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Myanmar: Diverting Rakhine State’s Alarming Trajectory
Myanmar: Diverting Rakhine State’s Alarming Trajectory
Op-Ed / Asia

Give Burma a Chance

Originally published in Foreign Policy

No, the country's remarkable democratic transition hasn't been perfect. But its critics should keep in mind how much has already been accomplished.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, which took power at the end of March, is the first democratically elected government to run Burma in more than 50 years. There has been considerable criticism of the new government from pundits and in the media, and even in some political circles in the West. Among other things, commentators have criticized weaknesses in addressing the plight of oppressed Muslim communities in Rakhine State and what is seen as the government’s non-transparent and non-consultative decision-making. But while many of the concerns are valid, there must be more understanding of the daunting challenges Burma’s new democratic leadership is confronting. So far, they have made some missteps, but no huge mistakes.

The tasks facing the government are formidable. It must find ways of moving the peace process with the country’s many ethnic groups forward, addressing the plight of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine State, and continuing the delicate process of rebalancing Burma’s external relations, particularly vis-a-vis China. The burden of leadership on all of these fronts will fall on Suu Kyi’s shoulders, since she has assumed simultaneously the positions of State Counsellor, Foreign Minister, and chair of various high-level committees. Success will depend not only on developing carefully thought-out policies and listening attentively to those affected, but also on her ability to delegate. These are the twin policy and personal challenges now facing Suu Kyi as Burma’s de facto leader.

The general trajectory so far has been very positive. Burma has passed through a year of considerable uncertainty and change with no major political turmoil. The previous military-backed government went ahead with broadly credible elections, held with almost no violence, that delivered a resounding victory for Aung San Suu Kyi — a former political prisoner. This massive victory set the stage for the first orderly transfer of power via the ballot box since Burma’s independence in 1948.

Suu Kyi had made clear before the polls that she would be the key decision-maker in the new government, and so it has proved. Her close confidant, Htin Kyaw, was chosen as president, but Suu Kyi is the undisputed leader, with her new title of “State Counsellor” effectively circumventing the constitutional bar on her taking the presidency. Her administration has now managed to enter into an awkward cohabitation with the military — as dictated by the 2008 constitution — without significantly compromising on key principles or prompting any fundamental rifts with the armed forces. Navigating these difficult waters has been a key early success of the government, the military, and the country as a whole. But with its inexperienced team, and enormous challenges ahead, the government cannot be expected to enjoy success on all fronts. Expectations for quick progress — of the kind more appropriate to mature democracies — should be tempered.

The government has taken early steps to address Burma’s authoritarian legacy, releasing political detainees and repealing or amending several oppressive laws — although there is much more to do. At the same time, it has made some initial missteps on the peace process and in addressing the discrimination against Muslim communities in Rakhine State.

Suu Kyi’s April 27 declaration that she would take personal charge of convening a new “21st Century Panglong” peace conference, named for the pre-independence gathering hosted by her father, was made without consulting armed groups or ethnic political leaders. She is now pushing to move ahead with this conference by the end of August, before the necessary building blocks are in place. Understandably, ethnic leaders worried that the substance of the new initiative was unclear and that it was announced without any prior consultation. In a subsequent meeting, she moved to allay some of these concerns by clarifying that the conference would continue the previously-agreed peace process rather than setting a different direction. She also established clear consultation mechanisms. Ethnic leaders are now worried that she may stick to an unfeasibly tight deadline for the conference, eroding trust and buy-in from armed groups, with potentially damaging consequences.

There have been some missteps in other areas as well, again related to a lack of consultative decision-making. To address the longstanding communal tensions in Rakhine State, a “Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State” was formed on May 31, chaired by Suu Kyi herself. The early focus of the committee has been on revamping a process to determine the citizenship status of the state’s Muslim population, most of whom have no citizenship documents and face pervasive discrimination, both by the government and by the state’s Buddhist Rakhine majority. Accordingly, this is one of the most difficult and contentious issues to be addressed.

The first steps have included rolling out a temporary identification document for Muslim residents, as well as attempts to sidestep the divisive issue of what the main Muslim minority group should be called. (They self-identify as “Rohingya,” but Rakhine nationalists insist they be called “Bengali” to suggest their Bangladeshi origins, despite the fact that many have lived in Burma for generations.)

A lack of trust rooted in years of discrimination by the central government against both Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State had meant that these initiatives have raised objections from both communities. In particular, there has been very strong reaction by Buddhist Rakhine nationalists to the government’s preferred term, “the Muslim community in Rakhine State,” which may make it much harder to reach a future compromise on nomenclature. A lack of public information about the citizenship process has meant that it has seen low levels of interest in most places. In some cases it has faced outright resistance. Success in addressing the complex situation in Rakhine State will require a solid understanding of the nuances, together with a willingness to consult broadly to obtain buy-in (or at least reduce opposition) of hardliners in both Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities.

Each of these missteps arises from a lack of sensitivity to some of the complex details at play, and a lack of consultation in advance of announcing important decisions or initiatives. Such mistakes are understandable, and can perhaps be attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi’s initial settling-in period. It is also possible that they reflect a deeper culture of non-consultative decision-making, which would be of concern; but it is too early to come to such a conclusion.

Another challenge is the government’s relationship with the military. Both sides have a clear interest in working together. Suu Kyi cannot effectively govern the country without the military’s support, or at least its acquiescence. On the other hand, the military is reliant on Suu Kyi to achieve some key objectives — a better domestic and international reputation and improved military-to-military relations with the West. More fundamentally, the military is invested in the success of the transition: The current government’s failure would be a failure for the transition process the military itself initiated.

Yet shared interests have not always translated into positive relations. The military was particularly upset with the bill that appointed Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, introduced only a few days after the transfer of power. On substance, they objected that the bill was anti-constitutional because it created a position that undermined the president’s authority and that it violated separation of powers by providing for a direct relationship with the parliament, a view shared by some ethnic and other opposition legislators. The military is particularly sensitive on constitutional matters, as the prerogatives it is granted were essential in giving it the confidence to hand over many other powers.

There have been recent positive steps in civil-military relations, including the commander-in-chief’s attendance for the first time of the annual Martyr’s Day ceremony commemorating the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father. But such highly symbolic events should not be over-interpreted — there are still plenty of challenges ahead.

The international community can help Burma’s new government navigate these difficult waters in several ways. It is rightly giving the government strong political backing, but it should not shy away from offering frank and honest advice. Financial and technical support is very much needed, although there is a significant risk that uncoordinated aid projects and overlapping and inconsistent technical assistance will overwhelm the government’s capacity and potentially do harm; the beginnings of this were already visible over the last few years.

Donors also need to keep in mind that the state — and by extension the government — remains absent or contested in many conflict-affected areas. Assistance projects need to be carefully designed and closely monitored to reflect this. In expanding support to government, it is also vital that the West in particular explore appropriate avenues of military-to-military cooperation. This is for two reasons: In the first place, it is essential that the military see institutional benefits from its decision to give up a significant portion of its power. Furthermore, the socialization of a new generation of military officers with their peers in democratic countries can make a critical contribution to reform.

Burma’s new government has come in for a lot of criticism — some of it deserved. But we must remember that Burma remains one of the most successful examples of democratic transitions in modern times. The government should be criticized if it fails to meet realistic expectations, but it is counterproductive to hold a country still emerging from decades of authoritarianism and civil war to impossibly high standards.

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.