An informal ceasefire has created the best opportunity in two years to curb fighting between Myanmar and the Arakan Army, the ethnic Rakhine rebels in the country’s north. To seize it, all three of the military, civilian government and insurgency need to make significant concessions.
What’s new? Following vote cancellations in conflict-affected areas of Rakhine state during the 8 November general election, Japan has helped broker an informal ceasefire between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army in order to hold supplementary elections. Both sides say they are in favour, but the civilian government is reluctant.
Why does it matter? The initiative has halted almost two years of intense fighting and enabled dialogue to resume for the first time since December 2019. Negotiations over elections could be a stepping stone to a formal ceasefire, but the process remains fragile, particularly without civilian government buy-in.
What should be done? The Arakan Army should release three National League for Democracy candidates it has detained. The civilian government should support elections and – if the Arakan Army lets the captives go – drop its designation as a terrorist organisation. The Tatmadaw should stop insisting that the Arakan Army leave Rakhine under a ceasefire.
Negotiations between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army in the wake of the 8 November general election have created the best opportunity in two years to scale back fighting in Rakhine state. The Japan-brokered talks, which are aimed at holding supplementary elections by late January 2021 in Rakhine constituencies where the electoral commission cancelled voting on security grounds, have temporarily halted fighting, enabled tens of thousands of displaced people to return home and brought the sides back to the negotiating table. Holding elections within such a limited timeframe will be a major challenge, however, requiring political will from not only the military and Arakan Army, but also the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which has so far been reluctant. But elections should not be seen as make or break: even if voting cannot happen in January, there is an opportunity to build on dialogue and reach a formal ceasefire in Myanmar’s worst conflict in decades. To seize it, all three of the military, government and Arakan Army will need to make significant concessions.
The general election delivered a landslide victory for the NLD, which now has an even stronger parliamentary majority for its second term. In war-torn Rakhine state, however, close to three quarters of voters did not get to cast their ballots after the Union Election Commission (a government-appointed body) cancelled voting in many townships on security grounds. In the days after the election, Japan’s special envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa, engineered a surprise diplomatic breakthrough, with the Arakan Army and the military issuing choreographed statements within hours of each other calling for elections to be held in areas where they had been cancelled. Most importantly, these statements marked the beginning of a de facto ceasefire between the two groups that has held since.
"In the days after the election, Japan’s special envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa, engineered a surprise diplomatic breakthrough"
Both the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army, an armed group formed in 2009 that is made up predominantly of Rakhine Buddhists, have reasons to pause their combat. After two years of intense fighting, the ceasefire offers welcome respite for their forces. But both also have political goals: a few months away from retirement, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing has his eyes on his political future, while the Arakan Army leadership wants to enhance its legitimacy and consolidate its gains through negotiations.
The elections have thus been a useful device for resuming talks – a prospect that previously seemed out of reach due to the government’s designation of the Arakan Army as a terrorist organisation in March and the insurgents’ abduction of three NLD candidates in October. Yet organising elections by the end of January will prove extremely challenging, both logistically and politically. The main obstacle is the civilian government, which trusts neither the Tatmadaw nor the Arakan Army and is wary of handing either group what could be perceived as a political victory so soon after its own election win. If elections are to happen in time, the military and the insurgents will have to convince the government that the vote is in its interests, too.
Regardless of whether voting goes ahead, the present situation has created a vital space for dialogue. The face-to-face meeting between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army in early December was an important symbolic step, especially given the group’s terrorist designation. Fortuitously, this step comes at a time when the freshly re-elected NLD government is looking to reinvigorate the national peace process after a disappointing first term in which it made little progress. In the election’s aftermath, it has floated the idea of a national unity government and begun to engage with the Tatmadaw’s newly formed peace process negotiating team. Given the Arakan Army’s alliances with armed groups that are not party to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and the fact that the conflict in Rakhine is by far the country’s deadliest, the trajectory of the entire peace process hinges largely on whether the military and the government can reach a bilateral ceasefire with this particular armed group.
The present opening remains fragile and fraught with risk. The personal enmity between State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing is likely to make progress difficult, particularly given the uncertainty over the commander’s political future. The NLD’s landslide win in the November election also complicates negotiations, as some on the party’s Central Executive Committee believe their emphatic victory means there is little need to make concessions to either the military or ethnic minorities like the Rakhine.
To make the most of this opportunity and pull Rakhine state back from the brink:
The Arakan Army and Tatmadaw should be realistic in their demands around the holding of elections – it seems overly ambitious, for example, to push for the vote to be held in all nine townships in their entirety.
The NLD government should put aside political considerations and help ensure that elections take place in at least some locations – provided they can be held safely – in order to improve prospects for a ceasefire. It should also continue its initial coordination with the new military negotiating team on the future of the peace process, particularly regarding talks with the Arakan Army.
To build trust with the civilian government, the Tatmadaw should drop its investigation into the integrity of the November election and stop publicly criticising the Union Election Commission.
As a show of good-will and to give greater credibility to its commitment to support the polls, the Arakan Army should release the three NLD candidates it abducted in mid-October. The government and military could reciprocate by removing the group from its list of terrorist organisations, in order to support peace negotiations with both the Arakan Army and other ethnic armed groups.
As negotiations progress, the Tatmadaw should relax its previous insistence that the Arakan Army leave Rakhine state under any bilateral ceasefire deal – a demand that would jeopardise any prospects for a peaceful solution.