Crisis in Myanmar’s western state encompasses more than repatriation of refugees
In 2017, 730,000 Rohingya fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Since then the world has focused primarily on the refugees’ plight, on securing the right conditions for their return home and on criminal accountability. While important, this has clouded the larger issue of the crisis in Rakhine state: the situation of the Rohingya is inextricably linked to profound changes needed to ensure a common future for all ethnic communities in Myanmar’s western state.
The 2017 report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, headed by Kofi Annan, emphasised the importance of a comprehensive approach: while the Rohingya have borne the brunt of decades of brutal policies, it is critical to recognise that all communities feel marginalised and empowered. Wider narratives are needed to address the grievances of all who call Rakhine home.
The recent violent upsurge in violence between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army (AA) insurgents who are supported by many in the ethnic Rakhine community, validates this approach. The violence has plunged the state back into chaos. In January, the Union government ordered the military to “crush” the AA militants. Large swathes of northern and central Rakhine continue to be sealed off, also for most humanitarian agencies. The death toll on both sides is high, including among Rakhine civilians. Around 35,000 have now been displaced. Rohingya villages have also been targeted, with deadly results. The military’s use of indiscriminate weapons such as heavy artillery and armed helicopters is well-documented. It is, however, difficult to obtain independently verified casualty figures.
With elections only 18 months away, it pays to look at who might benefit from continued chaos in Rakhine. The Arakan National Party (ANP) – widely supported among the ethnic Rakhine population – is an important player in the state parliament. In the 2015 elections the party easily came first in the state elections, winning 47 per cent of all seats, Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government denied it the important position of chief minister of Rakhine state. The restraining of the ANP, combined with the limited political clout of the NLD and the military in the state parliament, led to a political vacuum. All key players in the 2020 election will try to fill this vacuum, making Rakhine a hotly contested state.
The lead-up to elections is not suited for decisions about highly contested issues, like the return of the Rohingya. Most politicians will try to avoid them for fear of losing votes.
Pressure from ultra-nationalist forces may even compel the government to take measures aimed at further marginalisation of minority groups. This happened in the run-up to the 2015 elections, when several discriminatory race and religion laws were adopted and the Rohingya’s right to vote was revoked.
The responsibility for the situation in Rakhine state lies squarely with the government and the military. Decades-long misrule and marginalisation have taken their toll, while divide-and-rule tactics pitted ethnic communities against each other. Since 2016 the government’s reaction to allegations of atrocities has been one of denial and delay, while insincere efforts to counter criticism have further damaged its standing. Although last week’s release of two Reuters’ journalists is a positive development, the climate for press freedom in Myanmar actually deteriorated during their more than 500 days in prison.
But the international community should also take a critical look at the role it has played. A narrow focus and disunity among major actors have allowed Myanmar to stall progress. The international focus has been on what many have called the “Rohingya crisis”, while what has been happening to the Rohingya is a serious manifestation of the larger Rakhine crisis and the overall situation in Myanmar.
Many have been wary to take on the broad dimensions of the crisis. China, for example, suggests that development will solve all of Rakhine state’s problems. Such an approach completely overlooks all communities’ critical need for human rights and for security. Development alone is no panacea.
Asean, feeling constrained by its non-interference principle, has focused mostly on humanitarian issues such as provision of emergency supplies and assessing whether the right conditions for the return of Rohingya refugees are in place. But how can refugees be returned to violent conflict zones under lockdown?
Asean should now consider a mix of policy options and add mediation and peace-building to its humanitarian efforts. Many of the world’s most pressing concerns are important factors in what is happening in Rakhine state: large scale displacement, climate change, growing ethnic and religious intolerance and continuing violence between the military and non-state actors. Asean cannot stand by idly as Rakhine’s troubles spill across Myanmar’s borders.
We are told that quiet diplomacy is taking place, including by the UN. Week after week we see pictures of leaders meeting leaders. But we are yet to hear of its successes.
Four major powers – China, India, Russia and Japan – have stood in the way of a united international response. They are among Myanmar’s largest economic partners, while China and India also have specific interests in Rakhine state. All, except Japan, are major arms exporters to Myanmar.
Their support has emboldened the government to stay on its denialist course, while the military’s indiscriminate and disproportionate use of violence continues and civil society and the media battle increasing intolerance.
The world owes Bangladesh a huge debt for its acceptance of more than one million Rohingya on its territory. Its government has reached out to leaders around the world – including in Moscow, Beijing and Delhi – in the pursuit of sustainable solutions. But tragically, these are not within reach as long as these capitals continue to favour the government in Nay Pyi Taw.
There is, however, one important issue that Bangladesh has failed to address: the provision of formal education for the hundreds of thousands of children and young people among the refugees. Lack of education robs them of their future. The growing sense of hopelessness among students and parents increases their vulnerability to radicalisation. International organisations stand ready to provide quality educational services but cannot go ahead without Bangladesh’ permission.
The UN and international NGOs operating in Myanmar have a good understanding of the complex issues governing the reality in Rakhine. But questions have arisen about their failure to read warning signals about the growing risk to the Rohingya in the run-up to the violence of 2016 and 2017.
The UN is now conducting an internal investigation to determine what went wrong. Did it disregard early warning signs because it pinned its hopes on a government under Suu Kyi? Did it believe that she would stand up for the Rohingya?
Not only the UN but the entire international community should take a hard look at its efforts to engage Myanmar. Giving priority to short-term objectives like humanitarian assistance has merits, but only when placed in the context of the underlying causes of a conflict that has turned Rakhine state’s ethnic communities against each other and against Myanmar’s leadership.
Regional governments and organisations such as Asean have a particular responsibility. They have mostly taken a short-term view and are yet to accept that they cannot isolate themselves from the spread of ethnic and religious discrimination. The region rightly prides itself in the diversity of its peoples. The protection of this diversity is key to the well-being and the development of all in Southeast Asia. It requires a pro-active regional approach.
Laetitia van den Assum is an independent diplomatic expert, a former Dutch ambassador and former member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission headed by Kofi Annan.
Kobsak Chutikul is a retired Thai ambassador and former elected member of parliament.