Arakan Army Rapid Modernization: Weapons Advancement against Tatmadaw

Indian intelligence agencies have reported the increasing use of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology by the Arakan Army (AA) to trigger landmines against the Myanmar government and military. Remote-detonated explosive devices are not a new technique but has been a new technological advancement of AA. Landmines have been reported on the Myanmar-Bangladeshi border in Rakhine State. The location of landmines is of high concern to the Indian government because it is a threat to the Kaladan Project. The Kaladan Project is active in Mizoram, which focuses on connecting Myanmar and India through sea and land routes. The Myanmar military, Tatmadaw, have used jammers to neutralize the threats of landmines but have stated that they are not 100% effective.

The advancement of weapons used by ethnic and insurgent groups in Southeast Asia is also not new. In May 2019, the police discovered a militant group aligned with the Islamic State, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) using Wi-Fi activated backup trigger bombs in Indonesia. Furthermore, it was discovered that the same explosives used by JAD were also used by the Islamic State in Paris, Brussels, and Sri Lanka. The AA has made several claims that they are not affiliated with outside terrorist organizations, however the group works in close relations with many other groups under the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance is a coalition of ethnic armies which includes, Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta-ang Liberation Army, and Arakan Army. While each group is its own separate entity, they work together to keep each other equipped and organized. Previously, the AA has been trained by the Kachin Independence Army to use Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Myanmar.

In 2019 alone, the Arakan Army has made rapid technological improvements to increase Tatmadaw casualties. On Friday, January 4, 2019 the AA carried out coordinated assaults on four posts with new machine guns and sniper rifles as opposed to reliance on homemade crude IEDs and small arms. This not only displays the group's ability to attack multiple posts but also on the advancement of weapons. It is unclear where the fighters obtained their weapons. On Monday, March 18, 2019, the AA conducted a highway ambush on an Army convoy near Mahamuni temple using small-arms and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). The ambush shows the confidence of the AA to coordinate a close-quarter attack as well as using RPGs to increase casualties and destruction in the area. On Monday, May 13, 2019, the group conducted an attack in Ann Township with landmines that were placed under military convoys. The attack on the Myanmar Army troops is significant because it was one of the few attacks where a remotely detonated landmine was used. The group’s use of remote detonated landmines occurred roughly the same week as JAD used their Wi-Fi backed bomb in Indonesia. The next week following this attack on Wednesday, May 22, 2019 the Arakan Army used another landmine, however the bomb did not injure government or police officials, but injured four villagers and killed a 10 year old girl. While the AA claims to not use landmines where civilians can be harmed this attack proves otherwise. There has been an uptick since May and intelligence reports state that the insurgent group has set up camps in Lawngtlai District, Mizoram, India.

Within a short amount of time the Arakan Army has separated itself from using homemade IEDs and small arms to using machine guns, sniper rifles, and landmines. The use of landmines are dangerous because it has proved to the group that they can increase the amount of casualties of the opposing force without sacrificing their own personnel. After the introduction of landmines to the Arakan Army, the attacks continued to become more violent and largely scaled. In the months between June and August, the Arakan rebels focused their targets on larger vehicles and equipment, such as Navy Vessels and jets of the Myanmar military.

It is not clear where the AA is receiving their assistance from to modernize their weapons. Possible options are the support of the Islamic State and/or the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The Islamic State is a possibility with their increased presence in Southeast Asia and with other surrounding regions that are influenced by the Islamic State to modernize weapons. The United Wa State Army is another possible contributor. On Saturday, June 22, 2019 the Arakan rebels fired at least three Chinese-produced 107mm surface-to-surface rockets at a military jet, most likely purchased from UWSA in Northeastern Myanmar. Like the Arakan Army, UWSA is fighting for its own autonomy, this common goal may link the two groups together. Images capture the members of the Arakan Army in Kyauktaw Township that seem to be holding a Chinese made 107mm rocket. While there is not full certainty on the type of weapons the rebels are holding, the rockets are very similar and displays the use of weapons that may create further destruction.

The modernization of weapons by the Arakan Army is dangerous because of the difficulty for the Myanmar military, government, and police forces to counter it. While the government uses signal jammers to eliminate the threat of landmines using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, it is only a solution to defeat the problem instead of preventing the issue. Furthermore, the modernization of weapons by the Arakan Army may expand the capabilities of other groups within the Northern Alliance to implement the same techniques and create more destruction within the region. As seen in the landmine explosion that injured four villagers and a 10 year old girl, the use of landmines may increase civilian casualties. Future implications may occur between Myanmar and Bangladesh concerning the reports of landmines on the border in Rakhine State. Under the International Mine Ban landmines are illegal, however Myanmar is one of 32 countries where they have yet to ratify the treaty. On the other hand Bangladesh has signed the treaty. If a landmine injures or kills those residing in Bangladesh, it will not only increase tensions between the AA and Bangladesh but also put strain further tensions with Myanmar. The dangerous combination of the insurgent group to modernize their weapons and expand their camps outside of where their usual pattern of attacks are conducted is an indicator that the group is spreading its reach outside of Rakhine State.

The map above displays the frequent location of attacks and camps of the Arakan Army. The primary locations that the groups focuses on is Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Buthidaung, Kaladan River, and Paletwa, however recently the Arakan Army has set up several camps in Lawngtlai district. The insurgent group may have set up camps in Lawngtlai district to increase their presence to destroy outsider influence, India in this case, with the Kaladan Project. The group may see India as a threat for greater regional autonomy or may see the Myanmar government as forming closer relations with India to gain more support, which may later have the capability to defeat the Arakan Army together. While the Myanmar Army has taken countermeasures to remove Arakan Army camps, the continuing violence between the two parties has destroyed innocent civilians lives and have displaced many villagers. Peace talks between the insurgent group and the Myanmar government has always been in the works but have never reached an agreement on a bilateral cease-fire.

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor the rapid modernization of weapons of the Arakan Army. The PACOM Team is keeping a watchful eye on further local news reports to keep up with new weapons the insurgent group may be using. Furthermore, we are making connections on similar weapons that are being used in Southeast Asia will answer questions on whether the Arakan Army is receiving assistance from other terrorist organizations or country to fund and supply weapons. The CTG recommends all villagers in the region to be vigilant of their surroundings for landmines. They may be placed under vehicles or in entrances and exits to military and government associated buildings. A landmine may be detected if a small area looks like it has been recently dug up or an area may seem to be concealed by rocks or large amounts of grass or dirt. Finally, the CTG recommends all local police personnel to educate locals on how to detect landmines.

1. Myanmar Military Says Remote Landmines Pose Major Threat in Rakhine, The Irrawaddy, September 2019.

2. Giga-hurts radio: Terrorists build Wi-Fi bombs to dodge cops’ cell phone jammers, The Register, May 2019.

3. Ibid.

4. Rebel Buddhists Form Arakan Army Against Myanmar Army for ‘Liberation’, The Citizen, January 2019.

5. Rebel Buddhists Form Arakan Army Against Myanmar Army for ‘Liberation’, The Citizen, January 2019.

6. Why Myanmar is losing the Rakhine war, AsiaTimes, July 2019.

7. Fighting Spreads as AA Attacks Army Convoy in S. Rakhine, The Irrawaddy, May 2019.

8. Myanmar Military Says Remote Landmines Pose Major Threat in Rakhine, The Irrawaddy, September 2019.

9. Myanmar insurgent group using 'Bluetooth' to trigger landmines, Indian agencies worried, The ZeeNews India, September 2019.

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