The Limits of Development and Control in the Borderlands of Burma: An Ecology of Conflict and Control (Part II)

Bobby Anderson, in this two-part series on the borderlands of Burma, looks at the politics of insurgent groups in Paletwa, in southern Chin State. Part I can be found here and the author’s photo essay can be found here.

The Arakan Army or AA is the latest incarnation of Rakhine nationalism taken to an extreme conclusion, and taken root in a periphery previously ignored by the state. Its ideological forebears are found in the nearly defunct Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), which like the CNF was relatively inactive in comparison to Myanmar’s tenacious northern and eastern insurgencies. The ALP also signed the 2015 NCA. Its 60 to 100 claimed fighters may be a hopeful estimate. The AA view the contemporary ALP leadership as traitors to a cause built upon a discourse both rich and misunderstood. Rakhine nationalism is that of a neglected colonial backwater dwelling upon past glories, of which the targeting of Rohingya is not a cause, but a symptom.

The AA, paradoxically, was not born in Rakhine or Chin, but in Kachin, midwifed by the Kachin Independence Army or KIA as their proxy after the KIA’s 1994 ceasefire with the Tatmadaw fell apart in 2011. In this they also mirror their predecessor: the ALP was founded by the Karen National Union or KNU in the late 1960s. The 1994 KIA ceasefire ended in part due to the KIA’s refusal to transform itself into a Border Guard Force under the Tatmadaw’s command. AA’s first recruits, David Scott Mathieson notes[1], were ethnic Rakhine working in the Hpakant jade mines: a landscape of holes, tents, young men, filth, and dreams that surely erode with every passing rain or landslide, and for which ample supplies of heroin manufactured in neighboring Shan state act as an elixir. With that comes HIV. AA rose to tempt young Rakhine perhaps not so much fuelled by nationalist discourse and tales of dead kingdoms as by the squalor and death of Hpakant: the poverty they’d left in Rakhine at least had family, and meaning, and the AA may have given that back.

12. Mrauk U Monsoon
Rain at twilight, Mrauk U, Rakhine, August 2017/Bobby Anderson (Instagram: @batbitim)

The AA soon learned how to fight under the KIA’s tutelage. Until recently the AA, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), were allied along with four other insurgent groups under the umbrella United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). Despite early involvement in ceasefire negotiations, including inputs to the general National Ceasefire Agreement text, the UNFC declined involvement in Panglong 21 because the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA were not “accepted” by the Tatmadaw as potential individual NCA signatories. The military went so far as to ban from attending the first Panglong 21 conference, although with Chinese Government Special Envoy Sun Guoxiang’s facilitation, they did attend the second. The Tatmadaw’s refusal to even discuss ceasefires with the groups that are it is most actively—other than the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army—trying to destroy, serves as a reminder of the 1989 – 1994 ceasefires which the Tatmadaw signed with groups it considered less of a threat, providing it with the “breathing space” it required to concentrate force on the Mong Tai Army and the Karen National Union. The MTA died back then, although its remnants grew into the Restoration Council of Shan State, and now it’s the KNU with the ceasefire while the KIA’s elimination is sought. The Tatmadaw’s demand that the KIA transform into a BGF under the command of Tatmadaw (Bamar) officers was also known by all to be untenable. The point was to start a fight, not for the preservation of a Union which has only ever existed in theory, but to access natural resource income streams in KIA territories. And now the KNU surely suspects that the breathing room it has may be temporary, evinced by the refusal of select KNU brigades to let any civilian civil servants into their territories, and their occasional exchanges of fire with Tatmadaw seeking, against the spirit of the NCA, to extend roads into KNU commands.

In November 2016 the MNDAA, AA, TNLA and two KIA brigades, describing themselves as the “Northern Alliance”, launched a joint offensive against the Tatmadaw in Kokang and other areas of Northern Shan State; this offensive continues.

AA’s Arrival in Paletwa

Complementing its activities in Rakhine state, the AA established itself in Paletwa. This was a curveball thrown at the Tatmadaw by the Northern Alliance, a second front for them to address; although uncoordinated, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA, discussed below, represents yet another front.

The AA’s Paletwa branch first established bases just across the border, in Bangladesh’s Shangu – Matamuhri wildlife sanctuary (they likely have bases in India, considering that they’ve launched attacks on the Mizoram border with Paletwa). The group’s first foray into Paletwa occurred in March of 2015. In Dec 2016, they occupied Chin and Rakhine villages in remote areas to the west of the Kaladan River; given the lack of communications outside of Paletwa town’s environs, the news of the AA came out slowly, via boat crews that transported rumors of occupation south. The AA withdrew, and then returned to occupy more villages in the spring of 2017, “holding” them for a short while before the Tatmadaw seized some and the AA abandoned others preemptively. These occupations served as “socialization” and recruiting drives in ethnic Rakhine areas; some young Rakhine followed them back across the border. With this ebb and flow of occupation and withdrawal came persistent rumors: of landmines, and of other occupations which may or may not have occurred but are likely, given Paletwa’s terrain, communication silence, and sympathy.

The AA launched yet another cross-border raid in July of 2017—the middle of the monsoon—occupying 70 + villages, establishing defensive positions on the western banks of the Kaladan, and ambushing a Tatmadaw-commandeered boat dispatched to deal with them, killing 11 soldiers and a civilian and wounding others. The AA also disarmed a few Arakan Liberation Party predecessors and torched their guard post. The AA withdrew again before troops could be effectively mobilized against them.

The government has more robustly arrived in Paletwa, then, in the form of soldiery. They have established new bases, and they patrol the fields of corn and beans on the riversides. New checkpoints have sprung up to the north and south of Paletwa town, with compulsory inspection of IDs; new bases near Paletwa have emerged from hilltops scraped bare of trees. In January of 2018 an official ceremony marked the “re-taking” of the township. But that re-taking will be ephemeral. The Tatmadaw lacks the numbers to control Paletwa consistently, and given Tatmadaw offensives in Kachin and Shan State North, and the surety of future actions in northern Rakhine, they won’t have those numbers any time soon. The Tatmadaw’s troop movements and supply chains are determinate upon the river and a few helicopter landing zones hacked out of hillsides. They are vulnerable amongst trees and without roads, constrained by a border they cannot cross and by a human geography that AA may dwell within: they can see the army, but the army cannot see them. The appearance of AA, troop movements in response, and then withdrawals, first of one, then the other, will continue, Vietnam or Afghanistan in sluggish microcosm.

State actions, not only in Paletwa, but elsewhere, may indirectly provide support to AA’s cause. Anger at the state, across Rakhine, is hardly residual, and is fuelled by contemporary action, most recently through the cancellation of a commemoration of the fall of the Arakan kingdom to the Burmese two centuries previously, in Mrauk U, Rakhine’s historical capital, in mid-January 2018. Authorities opened fire on Rakhine protesters that night, killing 7, wounding 12, and later arresting those same wounded in hospital. This violence is only the biggest in a longer line of recent oppressive moves by government, including the detention of civilians for “unlawful association” charges, and the arrest of a monk who organized an “Arakan army cup” football match, for example. Tatmadaw rice confiscations from Rakhine civilians in Paletwa based on the possibility that they may be stockpiled by or for AA surely earn them no fans either.

The AA have evolved beyond rural insurgency, and are alleged by the Union to be the murderers of former Mrauk U township administrator Bo Bo Min Theik, stabbed to death and dumped on a roadside next to his torched car in February 2018. A roadside bombing of the state minister’s convoy on the Gwa – Sittwe road was attempted in late 2017, and an army convoy was targeted with mines in Minbya. AA may have been behind three Sittwe bombings in February 2018, one of which targeted the State Government Secretary. The group was reported by the Union propaganda outlet Global New Light of Myanmar to traffic drugs, an allegation which it denies. If the allegation is true, then it is a norm: insurgent groups engage in organized criminal activities to raise funds and buy weapons, because they are, by their nature, excluded from licit incomes, and smuggling methamphetamine surely pays greater dividends than the Akyab – Chittagong rice smuggling of previous generations.

The author has never met a Chin that offers any sympathy toward the AA. The AA, for their part, leave Chin alone, bypassing their villages; nor do they levy taxes or seek recruits from them. Not yet, anyway. Allegations of forced porterage from 2015 are remembered, as are landmines allegedly laid by AA.

An unlikely, but still possible, future scenario in Paletwa might be ethnic conflict between Rakhine and Chin. The Rakhine nationalist discourse claims Paletwa as part of an earlier kingdom of Arakan. Nationalist mythologists as a rule claim a territory at the point of its greatest historical expansion: witness berserk Salafis claiming Spain. This has led to shouting matches between CNF and ALP delegates in Panglong. How this could play out in Paletwa is another matter. One could imagine a Chin with a flintlock rifle[2] firing at an AA soldier for any number of alleged acts, whether it be porterage or mines, and one could imagine what the response could be. Chin would then make eager recruits for new pro-government border militias, and the line between combatant and civilians, as it has so often in Myanmar’s history, would dissolve. Even accidental Tatmadaw reprisals against Chin for AA actions—a crucial aspect of “four cuts” campaigns, and still in evidence today—are extremely unlikely, and if they did occur, would result in more Chin anger towards the former. Only extremely unlikely repetitive reprisals over time would lead to Chin sympathy for AA, and a grudging one at that. They’d rekindle their own insurgency rather than join one that makes claims upon their land.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army

The emergence of the AA in Paletwa, and Rakhine, was closely followed by the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA, in an area with only a human geography to hide amongst. The two groups are exclusive to one another. Nor would they likely be linked, despite the shallow logic of such a move.

ARSA finds its ideological origins in the Mujahid revolts of the early 1950s. It carried out its first actions in October of 2016, attacking three police outposts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung, Northern Rakhine, killing nine police with bamboo spears and machetes, and stealing firearms and ammunition. They touched off a predictably disproportionate Tatmadaw response. Perhaps in recognition of troop numbers too low to control populations through consistent presence, the Tatmadaw and its proxies opted to expel the populations. Entire villages were razed and tens of thousands of Rohingya fled into Bangladesh. Months of steadily increasing instability followed, with movement tightly controlled by Union Immigration and Tatmadaw. ARSA, for their part, assassinated village heads and civil servants. Smaller-scale attacks on security forces continued, mostly to obtain additional weapons, including attacks on Bangladeshi security forces in refugee camps.

While Rakhine nationalists targeted Rohingya since the mid-2000’s, with riots and killings increasing in 2008 and 2012, it was the emergence of ARSA which provided Rakhine and Bamar Buddhist nationalists with a moment both catalytic and cathartic: they alleged that Rohingya were radical Salafis for years, and at last—through the laboratory of persecution and the creation of conditions which made life nearly untenable for Rohingya communities—something akin to it emerged.

ARSA’s next relatively large-scale action, on August 25, 2017, was reported attacks on 30 police and army posts, killing 12 security and other officials. That attacks on such a high number of posts resulted in an inexplicably low number of deaths and no reported wounded passed without comment. The Tatmadaw began large-scale expulsions, using Rakhine militias as proxies; so much livestock was stolen that the price of beef and mutton fell in Sittwe. Well over 600,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, where they remain. ARSA attempted to establish bona fides internationally through the declaration of a month-long humanitarian pause which was dismissed out of hand. ARSA’s knowledge of geography—human, political and otherwise—was almost hallucinatory. The Tatmadaw, for their part, understood ARSA better than ARSA understood itself.


At this stage, it’s worth dismissing speculation of any partnership between groups with similar goals and targets. If ARSA survives long enough to professionalize, it is unlikely that any coordination between them and AA could occur. AA toes the government line on Rohingya, referring to them as migrants at best and terrorists at worst. It shares the government’s sentiment, and the government’s sentiment is less extreme than the public sentiment of what AA regards its Rakhine civilian support base. Neither AA nor the Tatmadaw would ever consider ARSA as an “Ethnic Armed Organization” or EAO—a classification that carries some credibility within the peace process—and no EAO would squander the political capital to do so. Whether or not ARSA are linked to foreign Salafis or not- something that the Chinese government has recently declared- EAOs apply the terrorist label to ARSA[3], and they would not want that label applied to themselves by association. All, however, are happy to see an already-overstretched Tatmadaw forced to engage another insurgency on its western flank, however short-lived: one that flared in an easily-navigable flatland now devoid of a population to hide amongst, and that now licks its wounds amongst much of the shell-shocked population it claimed to protect, in Bangladesh. Surreptitious coordination of mutual benefit cannot be ruled out, but will be dismissed as serendipity rather than planning if and when it occurs.

ARSA’s future

ARSA, for now, speaks a language of autonomy and rights. Current actions against it serve to attract funds and expertise, in areas that are beyond the control of states, and in a human geography of misery just across the border that will provide it with a limitless pool of embittered recruits. What it might do with those recruits other than send them to their deaths is another matter entirely. If ARSA evolves, it might one day pose a threat beyond bamboo spears and the occasional stolen firearm. While militancy in the camps grows in sentiment, proficiency in tactics will evolve elsewhere: the Bangladeshi authorities won’t allow it, and civil servant colleagues there also regard Rohingya  as a threat.

A future and professional movement may one day factionalize, with a one ARSA continuing to speak of rights and dignity in a fruitless effort to engage with an ephemeral international community beyond the occasional peace concert or academic conference, whilst a radical faction senses the embarrassing flaccidity of such effort and seeks to attack a “far enemy” beyond northern Rakhine. One could imagine an attack on a Yangon shopping mall attributed to ARSA. If that happens, the remainder of Myanmar’s Rohingya will be driven from the country, with Bangladesh, the days of its current coastline already numbered by rising sea levels, adding another 1.2 million to its population, denuding hillsides and dying of the mudslides that follow, or from cholera in half-collapsed tents. And even if no such catalytic bombing occurs, conditions of life could remain unbearable. It may not be unwarranted to suggest that, within our lifetimes, there may eventually be no Rohingya left in Myanmar.

With that in mind, it falls to those attempting to cultivate reconciliation, to ask themselves what long-term workable vision they have for Rakhine – Rohingya, and Bamar – Rohingya relations, divorced from theory and explanation, and reflective of the multitude of parameters to such work, from grassroots to national. Those the author is acquainted with struggle with this: there are no clear answers, and it is beyond the scope of this article to extrapolate from the current context the multiplicity of policy changes and instruments that could lead to change, and the willingness of civilian authorities to act upon them. Responses now are built around immediate needs. At the very least it falls to donors to be more critical of the work that they are approached to fund. Standalone interventions overly concerned with assumptions about misunderstanding and the need for dialogue, and detached from economics, neglect of Rakhine across generations, and palpable things Rakhine communities can understand and articulate in their own words, lack meaning.


Which brings us back to Paletwa- 50 miles from Northern Rakhine as the crow flies, or six hour’s drive in the dry season. The road goes via Sittwe and Kyauktaw, and during the rainy season, one must stop and board a boat from one of that town’s fetid piers, to travel another six hours to the now-submerged Paletwa town dock, ten miles to the west of Bangladesh. On the other side of that border, far to the north of the desolation of Rohingya camps, tourists trek to waterfalls and ride elephants. It’s an alternate universe to Paletwa, just as Paletwa is a different world from Maungdaw. This mosaic of insurgency represents a Hobbesian world in microcosm, surrounding a simmering Bamar core. In this, Paletwa serves as one of many long threads pulled to unravel the inconsistency of the state which emerged from the 1648 treaty of Westphalia in a place such as Myanmar. Union attempts to build a theoretical state in there are spurred on by challenges to its sovereignty in the form of AA, but how far it might go into the countryside, beyond roads and bases and helicopter landing zones, to give rural citizenry a reason why they might remain in such a place beyond the zero-sum calculus of avoiding counterinsurgency, is anyone’s guess. The civilian minority of Myanmar’s already-contested, Tatmadaw-controlled state is already beginning to establish its own bona fides in pursuit of the development of a state-citizen compact, the Ministry of Education in particular, but these are tentative steps upon a path that will be walked for generations, as the Union develops to accommodate what it contains. While the fool’s gold of a globalized world may be found in Paletwa town in the form of cheap kitchenware and social network access via new mobile phones, one still butts up everywhere against geography as important now as it was in the age of sail.

14. Paletwa- Electronics Shop
A new electronics shop, Paletwa town, August 2017/Bobby Anderson (Instagram: @batbitim)

A future in Myanmar devoid of conflict will be found in either totalitarian dictatorship or federalism and decentralization. The former has never and will never work in such a shatter zone. The latter remains to be agreed upon by sides many of which are still trying to kill one another whilst talking in circles in a peace process where trust is fleeting, and paradoxically decreases, the longer the process continues. In facilitation and peacekeeping as elsewhere, the future in Myanmar may be a Chinese one, with only the PRC having the clout to bring the northern alliance, under the umbrella of the larger Federal Political Negotiation and Consultation Committee or FPNCC, to Naypyidaw. It may also be able to convince the Tatmadaw that its cynical forms of conflict resolution—opportunistic ceasefires with one group in order to attempt to destroy another, the use of proxies and militias, dangling the bait of a federalism without substance—has not worked in seventy years, and won’t work now. The Northern Alliance won’t be destroyed, and there is no “Sri Lanka” option available to the Tatmadaw; the true elephant in the room, the United Wa State Party—the lead group in the FPNCC–won’t give up what they have for some lesser autonomy. China has the ability to offer incentives to both state and non-state actors to secure the Myanmar aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative that extends from the battlegrounds of Northern Shan to the Rakhine coast.

Substantive discussions around revenue sharing, direct elections for state leadership, increased autonomy in additional Self-Administered Zones, and so on, will have to begin, and despite the Tatmadaw’s insistence on disarmament prior to discussion, only after concrete steps toward federalism begins, will disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration be discussed- not just of insurgents, but of proxies and militias as well. This may happen within the Panglong process or some other as suggested by numerous EAOs. It may happen with the current NLD or with a future USDP government. In the case of the latter, at the very least the clarity of positions between the Tatmadaw and the civilian government will let insurgents know exactly where they stand within a process that at present lacks such clarity.

The longer I spend in Myanmar, the more I wonder if these insurgencies will last beyond my lifetime, and into the next generation to ponder, by some future traveler, one not yet born, in the same manner that those who made forays into Chin in the 1950s and 1960s would have made predictions for the township very different than what we find today.

And despite all that, every morning, fishers will still strike out upon the Kaladan at dawn.

17. Kaladan Morning Final
Sunrise on the Kaladan, January 2018/Bobby Anderson (Instagram: @batbitim)
[1] Mathieson, David S. 2017. “Shadowy Rebels Extend Myanmar’s Wars”. Asia Times, June 11.
[2] Unlike pervasive gun restrictions in the rest of Myanmar, the Tatmadaw made an exception for Chin civilians, allowing them to possess hunting rifles so long as they registered them.
[3] Many Karen the author knows, including in the KNU, dismiss ARSA as terrorists, and take Union-issued threat warnings about potential attacks across Myanmar seriously, increasing vehicle searches at checkpoints. The New Mon State Party did likewise, demonstrating widespread belief in the government narrative amongst groups who usually don’t trust the government at all.

Bobby Anderson ( is a Myanmar-based Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He thanks Jasnea Sarma for her comments on an earlier draft.