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Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks
Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks
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.

A Myanmar border guard police officer stands guard in Tin May village, Buthidaung township, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar on 14 July 2017. REUTERS/Simon Lewis
Statement / Asia

Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks

The Rohingya insurgent attacks that killed twelve Myanmar soldiers and officials and perhaps 77 of their own number is a serious escalation of a ten-month-old crisis. They make implementation of this week’s recommendations to address Rohingya grievances from Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission both harder and more urgent.

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In the early hours of 25 August, militants from Harakah al-Yaqin – a Rohingya insurgent group that now refers to itself in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – mounted coordinated attacks on 30 police posts and an army base in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The government reports that the attackers, equipped with hand-held explosive devices, machetes and a few small arms, killed ten police officers, a soldier and an immigration official. Reportedly, 77 insurgents also were killed and one captured. In response, the military is conducting “clearance operations” across the area and police in rural outposts have moved to more secure locations in case of further attacks. Clashes continue in some locations, and there are reports of vigilantism against Rohingya communities. Both Rohingya and Buddhist residents are attempting to flee the areas affected. Time is not on the government’s side if Rakhine state is to be pulled back from the brink. It must quickly take bold measures to address legitimate Rakhine and Rohingya concerns.

This episode represents a very serious escalation in the conflict and was preceded by a significant rise in tensions in northern Rakhine. The insurgent group launched its first operation in October 2016, when it conducted a complex, deadly, coordinated attack on three border police bases in northern Rakhine state. A months-long, heavy-handed military response followed, including a new deployment of Myanmar army troops. As a result, some 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and, in February 2017, a UN investigation concluded that there had been grave and widespread abuses by the military that “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity. A domestic investigation has rejected these claims.

The path to a long-term solution is clear, if challenging. It has been set out in considerable detail in the final report of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission, released on 23 August and welcomed by the government. It involves addressing the legitimate grievances of the Rakhine, while ensuring freedom of movement, access to services and livelihoods, political participation and citizenship rights for the Rohingya. The recent attacks have created a far more difficult political context for the government to implement these recommendations, but have also reinforced the urgency of doing so.

[T]he Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence.

The current crisis was neither unpredicted nor unpreventable. The anti-Muslim violence of 2012, and the emergence of the new insurgent group last year were both clear signals that the volatile dynamics of Rakhine state urgently need a political, not just a security response to address the concerns of all communities in the state. Yet the Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence. These include extreme discrimination by Myanmar’s society and state as well as a progressive erosion of rights and barriers to obtaining critical identity and citizenship documents, the community’s disenfranchisement before the 2015 elections, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. These factors, in combination with the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rohingya communities that resulted from separate violence in 2012, and the military crackdown last year that targeted civilians, create an environment where ARSA can increase its legitimacy and recruiting base among local communities and more easily intimidate and kill Rohingya who disagree with it and lack any real protection from the state. 

There are clear lessons for the Myanmar government from the previous episodes of violence and from the present crisis. Crisis Group has noted repeatedly that an aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation. In the immediate future, if the military response is not to entrench worsening cycles of violence, it must respect the principle of proportionality and distinguish between insurgents and Rohingya civilians. It must provide protection to all civilians caught up in or fleeing the fighting. And it must provide unfettered access to humanitarian agencies and media to affected areas, lest it contribute to a dangerous, violent polarisation, increase alienation and despair, and enable provocative misinformation to take hold.

Crisis Group has noted repeatedly that an aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation.

ARSA’s violent actions inevitably will harm, not help it, despite its claims to be fighting the Myanmar state – and not Rakhine civilians – for the Rohingya cause. ARSA will face international censure for the violence of its attacks, which will increase if it seeks to improve its fighting capacity. The Myanmar government formally declared it a terrorist group under national law on 25 August. This has limited legal implications but will placate nationalists who have been calling for the government to be unequivocal on this point. It also means that Myanmar is likely to increasingly present this as a fight against transnational terrorism rather than domestic insurgency. In short, by resorting to violence, ARSA’s leaders are hardening social divisions and biases against the Rohingya, and increasing anti-Muslim sentiment across Myanmar.

ARSA are well aware that their latest attacks are likely to provoke a strong military response and political backlash, as they did in 2016, which will greatly harm Rohingya villagers. That almost certainly is its aim. Despite its claim that it is “protecting” the Rohingya, it knows that it is provoking the security forces into a heavy-handed military response, hoping that this will further alienate Rohingya communities, drive support for ARSA, and place the spotlight of the world back on military abuses in northern Rakhine state. A disproportionate military response without any overarching political strategy once again will play directly into ARSA’s hands.

There is no evidence that ARSA’s goals or members support a transnational jihadist agenda, despite indications that the group may have received some training from members of such outfits. That will not stop those who resent all Muslim groups and grievances from characterising it as such. On the other side, another harsh military response and the continued displacement of scores of thousands to camps in Bangladesh will create conditions ripe for exploitation by transnational jihadists. 

The deepening crisis in Rakhine state threatens to sweep aside all other priorities.

The costs of failing to address the roots of the crisis inrease every day. The impact will not fall only on Rakhine state, but on Myanmar as a whole, where anti-Muslim sentiment and Buddhist nationalism are on the rise, threatening fragile communal relations. The government has many other urgent issues to deal with, including its complex peace process with multiple ethnic armed groups and the difficult job of steering the economy and ensuring greater prosperity for all the people of the country. The deepening crisis in Rakhine state threatens to sweep aside all other priorities, as it will continue to dominate both domestic debate and international engagement with Myanmar.