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A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
Will Rohingya Refugees Start Returning to Myanmar in 2018?
Will Rohingya Refugees Start Returning to Myanmar in 2018?
Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar

Over the past week there has been more inter-communal violence in Myanmar, this time in the country’s heartland – with the worst incidents in the town of Meiktila, between Mandalay and the capital Naypyitaw. The incident started with a brawl in a gold shop and rapidly escalated into large-scale Buddhist-Muslim clashes that left nearly 50 people dead and over twelve thousand displaced, according to the latest government figures. Other credible estimates put the number of displaced even higher.

The Muslim community was the hardest hit, as it has tended to be in previous such clashes. More than three-quarters of those displaced were Muslims. Many of their homes were destroyed, and a number of religious buildings (mosques and madrassas) were burned down. Although a state of emergency and a visible presence of the security forces on the streets has restored calm, it will be weeks or months before the displaced can rebuild their homes and lives. And, given that most have lost everything – and are in fear of further attacks – there is uncertainty about how many of them would have the means or the confidence to return to their former neighbourhoods.

For communities that have lived together for generations, the speed and scale of the violence comes as a shock. Yet such incidents are not unheard of in Myanmar: serious Buddhist-Muslim clashes occurred in central parts of the country in 2001, triggered in part by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban and calls by firebrand Myanmar monks for the destruction of mosques in retaliation. Serious riots also occurred in the 1930s and 1960s, and smaller-scale incidents have occurred with some regularity.

There is much speculation about what is behind the current violence. Feedback from witnesses is contradictory: some say they did not recognize the perpetrators and believe that they were from outside the community; others say they recognized their neighbours among the attackers. It is clear that there are some agents provocateurs with radical anti-Muslim agendas at work in the country – including influential Buddhist monks preaching intolerance and hatred of Muslims. Also, the systematic and methodical way in which Muslim neighbourhoods were razed to the ground is highly suggestive of some degree of advance planning by radical elements. At the same time, there is scant evidence to support claims that the violence was orchestrated to further some ill-defined aim of alleged hardliners unhappy with the rapid reforms taking place in the country.

In fact, it is not unusual for countries emerging from authoritarianism to experience inter-communal strife. Following the violence in Rakhine State last year, Crisis Group warned of the risk of Buddhist-Muslim clashes spreading to the many other parts of the country with Muslim minority populations. A previous blog post also looked at comparisons and possible lessons Myanmar could draw from the communal violence that rocked post-Soeharto Indonesia.

There is a real risk that violence could spread. Already, there have been incidents in other towns near to Meiktila, as well as elsewhere in the country, though none so deadly as the clashes in Meiktila. There is nervousness and many rumours are circulating in the commercial capital, Yangon, but no serious violence has occurred there so far. But if these incidents do continue to spread, and escalate, they could do enormous damage to the country, beyond the immediate human costs: by tearing Myanmar’s social fabric in ways that will be difficult to repair; damaging the transition process currently underway by taking the focus of government away from the other very challenging political, economic and peace-building reforms; and undermining domestic and international confidence in the future of the country.

What should be done? Restoring calm and reducing the chances of future incidents must be addressed on three levels:

  • The government must do much better at addressing the problem. In order to limit further violence, perpetrators must be swiftly and visibly brought to justice. While the Meiktila violence may have caught the authorities by surprise, given the possible emerging pattern of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence officials now need to be prepared. Much more rapid and robust police responses are required. These incidents have shown that the police force does not have the capacity to respond effectively – because police do not have adequate training and rules of engagement, because the mostly Buddhist force is often seen as partisan, and because there is a lack of the kind of community policing that would provide the intelligence needed to give early warnings.
     
  • Similarly, religious leaders must come out forcefully at this time with messages of calm and peace. In particular, there is a need for the Buddhist Sangha to be proactive: too often, Buddhist monks are heard preaching words of intolerance, or caveating their calls for peace with explanations for the violence based on prejudice. At a time of bloodshed there is no room for moral ambiguity.
     
  • Now is the time for political leaders to rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion, rather than just following it. In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi, as the most powerful political and moral voice in the country, must be prepared to go further than she has been willing to up till now. She has said that she does not want to take sides in inter-communal conflicts – yet she must be prepared to vocally and unambiguously take the side of peace and tolerance.
Op-Ed / Asia

Will Rohingya Refugees Start Returning to Myanmar in 2018?

Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review

Most went back home from Bangladesh in two earlier exoduses, but this time is different.

The signing of a repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh on 23 November has raised expectations — and concerns — of an imminent return of Rohingya refugees to northern Rakhine state. But the reality is that no repatriation is likely in the foreseeable future.

Many of the 700,000 Rohingya who fled over the past year would choose to return under the right circumstances — Myanmar is their home, where they have lived for generations, and they see no future for themselves and their children in the Bangladesh camps. But much would need to change.

First and foremost is physical security. This is a deeply traumatized population, many of whom suffered or witnessed acts of horrific violence. They will not be ready to return unless they are assured of their safety. This seems an unlikely prospect, given that the government and military both deny the extent of the abuses that occurred — the military exonerated itself through an internal investigation that found not a single shot had been fired at civilians and state media regularly denies allegations of abuses reported by human rights organizations and the international media. Many of the abuses, including sexual violence, were perpetrated by military-backed vigilante groups made up of non-Muslim villagers in the area, who operate with considerable impunity.

Second is the ability to sustain livelihoods. The repatriation agreement provides that people will be able to return to their places of origin. If this is allowed in practice, and they are able to reclaim their land, they fundamentally require freedom of movement, to reach their farms and fishing grounds, to go where their day labor is needed and to access markets. This requires reassurance on physical security, as well as lifting the onerous movement restrictions and curfews put in place following attacks in late 2016 and August 2017 by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militants.

Communities in this area have always been inter-dependent, with Buddhist traders buying from Muslim farmers and fishermen, and much of the economy is dependent on Muslim labor. The apartheid-like segregation that exists in central Rakhine state and which some local politicians are advocating in the north is not economically viable — and in the long run will breed suspicion, distrust and conflict.

Third is a more hopeful future. ARSA emerged as decades of oppression and progressive marginalization of the Rohingya tipped into desperation and despair. With no hope for a better future and no way out, some were ready to contemplate violent responses and the militants found a fertile recruiting ground. Refugees will not willingly return to a situation of such hopelessness.

Meaningful progress

Changing that requires meaningful progress on implementing key recommendations of the advisory commission led by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. The Myanmar government has embraced these recommendations, but there is little sign of rapid progress. The subsequent appointment of an Implementation Committee for the recommendations, and recently an advisory board to the Implementation Committee that includes several eminent international figures, suggests an administration focused on diplomatic strategy instead of the much more difficult practical steps needed to change the situation on the ground.

These steps would have to be far-reaching. The government and military would have to give clear, credible security guarantees. Rakhine vigilantes would have to be disarmed and their impunity ended. The paramilitary Border Guard Police that operates only in northern Rakhine would need to be disbanded and replaced by a new force with different personnel, training and uniforms — preferably drawn from other religious and ethnic minority communities from outside Rakhine state, to generate trust and reduce the risk of abuses.

A path to rapid, good-faith verification of citizenship for Rohingya returnees — and those who never fled — is required. This means abandoning the government's current two-step process, where Rohingya must first apply for "national verification cards" which they overwhelmingly reject out of fear they will lead to a permanent second-class immigration status. In recent years, only a tiny number of these card holders have proceeded to the second step and had their citizenship status determined, whereas a majority of Rohingya likely qualify for full citizenship even under the restrictive 1982 citizenship law currently in force.

[Myanmar's] government and military would have to give clear, credible security guarantees. Rakhine vigilantes would have to be disarmed and their impunity ended.

The few Rohingya who have been granted citizenship cards, and those who have always held them, are in practice no better off than the rest. They find themselves still confined to displacement camps or unable to travel within or out of Rakhine state for vague administratively-imposed reasons of "security." Rampant discrimination and enforced segregation must be addressed to allow freedom of movement — essential for access to government health, education and other services, and for employment.

The sad truth is that many of these measures are almost inconceivable in the political environment in Myanmar today. They would be vehemently resisted by many ethnic Rakhine, many of the most high-profile Buddhist monks in the country, and many in the civil service and security forces. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her government may be genuine in their desire to see a return of refugees, but they have so far failed to grapple with the enormity of the obstacles that must be overcome to bring the refugees home and turn the tide on this tragic saga.