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Rohingya Crisis: A Major Threat to Myanmar Transition and Regional Stability
Rohingya Crisis: A Major Threat to Myanmar Transition and Regional Stability
Report 261 / Asia

Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State

The highly volatile situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State adds dangerously to the country’s political and religious tensions. Long-term, incremental solutions are critical for the future of Rakhine State and the country as a whole.

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Executive Summary

The situation in Rakhine State contains a toxic mixture of historical centre-periphery tensions, serious intercommunal and inter-religious conflict with minority Muslim communities, and extreme poverty and under-development. This led to major violence in 2012 and further sporadic outbreaks since then. The political temperature is high, and likely to increase as Myanmar moves closer to national elections at the end of 2015. It represents a significant threat to the overall success of the transition, and has severely damaged the reputation of the government when it most needs international support and investment. Any policy approach must start from the recognition that there will be no easy fixes or quick solutions. The problems faced by Rakhine State are rooted in decades of armed violence, authoritarian rule and state-society conflict. This crisis has affected the whole of the state and all communities within it. It requires a sustained and multi-pronged response, as well as critical humanitarian and protection interventions in the interim.

Failure to deal with the situation can have impacts for the whole country. As Myanmar is redefining itself as a more open society at peace with its minorities and embracing its diversity, introducing the seeds of a narrow and discriminatory nationalism could create huge problems for the future. Political solutions to the decades-long armed conflict, including the building of a federal nation, will be much more difficult.

The largest group in the state are the Rakhine, who are Buddhist, and there is a significant Muslim minority, including the Rohingya – a designation rejected by the government and Rakhine. The Rakhine community as a whole has tended to be cast internationally as violent extremists – ignoring the diversity of opinions that exist, the fact that the Rakhine themselves are a long-oppressed minority, and rarely attempting to understand their perspective and concerns. This is counterproductive: it promotes a siege mentality on the part of the Rakhine, and obscures complex realities that must be understood if a sustainable way forward is to be found.

The grievances of the Rakhine are similar to those of Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities – including longstanding discrimination by the state, a lack of political control over their own affairs, economic marginalisation, human rights abuses and restrictions on language and cultural expression. Decades of Rakhine anger have begun to morph. Since the transition to the new government, many Rakhine have increasingly felt that the most immediate and obvious threat that they face in rebuilding their communities and re-asserting their ethnic identity is one of demographics. There is a fear that they could soon become a minority in their own state – and, valid or not, there is no doubt that it is very strongly felt in Rakhine communities.

Muslim communities, in particular the Rohingya, have over the years been progressively marginalised from social and political life. Many have long been denied full citizenship, with significant consequences for their livelihoods and well-being. There are now efforts underway in the legislature to disenfranchise them, which could be incendiary. The Rohingya see this as their last remaining connection to politics and means of influence. Without this, it would be hard for them to avoid the conclusion that politics had failed them – which could prompt civil disobedience or even organised violence.

Current government initiatives to address the situation are centred on a pilot process to verify the citizenship of undocumented Muslims, and an “action plan” to deal with a broader set of political, security and development issues. Both contain deeply problematic elements. The refusal of the government and Rakhine community to accept the use of the term “Rohingya”, and the equally strong rejection of the term “Bengali” by the Rohingya, have created a deadlock. The verification process is going ahead without resolving this, and it may be boycotted by a majority of Rohingya.

The action plan envisages moving those who are granted citizenship to new settlements, rather than back to their original homes, potentially entrenching segregation. Those who are found to be non-citizens, or who do not cooperate with verification, may have to remain in camps until a solution can be found – which could be a very long time. An additional problem is that many Muslims may be given naturalised citizenship, which is more insecure and does not confer many of the rights of full citizenship.

Citizenship will not by itself automatically promote the rights of the Muslim population. This is made clear by the plight of the Kaman, who are full citizens by birth and a recognised indigenous group, but whose Islamic faith has meant that many are confined to displacement camps with no possibility to move freely or return to their land. Citizenship is thus necessary but not sufficient for improving rights. An end to discriminatory policies, including movement restrictions, and improved security and rule of law are also indispensable.

The government faces a major challenge in that the demands and expectations of the Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim communities may not be possible to reconcile. In such a context, it is essential to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are protected while also finding ways to ease Rakhine fears. Important too are efforts to combat extremism and hate speech. Only by doing so can the current climate of impunity for expressing intolerant views, and acting on them, be addressed. Ringleaders and perpetrators of violence must be brought swiftly to justice, which has rarely been the case. Doing so will help ensure not only that justice is done; it can also contribute to political stability and enhance the prospects for peaceful solutions.

Political solutions may not bear fruit quickly, but this must not lead to complacency. Solutions are critical for the future of Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Pre-empting extremist violence requires starting a credible process now that can demonstrate to the Rakhine and Muslim communities that political avenues exist. More broadly, unless Myanmar is successful in creating a new sense of national identity that embraces the country’s huge cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, peace and stability will remain elusive nationwide. In the meantime, it is essential for the international community to support the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable populations, which are likely to remain for years. It is also vital to address the chronic poverty and underdevelopment of all communities in the state, particularly through equitable and well-targeted village-level community development schemes.

Yangon/Brussels, 22 October 2014

Commentary / Asia

Rohingya Crisis: A Major Threat to Myanmar Transition and Regional Stability

The international community’s failure to address Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis has resulted in massive displacement from Rakhine state. The crisis poses a clear threat to Myanmar’s democratic transition. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support strong Security Council action and push for multilateral and bilateral engagement with Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders.

Since Crisis Group’s warning in its February Watch List, Rakhine state’s “alarming trajectory” has deteriorated further. The views of most people in Myanmar and those of much of the international community on the crisis are diametrically opposed. Domestically, the situation is seen to stem from terrorist attacks and a legitimate security response to them; internationally, the focus is on the disproportionate military response to those attacks involving serious abuses characterised as possible crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s political direction in relation to the crisis has now been set and is very unlikely to be altered. Views domestically and internationally are hardening in different directions, with huge implications for domestic politics and Myanmar’s standing in the world.

At the open session of the UN Security Council on 28 September, there was consensus among many members on four points: (1) ending the military operation and vigilante attacks on Rohingya; (2) giving unfettered humanitarian access to northern Rakhine state to UN agencies and their INGO partners; (3) ensuring a safe, voluntary and sustainable return of refugees from Bangladesh to their original places of origin in Myanmar; and (4) addressing the underlying problems through implementation as soon as possible of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission, in particular the need to expedite the citizenship verification process and to ensure that those granted citizenship are able to enjoy associated rights.

Failure to address the immediate humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state – through concerted efforts to end attacks and protect civilians as well as urgent humanitarian assistance to Rohingya communities still in Myanmar who are already on the move – have aggravated the crisis and triggered the departure of tens of thousands more Rohingya to Bangladesh, who have been arriving in recent days. Only the UN has the capacity to quickly deliver assistance at the required scale, and in a way that will reassure the international community that needs of all communities are being met. The main reason for this second wave of departures must also be clear: it is not a lack of food or humanitarian assistance per se, but rather restrictions and insecurity that deprive people of their normal means of survival, whether farming, fishing, foraging or trading.

Likewise, failure to make significant progress on voluntary refugee returns under UN High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) auspices, and begin to address the root causes of the crisis through implementation of the Annan commission recommendations, will leave a huge population in Bangladesh of some 700,000 people who have fled over the last year. This group of traumatised people with no hope for the future could easily be taken advantage of by militants and transnational jihadist groups for their own ends, which could create deep instability in Myanmar and the wider region. Some may attempt to cross the Andaman Sea by boat to Malaysia once the monsoon recedes in the next month or so, facilitated by people-smuggling networks, risking a repeat of the maritime migration crisis of 2015.

Myanmar’s actions are already aggravating the terrorist threat.

Myanmar’s actions are already aggravating the terrorist threat. On 3 September, a senior leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen called for attacks on Myanmar and its leaders in response to the treatment of the Rohingya. On 13 September, al-Qaeda appealed to its members to support the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militancy and warned that Myanmar would face “punishment” for its “crimes”. Although ARSA issued a statement the following day stating that it had no links with “any transnational terrorist group” and “did not welcome the involvement of such groups in the conflict”, the risk of other groups manipulating the situation is significant, as is the possibility of terrorist attacks elsewhere in Myanmar from outside the country, whether directed or inspired by transnational jihadist groups. Tellingly in this regard, an Egyptian militant group named Hasm claimed responsibility for a blast at the Myanmar embassy in Cairo on 30 September.

Furthermore, the crisis represents a grave threat to Myanmar’s transition. It has unleashed a wave of strong nationalist sentiment and greatly amplified and reinforced bigoted views. There is extremely strong support in the country for Suu Kyi’s position and the military’s approach. The risk is that once such narrow nationalist sentiments take hold, unopposed by the democratically-elected government, they will constrain future government responses to the crisis and set the country once again on a path to international pariah status. This will make it much more difficult for Myanmar to forge an inclusive national identity, essential for such an ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse country. And it would hinder progress on the peace process, whose success requires national consensus on granting greater political authority and economic resources to minority communities and areas. Anti-Western sentiment, currently running high, also could be entrenched.

Suu Kyi does not have the authority under the constitution to order the military to take a different approach, but through the president has the power to convene military leaders. However, her most powerful tool is her undisputed position as the person in the country enjoying the greatest political and moral authority. This gives her the power to sway public opinion, and considerable ability to influence the security forces; her speech to the nation on 12 October contained some positive signals in this regard. Efforts to shift the domestic narrative may come at a cost to both her political support and relations with the military. However, the risk of the military attempting to take complete power, or launch a coup, is very low; the military spent more than twenty years preparing the current constitutional arrangement and putting it in place, and from their perspective the transition has been much more successful than they might have expected. They would see a return to military rule as a failure of their generational project, to be avoided at all costs.

Recommendations for the EU and its member states

Immediate priorities remain those articulated by a number of members in the 28 September Security Council briefing: ending state and vigilante violence and village destruction; unfettered humanitarian access for the UN and INGOs; ensuring voluntary return of refugees to places of origin in line with international law; and timely implementation of the Annan commission’s recommendations. To work toward these priorities, and in light of the 16 October EU’s Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Continue to support strong Security Council scrutiny and action.
     
  • Continue to support strong, principled multilateral and bilateral engagement with Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders in order to chart a way out of the crisis.
     
  • Support efforts to ensure accountability for rights violations in northern Rakhine state.
     
  • Encourage Suu Kyi to speak to the nation and make full use of her position to shift the national narrative in a more constructive direction.

A return to previous forms of bilateral and EU sanctions on Myanmar in the form of travel bans and asset freezes may not be helpful in achieving concrete progress, and risks constraining future policy options as well as sending unintended signals to investors that could impact on the economy, to the detriment of ordinary Myanmar people.