacks. Video footage subsequently released showed that at least one base was overrun by rebels using newer AK-series assault rifles, machine guns and sniper rifles and not rudimentary assault rifles and small-arms, and home-made crude Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) as before.   


The Arakan Buddhists and the Arakan Army consider the “Bamar” to be “colonial oppressors” though they too are Buddhists. “Arakan is ours. If the Myanmarese go back to their native place there will be no fighting,” said Khaing Thu Kha, the Arakan Army spokesman in an interview to the media.   


The Arakan Buddhists’ taking up arms against it has shocked the Myanmarese army officially called “Tatmadaw.” It was the Tatmadaw which had nurtured the Arakan Army to help it intimidate and drive out the Muslim Rohingyas of Arakan into Bangladesh.   


Over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims were forcibly sent to Bangladesh in the past year or two, on the grounds that they were Bangladeshi immigrants and not indigenous to Myanmar.   


As in many other cases the world over, an armed group nurtured by the State or government, eventually turned against its creators or sponsors.   


MULTI-ETHNIC ASSAULT


What is more shocking is that the Arakanese Buddhists have teamed up with the Christian Kachins to fight fellow Bamar Buddhists. The Arakan Army has been conducting joint operations with the Kachin separatist army.   


According to Myanmarese historian, Thant Myint-U, “The emergence of the Arakan Army is one of the biggest shifts in Myanmar’s armed conflict landscape in a generation. It’s an upsurge in violence that tears Arakanese and Burmese societies apart in a way unprecedented in modern times. It’s a shock to the system.”   
Unlike the Muslim Rohingya, the majority-Buddhist Rakhine (also known as the Arakanese) are officially recognised by the central government as an ethnic minority. But still they feel marginalised. Historically, Myanmar has been dominated by the Bamar ethnic majority based in Central and Southern Myanmar.   

 

On January 4 this year, the Arakan Army carried out coordinated assaults on four posts manned by the Myanmarese paramilitary Border Guard Police at Buthidaung Township in Rakhine state, close to the border with Bangladesh


Myanmar’s inability to forge its various ethnic and religious groups into one nation has led to peripheral groups demanding either a confederation or outright independence.   


Like the Kachins and Shans, the Arakanese Buddhists also want self-determination and independence. They want the restoration of the independent Arakan state which existed till the late 18th century when the Bamar Buddhists occupied it and took away the sacred golden Buddha statue known as Mahamuni. Even today, Rakhine Buddhists mourn the sacking of their capital city by the Bamar army in 1784, and the seizure of Mahamuni.   


Presently, the Rakhine Buddhists feel that their region and their economic and political rights have been neglected by the mainstream Bamar Buddhists though their region is rich in natural resources.   


China is going to invest in the Rakhine region and develop the Sitwe harbour. But Rakhine Buddhists wonder if they will get a share of the fruits of development or a chance to participate in the development of the region.   


The National League for Democracy (NLD) government had refused to share executive power at the state level after the Arakan National Party had won a majority of votes in Rakhine state in the 2015 elections. Rakhine parliamentarians have had no influence over the government. This has given rise to movements named “The Way to Rakitha” and the “Arakan Dream 2020” which are based on the self-determination of the Arakanese.   


IMPACT OF ROHINGYA ISSUE


The Rohingya Muslim issue had indirectly helped boost Rakhine Buddhist separatism. While fighting against the Rohingya Muslims, the Arakan Buddhists realised that the only language the Myanmar Government would understand was violence and that Rakhine nationalism would be served best by fighting the State with arms.   
Things turned ugly in January 2018 when Rakhine nationalist commemorations to mark the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan Kingdom to Bamar invaders in the Rakhine town of Mrauk U ended in violence.   


Demonstrators tried to seize the local General Administration Department (GAD) building. GAD is a powerful civilian agency controlled by the military. Security forces reacted by shooting dead seven Rakhine Buddhists. Subsequently on January 30, Mrauk U’s former town administrator, Bo Bo Min Thaik, was murdered and his body left to rot on a roadside.   


LINK UP WITH OTHER REBELS


Interestingly, the Arakan Army was born, not in Arakan, but in the Kachin state bordering China, where it forms part of the China-backed, United Wa State Army (UWSA)-dominated Northern Alliance.   


The Northern Alliance (NA) is a coalition of ethnic armies. At present, it includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA). 


The Arakan Army and its allies in the Northern Alliance are of greater concern to the Tatmadaw than the Rohingyas’ Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Unlike the poorly-armed ARSA, the Arakan Army and its allies are well-equipped and organised. The Arakan Army also has militant cells in towns to plant explosives and target security and government officials.   


Furthermore, unlike ARSA, which has no foreign support, the Northern Alliance has China’s support. The government in Yangon is unable to tackle China on this issue because China backs it on the Rohingya issue in the UN and in other world fora where the Yangon regime is pilloried for its abominable treatment of the Rohingyas.   

 

Myanmar’s inability to forge its various ethnic and  religious groups into one nation has led to peripheral groups demanding  either a confederation or outright independence


This suggests that the regime in Yangon cannot take measures like complete expulsion as it did in the case of the Rohingya Muslims. It has to negotiate an end to the conflict across the table at some stage or the other.   


But given the power of the Tatmadaw even over civilian governments in Myanmar, a negotiated peace with political accommodation appears to be a far cry.   

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