Arakan Army poised for all-out Rakhine war but replication of recent insurgent successes in Shan state is far from guaranteed.
As the tempo of conflict in Myanmar’s northeast slows after months of dramatic insurgent advances, the civil war’s center of gravity has shifted decisively to the western seaboard state of Rakhine.
In the wake of the third anniversary of the disastrous military coup of February 1, 2021, that set Myanmar on the path to popular revolt, the second half of the current dry season through until the onset of the monsoon in May will almost certainly see a sharp and perhaps decisive escalation of hostilities in the state.
The ethno-nationalist Arakan Army (AA) – a member of the tripartite Brotherhood Alliance that overran wide swathes of Shan state in November and December – appears poised for a bold, all-out campaign in its home state aimed at replicating the sweeping successes achieved in the northeast and ejecting junta regime forces from Rakhine.
The AA returned to fighting in mid-November 2023 after agreeing to a Rakhine state ceasefire in November 2020, just months before the coup.
The stakes could hardly be higher. If in the coming weeks the AA succeeds in building on recent military momentum and wresting control over a vitally important state located between the Bay of Bengal and the Myanmar heartland, it would effectively present the military’s State Administration Council (SAC) regime with a defeat on a scale that in broad strategic terms would mean the war has been lost.
Scattered hostilities across the national heartland might well continue for some months but the loss of Rakhine would confront the Naypyidaw regime either with inevitable and accelerating collapse or an even more rapid implosion.
If, on the other hand, the Myanmar Army can succeed in battling the AA to a standstill before the onset of the rains, the resulting pause will have important military and diplomatic repercussions by throwing a lifeline to a drowning regime and potentially ensuring its survival into 2025.
The struggle for Rakhine will require the military’s holding onto key urban centers and with the support of aviation, artillery and, importantly, naval assets, inflicting prohibitively high casualties on the insurgents as it did in an earlier round of hostilities in 2019 and 2020.
Led by Twan Mrat Naing, 45, a powerfully charismatic leader who in many respects personifies a generation of revolutionary youth, the AA enters the campaign with some telling advantages, not least the momentum of victory in the north and its impact on morale.
Having enjoyed widespread popular support since it began infiltrating Rakhine from its northern training bases in the 2014-2016 period, the Rakhine rebels benefited immensely from a three-year ceasefire agreed with the military between November 2020 and November 2023.
The pause in conflict saw the insurgents’ political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), make major strides in consolidating control over rural areas and establishing parallel administrative structures.
At the same time, the group’s armed wing used the hiatus to recruit, train and reorganize its battle-tested but depleted forces. With the exception of the northeastern-based United Wa State Army – which remains in a ceasefire pact with the SAC regime – and its own ally and mentor the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the AA arguably ranks today as the best organized and most effective insurgent force in the country.
Force levels in a dynamic military situation are difficult to estimate and nowhere near the 30,000 troops the AA itself claims, a figure which may include ULA operatives and mobilized manpower not yet operational in military units. However, it is likely that in addition to its northern contingent of around 1,500 troops operating in Kachin and Shan states, the AA fields at least 15,000 troops in the Rakhine and adjacent Chin state theater.
Logistics have posed a perennial headache for a force that was born and grew in northern Kachin state as a protégé of the KIA but has sought to extend its footprint across a home state over 600 kilometers away.
However, the seizure of Paletwa township on the Kaladan River in neighboring Chin state in December 2023 and January 2024 – the opening gambit in the AA’s current campaign – will undoubtedly serve to relieve supply bottlenecks and facilitate operations across most of northern and central Rakhine.
Indeed, if the Brotherhood Alliance can succeed in accelerating the southward flow of weaponry and ammunition recently captured in the northeast into Chin state, the logistical significance of Paletwa and the Kaladan River conduit will become even more critical in the coming months.
That organizationally challenging task will require the cross-country transport of large quantities of ammunition and support weaponry – mortars and anti-aircraft heavy machine guns in particular – from Shan state via Sagaing and Magwe south to Paletwa.
While morale is undoubtedly high following the successes of 10.27 in Shan state and the Paletwa phase of the Rakhine campaign, analysis of the AA’s prospects in the coming months is complicated by two broad unknowns.
One relates to organization and hinges on the extent to which a force that has emerged from small-unit guerrilla conflict is capable of conducting mobile warfare that entails moving well-equipped main force units of battalion-size or larger rapidly across the country in support of shifting operational priorities as distinct from leaving the heavy lifting to local township-based forces.
The second unknown turns on strategy over the coming three months and whether, as some commentators believe, the AA command will attempt to deliver a rapid knock-out blow to SAC forces by encircling and overrunning the state capital of Sittwe.
The protracted battle for the riverine township of Pauktaw, 20 kilometers east of Sittwe which began on November 15 just two days after the AA returned to war, clearly suggests that the Sittwe option is on the table. So, too, does the number of civilians seeking to secure tickets on fully booked flights out of the embattled city.
An alternative and arguably less risky strategy than a meat-grinder battle for the state capital would involve prioritizing the capture of outlying township centers with far weaker defenses.
Maungdaw and Buthidaung on the border with Bangladesh along with Rathedaung lie to the north of Sittwe, while Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Minbya – all already under attack – are located on the main highway out of Rakhine to the east. The fall of one or two might trigger a domino collapse along the lines seen in Shan state in late October and November.
However, the success of such a strategy would depend critically on a capacity for well-coordinated simultaneous operations against different locations aimed at dividing and stretching the regime’s response, particularly from the air. But for the AA, these are largely untested waters.
Even following the loss of Paletwa and a string of outposts along the Indian border, any expectations that a replay of Shan state-style collapse is inevitable are likely to come up against hard realities. For all AA’s capabilities, there is no guarantee it will succeed.
Poverty-stricken Rakhine was for decades a military backwater for the Myanmar Army, a source of recruits and a theater for periodic drives against a defenseless Muslim Rohingya minority population. Over the past decade, however, that situation has changed radically.
At the purely military level, the second half of the decade saw the steady rise of both the AA and a perceived Rohingya threat following attacks by the rag-tag Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in 2016 and 2017 that triggered the expulsion of over 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh in military “clearance operations.”
Both developments put a premium on the importance of border security along the frontier with Bangladesh, which was already a major trafficking route for Shan state-produced methamphetamine feeding growing urban markets in Bangladesh.
At the same time, the importance of Rakhine was further elevated by the development of off-shore natural gas deposits; a steady build-up of naval forces against the backdrop of maritime disputes with Bangladesh; and the construction of the Kyaukphyu deep sea port and Special Economic Zone as the jewel in the crown of China’s Belt and Road ambitions in Myanmar.
As a result, even before the conflict with the AA erupted into full-scale hostilities in January 2019, the state was already well on the road to militarization.
The army’s order of battle included three divisional-size Military Operations Commands (MOCs) in Buthidaung, Kyauktaw and Taungup, a Regional Operations Command at Sittwe and the Western Regional Military Command at Ann in the center of the state. Support forces came in the shape of a significant Border Guard Police presence and naval infantry units.
By the time the war with the AA reached its height in early 2020, regionally based forces had also been heavily reinforced by elements of several of the army’s ten Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs) based out-of-state and a significantly beefed up naval and air force presence.
Significantly, the three-year ceasefire between November 2020 and November 2023 did little to reduce this level of deployment. Indeed, even before Operation 1027 in Shan state gave warning that the AA would likely return to war in Rakhine and despite mounting pressures elsewhere in the country, the army further reinforced its footprint in the state.
Today it would be surprising if the military is unable to muster at least 15,000 combat-capable troops in Rakhine – or, in a ball-park calculation, a force level roughly on a par with the AA.
Given a rule of thumb holding that an attacker typically requires a three-to-one advantage over a defender to be in reach of success, this broad ratio is hardly good news for the AA and further underscores the importance of a mobile campaign in which insurgent forces can be rapidly deployed to achieve local superiority over priority targets.
Against this backdrop, the military also enjoys other salient strengths. Geographically, the proximity of Rakhine to major centers of Pathein and Yangon obviously facilitates resupply by sea and air.
At the same time, the army can count on support from numerous offshore naval assets largely invulnerable to insurgent fire including a helicopter-carrying landing platform dock (LPD) capable of transporting troops and a significant riverine capability based on fast patrol and landing craft. Above the battlefield, forward air bases at Sittwe and Ann position ground attack helicopters and jets a few minutes flying time from key townships.
What is all but impossible to gauge is the often-critical element of morale. It is now commonplace to note that the Shan campaign of late 2023 has dealt a body blow to SAC regime morale and to that extent the possibility of a dramatic collapse in Rakhine cannot be entirely discounted.
Equally, however, it would be a mistake to extrapolate from events in Shan state where strategic surprise and coordination between the Brotherhood allies proved decisive and assume that similar cascading defeats can be inflicted on the army in Rakhine. Most army units are relatively fresh, certainly well-supplied and in many cases fighting with their backs to the wall.
The convergence of these factors is likely to push surrounded garrisons to levels of extreme violence and a willingness to flatten entire towns in order to “save” them. And the ensuing displacement of the civilian population will almost certainly trigger a humanitarian crisis on a scale beyond that suffered in eastern Karenni state, where fighting has driven well over two-thirds of a population of some 300,000 from their homes.
Whatever its outcome, the impending battle for Rakhine is unlikely to secure the survival in the long term of a regime which politically, economically and now militarily has exhausted whatever credibility it may once have enjoyed. It will, though, have a crucial influence on how much longer the agony of Myanmar must last.
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