The rather savage war currently being fought in Rakhine and Chin States in western Burma gets little coverage outside of regional media, but is providing examples of how new technology is being used by dissident groups both to spread their message, recruit new fighters, gather intelligence and coordinate their military actions.
Heavy fighting began in January when the Arakan Army went on the offensive against the Tatmadaw, the national army. The lack of access to the remote areas involved in the conflict means that much of the reportage ends up as a game of “he-said-she-said”, with both sides producing their own reports and propaganda whilst refuting that of their opposite. As a result it is difficult to be sure just what is happening in the conflict.
The fight certainly would seem on paper to be a one-sided affair. The Arakan Army was only formed in 2009 by thirty young Rakhine. Its attack on Burma government police positions in January would seem folly, starting a war with the formidable Burmese army and paramilitary police forces. The Tatamadaw is one of the largest army’s in Asia, thought to number over half a million men and with decades of combat experience against ethnic armies that it has been fighting since 1948.
It is also an organisation more than happy to engage in war crimes and genocide, and has been repeatedly criticised for its blatant human rights abuses, with the UN stating that Tatmadaw leaders should be investigated for their crimes.
The Arakan Army (AA), by contrast, can field perhaps 3,000 fighters. Though the AA has been amassing arms and supplies over the last decade, it is still massively outnumbered and has no military infrastructure to supply large forces in the field, being reliant on smuggled logistics from neighbouring countries.
On paper, the fight shouldn’t last long.
But it is.
As said, reliable information on the situation is difficult to acquire. But it looks like the AA is giving the Tatmadaw a run for their money. Employing a two-fold strategy of holding territory with emplaced positions whilst also launching insurgent attacks in Rakhine State against military and police outposts, the AA has claimed to have killed 1,144 Burma Army soldiers in the five months of fighting.
It backs this up by routinely putting pictures of captured Tatmadaw soldiers and equipment on social media.
The Burma Army has responded with a massive troop build-up in Chin and Rakhine, moving in an additional 28,000 military and paramilitary personnel as reinforcements. They have also resorted to using helicopters and artillery, which are frequently blamed for targeting civilians.
Despite this, the AA claims to have had great success in its operations, including killing at least twenty soldiers in an ambush on boats carrying troops and actively targeting senior army officers. Though the Tatmadaw denies these claims, they do admit to having lost a number of high ranking officers in the fighting.
In response, the Tatmadaw has again resorted to the methods it is notorious for – summary arrests and the use of forced labour. This in many ways shows that despite years of supposed counter insurgency warfare, the Tatmadaw is very much a blunt instrument. In fact, the Burma Army’s tactics are already rebounding on them.
An article in the Arakan News spells out that the AA are: ‘…informed by the villagers via Facebook, Twitter, Signal, and Proton Mail accounts where the soldiers are heading, to which locations and…. what times. Then AA fighters…are waiting and attacking them based on the reports; and then run away after many casualties are made.‘
This use of social media and secure internet communications is a well-known phenomenon amongst global terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. But what the AA are doing is providing a textbook demonstration of how to apply this new technology to their dual conventional-guerrilla campaign. Their ability to gather up-to-the-second intelligence on Burma Army troop movements from sympathizers allows them to choose when and where to fight, enabling them to dictate the battle.
That’s how to win.
In contrast the Tatmadaw are relying on their old, unsuccessful methods which do nothing but alienate the population and create further recruits for the AA. Again, the latter are quick to demonstrate the dedication of these new recruits, and their message, via the internet:
Though the war between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw will likely rage for some time, the end result is far from certain. In the space of ten years the AA came from 30 recruits to a force that can defy a major state military and inflict defeats in the field. It’s ability to utilise new technology, in combination with the ancient guerrilla tactics of recruiting support amongst the population, is proving a massive problem for even as powerful a foe as the Tatmadaw.
Ed Nash has spent years travelling around the world and, on occasion, interfering as he sees fit. He has taught English in remote Indian schools, nearly been struck by lightning on horseback in the mountains of Lesotho and worked with ethnic minorities in Burma. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria. His book on his experiences there, “Desert Sniper”, was published by Little, Brown in September, 2018.