It is probably not that surprising that the Arakan Army has finally decided to confront the Arakan Liberation Party and its armed wing the Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) in Rakhine State. While the Arakan Army is based in Kachin State, for some years now it has infiltrated areas of both Arakan and Chin State and now maintains a presence there.
According to media reports by the Irrawaddy and Myanmar Times, nearly 70 soldiers from the Arakan Army (AA) raided a front line post belonging to the Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) in Chin State’s Paletwa Township, Chin State on Tuesday.
A statement by the group released on Wednesday said that two ALA soldiers were killed in the attack, three were “severely” wounded, and two more were missing. According to U Khine Aung So Than, the ALA unit in the camp had just 20 soldiers, and they withdrew from the base as AA soldiers surrounded them and began the assault.
According to the Irrawaddy article, on May 4, the AA had issued a “warning letter” written in the Arakanese language on its official Facebook page, alleging that 30 soldiers from the Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) had posed as AA soldiers and extorted money from locals near the Bangladeshi border. Moreover, the AA accused troops from the same group of pretending to be Myanmar Army soldiers and collecting “protection money” from residents of Garam Pa village in early May.
Such pretence is unlikely to have occurred, however, because all armed groups in the area tend to extort the local population, and unfortunately, it is more than likely that the local population have just become used to it.
Perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that the attack took place in Chin State’s Paletwa.
There has been a long-running territorial dispute over Paletwa, which is claimed by both the Chin and the Rakhine. During the colonial period, Paletwa was designated as being in Rakhine State. However, during the U Nu administration, the town was reclassified as being in Chin State. The issue remains somewhat contentious. The majority of the population are Khumi Chin, and there was a major demonstration when the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) announced it was going to open a Liaison Office in the town as part of a ceasefire agreement with the Government. Both the ALP and Rakhine state government delegations agreed to set up a liaison office for the ALP in Paletwa during the first week of April 2012 in a move that was criticised by the local community.
According to one government employee:
We could accept it if they were a Chin political party. It is not acceptable for us to allow them to set up their office in Paletwa. It is not their territory. The authorities should have consulted the Chin State government before making a decision on this issue,
A local village head also stated that:
The central authorities ought to have consulted local people about this issue. We are not Arakanese. We cannot accept any other national armed group in our area. The Burmese government should have consulted local Khumi people before signing an agreement,
Salai Ceu Bik Thawng, General Secretary of the Chin National Party (CNP) echoed such concerns:
I am worried that there will be clashes between Chin and Rakhine people over this issue because it is very sensitive. This problem will not be solved by democratic means and a federal system but will lead to racial problems.
Because of such protests, the office remains unopened.
A number of Chin leaders have suggested that the Chin National Front has made it clear to the Arakan Army that should Chin civilians suffer due to Arakan Army operations then the CNF’s armed wing the Chin National Army may have little recourse other than to engage them.
According to the Myanmar Times report, ALP leader Daw Mra Raza Lin said that she felt like the ALP had failed to keep unity among the two Rakhine groups.
“It is a fight between two Rakhine groups. I felt like my organisation had failed for the first time during my term (to keep unity among our people),” she said.
That said, it is unlikely that this is a failure of the ALP to maintain unity. Rather it more likely that the Arakan Army is seeking to replace the NCA signatory ALP and further strengthen its position. The Arakan Army has seen its position bolstered by its involvement with the Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) consisting of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) previously known as the Northern Alliance – Burma.
Although a signatory to the NCA, the ALP has seen its position in ethnic politics consistently weakened. The organisation was originally formed in 1968 by Khaing Pray Thein. However, the Burmese regime moved quickly to quash the movement and arrested many of its leaders jailing them for two to three years. After being granted an amnesty in the early 1970s, ALP President Khaing Moe Linn and Vice Chairman Khaing Ba Kyaw re-formed the ALP with support from the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNLA trained and armed as many as 300 ALA soldiers, and it soon became a leading member of the National Democratic Front (NDF) after it was created in 1976. The ALP/ALA was reorganised in 1981 under the leadership of Khai Ray Khai, with the goal of establishing a sovereign state in Rakhine State.
The Arakan Liberation Army (ALA), prior to the NCA, mainly operated as a mobile force in the southern Chin Hills or northern Arakan Hills and has been known to be active in the interior of Arakan State including Kyauktaw and Mrauk-U townships. Currently, the Arakan Liberation Army is estimated to have between 100 -150 troops and is equipped with light weapons.
While the threat to the ALP is particularly serious, such events must cause some trepidation within the Chin National Front. Unless the Myanmar Army is prepared to come to their aid, it is likely that both groups could see their control over their territory severely curtailed in the not too distant future further derailing the country’s peace process.