Rakhine Vi­o­lence Threat­ens Myan­mar’s Sta­bil­ity.

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Contents - LARRY JAGAN

Herewe look at the back­ground to the ten­sions and examine the gov­ern­ment’s plans to re­duce the un­der­ly­ing causes of the con­flict. The rec­om­men­da­tions of the Kofi An­nan Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion on Rakhine are the ba­sis of the gov­ern­ment’s re­cently an­nounced plan of ac­tion. In­sur­gent at­tacks and the mil­i­tary’s re­sponse in Myan­mar’s trou­bled west­ern province of Arakan is threat­en­ing to desta­bilise the coun­try and throw the gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to strength­en­ing democ­racy and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment off track. The United Na­tions has re­peat­edly de­manded that the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment hold the mil­i­tary ac­count­able for al­leged wide­spread hu­man rights abuses in Rakhine and to take con­crete steps to ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing causes of the con­tin­ued com­mu­nal vi­o­lence.

Since late Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to the UN, more than half-a-mil­lion Mus­lim vil­lagers have fled across the border into neigh­bour­ing Bangladesh to es­cape the vi­o­lence. The army’s com­man­der-in-chief, Se­nior Gen­eral U Min Aung Hlaing though ar­gues these fig­ures are se­verely in­flated, and that many are not refugees but Bangladeshis re­turn­ing home. He also de­nies that they are es­cap­ing from the Tat­madaw or army’s op­er­a­tions, and in­sists Mus­lim ag­i­ta­tors have in­duced them to bolt.

Com­mu­nal ten­sions be­tween the ma­jor­ity lo­cal Bud­dhist Arakanese and the Mus­lims in the area have been sim­mer­ing for decades. Although most of these Mus­lim vil­lagers call them­selves Ro­hingya, the gov­ern­ment re­fuses to recog­nise them as such, and refers to them as Ben­galis in­stead, in­sist­ing they are in­ter­lop­ers from across the border, although many have lived in Myan­mar for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions.

Com­mu­nal ten­sions in Arakan have pe­ri­od­i­cally erupted into vi­o­lence, over the past few decades. The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion dates from mid2012, when the first re­cent in­ci­dent of killings oc­curred. Thou­sands of Mus­lim houses were burnt to the ground in the aftermath, mainly by lo­cal Bud­dhist vil­lagers, as the mil­i­tary and po­lice stood by and watched, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights ac­tivists.

The mil­i­tary even­tu­ally brought the sit­u­a­tion un­der con­trol, which was dur­ing the pre­vi­ous regime of Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein. But as a re­sult of the dev­as­ta­tion most of the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion was herded into camps, where they have re­lied on the UN for food and shel­ter. This of course only in­creased the Ro­hingya’s griev­ances. And left a smoul­der­ing vol­cano of re­sent­ment and in­jus­tice, ready to erupt.

Since the first in­sur­gent at­tacks on sev­eral of Myan­mar’s po­lice border guard posts last Oc­to­ber, left more than nine guards dead, ten­sion and vi­o­lence has fes­tered. The in­sur­gents, call­ing them­selves the Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army (ARSA), claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Oc­to­ber raids on the po­lice posts. Ac­cord­ing to the group’s un­ver­i­fied Twit­ter ac­count, they are fight­ing to ad­vance the rights of the Ro­hingya,

but have con­tin­ued to deny that they have killed civil­ians.

Ac­cord­ing to sev­eral Asian in­tel­li­gence sources some 300 Ro­hingya may have un­der­gone for­eign-funded train­ing -- us­ing au­to­matic ri­fles – in­side Myan­mar. This is a rel­a­tively new phe­nom­e­non, ac­cord­ing to the in­tel­li­gence sources. Be­fore last Oc­to­ber’s at­tacks, Myan­mar in­tel­li­gence sources be­lieved that at least 200 Ro­hingya had pe­ri­od­i­cally slipped into neigh­bour­ing Bangladesh since early 2013 for train­ing – in po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion, ad­vo­cacy and self de­fence, in­clud­ing the use of arms, funded by Saudi bene­fac­tors.

But the sit­u­a­tion in Rakhine was cer­tainly acer­bated by the mil­i­tary’s re­sponse, when they launched a bloody crack­down to re­store law and or­der. Hun­dreds of houses were razed to the ground. And refugees be­gan to cross into Bangladesh: more than 70,000 Mus­lim vil­lagers fled across the border to Bangladesh in the wake of the Oc­to­ber at­tacks, ac­cord­ing to the UN.

The UN hu­man rights en­voy for Myan­mar, Pro­fes­sor Yanghee Lee re­ported ear­lier this year -- af­ter con­duct­ing in­ter­views in Rakhine and among refugees in Bangladesh -- that there were cred­i­ble ac­counts of sys­tem­atic rape, mur­der and ar­son at the hands of soldiers. Sev­eral sub­se­quent UN mis­sions since then have ac­cused the mil­i­tary of be­ing re­spon­si­ble cre­at­ing a sit­u­a­tion, and con­cluded that it may even have amounted to “eth­nic cleans­ing”, and war­ranted fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion. As a re­sult the UN hu­man rights coun­cil de­cided in March to send a high-level in­ter­na­tional fact-find­ing team to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther. But the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment has con­sis­tently re­buffed this move, in­sist­ing they were in­ves­ti­gat­ing the al­le­ga­tions of abuse them­selves.

Both the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary com­man­der have stren­u­ously de­nied all al­le­ga­tions lev­eled against the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Rakhine. More re­cently the au­thor­i­ties have ac­cused sup­port­ers of the in­sur­gents of mur­der­ing and ab­duct­ing dozens of vil­lagers, who they say are per­ceived as gov­ern­ment col­lab­o­ra­tors. They also ac­cuse the Ro­hingya at­tack­ers of killing hun­dreds of Hin­dus and eth­nic Myo in the past few weeks.

Over a year ago, the gov­ern­ment set up the Kofi An­nan Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion on Rakhine, in re­sponse to grow­ing in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism, in­clud­ing nu­mer­ous UN hu­man rights re­ports. The UN rap­por­teur had made sev­eral in­ves­tiga­tive trips to Arakan since the prob­lems erupted afresh in 2012 -- at least twice a year – and has con­tin­ued to re­peat­edly raise se­ri­ous con­cerns about the hu­man rights sit­u­a­tion there.

The Com­mis­sion was led by the for­mer sec­re­tary gen­eral of the UN, Kofi An­nan and in­cluded two other in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights ex­perts, along with six prom­i­nent lo­cal mem­bers, with in­ti­mate knowledge of Rakhine and its prob­lems. Af­ter a year of re­search and de­lib­er­a­tions, they an­nounced their rec­om­men­da­tions on 25 Au­gust this year – though they had is­sued an in­terim re­port six months ear­lier. The fi­nal rec­om­men­da­tions in­cluded both short-term and longterm reme­dies to re­solve the un­der­ly­ing causes of the com­mu­nal con­flict. The gov­ern­ment im­me­di­ately adopted all the rec­om­men­da­tions and vowed to come up with a roadmap for their im­ple­men­ta­tion.

But be­fore the gov­ern­ment could act, the cur­rent mass ex­o­dus of Ro­hingya refugees started as a re­sult of the lat­est and most se­vere out­break of vi­o­lence, which started the morn­ing af­ter the Kofi An­nan Com­mis­sion an­nounced its rec­om­men­da­tions. To the co­in­cide with the an­nounce­ment, the ARSA launched a well planned and co­or­di­nated at­tack on more than thirty border se­cu­rity posts, leav­ing scores dead. There has been a mas­sive mil­i­tary mob­bing up op­er­a­tion since then as the gov­ern­ment forces at­tempted in their words “to re­store law and or­der”.

Far from halt­ing the flight of refugees, this seemed to spur an even greater flood of Ro­hingya refugees across the border. More than three thou­sand houses have been de­stroyed, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights groups mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion and in­ter­na­tional non­govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions work­ing on the ground in Rakhine. Most of the refugees in Bangladesh, in in­ter­views with the UN, hu­man rights ac­tivists and the me­dia, ac­cuse the Myan­mar mil­i­tary of burn­ing down their vil­lages. The Myan­mar gov­ern­ment, how­ever ac­cuse the in­sur­gents and flee­ing Ro­hingya of set­ting light to their homes.

Un­for­tu­nately there is no in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Un­til re­cently the gov­ern­ment has made it dif­fi­cult for diplo­mats and the me­dia to visit the area, ever since last year’s vi­o­lence. Re­cently the gov­ern­ment has al­lowed lim­ited ac­cess, con­duct­ing chap­er­oned trips for diplo­mats and jour­nal­ists – though they re­main very re­stricted.

The heart-wrench­ing pic­tures and videos of the refugees in Bangladesh and the dev­as­ta­tion in Rakhine it­self, has spawned a mas­sive in­ter­na­tional out­cry. And al­most overnight, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from prodemoc­racy icon to vil­lain. Fel­low No­bel Peace lau­re­ates have crit­i­cised her for her ap­par­ent si­lence, in­clud­ing calls to re­scind her peace prize. Other awards in­clud­ing the free­dom of Lon­don have been re­voked.

But this wave of sym­pa­thy for the Ro­hingya refugees has con­cealed the com­plex­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion in Rakhine, and the deep-seated mis­trust be­tween the two main com­mu­ni­ties – Bud­dhists and Mus­lims. It has also ob­scured the dif­fi­cult po­si­tion Aung San Suu Kyi is in, as she tries to bal­ance both the mil­i­tary and the na­tion­al­ist Bud­dhist move­ment, Ma Ba Tha or the As­so­ci­a­tion to Pro­tect Race and Re­li­gion.

Aung San Suu Kyi is in an im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion in terms of public opin­ion – she can­not be seen to openly sup­port the Rakhine Mus­lims, for fear of alien­at­ing the ma­jor­ity of the coun­try’s dom­i­nant Myan­mar eth­nic group – the Ba­mar. This an­tipa­thy has in­ten­si­fied af­ter the at­tacks by the ARSA last Oc­to­ber and again this Au­gust.

She also has the added com­pli­ca­tion of hav­ing to work with the army. Af­ter the elec­tion in 2015, the two lead­ers had to find ways to work to­gether. She had the man­date, but the gen­er­als the real power. Aung San Suu Kyi is be­tween a rock and a hard place, ac­cord­ing to diplo­mats and an­a­lysts based in Yan­gon. “She does not have com­plete free­dom to move, when it comes to the sit­u­a­tion in Rakhine,” a diplo­mat told the Busi­ness Re­view on con­di­tion of anonymity. It is the army com­man­der who is call­ing the shots, he added.

The civil­ian gov­ern­ment and the army are in a power shar­ing ar­range­ment, es­tab­lished by the 2008 Con­sti­tu­tion drawn up by the pre­vi­ous mil­i­tary regime, be­fore they stood down. Un­der the con­sti­tu­tion, the mil­i­tary ap­points 25% of MPs in both houses in the na­tional par­lia­ment and the 14 re­gional as­sem­blies. The army also ap­points one of the three vice pres­i­dents, and three min­is­ters in the Cab­i­net – Border and Home Af­fairs and the De­fence min­is­ter. They also con­trol the po­lice.

There are now moves afoot at the UN for the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to rein­tro­duce sanc­tions against Myan­mar. The EU and the OIC seem to be at the fore­front of this – but China will cer­tainly veto any pro­posal at the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. But this in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism and talk of re­newed sanc­tions only serves to di­min­ish Aung San Suu Kyi’s po­si­tion in re­la­tion to the army com­man­der. Though now there is some re­al­i­sa­tion amongst parts of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that the Com­man­der-in-Chief is the real vil­lain of the piece and sanc­tions against him are now be­ing con­tem­plated. Both the EU and the UK are mov­ing to cut ties with the Myan­mar mil­i­tary.

Of course any sanc­tions will be

the death knell for for­eign in­vest­ment. Al­ready since last Oc­to­ber, for­eign busi­nesses have been in­creas­ingly coy about in­vest­ing in Myan­mar be­cause of the vi­o­lence in Rakhine. Some busi­nesses have be­gun to pull out – at least tem­po­rar­ily. This is ex­pected to worsen in the near fu­ture, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment in­sid­ers, be­cause there will be a time lag. Tourism has also taken a nose­dive.

The im­pact of the Rakhine vi­o­lence on the gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic plans and tar­gets has not been lost on Aung San Suu Kyi ei­ther, but she is un­der­stand­ably pre­oc­cu­pied with solv­ing the cri­sis. “At present, hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance is our first pri­or­ity,” Myan­mar’s Vice Pres­i­dent Henry Van Thio told the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly in Septem­ber, echo­ing Aung San Suu Kyi’s com­ments ear­lier ad­dress to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. “We are com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that aid is re­ceived by all those in need, with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion,” he de­clared.

A new gov­ern­ment-led mech­a­nism, es­tab­lished in co­op­er­a­tion with the Red Cross Move­ment, has also al­ready started dis­tribut­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance, ac­cord­ing to se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. Now Aung San Suu Kyi has be­gun to ad­dress the refugees’ im­me­di­ate needs and tackle the root causes of the com­mu­nal ten­sions and mis­trust in Arakan.

All along Aung San Suu Kyi’s plan was to im­ple­ment the Kofi An­nan rec­om­men­da­tions. Now the gov­ern­ment has fi­nally turned these rec­om­men­da­tions into a con­crete plan. In mid-Oc­to­ber, an ad­dress to the na­tion, she an­nounced the for­ma­tion of the na­tional, hu­man­i­tar­ian, re­set­tle­ment and de­vel­op­ment ini­tia­tive, which will over­see the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the of Kofi An­nan’s rec­om­men­da­tions. Aung San Suu Kyi is tak­ing per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and will chair the group.

It will be a Myan­mar-led project, though there will some in­ter­na­tional par­tic­i­pa­tion, in­clud­ing from ASEAN, the UK and parts of the UN. The plans cen­tres around three phases: hu­man­i­tar­ian re­lief, re­build­ing the de­stroyed vil­lages and re­con­struc­tion: in­clud­ing cre­at­ing schools for all eth­nic and religious groups in Arakan; pro­vid­ing high standard health care; and fi­nally re­set­tle­ment (un­der the repa­tri­a­tion terms agreed with the UN in 1990.) The mil­i­tary have been in­vited to par­tic­i­pate, mainly pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s com­mit­ment and strat­egy to solv­ing the Rakhine prob­lems are very clear, now – as Aung San Suu Kyi her­self said in her ad­dress to the na­tion – the gov­ern­ment must be judged on its ac­tions and re­sults. But it will not be easy or quick. Nev­er­the­less the fu­ture of Myan­mar – and cer­tainly its at­trac­tive­ness to for­eign in­vestors and busi­nesses – de­pends on it.


Vi­o­lence in Myan­mar’s west­ern Rakhine re­gion has caused more than 500,000 Mus­lim vil­lagers to flee.

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