An Eye Witness to Political Troubles in Rakhine (Arakan)

Water Featival

K. Naing, pseudonym for an activist and writer, has written for Opposition International and a reflection on the political and social tensions in Rakhine as manifested through the recent Water Festival. The account is personal, yet holds significance as a sign as to how far advanced the disassembly of Myanmar has progressed. We welcome the contribution. Before reading Naing’s statement, some context is provided.

Oppositon International seeks a contribution as to what this means what’s officially left of the Opposition after severe new restrictions by the military junta.

The situation in Rakhine more closely resembles a civil war than a political contest between the government and the opposition. The endgame is how, not if, Myanmar (Burma) returns to its pre-colonial decentralized and fluid duchies, for lack of a better word. It is not the end of Burma rather of the transformation of a post-colonial centralized military bureaucracy from sole owner to primus inter pares. A regime steeped in the ways of the past has not kept up with the expectations of the people. Much the same holds true across the Mekong Delta.

The state of Rakhine is leading the trend towards breakaway states. Kyaw Hsan Haling has written a seminal piece on the growing administrative role of the Arakan Army. It is a featured cotribution from the South East Asia unit of the Stimson Center

In the 15th century, a Muslim dynasty was known as the Mrauk-U Kingdom ruled over Rakhine for several centuries, during which time Islam flourished in the region. Muslim traders from the Middle East, India, and Bengal also played an important role in the economy of Rakhine and contributed to its cultural diversity.

However, in the 20th century, the relationship between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine became increasingly strained. In the aftermath of World War II, tensions between the two communities led to violence and displacement, and the government implemented policies that limited the rights of the Rohingya Muslim minority

A key paragraph from Haling’s Understanding the Arakan Army reads as follows,

Three months before the coup, in November 2020, Rakhine had agreed to an informal ceasefire after being at war for more than two years, starting in late 2018. More than 230,000 civilians were displaced, while nearly 1,000 were seriously injured or killed by artillery shelling, gunshots, and landmine explosions, including more than 170 children. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government also imposed what was then the world’s longest internet shutdown and disenfranchised three-fourths of Rakhine State’s eligible voters, ostensibly because of the conflict.

Out of the turmoil has re-emerged the dream of an Arakan state -“the Golden Dream.”

K. Naing (pseudonym)

Reflection on Water Festival Why it Matters

Water Festival in Rakhine: Why it matters?

Thingyan is a water festival celebrated by all ages annually in Myanmar and its neighbouring countries. The celebration lasts 4 to 5 days depending on the year. It is followed by new year. On the new year, the Burmese people would visit their elders and pay respect and donate food among other. Given the political and conflict situation, activists have called to observe the festival quietly in solidarity with villagers and resistant fighters who are indiscriminately attacked and bombed, instead of active participation which involves visiting places just to get water-sprayed and to water others during the day and going to places of entertainment at night. As result, many have boycotted to participate actively in Junta led water festival. 

During the festival period, a lot of Facebook users circulate photos of empty streets and tents or stages. But there were photos coming out of Rakhine State that shows celebration of water festival in full swing. Some has criticised the celebration as disrespectful to those who have sacrificed their lives for democracy and others have gone further to even claimed them to be a piece of propaganda from military junta. While it is important that we are persistent in our fight against military junta in every possible way, we must also be able to see accomplishment that each group contributed to the revolution. In this case, the celebration of water festival was organized by Arakan Army (AA) in their control area. 

AA has expanded its control throughout Rakhine state piece by piece from the beginning of its operation. Today, the experts estimated that it has controlled 60 to 75% of Rakhine state. In some townships, it has also established its own administration and judiciary. 

There are also celebrations held in the capital city of Sittwewhere festivalgoers are minimum because some residents have decided to rather celebrate at home with friends and families in solidarity with revolution than public places organized by military junta. 

Historically, Tatmadaw has never tolerated any cultural activities or event organized by its opponents especially ethnic armed groups. In 2022, Tatmadaw launched indiscriminate airstrike on a music concert held to honour of the founding of Kachin Independent Organization, leaving 60 people dead and 200 injured. Early this year, the military also conducted bomb raids on Chin National Front headquarter for training and accommodating local resistant fighters known as ChinlandDefence Force and People Defence Force. There are many examples of intolerant behaviour of Tatmadaw against people or group whom it considered enemies. 

So, what does celebration of water festival organized by AA in Rakhine tell us? It was Tatmadaw that has advocated the government of Myanmar to declare AA as terrorist group in 2020 and removed from the very same list in 2021. Why is Tatmadaw tolerating AA? How can bitter-sweet attitude of Tatmadaw can be explained? 

Obviously, one of the reasons is that Tatmadaw is losing its territorial control. Due to resistant groups across the country, there are places where Tatmadaw is forced to take defensive position. For example, in Chin State, Tatmadaw conducted bomb raids killings innocent civilians in the name of clearance operation, but it would not go after combatants of CDF and CNF because they know that doing so will only benefit the latter. And, the CNF has claimed to control 70% of its territory. There were also incidents where lower ranking officers defied order to launch military campaign against Karen National Union (KNU) and PDF in Karen State. Since the military coup in 2021, the KNU has also expanded its controlled territories in Pago Region, Mon State and Karen State. In addition, PDFs are running public schools and health service in the rural areas of Magwe and Sagaing regions. 

In recent Al Jazeera’s interview, Zaw Min Tun spokesman for military junta admitted that the Tatmadaw only control 60% of its total territory and refused to give an exact date for upcoming General Election. 

Thus, the photos of celebration of water festival provides important claims made by ethnic armed groups and PDFs. There are growing evidence that resistant groups are gaining grounds and exercising affective control of their territories. Unlike water festival organized by illegitimate government, the people of Rakhine were seen happily participating in festival organized and led by AA. In short, control and legitimacy are of the people.