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Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation
Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation
Report 214 / Asia

Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative

After demonstrating commitment to an extraordinary series of social, economic and political reforms, Myanmar’s new government has launched a bold peace initiative with potential to resolve the devastating 60-year civil war with ethnic groups.

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Executive Summary

Since taking office in March 2011, President Thein Sein has moved remarkably quickly to implement reforms. He has reached out to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released significant numbers of political prisoners, cut back on media censorship and signed a new law allowing labour unions to form. On the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s early December visit, key benchmarks set by Western countries imposing sanctions, such as releasing political prisoners and creating the conditions for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to join the political process, appear well on their way to being met. Now, a bold peace initiative has given hope the country’s biggest challenge – the devastating 60-year-long civil war between the government and ethnic groups – can also be resolved.

Until very recently, the conflict situation had not been looking positive. As preparations for the new civilian government were being made in recent years, the outgoing military administration aggravated already fraying relationships with the ethnic minorities. Ceasefires collapsed as it tried to impose a new border guard force scheme on the armed groups that would have brought their soldiers under national army command. Stepped up fighting and treating their long-standing political grievances as a security problem did not address core concerns of making peace, promoting equality, ending human rights abuses, providing economic opportunity, equitable resource sharing and strengthening regional autonomy. President Thein Sein came to power pledging to make the ethnic issue a national priority, offering dialogue with all armed groups and dropping key preconditions for talks but found these words were not enough. He now needs to follow through on the new peace initiative with actions that convince sceptical ethnic communities that he means what he says.

Myanmar has been at war with its own minorities almost since independence in 1948. The military regime that came to power in 1988 temporarily neutralised its largest military threat in the borderlands by signing ceasefire agreements with a number of ethnic armed groups. The ceasefires should have been a watershed, from war to peace and armed to political struggle, but this failed to happen. Instead, these agreements grew stale as promised political talks never materialised and then collapsed when the military government tried by decree to incorporate ethnic armies into a border guard force ahead of a long-planned transition to a new structure of constitutional government.

In his inaugural speech in March, the president laid out a broad reform agenda to catch up with a changing world. As part of this, he acknowledged the importance of the ethnic minority issue, and pledged to make it a national priority. The upsurge in fighting around the same time he took office contradicted his rhetoric and cast a shadow over the reform efforts. It also led to great scepticism on the part of ethnic minority leaders, who felt that once again their grievances were not being accorded genuine national priority.

After his initial speeches on ethnic reconciliation did not promote the kind of dialogue hoped for, the president moved decisively to build momentum behind a new peace initiative. His government has reached out to all armed groups, offering first more flexible terms, including dropping the demand for the groups to become border guard forces, and then an unprecedented national conference to seek political solutions to ethnic divisions. This has convinced some of the major ethnic groups to sign peace agreements and others to agree to verbal ceasefires, with written agreements to be signed in the coming weeks.

While these developments mark one of the most significant moments in the six decades of conflict, lasting peace is still not assured. Ethnic minority grievances run deep, and bringing peace to the country will take more than reaching agreements with the armed groups – it requires addressing the grievances and aspirations of all minority populations, whether or not they are pursuing armed struggle. Renewed clashes with one large group, the Kachin Independence Organisation, have been intense and have created further bad blood on both sides, making any peace agreement more difficult. The new more open political process offers a framework within which these issues could be addressed, but it will require an honest reckoning with the failures of the past and a fundamental re-thinking of the way the country deals with its multi-ethnic make up. A lasting solution to the problem requires going beyond just stopping the wars. Multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious Myanmar can only achieve genuine national unity and reconciliation by embracing its diversity.

As the international community takes stock of the situation, it must understand the complexities of the conflict. There is a positive role for outsiders to play, especially neighbours such as China and Thailand, but it would be foolhardy for the West to make resolving such deep-seated domestic grievances a prerequisite for improving bilateral relations or beginning to lift sanctions. Encouraging the government in Myanmar to find its own way to stop the fighting and address key political concerns of ethnic communities, however, would simultaneously help meet key Western benchmarks on political prisoners, human rights and democracy, as fixing these problems would also be an important part of reconciliation with the country’s ethnic constituencies. The greatest improvements to human rights observance would come from tackling these conflicts. Once peace agreements are reached, there is an important role for donor countries in providing development assistance and peacebuilding support to these areas.

This report, Crisis Group’s first focusing exclusively on the ethnic conflict since 2003, is based primarily on field research carried out in Myanmar, as well as in China and Thailand, over the past several months.

Jakarta/Brussels, 30 November 2011

Commentary / Asia

Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation

Ethnic armed conflict, the ongoing Rohingya crisis and thriving illegal business are preventing Myanmar from solving the country’s protracted conflicts. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to sustain aid and diversify its peacebuilding initiatives.

The Rohingya crisis continues to take a heavy toll on the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, and Myanmar’s international reputation, and remains a significant barrier to peace. No durable solution is on the horizon for the refugees, most of whom are in crowded camps exposed to health and natural disaster risks. Muslims remaining in Rakhine State suffer increasingly entrenched conditions of apartheid, with limited access to essential services and livelihoods. The human catastrophe on both sides of the border represents a major threat to peace and security. The ethnic Rakhine are also on a collision course with Naypyitaw, particularly over the detention and potential high treason conviction of a key Rakhine leader. This has undermined the Rakhine population’s confidence in politics and is driving broad support for the Arakan Army insurgency, which has sharply escalated attacks and threatens to tip the state into prolonged armed conflict. Elsewhere, in the north east, armed conflict has eased due to the unexpected declaration by the military on 21 December of a unilateral ceasefire in Shan and Kachin States. However, clashes between ethnic armed groups continue, the peace process remains moribund, and insecurity is exacerbated by increasingly lucrative opportunities for armed groups in drug production, human trafficking, and a range of other illicit activities.

The EU and its member states can help to address this complex set of challenges by:

  • Continuing to fund the humanitarian appeal for Rohingya camps in Bangladesh and stepping up development aid to host communities. This is the best way to give greater dignity to refugees and limit space for actors with other agendas, potentially including those promoting violence.
  • Providing humanitarian and development support that takes into account the differentiated needs of men, women, girls, and boys from all ethnic and religious groups in Rakhine State. Delivery of this support should avoid entrenching segregation or reinforcing apartheid policies, and should be sensitive to past human rights abuses some have suffered, including sexual and gender-based violence.
  • Remaining engaged with Myanmar while continuing to support international accountability measures. Disengagement and isolation will not bring positive change and will likely exacerbate the structural factors underlying Myanmar’s multiple crises.
  • Establishing sectoral exemptions if it decides to revoke Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme, which provides Least Developed Countries with tariff- and quota-free access to EU markets. Revoking the scheme in its entirety would harm hundreds of thousands of low-income garment industry workers, mostly young women who would lose their jobs, potentially further impoverishing their families and leaving these women at heightened risk of trafficking and exploitation.
  • Diversifying its support to peacebuilding initiatives aimed at ending Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. This support should aim to protect civilians, assist conflict-affected communities and de-escalate rising levels of violence, including in Rakhine State.

Deadlock in the Peace Process and a New Escalation in Rakhine State

While international condemnation helped avert Bangladesh’s planned forcible repatriation of some Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar in November 2018, the risk remains that Dhaka could revive the process or force refugees to relocate to a remote island. Uncertainty about their future is feeding fear and desperation among the refugees, creating fertile ground for potential militancy. No long-term solution is in sight. Safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation is a distant prospect, third-country resettlement is extremely unlikely for all but a tiny proportion of refugees (and currently blocked even for small numbers), and the Bangladeshi government continues to resist local integration.

In Rakhine State, living conditions for the Rohingya that were already dire are worsening. Myanmar’s government is making no concerted effort to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State – it has taken some steps on health, education and development, but made no progress on guaranteeing freedom of movement, citizenship and other fundamental rights. Nor has it made progress on holding accountable those responsible for crimes committed during the Myanmar army’s expulsion of the Rohingya following militant attacks in October 2016 and August 2017, which a UN report has said merits investigation for genocide. The government is moving forward tentatively with closing camps for displaced Muslims but without granting the freedom of movement necessary to access services and livelihood opportunities, thereby reinforcing a situation of apartheid and leaving the population indefinitely reliant on humanitarian assistance. Repression and poverty are fuelling a new wave of dangerous boat journeys from Rakhine State across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia and Indonesia; desperation in the Bangladesh camps is prompting Rohingya refugees to attempt the same route.

At the same time, deadly coordinated attacks by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, on four police posts in northern Rakhine on 4 January – Myanmar’s Independence Day – will have a major impact in Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Beyond the immediate escalation in clashes this will bring, and the added complications for addressing the plight of the Rohingya, the attacks portend something significant and dangerous for the longer term: a shift in Rakhine popular sentiment away from politics toward armed insurgency as the means of addressing their grievances. This shift threatens to plunge the state into serious and sustained armed conflict for the first time in decades. The popular perception that politics has failed comes in part from the fact that, although a Rakhine political party won a large majority of elected seats in 2015, Naypyitaw imposed a minority National League for Democracy government; subsequently the top Rakhine political leader was arrested for high treason and remains on trial facing a possible death sentence.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy.

In the restive north of the country, even with the military’s unilateral ceasefire, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government will likely struggle to reinvigorate the moribund peace process for ending Myanmar’s multiple internal ethnic armed conflicts. This is due to a loss of trust on all sides, resistance from the military and government to meaningful concessions on minority rights and greater devolution of power, and the fact that political dynamics ahead of the 2020 elections further narrow the administration’s room for manoeuvre. Armed conflict in Shan State has eased as a result of the unilateral ceasefire, although clashes between competing Shan factions continue; this will enable the military to focus more attention and firepower on the escalating conflict in Rakhine State.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy. Revenues from illegal businesses (including drug production, gem and wildlife smuggling, gambling, money laundering and racketeering) now contribute to funding and sustaining the civil war. A toxic political economy based on organised crime and corruption fosters local resentment and enormous disincentives against ending conflicts.

Moving Beyond the Status Quo

The EU should take steps in three areas. First, it should re-evaluate its approach to the Rohingya crisis. More than six years on from the initial segregation of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, the government has shown no sign of reintegrating them – rather, it has opted for an ever more entrenched system of segregation. The EU and others providing humanitarian assistance in such a context are an important lifeline for these communities, but must ensure that they take a principled approach and keep the parameters of assistance under close review to ensure they are not inadvertently reinforcing the government’s discriminatory practices. For example, the Rohingya camps in central Rakhine are not classic internally displaced persons camps but, rather, internment camps, and policy approaches must start from a recognition of this. This dynamic presents a dilemma to which there is no easy answer: withdrawing humanitarian support from this population would negatively impact on vulnerable people; continuing support as camps transition to semi-permanent confinement sites could amount to complicity in longer-term ghettoisation. The only way forward for the EU and other humanitarian actors is to continuously assess their approach and the evolving context to ensure they are minimising harm.

The EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme.

The EU should continue its vital support to the camps in Bangladesh while also continuing to push for accountability for those responsible for violence against the Rohingya. Domestic processes such as the government-appointed Commission of Enquiry are not credible; this leaves international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court, and the UN-established body charged with preparing case files for future criminal proceedings, as the most likely route through which perpetrators could be held to account.

Second, the EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme. Such a move would have a catastrophic impact on many workers, particularly girls in the garment industry, without doing anything to punish the perpetrators of crimes in Rakhine State and elsewhere, who should be the focus of the EU’s actions in this regard. Hurting vulnerable workers would damage the EU’s reputation in Myanmar and beyond, and hamper its ability to engage with the government and other actors for no positive gain.

Last, the EU has a leading role on Myanmar’s peace process, having been a key donor since its inception. While the EU should continue to support the stalled negotiations, it should also make a realistic assessment of prospects for success, particularly as the country heads to elections in 2020. Redirecting EU funds to local initiatives could have a greater impact than support to the formal process at national level. Recognising that no imminent end to the armed conflicts is in sight, funds should go toward de-escalation efforts, peacebuilding and protecting civilians. The EU should also extend support to the Anti-Corruption Commission and related initiatives. Such support could strengthen government efforts toward combating organised crime, including drug production and human trafficking, which are rampant in conflict-affected areas and help fuel those conflicts.