Rakhine Violence Threatens Myanmar’s Stability.
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.