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The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
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 group of Rohingya refugee people walk towards Bangladesh after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, 1 September 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS
Statement / Asia

The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition

The violence since 25 August that has driven 270,000 Rohingya civilians over Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh is not just causing a humanitarian catastrophe. It is also driving up the risks that the country’s five-year-old transition from military rule will stumble, that radicalisation will deepen on all sides, and that regional stability will be weakened.

Since 2012, the International Crisis Group repeatedly has warned that, if left unresolved, Rakhine State’s volatile dynamics pose a major risk to Myanmar’s transition. If dealt with primarily through a heavy-handed, indiscriminate security response, rather than in the framework of a political strategy, the dangers were clearly set to become far worse. The events of recent weeks are not just causing enormous suffering to civilians, but bring Myanmar precipitously close to just such an unraveling of much that has been achieved since the end of military rule.

The 25 August attacks on Myanmar security forces by the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which the government has designated a terrorist group, undoubtedly were intended as a provocation. Neither these attacks nor the reported killing of non-Rohingya civilians, at least some of which are undoubtedly the work of the group, are excusable, no matter what political agenda they claim to represent. Any government has the responsibility to defend itself and the people living in the country. At the same time, such government security responses need to be proportionate and not target civilians.

Nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It is extremely difficult to verify the numerous reports of atrocities amid the confusion and chaos, and very limited access for media and humanitarian agencies. Yet even if specific allegations cannot be proven, the scale of the crisis is clear. The 270,000 Rohingya who have fled in the last two weeks to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and across are telling, both in terms of their numbers and the accounts they bring. The vast majority of these people, mostly women and children, are unlikely to be militants. Along with some 87,500 who fled a previous upsurge in violence in October 2016, nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It may indeed be difficult for the government to distinguish between ARSA members and other Rohingya. The events of last year and recent weeks, particularly the heavy handed military response in the wake of the October 2016 and August 2017 attacks, appear to have promoted a sense among Rohingya that a general uprising is underway. But operationally challenging as this is, it cannot be an excuse for military action against the general population. By doing so, the military will not quell the crisis, but rather play straight into the hands of ARSA by increasing the sense of grievance and hopelessness.

It is similarly vital to treat with utmost caution claims that the current crisis is being fuelled by militants with transnational jihadist aims. Rohingya communities have not typically been radicalised in this fashion and there are no indications that ARSA has been pursuing goals congruent with those of global jihadist outfits. While there may be domestic political imperatives or gains to be had for politicians in the region to make these claims, doing so is deeply dangerous.

If the Myanmar government chooses to continue a massive military response against the general population, even if parts of this population may be sympathetic to ARSA, or publicly to treat the violence as the work of jihadists, it risks creating conditions for the entrenchment or rise of those very same dynamics. An alienated, desperate and dispossessed population that is shunned by the country it claims as its home and by neighbours is ripe for exploitation by such groups and may believe it has little to lose if it were to turn to violence. The risks to those who live in Myanmar, the country’s transition and regional stability are considerable.

The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state.

There is no military solution to the crisis in Rakhine state. The Myanmar government will find no success, only long term violence and crisis, if it uses the presence of militants and the growth of some sympathy for them, as an excuse to address in an extreme manner the long-standing challenges of Rakhine state. The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state, Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities. This political path is difficult and will require compromises many may find distasteful. But taking this road is the only way to reduce the risks of serious violence, more displacement and greater human misery.