External forces complicate Rakhine violence
The escalating violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar, has been scrutinized by the international community.
The Buddhist-majority state suffered its first wave of terrorist ambushes on October 9, 2016, when nine police officers were killed. Two attacks in under a year reveal how ethnic and religious contradictions between Rohingya/Bengali and the indigenous people of Rakhine have escalated to the level of terrorist incidents. Yet this extreme terror and violence in Rakhine is rooted in a profound discord in the region’s social structure, history and culture.
The Rakhine state has long suffered ethnic and religious tensions. Rohingya Muslim minority, one of the world’s largest stateless South Asian communities, has long inhabited Rakhine. Their identity is the source of a violent dispute.
The Rohingyas themselves, as well as some supportive political and academic figures in the West, believe the Rohingyas have dwelled in Myanmar over 1,300 years.
But the Myanmar government and academia argue the group cannot be regarded as a local ethnic group as they are in fact Bengali immigrants who moved in after Britain occupied Myanmar in 1825.
The conflicts often come about through different lifestyles resulting from religious beliefs.
Unrest erupted on May 28, 2012 with the alleged rape and killing of a young Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men. A wave of vengeance swept over Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.
But the clashes on August 25 this year were organized by external terrorist forces, alongside Rohingya militants, who staged deadly surprise raids on police posts, killing officers and security personnel.
What was originally a domestic affair grabbed global attention and concern in the international community with geopolitical security implications.
The West, the UN and human rights organizations have criticized the Myanmar military’s human rights abuses in the Rakhine state, blaming the government. Myanmar today faces enormous pressure from the global community over the Rakhine issue.
Against this backdrop, Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi invited former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to chair an advisory commission on Rakhine and established a council led by Myanmar Vice President U Myint Swe to investigate the attacks. Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council conducted independent investigations.
Annan delivered the final report of the advisory commission on Rakhine state to Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi on August 23-24. The senior general disagreed with the report, saying it failed to fully reflect the true situation.
Rokhine violence has become more complicated, yet the Myanmar government, military, elites and public hold passive and outmoded understandings of the issue, which can be divided into two phases.
During Myanmar’s previous U Thein Sein administration, ethnic clashes in the Rakhine state in 2012 were deemed a local affair and hence downplayed. The U Thein Sein government underestimated the importance of violent conflicting political forces in this state. The then-government also underrated attempts from those within the ruling party and opposition parties to impose pressure on the government via those conflicting forces.
Since the National League for Democracy took power in 2016, the government has focused more on the foreign elements involved in the Rakhine issue. Although Suu Kyi established the advisory commission on Rakhine state led by Annan, she has faced massive nationwide opposition as she is blamed for external forces allegedly interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
Thus the Rakhine issue has become entwined with mounting pressure from the global community, universal values, Myanmese nationalism and socio-economic interests. Myanmar authorities must perform a far-sighted balancing act between nationalist forces within the country while managing complicated international relations: a hefty burden for a government that has ruled Myanmar less than 18 months.