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Battles in Rakhine Pose Significant Consequences for Myanmar and Surrounding Countries, Says Radio Free Asia

The Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armies that launched Operation 1027 three months ago is consolidating their gains and establishing administrative control over newly acquired territory across large swathes of Myanmar. While a Chinese brokered ceasefire in Shan state has been repeatedly violated, the loci of violence has shifted north to Kachin, where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has made steady advances, and west to Rakhine, the domain of the The Arakan Army (AA). It is the fighting in Rakhine that is the most consequential for both the civil war and the inclusive federal democracy espoused by the opposition National Unity Government (NUG). Junta soldiers man a checkpoint along the Yangon-Sittwe highway to restrict traffic from entering Sittwe during certain hours, May 22, 2023. (RFA) Residents have been fleeing the Rakhine capital Sittwe in anticipation of a looming battle between the rebel ethnic Arakan Army (AA) and junta soldiers. The fall of the fortified administrative and military hub in far western Myanmar would be the latest in a string of victories by the ethnic Rakhine forces. The Arakan Army (AA) had fought the military to a stalemate in 2020. Following the Feb. 1, 2021 coup d’etat, the AA made a tepid pledge of support for the NUG. But the AA did not break its ceasefire with the military, instead consolidating its political power, especially in the north of Rakhine, Myanmar’s westernmost state. Although the Rakhine ceasefire broke down in 2022, neither side had a stomach for a wider war. The military could ill afford a new front, while the AA realized that it was achieving substantially more autonomy by not fighting, leaving the army to focus their efforts elsewhere. The AA and their political arm stepped-up civil administration and neutralized rivals. To the dismay of the NUG, the AA and military negotiated a ceasefire in November 2022, though tensions remained. After Cyclone Mocha ravaged Rakhine in May 2023, the military blocked international aid agencies into the state – further legitimizing the AA, which provided the majority of humanitarian assistance to the local population. Arakan Army on a roll Following Operation 1027, the AA – a member of the Three Brotherhood Alliance – broke its ceasefire with the government on Nov. 13. Since then they have captured over 40 military and police posts and several towns. On Jan. 18, the entire Light Infantry Battalion 539 surrendered to the AA. Video, shared widely on social media, shows the soldiers and their family members being marched in handcuffs and under guard. Arakan Army forces stand with captured arms and ammunition after recent fighting with Myanmar junta army units, Jan. 21, 2024. (AA Info Desk) The AA has captured large caches of weapons, including artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, which has allowed the offensive to continue. On Jan. 25, the AA took over Kyauktaw and are currently moving south, with fierce clashes in Mrauk-U and Minbya townships. AA now controls almost all of northern Rakhine. As important, they captured the river port city of Paletwa in southern Chin state. That has resulted in steady air attacks, which forced over 50,000 people from their homes. On Jan. 8, the AA attacked the Danyawaddy Naval Base near Kyaukphyu. The navy plays a key role in ferrying troops in the region, but has also been used to attack civilian populations. On Jan. 21, the AA again fired a barrage of rockets into the naval base, though it’s not clear the extent of damage they caused. Rethinks by India and China? The war in Rakhine matters for five reasons. First, the AA’s offensive has forced the military to deploy men, planes, and other resources that they desperately need elsewhere. The military cannot countenance a counter-offensive in Shan state, when they are now fighting one of the best armed and largest ethnic armies. Indeed, additional troops are being deployed to Rakhine. Second, the AA’s success is forcing India to reevaluate their stance. Narendra Modi’s government, which has seen substantial democratic backsliding of its own, has since the coup sided with Myanmar’s military, fearful that a weak and isolated junta would become too dependent on China. India has not only not disarmed some 700 Myanmar troops who crossed into Mizoram, but flew some troops to Sittwe, the Rakhine capital. A Myanmar Air Force transport plane that was dispatched to return several hundred troops skidded off the runway on Jan. 23. Arakan Army troops stand in front of the captured Paletwa Township General Administration Department office after seizing Paletwa, Jan. 14, 2024. (AA Info Desk) But the AA’s gains complicate the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, a project connecting the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata to northeastern India’s landlocked Mizoram state via Sittwe and Paletwa ports The $484 million project includes a 110-kilometer (68-mile) road from Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, to the border and then a 62-kilometer (38-mile) road to Paletwa, where goods continue to Sittwe via the Kaladan River. A parallel train route between Aizawl and Sittwe is being planned. New Delhi’s insecurity over eastern India, which is connected by the 22-kilometer (13-mile) wide Siliguri Corridor in Sikkim, is palpable. Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur are home to several insurgencies and transnational criminal groups, with several Myanmar ethnic armies and people’s defense force (PDF) militias situated along the border. China’s encroachment in Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau, just north of the Siliguri Corridor, further heightens India’s insecurity. Rakhine megaprojects India has been no friend of the NUG, participating in and hosting Thai-led Track 1.5 dialogues. India said nothing when Myanmar Air Force jets bombed the Chin National Front’s headquarters Camp Victoria on Jan. 10 and 11, 2023, violating Indian air space. India has also turned over anti-government forces to the junta. But with AA taking control over Palweta, and thus the Kaladan project, New Delhi may be forced to rethink its relationship with the State Administrative Council, the three-year-old Myanmar junta’s formal name. Indian security personnel inspect a Myanmar army plane after it skidded off the runway at Lengpui Airport in India’s northeastern state of Mizoram, Jan. 23, 2024. The plane was landing to collect soldiers and repatriate them to Myanmar. (Mizoram State Government/AFP) Mizoram’s economic growth is dependent on connectivity to Sittwe, and the Kaladan corridor is the analog to the nearby China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) to Kyaukphyu. That leads to the third implication: China, too, might have to reevaluate its position. Beijing is known to be frustrated with the lack of progress on the CMEC and the Kyaukphyu port and special economic zone, which date to a 2011 memorandum of understanding. In December 2023, the junta offered additional terms to placate China, which didn’t extend an invitation to regime leader Min Aung Hlaing to the October Belt and Road Initiative summit in Beijing. Fighting has intensified in the port’s neighboring Ramree. The loss of control even around Kyaukphyu, the terminus of China’s oil and gas pipelines, will further stall the project. Clashing visions for Rakhine Fourth, the AA’s advances have important implications for the country’s inclusive, democratic, and federal future. Of all the ethnic resistance organizations, the Arakan Army is the most predisposed towards independence; and have expressed skepticism towards the NUG’s proposed Federal Democratic Charter for the multi-ethnic country of 55 million people. The AA mistrusts the majority Bamar population to ever fully share power and agree to substantial devolution of political authority. Likewise, the AA had a bad relationship with the deposed National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose members still dominate the NUG. More importantly, the AA is not in favor of democracy. Their political arm, the United League of Arakan, has moved to eliminate rivals and the AA leadership has shown little interest in sharing power. They see Rakhine’s future as a one-party state. The AA’s capture of Palweta has also caused tensions with the Chin National Front (CNF) and other Chin organizations, who view the strategic river town as theirs and mistrust the AA’s long-term intentions. Oil tanks that are part of China’s oil pipeline project are seen on Maday island, Kyaukpyu township, Rakhine state, Myanmar, Oct. 7, 2015. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters) Indeed, on Jan. 25, the Mara Defense Forces, a local people’s defense force under the AA, attacked the Chinland Defense Forces, a PDF under the CNF. While this could be merely a localized conflict, it could erode trust. Finally, the…

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