*

Arakan Army Captures Rakhine State’s Thandwe Airport

Forces of the ethnic armed organization, the Arakan Army (AA), captured the airport in the city of Thandwe, Rakhine State, on Sunday, June 23rd, and are slowly advancing toward Myanmar’s picturesque Ngapali Beach, which is only 4.3 miles (7 km) away from the airport. This airport is reportedly the first to be captured by a resistance group since the start of fighting in 2021.

Reports from the area suggested that the local police surrendered to the AA on Sunday. However, residents of Thandwe told local media that government employees and the police force had abandoned the town, wearing civilian clothes and keeping their issued weapons with them after getting into their vehicles. Another report suggested officials ordered law enforcement to leave the city as the AA advanced in the area, including the guards from the local prison, leaving the fate of the prisoners unknown.

Residents have also fled the town amid fears of possible Junta air strikes or naval bombardments. Flights to and from the airport seem to have been canceled as well.

Residents are evacuating the town of Thandwe due to the fighting. Source: Irrawaddy News

Reports indicate that a force of 100 personnel, mostly Junta soldiers, with some local police, tried to defend the airport and the beach. The AA defeated this defending force, with reports suggesting the surviving soldiers fled to the nearby outposts of the 566th Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) and the 55th Infantry Battalion (IB) in Thandwe. The AA has reportedly begun assaults on both outposts simultaneously, which prompted a response from the Myanmar Air Force and Navy. Clashes seem to be ongoing, although the 566th LIB has reportedly abandoned its base and joined forces with the 55th IB.

The nearest unit to the airport and beach is the 5th Military Operations Command in Taungup; however, this area is reportedly surrounded by rebel forces and thus unable to launch a counterattack.

Ngapali Beach and Thandwe Airport

Ngapali Beach is one of the most famous beaches in Myanmar and a popular tourist destination. The beach is reportedly home to many of Myanmar’s upper class. Many beach resorts and other structures there are owned by the wealthy and represent a portion of their assets. Junta leadership themselves also have property or assets here, which increases the importance of holding this area. For instance, the Amazing Ngapali Hotel is built on land leased by the junta to Aung Myo Min Din, who has connections to junta official Min Aung Hlaing.

The beach is well-known for its natural beauty, local fishing villages, and for being quiet, since it is quite expensive, reserving it mostly as a tourist attraction. Reports also state that it is one of the older beaches in Myanmar.

Photo of Ngapali Beach shoreline. Source: Chris H Munro

The beach is in Rakhine State, along Myanmar’s western coastline, stretching around 4.3 miles (7 km). The airport is around 4.3 miles (7 km) away and is one of the busiest in Myanmar due to the nearby beach and several other attractions. The airport is one of three in Thandwe, with the others in Kyaukpyu and Ann.

The Arakan Army

The AA was founded on April 10th, 2009, and is the military wing of the United Wing of Arakan. The current size of the AA differs, with the ethnic army claiming it has close to 38,000 personnel and experts claiming the AA only has around 15,000 troops, with an additional 1,500 in Kachin and Shan State, respectively. The ethnic army is led by Commander-in-Chief Major General Twan Mrat Naing and Brigadier General Nyo Twan Awng, the deputy commander-in-chief.

The AA seeks to break away from the central government of Myanmar and form an autonomous zone and an “Arakan nation through the ways of Rakhita ideology,” which allows the citizens to “create their future within Myanmar.” The AA makes up part of the Northern Alliance, with the other members being the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

Members of the AA are on the move. Source: AA Info Desk

When the AA began offensive operations, they trained with the KIA; however, the AA began setting up their training camps in 2014. They began carrying out offensives against the Tatmadaw around the early to mid-2010s and currently fight Myanmar’s military government in regions such as Chin, Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states, bordering areas with China and Bangladesh, Magway, and Sagiang regions.

The Effects of Capturing the Airport

The capture of the airport and advance on the beach could affect the Junta in numerous ways, as well as give the resistance groups a small advantage in the ongoing civil war.

The airport has been used by the Junta to regroup and reinforce soldiers and fly in equipment from Ayeyarwady and southern Shan State. This essentially cuts off almost all supply to Junta personnel in Thandwe, as the only other way to get supplies or troops in are two roads that go through the Arakan mountains; Gwa-Ngathaingchaung and Taungup-Padaung. These roads are prone to ambushes against Junta patrols and supply lines, especially due to the rougher terrain in the mountains. Although the Junta has the aerial and naval advantage, having little to no supply lines could result in the remaining Junta soldiers surrendering or escaping.

Thandwe is one of the most crucial towns in southern Rakhine State, due to the location of the beach, nearby airport, and coastal location, as well as being the largest town in the area. Tourism will also be affected as the town clears due to the fighting. The upper class could also be hesitant to return to their properties, as the majority of them have ties and personal connections to the Junta.

Myanmar’s elites could attempt to broker an agreement or treaty with the AA due to the importance of the resorts, beach, and airport to protect their assets, with the only other option being if the Junta manages to retake the airport and the beach or abandon the area altogether. If an agreement is drafted, it is unlikely to stand, as the AA ended a peace treaty brokered with the Junta.

The Junta has been accused of committing war crimes against the ethnic civilian populations of Myanmar, mostly through naval bombardments and airstrikes. Since the AA have captured the airport and continued to move throughout the town of Thandwe, the Junta could carry out more airstrikes, which could result in civilian fatalities and injuries, fueling more resentment toward the Junta, which is already unpopular amongst the population of Myanmar due to widespread reports of war crimes as well as strict conscription laws, as they grow more desperate for more manpower.

The aforementioned conscription laws could also get tighter as the Junta needs more manpower to keep the offensive going.

Losing key positions, such as the airport in Thandwe and outposts, fortifications, towns, and other locations, will also further affect public perception, potentially making the Junta seem incompetent and decrease the confidence it has in the military. The Junta is continuously experiencing setback after setback in a multifront conflict, with the situation slowly growing more desperate for them.

Evan Berridge
Evan Berridge
Evan is an analyst specializing in Indo-Pacific affairs and has over 5 years of experience as a freelance writer.

MORE FROM ATLAS NEWS

Islamic State Claims Deadly Attack in Oman

An Islamic State attack on a Shia Muslim mosque near Oman's capital of Muscat on the evening of July 15th left at least nine killed, including the three terrorists,...

Interview With Former Japanese Defense Minister Points to Increasing Relations with the Philippines

On July 11th, a reporter from Japanese broadcaster NHK interviewed former Japanese Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori about the recent base access agreement signed between the Philippines and Japan. Itsunori...