In the game of geopolitics, perhaps the most important rule is 'self-interest first'. Every actor sought their own interest in Rakhine, making the situation more complex for the oppressed Rohingyas.
The Myanmar Army's conflict with the Rohingya population is not very old; it began in 1982 when their citizenship was revoked. But Rohingya's conflict with the Rakhine community has a decades-long history. The conflict arises from the religious and social differences between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
During World War II, Rohingya Muslims, who were allied with the British fought against local Rakhine Buddhists, who had formed an alliance with the Japanese. Following independence in 1948, the newly formed union government of the predominantly Buddhist country subjecting Rohingyas to extensive systematic discrimination in the country.
In the present day, Rohingya people are not demanding for an independent Rakhine State, all they are asking for is citizenship and the right to live in their motherland. But the Arakan Army's (AA) prime objective is an independent Arakan State, threatening Myanmar's territorial integrity. This is where Myanmar Junta miscalculated.
In the 1992 and 2012's ethnic conflict between Rohingya and Arakanese Buddhists, Myanmar military supported the Buddhists. In 2017's 'mass clearance' operation by the Myanmar army, to push all the Rohingyas outside the Myanmar territory, Arakanese Buddhists participated. About a million Rohingyas were forced to leave their motherland, something the UN Human Rights termed as, 'a textbook example of ethnic cleansing'.
Rakhine Buddhists were happy to expel the Rohingyas from the Rakhine state. Before the 2017 cleansing, Rakhine had a population where 63.3% people were Buddhist, 35.1% Muslim, 1.2% Christian, 0.3% Hindu and 0.1% followed Animism. Clearly, there were only two vital groups, Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
Currently, most Rohingyas are confined in camps in Bangladesh. As a result, in the Rohingya-free Rakhine province, the Rakhine people now enjoy a majority of around 80%. This situation has heightened the Rakhine nation's dream of an independent country. It is clear that the Myanmar Army made a strategic mistake by expelling the Rohingyas.
There are now only two sides on the field. The Rakhine ethnic group, under the banner of the Arakan Army, faces the Myanmar army in an empty field void of the Rohingya.
The Arakan Army has currently cut off all of the three roads linking Rakhine State with the rest of Myanmar and the Army brings logistics by sea. AA is skilled in mountain guerilla tactics and also has advanced drones. Reports claim that Myanmar Junta has lost almost 37 outposts in Rakhine to the AA.
AA has the dedicated support and cooperation of the local community. Almost all Rakhine Buddhists support them. Arakan Army control has also been established over the Indian Kaladan project. They are so confident that they have urged Bangladesh to talk to them to resolve the Rohingya crisis. AA believes that if their tactical advantage prolongs, the Myanmar army will be forced to retreat and the international community will support them out of their own interests, like they did in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The expulsion of the Rohingyas has clearly benefited the Arakan Army. If the Rohingya were in the Rakhine province, the Arakan Army might not have found this an empty field. Moreover, if the Rohingyas had citizenship, the ratio of Rakhine to Rohingya in Rakhine province today would be around 60:40. As a result, the Rakhines, being only half the population, could not stake claims for an independent country based on their ethnic identity.
It is uncertain whether Rakhine will be independent. It depends on AA's control over the territory. If 100 percent of the population and armed groups active in a region do not obey the central government, that region is likely to fall out of the hands of the central government today or tomorrow. That will be a disaster for Myanmar.
As a neighbouring country, Bangladesh, India, China etc cannot just sit and watch. If this happens in Rakhine, this will encourage many insurgent groups in these countries to dream of the same. In fact, the whole region will be unstable.
To save Rakhine, to save Myanmar's territorial integrity, there is only one path for the Myanmar government, and that is to repatriate Rohingyas to Rakhine, return their citizenship and create a balance there. It's a now or never situation for the Junta.
Md. Mustakim Ahmed is Associate Professor and freelance writer.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.