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Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention
Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention
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

A girl rests on a rock above a refugee camp in DR Congo’s Kivu province, in 2008. MAGNUM/Jim Goldberg

Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention

Immediate palliative care is a vital response to the world's record numbers of refugees and internally displaced. But any sustainable solution to this global crisis must go further, buttressing international law and ending the wars that drive so many from their homes.

For those millions of people whose lives have been uprooted, whether escaping conflict, unchecked violence, or political repression, next week’s summit meetings in New York on the refugee crisis might as well be taking place in a parallel universe.

The outcome of the UN summit has already been decided, and the commitments made by the world’s governments fall far short of what’s needed to address a crisis of this magnitude. The agreed outcome document does recognise the scale of the challenge and reaffirms the rights of all refugees and migrants, which is itself significant in a time of rising xenophobia and eroding international standards. It also acknowledges that the protection of refugees is a shared global responsibility and commits to working toward a strengthened regime by which to better address this phenomenon.

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However, member states have not even been able to agree to resettle a bare minimum of 10 per cent of refugees annually, or indeed to any concrete measures to improve an untenable situation. Most importantly, the agreement lacks detail on the most vital issues of all: how states will prevent or resolve those conflicts driving mass migration, and how they will reinforce their fraying commitment to uphold international law and standards.

The scale of the disaster is staggering. There are over 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, more than ever recorded. Overwhelmingly, this is a problem that affects the global south. Countries from Asia, the Middle East to Africa and Central America are both the primary sources and principal hosts of the displaced. Well over 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are located in the developing world.

Worsening conflicts are mostly to blame for the rise in displacement. The Syrian war alone is responsible for driving some 12 million people from their homes since 2011. But many of the world’s displaced have been stuck in limbo for years, even decades, like most of the 5.2 million Palestinians registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency or some of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Failure to adequately cope with the influx risks further instability, whether because of immense pressures placed on host countries or because of the lost opportunities incurred by those forced to flee, millions of whom are children denied schooling.

Immediate palliative care is vital, but any sustainable solution to the crisis must go further. The outcome document for the UN summit is vague in its commitment to preventing conflict and resolving those currently in progress. Its focus, overwhelmingly, is on how to better manage the situation of people only after they become refugees.

A continuation of the current strategy of short-term triage more or less guarantees that we will face even more conflict and humanitarian suffering in the future.

By many counts, the past five years have seen a rise in the frequency and intensity of deadly conflict. The increasing range of interests at play in these conflicts, both domestic and international, the weakening of the world’s security architecture, and rising geopolitical tensions have made resolving this violence much more challenging. Further, a sense of overwhelming crisis, financial pressures, domestic political constraints, and memories of recent failed interventions have, for many actors, encouraged a dangerous narrowing of foreign policy interests.

Globally, the top ten source countries for refugees account for 76 per cent of the total, and constitute in large part a list of those places where war prevails over peace; predatory state behaviour over benign. If past is prologue, this issue is not going to disappear any time soon. The overall problem of violence-triggered flight is longstanding in the cases of nearly all of those countries on the list. Indeed, it’s getting worse. Last year alone, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 12.4 million newly displaced; the last five years have seen a near 50 per cent increase in this phenomenon.

In this treacherous landscape, world leaders must address squarely the driving cause behind mass migration. And they must start by making better use of the global institutions they created and upholding the international legal framework they built. States must reassert the primacy of international humanitarian and human rights law, including by unequivocally calling out transgressors and mobilising action to halt – and if need be, to prosecute – violations.

The UN system must be made more functional. A Security Council in a state of near paralysis on too many issues will not make the world safer. As its members seek consensus on a new Secretary-General, they would do well to choose for that post an individual with the skills, energy and independence required. The next leader of the UN should be prepared to harness the organisation’s formidable mediation, peacekeeping, humanitarian and development capacities for the better management of conflict. Even if Council members find agreement on key issues elusive, they should at least give the next Secretary-General the space to bring them together.

The failure to get to grips with the fundamentals of the refugee crisis – including in concrete follow-up to the September summit in New York – risks a damning judgment on the many states with the capacity to effect positive change. A continuation of the current strategy of short-term triage more or less guarantees that we will face even more conflict and humanitarian suffering in the future. The human costs are already too high, and they are rising exponentially.