A short history of Rakhine State (Myanmar)

By Ali MC | 15 Feb 19
Ali MC

While nearly one million Rohingya people remain stateless in Bangladesh, across the border in their home of Rakhine State, a relatively unknown civil war is flaring up – again. News reports state that fighting between the insurgent group known as the Arakan Army and the Myanmar armed forces have caused around 4,500 civilians to be displaced.

Fighting erupted on 4 January 2019, Myanmar’s Independence Day, when a series of police outposts were attacked. In response, the military launched a number of retaliatory attacks against the ‘rebels’. So, who are the Arakan Army? And what is the fighting all about?

In 2016, when I travelled to Rakhine State, it was relatively open to foreigners. My aim was to learn more about the conflict in the region, in particular the oppression of Rohingya people, but also about the separatist movement by the Arakan Army and related political parties. To better understand the region, one must delve briefly into its history. Prior to British colonisation in 1824, the region once known as Burma was a series of culturally and linguistically diverse independent areas, including the Kachin, the Karen, the Chin, and the Arakan Kingdom (present-day Rakhine).

The Bamar people – who lived in the low lying riverine area on the lower Irrawaddy – were thrust into a position of power by the British due to the policy of indirect rule. This meant that a colonial power would find a particular ethnic group and arm them to dominate and quell any subversion from other ethnic groups. The Bamar (from which the term ‘Burma’ originated) retained power after the collapse of the British Empire in 1948, including the central government and armed forces. Since then, they have remained at war with the various ethnic groups, many of whom continue to fight for independence. Today, the government and military forces remain predominantly made up of ethnic Bamar Buddhists.

Before colonisation, Rakhine used to be known as the Arakan Kingdom, and very much had its own distinct culture. Given its isolation from the rest of Burma, forced by a large mountain range, the area saw a vast amount of trade and migration from the area now known as southern Bangladesh. The two regions are separated only by the River Naf. As such, the Muslim Rohingya – who originated from Bangladesh – had migrated to Arakan for centuries and lived among the Buddhist Arakanese; they married, they had children and lived harmoniously together.

However, the creation of the nation-state ‘Burma’ by the British meant the collapse of the independent Arakan Kingdom, and brought the dominance of the Bamar ethnic group to the region, which was renamed ‘Rakhine’. Today, this dominance continues, and many Arakanese people want independence from the central Myanmar government. This includes both the insurgent Arakan Army and some legitimate political groups such as the Arakan National Party (ANP). Rakhine State is also one of the poorest areas in Myanmar. This is despite the fact that it is rich in natural resources, which are largely siphoned out of the region with little to no return investment, fuelling contemporary resentment and the rise of armed groups such as the Arakan Army.

The stateless Rohingya are caught in such divisive and violent tensions, and sadly, the ethnic divisions resulting from colonisation have meant the Rohingya have no ally in the Buddhist Arakanese. In 2012, 140,000 Rohingya were interned in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps near the capital Sittwe, and were separated into Rohingya-only villages, with strict restrictions placed upon them.

Then, in August 2017, rampant military attacks against Rohingyan villages in the regional areas resulted in the mass exodus across the river into Bangladesh. These attacks have been officially termed a genocide by the United Nations. The recent attacks by the Arakan Army indicate that conflict in the area has not subsided, and may in fact be increasing. And with Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration calling on the Myanmar armed forces to “crush” the Arakan Army after the latest flare up, it would appear that peace in the region is a long way off.