The Arakan Army, an insurgent group whose activities have severely affected the India-backed Kaladan multimodal transport project in Myanmar, has benefited from the clandestine transfer and smuggling of Chinese-made weaponry, people familiar with the developments said on Wednesday.
The group, designated a terrorist organisation by Naypyitaw, clashed with Myanmarese troops on nearly 600 occasions last year, and a majority of the skirmishes took place in close proximity to the $480 million Kaladan project. There have also been at least four instances of Arakan Army cadre targeting the shipments of materials for the infrastructure project, or attacking Myanmar troops providing security to the project, the people said on condition of anonymity. In 2019, just as a key phase of the Kaladan project was nearing completion in Rakhine and Chin states, the Arakan Army shifted its area of operations there, they added.
“The Arakan Army has always kept its anti-Kaladan activities below a certain threshold to not raise the ante. But its activities have had the overall impact of severely impeding the execution of the project,” one of the people cited above said.
India and Myanmar are currently working to operationalise Sittwe port by early next year as part of the massive transport and transit project that will connect with Kolkata port and help in moving goods to the landlocked northeastern states via Kaladan river.
On June 23, the Thai military seized a consignment of Chinese-made weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles, in Mae Sot district bordering Myanmar’s Karen state. The weapons, worth 30 million baht (almost $1 million), were meant to be supplied to the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), both active in Rakhine, the people said.
There are also reports that another large consignment of Chinese-made weapons was smuggled into Rakhine state via Monakhali beach near the junction of Myanmar and Bangladesh in the third week of February this year. “This illicit flow of Chinese-made weaponry into Myanmar poses a threat to regional security, and has implications for the Kaladan project. There are strong suspicions that China is orchestrating the actions of the ethnic armed groups in Myanmar to further its objectives,” said a second person from the security establishment.
The people said there were growing signs that Myanmar’s military is acting to curb China’s influence, and has had a hand in cancelling or curtailing projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The $3.6-billion Myitsone dam project remains suspended, while the Kyaukpyu port project was scaled down.
Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said it appeared China was trying to undermine the viability of the Kaladan project after being unable to convince Myanmar to give up on it.