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Myanmar Assassination Shows Urgent Need for Unity Against Hate Crimes
Myanmar Assassination Shows Urgent Need for Unity Against Hate Crimes
Myanmar: Diverting Rakhine State’s Alarming Trajectory
Myanmar: Diverting Rakhine State’s Alarming Trajectory
Statement / Asia

Myanmar Assassination Shows Urgent Need for Unity Against Hate Crimes

The 29 January assassination of U Ko Ni, a respected Muslim veteran of the pro-democracy struggle, is a great loss to Myanmar and underlines the urgency for unity against all forms of hate speech and possible hate crimes.

It is with shock and great sadness that Crisis Group has learned of the assassination on 29 January of prominent Myanmar lawyer, U Ko Ni. A senior National League for Democracy (NLD) constitutional expert and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, he was one of the most high-profile Muslim voices in the country. 

U Ko Ni was shot twice in the head at close range, at Yangon International Airport; a 52-year-old man was reportedly arrested at the scene. U Ko Ni was returning from an official visit to Indonesia with a cross-section of senior Buddhist and Muslim figures involved in addressing tensions in Rakhine State. The trip was aimed at sharing experiences of overcoming inter-religious tensions.

While the motive of the attacker is not known at this time, this killing has all the appearances of a hate crime, and is of grave concern at a time of heightened communal and religious tensions in Myanmar. These have recently escalated following deadly attacks on Myanmar border police bases in Rakhine State last October, and a brutal military response against local Rohingya villagers.

The killing of U Ko Ni, a widely respected veteran of the pro-democracy struggle, is a great loss to Myanmar. Such killings of political leaders have been extremely rare in Myanmar, even during the dark decades of dictatorship. But there is a serious risk that in a context of strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, rampant hate speech on social media, and virulent Buddhist nationalism propounded by some senior monks, this crime could embolden others and unleash further violence.

It is essential that a prompt, credible and transparent investigation is conducted and that no stone is left unturned in finding the truth about this incident and who may have been behind it. The killing also underlines the urgency of the Myanmar government and society coming together to condemn all forms of hate speech, confront it wherever it occurs, and take resolute action against those responsible for disseminating it.

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.