Recent attacks by an émigré-led force of trained Rohingya fighters mark a dangerous turn. To remove a main root of the violence – Rohingya despair – the government must reverse longstanding discrimination against the Muslim minority, moderate its military tactics, and reach out to Myanmar’s Muslim allies.
Originally published in Foreign Policy
Amid continued focus on crisis in Rakhine state, Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Commission 16 March released interim report with 29 recommendations covering issues from Rohingya citizenship, freedom of movement and birth registration to humanitarian and media access, and improving bilateral relations with Bangladesh. Govt released statement fully endorsing Commission’s recommendations and undertaking to quickly implement most; stated that a few would first require improvements in situation on ground. UN Human Rights Council (HRC) 24 March adopted resolution calling for international panel of experts to conduct “fact-finding mission” to Myanmar; falls short of international Commission of Inquiry many called for; govt said HRC move “not acceptable”. UNSC discussed Rakhine state crisis 17 March, Russia and China blocked press statement. Situation in N Rakhine remains largely unchanged: no further significant attacks by al-Yaqin, but continued killings of Rohingya with links to govt that may be work of group. Military operations largely over, far fewer reported abuses. A couple of thousand internally displaced persons returned to homes, estimated 20,000 remain in Maungdaw, 74,550 confirmed to have fled to Bangladesh. Domestic “investigation commission” looking into allegations of rights abuses visited Bangladesh. Al-Yaqin 28 March issued press release rebranding itself “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army”, reaffirming no links to terrorist groups, assuring safety of civilians from all communities; also issued twenty-point demands, mostly relating to Rohingya civil and political rights. Ethnic peace process remained stalled: next “Panglong-21” peace process postponed until at least May; date, which armed groups will attend and what will be discussed unclear. Govt negotiators met with negotiating team of United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), umbrella group of many non-signatory groups) in Naypyitaw 1 March, reached ad referendum agreement in principle on nine points that UNFC has said are prerequisite for signing National Ceasefire Agreement; however, no agreement among UNFC leaders to endorse agreement. Fighting escalated 6 March when Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army attacked capital of Kokang Self-Administered Zone Laukkai, abducted over 250 workers, engaged in dozens of battles with military. Chinese authorities said at least 20,000 had arrived after 6 March attack.
After almost 70 years of armed conflict, Myanmar has a rare but fading opportunity to finalise a broad-based, federal settlement. The government must adopt a more flexible approach that allays opposition concerns, and armed groups need to go beyond preliminaries and engage in meaningful discussions.
The first four months of Myanmar’s democratic government have set a positive tone. But de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi needs to find ways to bring peace with ethnic insurgents closer, rebalance relations with China, and overcome deeply ingrained problems in Rakhine State.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide electoral victory was a historic success for Myanmar. To meet the high expectations that resulted, the country’s new leaders will need to balance carefully ties with China with those with the West, credibly lead a fragile peace process and above all handle wisely their relations with a still-powerful army.
A ceasefire between Myanmar’s government and armed groups is tantalising close. It would end 60 years of armed conflict and ease the path of democratic transition. But time is short before historic elections on 8 November, and any failure to seal an accord could trigger renewed clashes that would be hard to bring back under control.
Myanmar’s November elections will be a critical inflection point. Despite significant progress in election administration and in ending a two-generation-long civil war, the fragile peace process and incomplete political reforms constitute major challenges. All sides must ensure that zero-sum politics around the elections does not imperil the transition.
Most [political] transitions end badly like the Arab spring. [They] are always bumpy and I think Myanmar is going through a particularly bumpy moment in its transition.
The threat is not because of [Harakah al-Yaqin's] military strength, it's because of what they represent, the potential of [Myanmar] facing a very well organized, violent jihadist movement.
The emergence of this well-organized, apparently well-funded group is a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine state.
There are real risks that if the [Myanmar] government mishandles the situation, it will push more of the Muslim population in that area to support al-Yaqin, entrenching the armed group and a cycle of violence.
Myanmar is a new democracy, its institutions aren't that strong, it has a number of other ethnic battles up on its north-eastern border and elsewhere, and [the recent border attacks] will make life a lot more complicated for the government.
A level playing field helps mainly small and medium-sized industries in Myanmar, not the cronies who have thrived under sanctions for years and are geared up to circumvent them.
The emergence of the al-Yaqin armed group in Myanmar's Rakhine State and the heavy-handed response by the government risk imperiling the country's transition to democracy. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group encourages the European Union and its member states to pressure the highest level of the government and military to stop abuses in Rakhine and develop a political strategy to address the underlying causes of armed militancy.
The 29 January assassination of U Ko Ni, a respected Muslim veteran of the pro-democracy struggle, is a great loss to Myanmar and underlines the urgency for unity against all forms of hate speech and possible hate crimes.
Crisis Group’s Myanmar report on 15 December 2016 revealed the emergence of a game-changing Muslim insurgency in the country’s Rakhine state. In this Editorial, the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Page introduced the report to readers as evidence of how Burma’s abuse of the Rohingya Muslims has created violent backlash.
Deadly attacks in October and November against security forces in Burma’s northern Arakan state are qualitatively different from anything that has occurred there in recent decades.
Originally published in Time
Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review