The Rakhine conflict in Western Myanmar between the Myanmar Army (MA) and
the ethnic Arakan Army (AA) touched new milestones in 2019. The AA which is fighting to
attain ‘confederate status’ has a new strategy which involves engaging the MA in the
Kaladaan and Mayu rivers to disrupt traffic including those water transport vessels carrying
infrastructure development loads. The AA also took hostages from passenger vessels clearly
suggesting that the ethnic group had crossed new red lines to assert itself in their struggle for
confederacy. This also symbolises a new level of competence and confidence in a relatively
rare form of combat viz. riverine warfare which complicates movement of MA troops and
vessels carrying material for the ever elusive Kaladaan Multi-Modal Transit Transport
Five incidents in recent months involving the AA and MA merit attention. First, was a rocket attack on a tug boat (22 June 2019), anchored near the mouth of Hsantyoe creek, east of Sittwe, killing three soldiers and damaging the rear part of the tugboat; second, firing of two rockets ( 22 July 19) at three government naval boats anchored near Mayu riverbank, 3 kilometres west of Yathedaung township, stationed for emergency rescue and aid operation to passenger vessels running along the coast; three, hijacking of passenger vessel ShweNadi (26 October 2019) sailing from Sittwe to Buthidaung, including taking 58 passengers hostage and transporting them in motor boats only to be attacked by MA helicopters causing unspecified number of casualties among the passengers and AA including injury to one of the helicopter pilot presumably anti-aircraft gunfire; four, abduction of 10 men travelling in two speedboats from Paletwa Township, Chin State to Kyauktaw Township, Rakhine State (3 November 19), including a Chin Member of Parliament (MP) representing the National League for Democracy (NLD) and several Indian nationals; and five, firing at Landing Craft Marine Princess (30 November 2019) carrying heavy machineries including bulldozers for Paletwa – Zorinpui Section of the (KMMTTP) and taking the crew hostage as also looting money and cell phones of the crew members.
These incidents reveal a nuanced approach by the AA to warfare in the Rakhine region. The selection of a tug as a target is significant and highlights their understanding of the importance of tugs for manoeuvring larger vessels in constricted water bodies such as rivers. Similarly the decision to attack Myanmar naval boats stationed for rescue operations for civilian vessels highlights a strategy to push the Myanmar Navy out of the area and gain ‘riverine dominance’ and influence the flow of vessels and goods to and from the region.
Hijacking and abductions of soft targets such as passengers is guaranteed to bring the region into media highlight and would provide the necessary mileage for the AA which is seeking provincial, national and international attention. In this context, the abduction of 58 people from the passenger ship and then attempting to relocate them using speed boats is a daring strategy executed with astute planning and preparation. However it did not work in the case of the ShweNadi incident and that can be attributed to the MA’s prompt and drastic use of helicopters, but it turned out to be quite messy for both belligerents.
The abduction of U Hawi Ting, MPfrom NLD travelling in a speedboat is evidence of a well-oiled intelligence network which would typically rely on a vast grid of ethnic sympathisers. This would make operations for the MA extremely difficult especially given their penchant and impunity for human rights which would have alienated them from the locals.
Finally, targeting of barges carrying equipment for the KMMTTP suggests adequate higher direction within the AA wherein they are willing to play the China card to extract maximum mileage for their cause. The attack on Marine Princess on 30 November 2019 also needs to be seen in the context of the AA chief Major General Tun Myat Naing’s statement that AA was planning to levy ‘taxes’ on infrastructure projects and other businesses in Rakhine and Chin states under its control, including the KMMTTP. Naing stated that projects and companies that fail to pay would not be allowed to do business in the area, and threatened to destroy them. Furthermore, he asserted that the operators of the KMMTTP had failed to acknowledge the group’s authority in the region, and that the AA planned to collect taxes as a way of asserting itself and desired that the KMMTTP operators negotiate with the AA with respect.
It is fair to argue that riverine warfare in counter-insurgency environment would be the preferred choice for both the AA and MA who are constantly evolving to master this form of warfare which by all counts would be bloody, intense and central to the Rakhine Conflict.
Colonel Jaideep Chanda is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed and suggestions made in the paper are solely of the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement. Attributability of the content lies purely with the author.