Myanmar: Forever Wars


October 12, 2020: In the northwest (Rakhine State) the fighting between tribal rebels and the army has intensified since June and because of that nearly 250,000 villagers have fled their homes. Many travelled all the way to the state capital, which is seen as the safest spot in the state. In the last two months over 5,000 new refugees a week were seeking shelter and food. The army also revived the Internet restrictions, which had been lifted in August. Now most cellphone users in Rakhine State get only slow (2G) Internet speeds. This makes it difficult to access pro-rebel web sites, or most others as well.

Most of the rebels involved in belong to the AA (Arakan Army). Many AA attacks are ambushes or raids on road traffic, outposts or border posts. Control of the roads is essential for the army, which depends on regular deliveries of all sorts of supplies. The army also has some air support, mostly surveillance but also occasional airstrikes. The rebels know the mountains and forests, which the army enters and moves through more slowly. The war up here is about driving away locals who can provide support for the rebels. Most of these civilians have nothing to do with the rebels and see themselves as innocent victims of random military violence. There is some truth to that because troops often loot abandoned villages or rape female refugees they catch up with.

The rebels have another advantage in their attacks are more precise and involve much less firepower. The soldiers spend most of their time wandering around in the forests seeking rebels who move faster in the bush and usually detect the troops before the soldiers can spot any rebels. Hiring, or forcing, local hunters to guide the troops rarely works because the local guides hate the troops and know that the rebels won’t forget if such guides and trackers cost them casualties.

Rebels attacks outposts and border posts for loot. These attacks are not just about stealing some weapons and other gear, it is also intimidating the border guards and troops into backing off on border security. A major source of income for the AA is getting illegal drugs from nearby Shan State, where most illegal drugs in the country are produced, into Bangladesh. The AA works with Burmese Rohingya refugees just across the border in Bangladesh. The appearance of the covid19 virus earlier this year has made the situation worse because the refugee “villages” are more crowded and disorganized than the nearby Bangladeshi towns and villages. As a result, the refugee communities are seen as a persistent source of covid19 infection.

The AA has support from one of the rebel coalitions, the NA (Northern, or Brotherhood Alliance) tribal rebels who refuse to attend unless the government allows the AA (Arakan Army) to attend. The AA and the army have been fighting for two years now with no end in sight. The government, pressured by the army, declared the AA an outlaw organization in early 2020. The other tribal rebels disagreed and saw the army as the true outlaws. No long-term peace deal is possible without the NA and some NA members are still engaged in combat with the army. All NA members agree that if the AA is not allowed to attend peace conferences, neither will any NA member. The NA consists of four tribal militias; TNLA (Tang National Liberation Army), AA, MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) and KIA (Kachin Independence Army). The NA exists because its members refused to sign the 2015 Burmese Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Those who did sign the NCA have made progress in working out differences with the government and military. The army, which tends to do as it likes in the tribal areas of the north, is the primary cause for violence. China is also involved because Northern Alliance members survive via their access to China. The access is tolerated as long as these Burmese rebels do not let the fighting spread into China or interfere with Chinese commercial operations in Burma. This includes the BRI ( Belt and Road Initiative)/ Obor (One Belt, One Road) project, which NA members object to. So do other tribal rebels and the largest such group, the UWSA (United Wa State Army), boycotts peace conferences and otherwise tries to get their point across to the army and the government.

Foreign Influence

Army leaders have become more outspoken about “foreign support” the tribal rebels are receiving. The generals won’t come right out and name China but it is no secret that China has done little to curb Chinese weapons dealers from selling all manner of military small arms to tribal rebels and getting it across the border into Burma. That cannot be done without the acquiescence of the Chinese government. In this way the Chinese are sending a message to the Burmese generals, who the Chinese see as equally responsible for the violence in the north, sometimes right on the Chinese border. Both the rebels and the army are often using Chinese weapons and ammo against each other. There are not a lot of casualties and most of them are from army convoys being ambushed or the army firing into pro-rebel villages to drive the civilians, and any rebels, out and into the bush. The army does not have enough troops to occupy all the territory they push tribal rebels, and civilians, out of. Often the rebels, if not the civilians (at least not right away) come back and resume attacking convoys and patrols.

Imperial Revivals

Rebellions in Rakhine and down along the coast are nothing new in this area. Long just known as “the Arakan coast” and similar names hinting at an interesting past. In recent years there have even been calls for the restoration of the Arakan Empire, which ceased to exist 235 years ago. This is a renewal of ancient feuds over who should control the northwest coast of Burma, an area with a long history as an independent Arakan state. For example, in late 2017 ARSA (the new Islamic terror group in Burma) called for Rohingya to join with al Qaeda to fight the Burmese army and establish Rakhine State as the independent Moslem Arakan. This refers to the Arakan region, which is the coastal area that includes Rakhine State and the coastal area along the Bay of Bengal from eastern Bangladesh down deep into Burma. Some 1800 years ago Arakan became an independent Hindu state but 500 years later Islam spread to the area in part because Arakan was one of the many branches of the ancient Silk Road from China.

The population was largely Bengali and Burmese. In the 18th century the Burmese kingdom to the east conquered the area but lost it to the British colonial forces a century later. After that most of Arakan became part of the post-colonial nation of Burma. When the British left in the late 1940s they had created a Burma with unique borders and many citizens who were not ethnic Burmese. For Islamic radicals Arakan, like Spain, Portugal and parts of the Balkans are still considered part of the Caliphate (Islamic Empire) because they had once been ruled by Moslems. The current inhabitants of these “lost territories” are now largely non-Moslem and have no interest in becoming Islamic states again. Despite that groups like al Qaeda see an opportunity in Burma.

Islamic terrorists first showed up in late 2016 and August 2017 when there were attacks by a Rohingya Islamic terrorist group called ARSA. Its founder (a Rohingya expatriate) and much of the cash came from Saudi Arabia. Burma prefers to call groups like ARSA Islamic terrorists but until ARSA and the Saudi cash showed up there had not been much, if any, religious aspect to the armed Rohingya resistance. ARSA was openly calling for Rohingya worldwide to support a war against Burma for the bad treatment the Rohingya have received, especially since 2012. Until the 2017 announcement ARSA had denied any connection with al Qaeda but that eventually changed. The ARSA leader; Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi (or just Ata Ullah) has received more attention now that Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda are calling for its members to help ARSA and the Burmese Rohingya any way they can. Since August 2017 there have been no more large scale ARSA attacks but there have been some clashes with security forces. For the moment ARSA is largely a force on the Internet, not on the ground.

Since 2018 Rakhine State has been the scene of soldiers fighting the Arakan Army rebels for control of territory. Along the west coast (Rakhine and Chin states) the fighting is mainly about the army effort to control (tax) illegal activities by tribesmen. The tribes have been mistreated by the military for so long it is difficult to generate a lot of trust and put an end to the armed resistance.

The Arakan Army had been avoiding soldiers since a series of clashes in late 2015 ended badly for the rebels. Clashes resumed in early 2016 as troops moved into territory where Arakan Army rebels were known to operate. All this was unexpected because the northwest coast has not had as much tribal violence as states to the east. In this case the Arakan Army had help from Kachin State tribal rebels and have become a problem on both sides of the Bangladesh border. The government ordered the army to increase its efforts to destroy the Arakan Army and the successful clashes in late 2015 led to the military working with police to find and arrest the many Arakan Army supporters in the area. Unlike most tribal militias in the north, the Arakan Army was never given official recognition, in large part because the Arakan Army was more of a gangster operation than tribal rebels. All this police activity was unpopular but at least it was less arbitrary and lawless than in the past when soldiers would torture and kill people they picked up. That sort of behavior has always been illegal but few violators were prosecuted. In 2020 those illegal practices returned in a big way as the army sought to shut down the Arakan rebels once and for all.

The government (at the behest of the army) continues to block more foreign aid groups from operating in Rakhine State. The army accuses some foreign aid groups of aiding rebels and Islamic terrorists as well as contradicting government reports of what is going on in the area. There are still some Rohingya refugees in Rakhine State living in camps and supported by local and foreign aid.


Another source of casualties in the north, along the Bangladesh border, are the landmines and booby traps set by both the army and the rebels to make it more difficult to get hit with a surprise attack. There are 20-30 dead or wounded a month from the mines and other explosive traps in the north. Nearly 60 percent of these casualties are in Rakhine State where the AA and army have been fighting for several years now. Most of the landmine casualties are civilians, who often don’t know the army or AA has planted some mines in an area. Both sides do often record and remove mines they have placed. But the point of mines is surprise and civilians travelling through mined areas do so without being warned that mines are there. The mine danger is another reason the army prefers to use artillery to clear civilians out of an area and sometimes to clear mines.

Rohingya Refugees Forever

For three years many (currently 700,000) Burmese Rohingya refugees have been an involuntary presence in Bangladesh. All efforts to get Burma to take them back have failed. Apparently Burma is OK with the refugees becoming a permanent presence just across the border. The refugees were initially welcomed by Bangladesh when they arrived in large numbers during 2017, After about a year the presence of nearly a million displaced Rohingya in an already crowded country became a problem. Most of the Rohingya refugees are in an area called Cox’s Bazaar and their presence tripled the local population. At first the locals were eager to help fellow Moslems, for a few months at least. But that expected short visit has gone on for three years and there is no end in sight. The appearance of the covid19 virus has made the situation worse because the refugee “villages” are more crowded and disorganized than the nearby Bangladeshi towns and villages.

While the virus will pass the growing number of criminal gangs in the camps will not. The gangs specialize in smuggling things in and out of Burma. This is a problem for governments on both sides of the border. The smuggled goods range from consumer items, to drugs, to Chinese weapons to illegal explosives. Recently police seized a truck in Kachin State that crossed the border with 17 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Sales and imports of ammonium nitrate are regulated because this fertilizer can easily (with some fuel oil and a detonator) be turned into a powerful explosive.

There are still 130,000 Rohingya refugees on the Burmese side of border living in camps that are less livable than those in Bangladesh. Refugees on both sides of the border are waiting for an opportunity to return to their homes. Gangs of Burmese Buddhist nationalists still prevent this, as well as attacking any Rohingya returning from Bangladesh. Burma is regularly condemned in the UN for this but with China as an ally, the Chinese UN veto can prevent any serious sanctions against Burma.

October 7, 2020: In the northwest (Sagaing Region, west of Kachin State) NCSN-K (National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang) tribal rebels based in Kachin state, are increasingly hunted on both sides of the border by Indian and Burmese forces that coordinate these operations. This has led to an unprecedented number of Indian tribal rebels, especially leaders, being arrested in northwest Burma and returned to India as per earlier border security agreements.

Indian and Burmese Naga rebels continue to maintain bases on the Burmese side of the border. The Sagaing region has long been used as a refuge for Indian rebels but since early 2019 Indian and Burmese forces have been coordinating efforts to shut down the border camps for good, or at least for a long time. Until early 2020 Indian and Burmese troops would periodically search remote areas on both sides of the border. While this hurt the Naga rebels it did not destroy the rebel groups, who returned to the border area once the troops had ceased their activity. In response Burmese troops began to patrol the area for several months, or as long as it took for India to certify that the Naga rebels have suffered serious and long-term damage. Indian troops were also active on their side of the border to ensure that the Naga rebels, both the Indian and Burmese ones, have nowhere to go and that situation will last so long (several months) that many of rebels will desert and return to their villages. Other rebel groups have been cornered by Indian or Burmese troops and dispersed or destroyed. These clearance operations do not always work exactly as expected because after more than a year of intense border patrols NSCN members are still active on both sides of the border.

Most of the Naga people are Indian but some live in the Burmese far north Sagaing Region and belong to the NSCN which wants to form an independent Nagaland including Indian and Burmese territory and Naga people from both countries. Many of the camps being sought in Sagaing belong to the NSCN-K faction of the NSCN. At the start of 2019 there were believed to be about 5,000 active rebels in NSCN with about ten percent of them Burmese Naga. Operation since then sought to reduce the size of NSCN by a significant amount. These operations are not just going after the NSCN but also smaller groups like the Ulfa-I, NDFB and Manipur rebels.

The Naga are actually about two million people from a collection of tribes that share many ethnic (Burma-Tibetan) characteristics and traditions. About ten percent of the Naga live in Burma but most of the rebel violence occurs in Indian Nagaland. For years the Naga rebels have used bases in Burma to train and rest before returning to fight in India. After much diplomatic pressure the Burmese army finally went after the Naga rebel camps and have now shut most of them down or at least made them very difficult to maintain. The Naga rebels do not fight the Burmese soldiers but always retreat. For this new operation Burmese soldiers have orders to pursue and capture of kill any rebels they encounter. If the rebels head for India the Indian Army is alerted and moves troops into position to confront any rebels crossing the border to escape Burmese troops.

All these border patrols have involved thousands of soldiers and border police in both countries. There have been casualties, but they have been low. The rebels prefer to flee rather than fight but there are occasional clashes often as small groups of rebels seek to slow down troops so that most of the rebels can get away.

October 4, 2020: India is accusing China of tolerating an Indian tribal rebel group ( Ulfa-I) in Yunnan province. While China has tolerated some Burmese Wa State rebel activities in China (Guangxi province), those are mostly of a commercial nature. Burmese rebels buy a lot of weapons and other stuff in China and ship (or smuggle) it into Burma. Guangxi does not border India, Yunnan does and China has claims on large portions of India that border Yunnan.

October 3, 2020: In the north (Shan state) TNLA rebels fired mortar shells into an army camp. This was apparently in retaliation for army operations against the TNLA in the last few days that involved six clashes between troops and rebels. This followed five clashes in September. The TNLA is demanding that the army cease operations against AA rebels in neighboring Rakhine state.

August 28, 2020: Over the last few weeks more roads between Thailand and Burma have been closed and thousands of Thai troops assigned to patrol rural sections of the border and prevent Burmese job seekers from entering Thailand and bringing covid19 with them. Thailand has been more effective at controlling the epidemic and that means Burma, with a lot more infected people, is now the major source of infected people trying to enter Thailand.


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