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A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
Myanmar: Diverting Rakhine State’s Alarming Trajectory
Myanmar: Diverting Rakhine State’s Alarming Trajectory
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.
Commentary / Asia

Myanmar: Diverting Rakhine State’s Alarming Trajectory

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.

This commentary on Myanmar's Rakhine State is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Key conflict concerns in Myanmar remain Rakhine state and the peace process with ethnic armed groups. This note focuses on the former.

The 9 October attacks on the security forces have rendered an already volatile situation in northern Rakhine state that much more fraught. The government’s heavy-handed security response has led to widespread reports of serious abuses and a shutdown in humanitarian access. Some 69,000 Rohingya Muslims have recently sought refuge in Bangladesh. The risk of further attacks by the al-Yaqin armed group remains significant, and based on the military’s previous behaviour would likely trigger a further escalation in the security response – with human rights and political ramifications. In central Rakhine state, more than 120,000 Muslims – mostly Rohingya – remain segregated in displacement camps following an outbreak of intercommunal violence in 2012. Several hundred thousand more who remain in their villages are reliant on humanitarian assistance due to government restrictions on their basic freedoms, including movement.

These developments risk intensifying longstanding negative trends in Rakhine state. Marginalisation of the Rohingya minority, oppressive state security and al-Yaqin’s incipient – but surprisingly sophisticated – armed response threaten to dominate the international narrative on Myanmar. Alongside this, the state’s majority Rakhine Buddhist population, itself a minority at the national level, is acutely concerned about being sidelined, facing discrimination by the state and economic and political marginalisation. Failure by the authorities, and Aung San Suu Kyi personally, to take control of the crisis by developing and implementing an overarching political and development strategy, could result in the situation spiralling further out of control. The consequences would be unpredictable, including for other complex transition processes in the country, and generate ever increasing international opprobrium.

Map of Myanmar. International Crisis Group. Based on UN map no. 4168 Rev.3 (June 2012).

The Government’s Response: Limitations and Risks

So far, the government has not set out any overarching political strategy for addressing either the underlying problems in Rakhine state as a whole, or the recent related violence in northern Rakhine. Rather, it has appointed two commissions to look into them both. The first, headed by former UN ­Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was appointed before the 9 October attacks, with a mandate to advise on possible solutions to the root causes of the situation in Rakhine state. The second, headed by Vice President-1 Myint Swe, was established to look at the attacks themselves, the security response, and ways to prevent further violence.

The second commission released a preliminary report in early January, essentially denying most allegations of abuse; its final report has been delayed indefinitely after a damning UN report released on 3 February found evidence of grave and widespread abuses that it says may amount to crimes against humanity. Suu Kyi was reportedly shocked by these claims and has undertaken to investigate them – but has assigned this task to the already-discredited vice president-1 commission. (The Myanmar military and police have also recently announced separate internal inquiries into these allegations.) Meanwhile, the Annan Commission is due to issue interim recommendations in March, before its final report in August. These recommendations will focus on steps that the government can take in the immediate future that could have a meaningful and timely impact on the underlying situation of Muslims in Rakhine state.

The [Myanmar] government must ensure that its announced ending of the security operation on 15 February translates into a cessation of abuses.

Suu Kyi is under pressure to investigate credibly the evidence of grave human rights abuses, and to move quickly on implementing the Annan Commission’s recommendations – both to address current volatility, and to give a clear signal of the government’s political will to tackle the underlying problems. The possibility, in the absence of clear signs of movement, that Annan might reconsider his involvement in the commission, will provide additional impetus to the government. However, the government’s political space for manoeuvre in Rakhine state, and hence prospects for real progress, will depend partly on events outside its control: in particular, any further attacks by al-Yaqin, the popular pressures for and discipline of the military’s security response, and an even more febrile political environment.

Addressing Underlying Problems in Rakhine State

The Muslim population in Rakhine state numbers more than a million people, the vast majority of whom have long been denied citizenship and basic rights. Myanmar has two choices. The government can continue to allow this population to live in limbo – abused, marginalised and with no hope for the future. This would perpetuate policy failures of the last decades, which have directly led to the current crisis and represent an ongoing security and political threat. Alternatively, the government can use the inflection point that this crisis offers to change track and give this population a place in the life of the country as citizens with access to rights, social services and economic opportunities.

To that end, the government must ensure that its announced ending of the security operation on 15 February translates into a cessation of abuses. To find long-term solutions for Rakhine state, it will need to think beyond individual recommendations, and craft a comprehensive political strategy that integrates citizenship and rights for the Muslim population with development initiatives including health and education, improved policing and security. Alongside this, steps are needed to reassure the Buddhist Rakhine population that their concerns will be taken into account. This will not be an easy needle to thread, and the government should not wait for the final August 2017 recommendations from the Annan Commission to begin developing such an approach.

Following such a path would encounter considerable political obstacles given strong anti-Rohingya sentiments in Rakhine state and across Myanmar. Assuming the government is willing and able to overcome these, the challenge will be to define a strategy that can be progressively implemented. Any such solution will require the cooperation of the security forces, police and government officials, including teachers and medical staff.

The Role of the EU and its Member States

The European Union (EU) is one of the largest providers of humanitarian and development assistance to Myanmar. The EU and its member states should use this leverage to push the government and military, at the highest level and through all available channels, to end abuses in northern Rakhine, allow unfettered access for humanitarian agencies and the media, and ensure a credible investigation, with appropriate international involvement and support, into the evidence of grave human rights abuses committed by the security forces.

They should also encourage Suu Kyi and her government to develop a detailed political response to the current crisis and underlying issues, including through the newly-appointed national security adviser. This political response will need to be coordinated with the military to ensure a coherent approach less focused on hard-edged security. The EU has taken a lead in Western military-to-military ties, and should use this to influence the commander-in-chief on this issue, alongside diplomatic engagement with him.

The EU and its member states should urge the government to prioritise the timely implementation of the Annan Commission’s interim recommendations when they are released in March, and encourage the government to incorporate these into its broader plan; they should also offer to provide technical support to assist in this. They should further encourage the government to take greater ownership of the humanitarian and development response in Rakhine state. This is vital to ensure that the international humanitarian and development community is not held hostage to intercommunal or state-society tensions or seen as an intrusive outside actor, as has been the case in the past.

Finally, they should encourage Suu Kyi to visit Rakhine state and personally outline the government’s approach, which the international aid and donor community can then support. A clear government plan could provide the trigger for provision of the significant technical and funding resources that will be needed over several years to improve conditions in Rakhine for all communities.