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Myanmar’s shadow government holds talks with powerful Arakan Army

Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) on Monday met for the first time with leaders from the country’s formidable Arakan Army (AA) insurgent group, prompting speculation over an alliance that an analyst said could give the opposition the upper hand over an overextended military.

NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung and Min Ko Naing, the head of its Alliance Relations Committee, held a two-hour meeting via video conference with United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) chairman, Gen. Tun Myat Naing, and Gen. Sec. Nyo Tun Aung. The NUG said in a statement that the two sides discussed “the current political situation in Myanmar.”

“The parties held cordial discussions on the state of the nation and exchanged views,” said the statement, which referred to the Rakhine group as the “ULA/AA-led Rakhine People’s Government.”

“Additionally, the current activities of the National Unity Government were discussed by relevant ministries,” it added, without providing further details.

AA spokesperson Khing Thukha confirmed the meeting in an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service, calling it an “exchange of views” on the political situation in Myanmar more than 15 months after the military took power in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup.

The AA agreed to a ceasefire with Myanmar’s military in late 2020 after around two years of intensive fighting. The ceasefire was tested in February when the military attacked two AA bases in Rakhine state, prompting clashes in the region, sources told RFA at the time. Talks with the NUG, which the junta has labeled a “terrorist organization,” are likely to ruffle feathers in Naypyidaw.

When asked whether the AA expects a resumption of fighting with the military in Rakhine, Khaing Thukha said that time will tell.

“It depends on [the junta’s] actions, and whether they respond militarily or politically,” he said. “We will respond as necessary, depending on their actions.”

Monday’s meeting came a day after the NUG issued a statement marking Rakhine National Day and expressing condolences for “the suffering of the people affected by the military and political conflict in Rakhine state,” and pledging to “work with relevant organizations to bring about justice.”

The shadow government sent a similar message on April 10 to mark the 13th anniversary of the founding of the AA.

Potential shift in power

Political analyst Ye Tun said that if talks between the NUG and the ULA/AA are successful, fighting could resume in Rakhine and shift the nationwide balance of power in favor of the armed resistance, led by the NUG-aligned People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitary group.

“If renewed fighting occurs there, the military will have to extend its forces even further to deal with a new battlefront,” he said.

“It would not be able to mobilize and attack in one place, so the PDFs would enjoy a slight advantage over the other fronts.”

Ye Tun noted that the AA has yet to respond to an invitation to peace talks last month from junta chief, Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. He said the ethnic Rakhine army would not attend if it pursues an alliance with the NUG.

Earlier this month, the country’s four most powerful ethnic armed groups — the Kachin Independence Organisation, the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Chin National Front— all rejected the invitation, saying that by not offering the NUG and the PDF the chance to participate, the junta showed it is unwilling to meet halfway.

The NUG has reportedly made overtures to the AA in the past.

On April 16, ULA/AA Chairman Tun Myat Naing tweeted that the NUG had “invited us to join hands” in the aftermath of the coup, but the AA chose not to respond because “we had our own agenda to pursue.”

Fierce fighting erupted between the military and the AA in December 2018 under deposed National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, but the two sides brokered a ceasefire in November 2020 and the region had been largely quiet since.

However, on May 15 this year, the AA announced that the junta had undermined the agreement and said clashes with the military “could occur at any time” in Rakhine state.

Ten armed ethnic groups have signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government since 2015 and have suggested that the deal remains in place, despite an already flailing peace process that was all but destroyed by the unpopular junta’s coup. Previously, all 10 said they would not pursue talks with the military, which they view as having stolen power from the country’s democratically elected government.

The military has made 12 invitations to the country’s armed ethnic groups since the coup, but the April offering marked the first time Min Aung Hlaing said he would attend.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.