Bangladeshis living along the short international border with Myanmar have been forced to endure regular disturbances to the peace of their daily lives, particularly in Bandarban where the northern edge of Rakhine nudges it - an area known as Ghumdhum. Mortar shells have landed in Bangladesh territory and not exploded, and there have been calls for a military response commensurate to what are being viewed as 'acts of provocation'. We may be getting the wrong impression. In order to understand what exactly we're dealing with, we need to delve into some of the changing dynamics on the ground in Rakhine.

As is well-known, since independence in 1948, the Myanmar state has never been in full control of all the territory within its borders. We have noted in these pages before, particularly since August 2017, that Rakhine has been an outlier in this regard. There, insurgency largely failed to take root and the state was firmly entrenched. Unlike most other minorities, the ethnic Rakhine attained high-ranking positions in both the military and the civil service, alongside the majority Burmans. But they also harboured deep historical grievances toward the Burmans.

A group of young Rakhine exiles established the Arakan Army in 2009, with the support of the Kachin Independence Army, and quietly built up their forces in northern Myanmar. A brutal war erupted in December 2018. By the time the two sides reached a surprise ceasefire in November 2020, state control had dissipated in much of the centre and north (towards Bangladesh), according to the International Crisis Group, leaving a vacuum that the Arakan Army set out to fill. Over the past year, it has established both a judiciary and police force that are separate from its armed wing, falling under the Arakan People's Authority. The judicial system, in particular, has seen high uptake among Rakhine State residents.

The Arakan Army leadership has sought to build more positive relations with the Rohingya. In particular, its leadership has reframed the Rakhine struggle as a fight with the Burmans, Myanmar's largest ethnic group, and explicitly said the state's Rohingya population should not be seen as the enemy. Arakan Army figures have also articulated a "nation-building" agenda that includes the creation of a more tolerant, inclusive "Arakan" identity that encompasses all groups living in the state, including Muslims. Although they have stopped short of officially endorsing the term "Rohingya", their top leader, Twan Mrat Naing, has used it in interviews.

The Arakan Army's objective of confederacy, if not independence, is anathema to the junta, which has sought to maintain control of the country's border areas. Although the military has largely tolerated the Arakan Army's state-building agenda since the coup, the scale of the undertaking is beginning to provoke stronger pushback from the regime, particularly as the Arakan Army seeks to expand into areas that the military deems strategic, such as the international border. This may well be the key to the spillovers into Bangladesh.

Given the extent of Arakan Army influence in Rakhine, its explicit or tacit approval will likely be required to enable any large-scale organised repatriation of the Rohingya to proceed. In line with its efforts to appeal to the Rohingya and improve its image abroad, Twan Mrat Naing has insisted his group does not oppose repatriation, saying it is "only natural". In early June the Arakan Army rebuffed a junta invitation to peace talks in Naypyidaw, and Tatmadaw began reinforcing its troops throughout Rakhine, leading to the present tensions, according to the US Institutes of Peace.

The emergence of the Arakan Army as a governance actor raises important questions for Bangladesh. The group has long sought to build relations with the Bangladesh government, but Dhaka has rebuffed the overtures. Yet with the armed group in partial or full control of much of the territory the Rohingya refugees on its soil originated from, Dhaka may wish to reconsider that approach.

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