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Myanmar Foreign Minister and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attended the opening ceremony of the Union Peace Conference at Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city, on 12 January 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Briefing 149 / Asia

Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue

After almost 70 years of armed conflict, Myanmar has a rare but fading opportunity to finalise a broad-based, federal settlement. The government must adopt a more flexible approach that allays opposition concerns, and armed groups need to go beyond preliminaries and engage in meaningful discussions.

Also available in: Burmese [PDF]

I. Overview

The current government term may be the best chance for a negotiated political settlement to almost 70 years of armed conflict that has devastated the lives of minority communities and held back Myanmar as a whole. Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration have made the peace process a top priority. While the previous government did the same, she has a number of advantages, such as her domestic political stature, huge election mandate and strong international backing, including qualified support on the issue from China. These contributed to participation by nearly all armed groups – something the former government had been unable to achieve – in the Panglong-21 peace conference that commenced on 31 August. But if real progress is to be made, both the government and armed groups need to adjust their approach so they can start a substantive political dialogue as soon as possible.

Pangalong-21 was important for its broad inclusion of armed groups, not for its content, and the challenges going forward should not be underestimated. Many groups attended not out of support for the process, but because they considered they had no alternative. Many felt that they were treated poorly and the conference was badly organised. The largest opposition armed group, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), sent only a junior delegation that walked out on the second day. An escalation of fighting in recent months, including use of air power and long-range artillery by the Myanmar military, has further eroded trust.

Such issues are not unexpected; what matters is the resilience of the process to deal with them. The announced scheduling of further Panglong-21 conferences every six months (the next for February 2017) imposes an artificially rigid timeframe that limits the flexibility required to overcome obstacles. Weak capacity in the government’s peace secretariat, the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC), is another challenge. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a sine qua non for participation in the upcoming political dialogue process – future Panglong-21 conferences and the discussions feeding into them – that has been clearly articulated by both the government and military. This will be even harder if the military continues its forceful posture on the ground.

Eight groups signed the NCA in October 2015, but at least ten other armed groups have reservations. Some, like the UWSP, have better de facto self-governance arrange­ments already and worry their status would be undermined by signing. Others are concerned that the new government has a more unilateral approach to the peace process and that if they sign, political solutions are more likely to be imposed than negotiated. Three groups without bilateral ceasefires are resisting government demands to issue statements renouncing armed struggle in principle.

The government should consider adopting a more flexible timeframe for the peace conferences and reassure armed groups by demonstrating a less unilateral approach to the process in general. It needs to ensure that civil society, women and youth have a stronger voice in the process. It should also take steps to ensure that it has the necessary support capacity in place at the NRPC.

Armed groups need to recognise that though they have legitimate concerns about the process, they are unlikely to get a better chance to achieve a negotiated political settlement. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal, democratic solution and has unparalleled political authority to deliver it, particularly with the Burman majority. Now is the time to start discussing the contours of that deal, rather than continuing to focus on preliminaries.

The alternative is not attractive. Time is not on the side of the armed groups. Unless both sides grasp the current opportunity, the prospect of a negotiated solution will recede, likely to be replaced by a messy, drawn-out endgame that fails to address the underlying grievances of the minority communities, including their demands for a federal system and greater equality. This would be to the detriment of peace and stability in the borderlands and to Myanmar’s future as a prosperous, tolerant and democratic country.

II. Peace Legacy from the Previous Government

A. Peace Process with Armed Groups

The administration that took power on 30 March 2016 inherited a peace process that had been in stasis during the lame-duck period leading up to the November 2015 elections and the lengthy handover period afterwards.[fn]For recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266 Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and, for more detailed historical background on the armed conflict, 214, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, 30 November 2011.Hide Footnote  The previous government had had considerable early success, agreeing bilateral ceasefires with fifteen armed groups between 2011 and 2013 (see Appendix B and the acronyms in Appendix C). There was much optimism on 31 March 2015, when the government and armed group negotiating teams initialled the NCA. However, concerns over the lack of inclusivity (the government did not allow the three groups without bilateral ceasefires – AA, TNLA and MNDAA – to sign) as well as about giving the government of then-President Thein Sein a major victory just ahead of elections, stalled the process. Eventually, eight armed groups signed the NCA at a ceremony on 15 October 2015; the remaining ten involved in the formal peace process did not. This led to some tensions between signatory and non-signatory groups.[fn]For all armed group acronyms, see Appendix B.Hide Footnote

The NCA contains basic principles recognising the territorial integrity of the state (making clear that separatism or irredentism is unacceptable), committing to “principles of democracy and federalism” and embracing the diversity of the peoples and cultures in “a secular state”. A military code of conduct prohibits certain conduct by all parties in ceasefire areas (attacks, reinforcement, recruitment, new bases, laying landmines, etc.) and sets out troop deployment provisions to avoid clashes. There is provision for a joint ceasefire monitoring body, and “interim arrangements” endorse armed groups’ de facto authority in their areas of control for a transitional period. The NCA is to be followed by a “political dialogue”, consisting of a Union Peace Conference to reach a comprehensive peace agreement that would be “the basis for amending, repealing and adding provisions to the constitution and laws, in line with agreed procedures” – that is, through the legislature – along with armed group disarmament and security sector reform.[fn]For a detailed summary of the NCA, see Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process, op. cit., Section IV.Hide Footnote

Finalisation of the NCA was thus only the first step in a long, difficult process needed to reach a comprehensive peace agreement. Many of the most challenging issues, including a possible form of federalism, how revenue would be shared, future status of the armed groups and their possible integration into the military, were deferred to the political dialogue, as were some technical military issues on ceasefire monitoring and code of conduct. It is thus neither a classic ceasefire agreement – many military issues, such as force separation, demarcation and verification, are vague, not included or need further agreement to come into force – nor a full political agreement, as it references many political issues but defers detailed discussion. This hybrid status reflects its genesis, the diverse actors and priorities around the table and political constraints.

Following the partial signing, the previous government took formal steps to implement the NCA, specifically:

  • A first session of the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting, the body mandated to oversee NCA implementation, was held 15-17 October 2015. It established the committees set out in the NCA to take the process forward: the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) for military and ceasefire matters and Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) for political dialogue. The JMC contains ten representatives of NCA-signatory armed groups, ten of government (including military), and four independent civilians; there are also subnational committees. The UPDJC initially had sixteen representatives each of NCA-signatory armed groups, government (including military and legislature) and political parties and was chaired by then-Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham.
  • A joint legislative session ratified the NCA on 8 December, giving it legal status.
  • A Framework for Political Dialogue was agreed on 15 December, including the mandate, agenda, working methods and proportions of representatives to be included in the dialogue.
  • The first Union Peace Conference was held 12 to 16 January 2016, with opening addresses by the president, commander-in-chief, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mutu Say Poe, the head of the Karen National Union armed group. The conference had 700 participants but, occurring in the lame-duck period after the elections, was largely symbolic, intended only to launch the process and keep to the NCA’s ambitious political roadmap. Armed groups that did not sign the NCA were invited to observe, but nearly all declined.[fn]In accordance with the Framework for Political Dialogue, the 700 seats were divided 75 each for government and legislature, 150 for military, 150 each for ethnic armed groups and registered political parties, 50 each for ethnic representatives and other relevant persons. The roadmap required the Framework for Political Dialogue to be agreed within 60 days of the NCA signing and the dialogue to commence within 90 days. One non-signatory group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang, did accept the invitation. Three non-signatory armed groups without bilateral ceasefires (Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) were not invited.Hide Footnote

B. Armed Conflict

Notwithstanding these important procedural developments, the peace process essentially was in stasis between the NCA signing and the new government taking up the issue in April 2016. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remained volatile, with fighting continuing to break out sporadically, and often unexpectedly, in many different parts of the country.

Most groups that signed the NCA are based near the Thai border in southern Shan State and the south-east. Their signing consolidated a fragile local peace, or at least absence of war, that had prevailed for some time. Groups based near the Chinese border did not sign, and the situation in many of those areas continued to be unstable, with regular, sometimes intense fighting, including between ethnic armed groups. The geographic split reflects very different political-economic realities between the areas, including access to funding and weapons and the distinct policies and approaches of China and Thailand.

Serious bouts of conflict since early 2015 include:

  • in Shan State, resumed major fighting between Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) troops and government forces in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone since February 2015, which was particularly intense from February to June that year and again in October 2015. Elsewhere in Shan State, there have been sporadic clashes between government forces and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and between that group and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South). There have also been clashes between government forces and the SSA-North, of particular intensity from October to November 2015 and in August 2016;
  • in Kachin State, between government forces and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) throughout the period, and in particular from July to November 2015, and again from April to August 2016;
  • in Rakhine State and southern Chin State, occasional, sometimes heavy clashes between government forces and the Arakan Army, in particular in April 2015, January 2016 and from April to June 2016; and
  • in Kayin State, clashes in July 2015 and again from August to September 2016 between a renegade faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and government troops together with Border Guard Force soldiers.

Such conflicts are usually accompanied by grave violations of human rights by all belligerents.[fn]See, for example, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar”, UN OHCHR A/HRC/31/71, 18 March 2016.Hide Footnote  They undermine stability and trust in the peace process and severely impact lives and livelihoods – particularly of those most at risk, including women and children – often causing internal displacements.[fn]For a detailed risk analysis, see “Kachin and northern Shan protection concerns and risk analysis”, Protection Sector, October 2015.Hide Footnote  Some 100,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states as a result of fighting following the 2011 breakdown of the KIO ceasefire. Fighting in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone displaced around 80,000 in February 2015, the majority to China, though most have now returned. At least 12,000 were displaced in northern Shan State in the first half of 2016 in the complex conflicts that included government forces, the TNLA and the SSA-South; most have returned home, but some 3,000 remain displaced. The fighting in Rakhine State in March-April 2016 displaced approximately 1,900, who have yet to return home. Most recently, fighting in Kayin State displaced some 4,000 in September 2016.[fn]Figures from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, except Kayin State displacements, from “Tatmadaw launch operations against KKO splinter group in Wah Boh Taung-Kyonhtaw, Methawaw regions”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 17 September 2016.Hide Footnote

III. The New Government’s Approach

A. First Steps

During the previous government’s tenure, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was invited, with other political parties, to participate in the peace process. Though it sent representatives, their engagement was limited. Aung San Suu Kyi kept her distance and was at times critical of the process. Her speech to the inaugural Union Peace Conference in January 2016 (above) was thus significant.

Suu Kyi had indicated that achieving peace would be a top priority for her government, and the NLD’s election manifesto addressed this as its first item, promising to “hold political dialogue based on the Panglong spirit in order to address the roots of internal armed conflict” – referring to the pre-independence Panglong Conference, convened by her father in 1947.[fn]“2015 Election Manifesto”, NLD, official translation, p. 5. For details on the 1947 Panglong Conference, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, op. cit., Section I. The 1947 Panglong Agreement was not a peace deal – there was then no insurgency – but an agreement by some ethnic areas (Shan, Kachin and Chin) to join an independent Burma in return for promises of full autonomy in internal administration and an equal share in national wealth.Hide Footnote  In her first major speech after the transfer of power, a Myanmar New Year’s message to the nation on 18 April, Suu Kyi stated that the government would aim to bring remaining organisations into the NCA, and “through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union”.[fn]“State Counsellor offers New Year message”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 18 April 2016.Hide Footnote  She indicated that she would personally lead the process.

She gave the first concrete indication of her plans at a 27 April JMC meeting, announcing that a new 21st Century Panglong (Panglong-21) peace conference would be held within two months. This caused consternation among ethnic leaders due to both form and substance. There had been no prior consultation with ethnic armed groups or political leaders; and no details were provided on the initiative, which was seen as potentially signalling a unilateral shift in approach in a process with a legally-binding framework that had required months of detailed negotiation. The venue for the announcement compounded these concerns, as the JMC is tasked with military or ceasefire matters, not the political dialogue, for which the UPDJC is the mandated body.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ethnic party and armed group leaders, Yangon, May-July 2016. For example, a month later the leader of the Shan State Army-South, a major armed group that signed the NCA, expressed concern on both aspects. “Lt-Gen Yawd Serk: If this conference is wrong, it will affect the future of the union”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 26 May 2016.Hide Footnote

In a 26-28 May meeting of the UPDJC, which she chairs, Suu Kyi sought to allay some concerns. She confirmed she would continue to follow the NCA framework, and Panglong-21 was only a different name for the Union Peace Conferences that framework envisaged. While this reassured ethnic leaders, other comments raised new concerns, notably her stated intention to narrow the scope of discussions in the political dialogue from the five thematic areas agreed in the UPDJC to federalism and security.[fn]Ibid. “NCA to guide 21st Century Panglong Conference”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 28 May 2016. The previously-agreed five areas are set out in the Framework for Political Dialogue, which is being amended. The three thematic areas proposed to be dropped were: social issues (including culture, language, gender, resettlement, human rights, drugs), economic issues (including foreign investment, tax and revenue distribution and regional development) and issues around land and natural resources (including resource management and revenue sharing).Hide Footnote  This would leave out some key areas of concern and missed an opportunity to build confidence by addressing easier issues, such as language policy. With armed group leaders strongly opposed, the matter was not settled before the Panglong-21 conference, and discussions are ongoing. It is likely armed group concerns will be accommodated, and the dialogue’s scope will remain unchanged, though with some effort to focus on priority issues.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of UPDJC, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  There has to date been little outreach to civil society, and few efforts to engage a wider range of voices in the peace process, particularly women and youth.

The government also announced a new peace architecture on 31 May, with three sets of structures:

  • the NCA-mandated JMC and UPDJC, the latter now chaired by Suu Kyi and with party membership limited to those that won seats in the last elections;
  • a committee to transform the previous government’s Myanmar Peace Centre into a National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC). This new centre, launched on 11 July, is headed by Suu Kyi. Under it is a new Peace Commission, chaired by Dr Tin Myo Win, her personal physician and newly-designated chief peace negotiator.[fn]Established by President Office Orders 50/2016 and 51/2016, 11 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Unlike its predecessor, a semi-government body staffed mainly by non-government experts, it is a government institution under Suu Kyi’s State Counsellor Office, staffed by civil servants and governed by civil service laws and financial rules; and
  • a Panglong-21 preparatory committee also chaired by Dr Tin Myo Win and sub-committees to liaise respectively with NCA-signatories and non-signatories.

B. Peace Conference Preparations

Though the date for Panglong-21 slipped from her initial late-June proposal, Suu Kyi appeared determined to avoid major delays. This seems to stem from two considerations: not wanting to repeat the experience of the previous government, when negotiations bogged down over process, particularly which armed groups would be included; and a sense that her leverage would be at its greatest early in her term, due to the election landslide. Some observers also believed she wanted the conference before her September meetings with President Obama in Washington DC and at the UN General Assembly. Thus, at her urging, there was agreement with the NCA signatories for Panglong-21 to begin no later than 31 August, a very ambitious timeframe both logistically and for obtaining buy-in of non-signatory armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group leaders and international peace-process adviser, Yangon, July-August 2016. “Gov’t, NCA signatories agree to hold UPC no later than 31 August”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 29 June 2016.Hide Footnote

The intention to make Panglong-21 inclusive of all armed groups, stated from the outset, was positively received. This has long been a demand of the non-signatories. On 3 June, as a first step to secure their participation, Dr Tin Myo Win met the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the main umbrella organisation of non-signatories. He then met separately on 17-19 June with the UWSP and NDAA, non-signatories that are not UNFC members. Under the previous government, non-signatories were only invited as observers; the new government got around this by indicating that since the first Panglong-21 conference would be symbolic, with presentations but no negotiations or decisions, all armed groups would be “attendees” (tet-yauk-thu). The government position remained, however, that only signatories could participate in the future political dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Peace Commission, Yangon, August 2016.Hide Footnote

There were also negotiations with the three previously-excluded groups: AA, TNLA and MNDAA. Since these lack bilateral ceasefires, they are not eligible to sign the NCA, and the military previously insisted they must disarm, something the groups equated with surrender. The commander-in-chief subsequently proposed that it would be sufficient to put their arms beyond use in some verifiable way, along the lines of formulas used in Aceh, Nepal and Northern Ireland, but this was rejected.[fn]Ibid. Also, commander-in-chief meeting with press, 13 May 2016, reported in “Tatmadaw sets out peace conference conditions”, Myanmar Times, 16 May 2016.Hide Footnote  Negotiations then focused on a statement committing the groups to renounce armed struggle in principle. Considerable progress was made, with the only sticking point being the Burmese-language term for “armed struggle” versus “violence”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Peace Commission, Yangon, August 2016.Hide Footnote  However, no agreement was reached, the three issued no statement, and they were not invited to Panglong-21. Crucially, however, that did not lead to the UNFC and other non-signatories boycotting, though lack of inclusion had been a key reason cited by groups for not signing the NCA.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process op. cit., Section III.B.Hide Footnote  

In the lead-up to Panglong-21, representatives of seventeen armed groups held a major strategy meeting in the KIO-controlled town of Maijayang, 26-30 July, to coordinate positions on key issues; the UN and China attended as international observers. Four armed groups did not attend (UWSP, MNDAA, TNLA and NSCN-Khaplang). The UWSP, together with its NDAA ally, went to Naypyitaw to meet on 29 July with Suu Kyi and then the commander-in-chief.[fn]The NDAA participated in both the Maijayang meeting and the Naypyitaw visit.Hide Footnote

C. The Panglong-21 Conference

The conference, officially the “Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong”, was held in Naypyitaw from 31 August to 3 September. Suu Kyi’s opening address was followed by plenary speeches from the lower and upper house speakers, the commander-in-chief, the KNU chairman, NLD patron Tin Oo (an ex-commander-in-chief), the KIO vice chairman and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.[fn]The KIO vice chairman’s talk was a last-minute concession; there was initially no speaking slot for the non-signatory groups (Major-General N’Ban La also chairs the UNFC).Hide Footnote

Representatives of nearly all armed groups attended, except the AA, TNLA, MNDAA and NSCN-Khaplang.[fn]The first three were not invited; the NSCN-Khaplang, though invited, had long made clear it would not attend, as it is committed to the creation of an independent Naga homeland out of parts of Myanmar and India, which is politically inconsistent with the NCA and the peace process.Hide Footnote  Some 850 attendees participated over the four days. In a move armed group representatives welcomed for its transparency, the 72 ten-minute speeches were carried live on national television, “the first time in more than 50 years that they [were] able to express their desires and pent up aspirations to a national audience without fear of being arrested and put in prison”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group representatives, Yangon, September 2016. Quote from “Political Monitor No. 20”, Euro-Burma Office, 20 August-2 September 2016.Hide Footnote

The attendance of most non-signatories was an important step forward. However, it does not necessarily indicate significantly greater trust in the new government on the part of armed group leaders. It more reflects the very different political landscape – in particular, the domestic and international legitimacy of Suu Kyi. Many armed group leaders felt they had little alternative but to participate, despite reservations or concerns; some came under pressure from China to attend (see below).[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  A prominent ethnic politician, Khun Tun Oo, who chairs the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, did boycott on the basis that the conference was not fully inclusive of armed groups (though the decision was undoubtedly influenced by political tensions between his party and the NLD).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group representatives and analysts, Yangon, September 2016. “Khun Tun Oo absent from peace talks”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 31 August 2016. For details on the tensions, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s New Government, op. cit., Section III.C.Hide Footnote

Several groups felt the conference had been hastily convened, and there was considerable unhappiness at flawed arrangements. Armed group delegations were not met at the Naypyitaw airport and had to find their own way to their accommodation; delegations, including some senior leaders, were housed dormitory-style by the government; written documents and nameplates did not give military ranks of armed group representatives or other honorifics (failure to use the equivalent of “Mr” or “Ms” before a name is culturally very impolite in Myanmar). A major group, the UWSP, walked out after the first day, saying it felt discriminated against, though this was at least as much a reflection of its ambivalence about the NCA as it was over a specific issue; it had sent only a low-level delegation.[fn]The UWSP delegation had booked itself into a prominent hotel, rather than stay at the government-assigned accommodation. Since groups were not met at the airport, the delegation did not collect its conference passes, and on the opening day a government organiser arranged temporary “observer” badges so the delegation could attend the plenary. Since these were not valid for the following day session, when the UWSP was to give its presentation, security barred the delegation, which then walked out in protest before organisers could remedy the problem. Crisis Group interview, organising committee member, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  Some of these issues arose from the tight timeframe for convening the conference, but others appear to have been the deliberate result of the government’s approach to organising it.

IV. Huge Challenges Remain

The government has indicated that it plans to hold such Panglong-21 peace conferences every six months.[fn]“Union Peace Conference to be held every six months”, State Counsellor Office statement, 15 August 2016.Hide Footnote  This would impose an artificially rigid set of deadlines on a process that must achieve the buy-in of diverse stakeholders on very contentious issues. Challenges lie in the preliminary matters that must be settled before the next session, the content of future political discussions and the political and security context.

A. Preparations for the Next Conference

Achieving broad participation by armed groups at the recent conference hinged on three things:

  • Suu Kyi, who won an electoral landslide, including in many ethnic areas, and enjoys strong international support as well, has great political capital and legitimacy. Most armed group leaders accordingly felt politically compelled to attend, unlike in the past. This was reinforced by the military’s support for the conference and the clear convergence of views between the soldiers and government on the peace process. China’s backing was also critical. The combination gave Suu Kyi a large advantage over the previous government, which had military support but far less legitimacy and no backing – indeed, sometimes obstruction – from China. (It also amplified the power asymmetry between the government/military and the armed groups, making the latter nervous.)
  • Decisions on difficult issues were postponed until after the conference. In particular, discussions on a revised Framework for Political Dialogue continue, and there is not yet agreement on topics to be included and how a series of “national dialogues” to feed into the next Panglong-21 will be conducted. Non-signatory groups declined to attend a September framework review meeting.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UPDJC member, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote
  • Perhaps most importantly, the requirement that armed groups must sign the NCA to participate was not enforced. This was possible because the conference was billed as a symbolic launch, without discussions or decisions. But it remains firm government policy and a red line for the military that armed groups wishing to participate in the political dialogue must first sign the NCA. This message was reinforced by Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who made the NCA a key focus of their opening speeches.[fn]Reproduced in Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 and 2 September 2016, respectively.Hide Footnote

The timeframe is extremely tight. The next conference is due in February and may be timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary on 12 February of the 1947 Panglong agreement, celebrated annually as Union Day. Before this, there is need for negotiations to secure signing of the NCA by non-signatories and agreement on a revised Framework for Political Dialogue (targeted for end of October), followed by national dialogues in each state and region. All these steps are difficult, time-consuming or both, particularly getting more groups to sign the NCA. The largest armed group, the UWSP, is very reluctant to sign, because it is a de facto mini-state with far more autonomy than anything the NCA offers. The closely-allied NDAA is likely to follow its lead.

The seven UNFC groups (see Appendix B), particularly the larger ones, desire to reach a political settlement on the grievances driving decades of conflict – fundamentally, lack of autonomy and equality. They recognise the current moment may be the best opportunity they will ever get, but exclusion of the AA, TNLA and MNDAA makes the NCA politically problematic for them and a ceasefire militarily unfeasible. They also have not yet been offered any concessions – not even of the face-saving kind – for signing,[fn]In particular, the UNFC has put forward an eight-point proposal for amending/supplementing the NCA. It will be very difficult for the government to accept any changes now that it is signed by the former president, commander-in-chief and legislative speakers, as well as eight armed groups, and been ratified by the legislature. Some of the specific proposals are also quite difficult, but a compromise must be found. See also, Sai Wansai, “Framework for Political Dialogue: UNFC’s boycott leads to peace process deterioration”, Shan Herald Agency for News, 21 September 2016.Hide Footnote  and will be reluctant to do so if the only reason is to gain access to a process they view as driven unilaterally by the government and insufficiently sensitive to their concerns. They worry that conforming to an artificial, government-imposed timeframe would set a precedent for unilateral imposition of any subsequent political solutions.

Some UNFC members may also want to delay major decisions until the KNU holds its congress in November.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior armed group representative, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote  If a more hardline leadership results, they believe it could pave the way for this influential armed group to rejoin the alliance, enhancing its power and bargaining position. However, if the UNFC tries to prolong the process too much, it risks being marginalised, for example not being eligible to participate in the national dialogues, thereby giving government and political parties a stronger role in defining the peace process agenda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed group leaders, members of government peace bodies and analysts, Yangon, July-October 2016.Hide Footnote

The issue of the three groups, AA, TNLA and MNDAA, without bilateral ceasefires is even more difficult. Including them in the next conference requires, at a minimum, agreement on a statement renouncing violence in principle; even then, they could likely attend only as observers. Having declined that for the last conference, it is far from clear whether they will do so ahead of the next; the TNLA sent an open letter to Panglong-21 stating it would “never lay down arms or renounce arms, at any time or under any circumstance”.[fn]TNLA open letter to the Panglong-21 conference, 31 August 2016.Hide Footnote  This not only matters for inclusivity, but also has on-the-ground consequences. These groups are to various degrees allied with or supported by the UWSP and KIO, and they fight together in joint patrols and in some cases together with the KIO and SSPP. All operate in adjacent or overlapping territory, and it is hard to imagine any ceasefire being sustainable without the three non-ceasefire groups.[fn]See “Military confrontation or political dialogue: Consequences of the Kokang crisis for peace and democracy in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, July 2015.Hide Footnote  

A huge amount of procedural work and negotiation is required before the next peace conference. In addition to the inherent challenges, the peace architecture has quite limited capacity. Lead negotiator Dr Tin Myo Win works extremely hard but has no chief of staff for the process and continues his medical work for Suu Kyi and as a surgeon at a philanthropic hospital. The NRPC, tasked with the day-to-day work, has only a handful of staff, compared with 120 under its predecessor. Because Suu Kyi decided to establish it as a fully government entity under her office (its predecessor was semi-independent, at least administratively), it must follow civil service staffing and budgeting regulations. Scaling up will take considerable time, and it will be difficult to draw on outside expertise.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, individuals with direct knowledge, Yangon, June-September 2016. The new multi-donor Joint Peace Fund is an initiative that can provide significant resources, but it cannot necessarily overcome the regulatory restrictions the NRPC operates under.Hide Footnote  There is thus a worrying lack of institutional capacity to support peace-process mechanics, and the armed groups also have little support capacity.

B. Questions of Content

Now that the peace process set out in the NCA has been launched symbolically on two occasions – the Union Peace Conference in January 2016 and Panglong-21 in August – the next conference will have to start addressing the substantive issues. Assuming that a revised Framework for Political Dialogue can be agreed and reasonable inclusivity of armed groups can be achieved through an expansion in NCA signatories, participants will then need to start grappling with the substance. All agree this will be very challenging, and it will likely be many years before a comprehensive peace agreement can be reached. Three key questions arise:

  • Is a negotiated federal solution possible? This is the main demand of armed groups and ethnic leaders, and Suu Kyi has strongly committed to achieving “the democratic federal union of our dreams”. The military is far more cautious. The commander-in-chief did not use the term “federal” in his opening speech at Panglong-21, emphasising “peace and unity” and that armed struggle is inconsistent with democracy. However, the military is not rejecting federalism; the commander-in-chief signed the NCA, whose first point is to “establish a union based on the principles of democracy and federalism”, and a senior military officer used the term at Panglong-21.[fn]Aung San Suu Kyi, opening speech, Panglong-21, Naypyitaw, 31 August 2016. NCA Section 1(a); speech of Lt. General Yar Pyae, JMC chair, at Panglong-21, reported in “21st Century Panglong commences in Nay Pyi Taw”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 September 2016.Hide Footnote  The potential deal is federalism in return for disarmament of armed groups. However, this will be complicated given the number of armed groups and their divergent interests, and the extent of federal powers that military and government are ready to devolve is not yet clear. There are also hundreds of armed militias, some of which have ethno-nationalist positions, but most are primarily economic actors.[fn]For details, see John Buchanan, “Militias in Myanmar”, The Asia Foundation, July 2016.Hide Footnote

  • Can the concerns of sub-minorities be accommodated? One of the more intractable issues is likely to be their status. Federalism has tended to be conceived, in geographic terms, as devolution of powers to the existing seven ethnic states.[fn]Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.Hide Footnote  This alarms smaller minority groups within these states, who fear that political domination at the state level will replace domination by Naypyitaw. This was already clear from the speeches at Panglong-21, where specific claims for new states were made by the Wa, Ta’ang and Pao (all currently having self-administered areas within Shan State) and the Red Shan (in Kachin State and Sagaing Region, where they have no territorial designation). Many other potential claims can be anticipated.[fn]See comments of Sai Htay Aung (Red Shan), Khun Myint Tun (Pao) and U Yan Kyaw (Wa), Global New Light of Myanmar, 3 September 2016; and TNLA open letter, op. cit., which specifically calls for creation of a Ta’ang (Palaung) State.Hide Footnote  Shan and Kachin political and armed group leaders in general oppose these proposals.
  • Will any negotiated solution be regarded as legitimate and be implemented? Even if a reasonably inclusive process can be achieved and consensus reached on the complex substantive issues, many constituencies may feel marginalised by the process. Minority ethnic representation is limited to those that have armed groups or political parties that won seats (in a recent change Suu Kyi initiated, those that did not win legislative seats in 2015 have only a token number at the peace conference and no UPDJC representation).[fn]See “Kayah political parties boycott Panglong Conference”, Myanmar Times, 22 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Many influential ethnic parties won nothing in the NLD landslide and will have a minimal voice in the process; some minority groups are not represented by an armed group; and questions can be asked about how representative armed groups are of communities in their areas.

There is a fundamental doubt about whether state-based federal solutions can appropriately be negotiated between armed groups and government, in particular when civil society voices, women and youth feel marginalised in the process.[fn]“CSOs pine for seat at table”, Myanmar Times, 26 August 2016; statement by Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process on Panglong-21, September 2016; “No women, no peace: Gender equality, conflict and peace in Myanmar”, Transnational Institute, 13 January 2016; “Youth ethnic alliance emerges after summit”, Myanmar Times, 3 August 2016.Hide Footnote  That process should be adjusted to ensure that it has broader legitimacy. Even where representation has strong legitimacy – for example, the NLD government’s support from the majority Burman group (and many others) – the population at large has had little engagement with the peace process and may oppose solutions that devolve too much political authority and economic control to minority areas. Minority communities will not necessarily see the NLD as representing their interests, even if they voted for it, because that vote was in many ways a referendum on military rule, reflecting determination to vote out the military-backed party.[fn]For discussion of the election outcome in ethnic areas and its interpretation, see Crisis Group Briefing, The Myanmar Elections, op. cit., Section IV.C; and “The 2015 general election in Myanmar: What now for ethnic politics?”, Transnational Institute, December 2015.Hide Footnote

While Suu Kyi’s focus has been on federalism and security – she initially proposed that the political dialogue deal directly with only those issues – minority communities have many other concerns. These include rights and discrimination, revenue sharing, natural resource management and language policy.[fn]For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative, op. cit., Section IV.Hide Footnote  Whether these are dealt with up-front as potentially more tractable confidence-building measures or sidelined by more fundamental issues can have a big impact on the dynamics of the peace process. Overlooking them would likely be a mistake.

C. The Political and Security Environment

Since the peace process was launched in 2011, it has had to face significant external and domestic challenges. Serious armed conflict on the ground and China’s role have been particularly important and are to some degree interlinked.

The most significant outbreak of conflict in recent years was the collapse of the KIO ceasefire in 2011, the seeds of which were sown prior to the 2010 election. Fighting resumed ahead of the formal launch of the peace process in August 2011, and a serious escalation in December 2012 threatened to derail it, but China’s intervention, prompted in part by fighting spilling over its border, pushed the sides back to the negotiating table.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°140, A Tentative Peace in Myanmar’s Kachin Conflict, 12 June 2013.Hide Footnote  Another major test came in April 2014, when serious clashes displaced some 5,000 civilians and eroded the trust of all parties in the NCA negotiations. The crisis deepened in November 2014, when an army mortar attack on a military training centre at KIO headquarters almost caused the talks to collapse. Serious fighting in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone between government forces and the MNDAA from February 2015 hardened opposing positions of the military and several armed groups over inclusivity, part of the reason why a number of groups were unwilling to sign the NCA that year.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Peace Process, op. cit., Section II.D.Hide Footnote

With a fragile peace holding in parts of the borderlands and clashes ongoing in many others (Section II.B above), the peace process is likely to continue to be buffeted. Rigid timelines for Panglong-21 conferences risk becoming an obvious target for spoilers and an unsatisfactory framework for adjusting to unpredictable but inevitable escalations in the conflict. The military may feel less constrained by the peace process than under the previous government; given the power asymmetries, it is likely to continue pressing its ground advantage, especially with NCA non-signatories and in particular if the peace process moves slowly or it feels that armed groups are being obstructive.

China’s influence can have a big impact on ground dynamics and the peace process, given its considerable leverage over the groups on its border. It has regularly intervened, positively and negatively. Relations with the Thein Sein administration were often strained, starting with suspension of the Myitsone dam project in 2011 and difficulties with the Letpadaung copper mine – both major China-backed projects – and long delays in announcing that a Chinese company had won the tender for the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port and special economic zone, a major Chinese strategic interest.[fn]See Yun Sun, “Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Beijing: Recalibrating Myanmar’s China policy”, Transnational Institute, 16 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Myanmar’s markedly improved relations with the U.S. intensified China’s angst that it had lost its “traditional advantage”.[fn]“China’s engagement in Myanmar: From Malacca Dilemma to Transition Dilemma”, Transnational Institute, July 2016.Hide Footnote  The poor relations, combined with specific irritants such as Myanmar’s intrusion into Chinese airspace in 2015 to attack the MNDAA, a flood of refugees into China and Naypyitaw’s invitation to Japan and the West to become involved in the peace process, produced a negative stance toward the NCA, to the point that persistent allegations emerged that China was lobbying armed groups in 2015 not to sign.[fn]China has denied the allegations, which were made publicly by a member of the Myanmar Peace Centre and subsequently retracted, and privately to Crisis Group and others by a wide range of people connected to the peace process. Whether true or not, it is clear from talk with armed groups leaders at the time that there was no Chinese pressure to sign the NCA and massive private financial support from China that the authorities must have been aware of. See “Fraud probe alleges Chinese firm sent money to Myanmar insurgents”, Frontier Myanmar, 3 February 2016.Hide Footnote  

The situation has shifted significantly under the new government. China feels Suu Kyi gives more priority to the bilateral relationship, and it supports her peace overtures. At the July summit of armed group leaders hosted by the KIO, the Chinese special envoy publicly called on all groups to attend Panglong-21, and Beijing successfully put considerable pressure on several to do so. China has also given several million dollars to fund the JMC but remains uncertain about the trajectory of relations, the chances for success in the peace process and how many years that would take; it is thus likely to continue to balance support for Naypyitaw and maintaining ties with armed groups along its border.[fn]Yun Sun, “Aung San Suu Kyi visit to Beijing”, op. cit. Crisis Group interview, Myanmar expert on China, Yangon, September 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

The Panglong-21 conference encapsulated both the significant advantages Suu Kyi has for forging peace and the enormous challenges she must surmount. The broad attendance of armed groups gives hope of a more inclusive, successful peace process, but it would be a mistake to think that the fundamental problems have become easier to solve. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most groups to sign the NCA, a sine qua non the government and military have each expressed. The announced scheduling of Panglong-21 conferences every six months artificially limits the flexibility required to secure signatures. Weak capacity in the government’s NRPC peace secretariat makes the job more difficult.

The government should consider adopting a less rigid timeframe and less unilateral approach and take steps to ensure it has the necessary support capacity in place. Armed groups need to recognise that, though they have legitimate concerns about the process, they may never get a better chance to negotiate a settlement. Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal, democratic solution and has the political authority to deliver. Now is the time to start discussing the contours of that deal, rather than continuing to focus on preliminaries.

Yangon/Brussels, 19 October 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar. CRISIS GROUP

Appendix B: The Main Ethnic Armed Groups and their Ceasefire Status

  1. United Wa State Party (UWSP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 6 September 2011. NCA-signatory: No
  2. National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA, “Mongla group”)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 September 2011. NCA-signatory: No
  3. Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army (DKBA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 3 November 2011. NCA-signatory: Yes
  4. Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-South)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 2 December 2011. NCA-signatory: Yes
  5. Chin National Front (CNF)  
    Bilateral ceasefire: 6 January 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  6. Karen National Union (KNU)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 12 January 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  7. Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-North)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 28 January 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  8. New Mon State Party (NMSP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 1 February 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  9. Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 February 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  10. Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 7 March 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  11. Arakan Liberation Party (ALP)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 5 April 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  12. National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang
    Bilateral ceasefire: 9 April 2012. NCA-signatory: No
  13. Pao National Liberation Organisation (PNLO)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 25 August 2012. NCA-signatory: Yes
  14. All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF)
    Bilateral ceasefire: 5 August 2013. NCA-signatory: Yes
  15. Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO)
    Bilateral ceasefire: (30 May 2012)*. NCA-signatory: No
  16. Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: No. NCA-signatory: No
  17. Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA, “Kokang group”)         
    Bilateral ceasefire: No†. NCA-signatory: No
  18. Arakan Army (AA)
    Bilateral ceasefire: No. NCA-signatory: No

* An agreement was signed on 30 May 2012. It was not a formal ceasefire, but contained inter alia a commitment to “efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities”.

† The MNDAA’s 1989 ceasefire ended after an army attack in 2009, with one faction being routed (and its leaders fleeing to China) and the other agreeing to become a Border Guard Force unit under partial army control. The routed faction subsequently reactivated, with support from other groups.

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) is an armed group umbrella organisation, whose seven members have not signed the NCA: SSPP/SSA-North, NMSP, KNPP, KIO, Lahu Democratic Union, Arakan National Council, Wa National Organisation. The last three do not have significant armed forces, so have not been directly included in the ceasefire process.

Appendix C: List of Acronyms

AA: Arakan Army

ABSDF: All Burma Students Democratic Front

ALP: Arakan Liberation Party

CNF: Chin National Front

DKBA: Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army, Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army

JMC: Joint Monitoring Committee

KIO: Kachin Independence Organisation

KNPP: Karenni National Progressive Party

KNU: Karen National Union

MNDAA: Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang)

NCA: Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement

NDAA: National Democratic Alliance Army (“Mongla group”)

NMSP: New Mon State Party

NRPC: National Reconciliation and Peace Centre

NSCN-Khaplang: National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang

PNLO: Pao National Liberation Organisation

RCSS: Restoration Council of Shan State

SSA-North: Shan State Army-North

SSA-South: Shan State Army-South

SSPP: Shan State Progress Party

TNLA: Ta’ang National Liberation Army

UNFC : United Nationalities Federal Council

UPDJC: Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee

UWSP: United Wa State Party

Rohingya refugees stand in a queue to collect aid supplies in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 21 January 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Report 296 / Asia

The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis

More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from brutal military operations in Myanmar are stuck in Bangladesh, with returns to Myanmar unlikely soon and Bangladeshi goodwill being tested. In Myanmar, international partners must be allowed access to northern Rakhine State. In Bangladesh, donors must help both refugees and their local hosts.

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What’s new? Since August 2017, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s brutal military operations in Rakhine State to Bangladesh, joining tens of thousands who left earlier in 2017. The two countries have set a framework for repatriation, but returns are unlikely any time soon. Indeed, small numbers of Rohingya continue to flee.

Why does it matter? Failing to develop long-term strategies for the refugees poses the risk that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya will live in limbo or that Bangladeshi sentiment will turn against them. Authorities might attempt to force return to Myanmar or resettlement elsewhere, which could prompt violence on either side of the border.

What should be done?  The Myanmar government must allow the UN and its partners access to northern Rakhine and ease security and other restrictions on the population. In Bangladesh, donors should continue humanitarian aid, while investing in the development of Cox’s Bazar district, which hosts the refugees, to improve prospects for their future integration.

Executive Summary

In the last eight months, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled indiscriminate and brutal operations by Myanmar’s military in northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh, joining tens of thousands who left earlier in 2017, and many more from previous years. The two countries have agreed upon a procedural framework for voluntary repatriation, but no Rohingya have returned and small numbers continue to flee. The burden of the crisis may have shifted to Bangladesh, but the onus of responsibility remains squarely on Myanmar. The world must pursue accountability for crimes committed and press the government to create the conditions for voluntary repatriation. The tragic reality, however, is that the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, however much international opprobrium Myanmar faces. Planning for the refugees should proceed on that assumption, while efforts continue to protect those Rohingya who remain in Myanmar.

Failing to develop long-term plans for the refugees would not only risk that hundreds of thousands of people remain in limbo. It could also lead the status quo to morph in dangerous ways. For now, host communities and political elites in Bangladesh largely sympathise with the refugees, but if the sentiments of either were to shift – after the December elections, for example, or due to prolonged negative impacts on host communities – the Rohingya might face pressure to return against their will or move into more isolated camps in Bangladesh, such as those the Bangladeshi government is building on remote Bhasan island. Such developments could prompt instability or violence on either side of the border – due to organised resistance by refugees to relocation or premature repatriation, communal violence against returning refugees, or renewed ARSA mobilisation in Rakhine State.

The social, political and strategic implications of this crisis for Bangladesh are complex at all levels. The host communities – neglected by Dhaka at the best of times – are already feeling the strain. While there is no disagreement in political and policy circles about the intractability of the crisis, there is widespread reluctance to acknowl­edge it, as it would reflect badly on the Bangladeshi government’s ability to protect its sovereignty and could be interpreted as tacit acceptance of ethnic cleansing. Public sympathy for the Rohingya will not last forever, and the current situation is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways. After the December elections, the next government (likely to be the same as the present one) will have to make some difficult longer-term decisions. This subject will be covered in detail in a forthcoming report.

Hostility toward the Rohingya across Myanmar political elites and in society more broadly remains firmly entrenched.

Myanmar has constructed some of the infrastructure that could support a limited return, in the form of heavily guarded processing and holding camps. But it has done little if anything to create conditions on the ground that would give refugees, who fled abuses that likely constitute crimes against humanity, and who continue to be fearful and traumatised, the confidence to go back. It has bulldozed many burned Rohingya villages, is building new roads, power lines and security infrastructure across northern Rakhine State, and has promoted or allowed the expansion of existing villages and construction of new settlements inhabited by other ethnicities. The refugees’ return to their homes and lands thus is not only increasingly unlikely, but also becoming impossible in practice. Ethnic Rakhine political leaders and local communities are staunchly opposed to repatriation, and the government has done little to mitigate their resistance (indeed, its own relations with ethnic Rakhine have soured). Moreover, hostility toward the Rohingya across Myanmar political elites and in society more broadly remains firmly entrenched.

Most refugees express no intention to go to third countries, and in any case their opportunities to do so are likely to remain scarce. They want to return home. Many refugees hope that the unprecedented international attention their plight has received over the past months could help them achieve that, but they are resigned to staying for an extended period in Bangladesh.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militant group has significant networks of members and supporters in the Bangladesh camps, and appears determined to remain relevant as an insurgent and political force. The extent to which it can do so is uncertain. It launched a small cross-border attack on a Myanmar army convoy on 5 January, but it has conducted no actions since then. Whether it can leverage widespread disaffection and the significant sympathy it still enjoys in the camps into political authority and sustain cross-border attacks remains to be seen. There is no evidence it has established links to transnational groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, viewing the situation in the camps through a counter-terrorism lens would be unhelpful, as the Bangladeshi authorities appear to recognise.

Improving the situation in northern Rakhine State, where 100,000-150,000 Rohingya still live (and on some estimates as many as 250,000), is not primarily a development challenge. It depends on the Myanmar government and security forces changing course. For the Rohingya in northern Rakhine, particularly those in rural areas, life is becoming increasingly untenable. Curfews, checkpoints and movement restrictions mean that they cannot gain access to farms, fishing grounds, markets, day labour opportunities or social services. These people say they do not want to leave, but if the restrictions are not urgently eased, many may decide they have no other choice.

Failing to develop plans for the Rohingya’s prolonged stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their suffering and propelling the crisis in a still more dangerous direction.

To prevent further deterioration, the international community should continue pushing the government to allow unfettered United Nations and aid agency access to northern Rakhine. They should press for accountability for crimes committed by the security forces and others. It is also vital to ensure that the government changes conditions in northern Rakhine, to improve the prospects of an eventual refugee return, and more urgently to stabilise the situation of the Rohingya who remain, so as to prevent a further exodus. The recent appointment of a UN special envoy for Myanmar, combined with continued scrutiny and engagement from the Security Council – which just completed a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar – can hopefully result in some progress on these issues. The recent statement from State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office promising improved relations with the UN, together with the appointment of a new president, may open space for changes in the government’s approach.

Realistically, however, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh appear unlikely to return any time soon. Donors should prepare for the long haul. They should not only fund the humanitarian operation but also invest in the development of Cox’s Bazar district, where the refugees currently reside, to reduce the burden on host communities, minimise risks that local sentiment turns against refugees and create an environment more amenable to their integration. The Bangladeshi government currently resists such an approach, given the domestic political costs of acknowledging that the Rohingya will remain indefinitely. Similarly, many Western governments are understandably loath to acknowledge explicitly that prospects of the refugees’ return are slim. But sustained political discussions on long-term solutions between the government, donors and multilateral institutions are vital. Failing to develop plans for the Rohingya’s prolonged stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their suffering and propelling the crisis in a still more dangerous direction.

I. Introduction

Myanmar’s Rakhine State has long been afflicted by a toxic mixture of centre-periph­ery tensions, communal and religious conflict, and extreme poverty and underdevelopment.[fn]For detailed background on Rakhine State, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013. For other recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; also Asia Reports N°s 290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017; 287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; and 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote In 2014, Crisis Group warned that the state’s turmoil represented “a significant threat to the overall success of the country’s transition” away from military rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., p. i. Rakhine State, in the west of Myanmar, is one of the poorest parts of the country. The extreme poverty is inseparable from anti-Muslim discrimination, both by society and by government, through abusive regulations or bureaucratic procedures and practices. The state’s population of 3.2 million (2014 census) is made up of a majority of Rakhine Buddhists (around 60 per cent) and a significant minority of Muslims (around 35 per cent). In northern parts of the state, prior to the recent exodus there was a large majority of Muslims. There are also a number of smaller minority groups in Rakhine, including Chin, Mro, Khami, Dainet, Maramagyi and Kaman.Hide Footnote Muslims in Rakhine, particularly the Rohingya, have long been subject to state-spon­sored discrimination and denial of rights, considered by Amnesty International to amount to apartheid, a crime against humanity.[fn]“‘Caged without a roof’: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Amnesty International, November 2017.Hide Footnote

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which also refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), emerged in the wake of communal strife in 2012. It launched attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine in October 2016 and August 2017. These attacks provoked an indiscriminate military response that the United Nations, foreign governments and human rights organisations have branded as ethnic cleansing, likely involving crimes against humanity and possibly genocide. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August 2017.[fn]Inter Sector Coordination Group Situation Report: Rohingya Refugee Crisis, Cox’s Bazar, 26 April 2018.Hide Footnote

This report assesses the political and conflict dynamics at play in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and in Rakhine State, looks at how the crisis may evolve, and examines what options the Myanmar government and international community have for addres­sing it. It is based on research in Myanmar and Bangladesh since November 2017, including interviews with diplomats and aid agency representatives; ARSA members; and more than 100 Rohingya refugees – women and men, educated and uneducated – in the Bangladesh camps, conducted by experienced personnel fluent in the Rohingya language. Some interviews were also conducted with Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine; these were carried out remotely due to access restric­tions and the need to minimise risks to interviewees. The report examines the situation in northern Rakhine State, the prospects for refugees’ repatriation and conditions in the Bangladesh camps, including the status of ARSA. A forthcoming report will explore the challenges Bangladesh faces as a result of this sudden, massive influx of refugees, including in relation to the December 2018 Bangladeshi elections.

II. Prospects for Repatriation

The situation in Rakhine State is not conducive to repatriation and no refugee has returned through formal channels.

The Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments have agreed upon a procedural framework for refugee return, which was supposed to have started on 23 January and be completed “preferably within two years”.[fn]The bilateral framework consists of a 23 November 2017 “Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State”; 19 December 2017 terms of reference for a “Joint Working Group”; and a 16 January 2018 “Physical Arrangement for Repatriation”, including a verification form that prospective returnees must fill out in advance.Hide Footnote But the situation in Rakhine State is not conducive to repatriation and no refugee has returned through formal channels. This is unlikely to change in the short or medium term, and indeed Rohingya continue to leave Rakhine for Bangladesh. Nor does forced repatriation appear likely in the coming months, given the Bangladeshi government’s calculation (discussed in section IV.A below) that such a step would be detrimental to its interests in the December elections and in securing donor backing for the huge humanitarian operation that supports the camps. The Awami League government has expressed sympathy for the Rohingya refugees in its campaign materials.

The lack of returns has become the subject of diplomatic manoeuvring by both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar has repeatedly declared that the physical infrastructure required for repatriation is in place, and that it is not responsible for any delay.[fn]For example, “Diplomats, UN officials witness true situation in Rakhine State”, Global New Light of Myanmar [GNLM], 16 February 2018.Hide Footnote But, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi told the UN Security Council on 13 January, “the construction of infrastructure to support the logistics of return should not be confused with the establishment of conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation”.[fn]“Briefing on Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council”, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 13 February 2018; “Union official: the real Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 March 2018.Hide Footnote UNHCR and most other UN agencies have had no access to northern Rakhine State since the start of the latest crisis in August 2017, though the government is holding discussions with UNHCR and the UN Development Program, and has recently signalled following the UN Security Council visit that it is open to closer cooperation with the UN (see section V below).

Bangladesh has reiterated its commitment to voluntary repatriation – that it will not force any Rohingya to return against their will – but has sought to test Myanmar’s willingness to accept returnees. A number of repatriation lists have been announced:

  • In late December, Bangladesh suggested it would send an initial list of 100,000 Rohingya to be verified by Myanmar for repatriation. The list was to be drawn from a biometric database of refugees compiled by the Bangladeshi authorities. This database did not include household information, however, making it impossible to produce family-based lists, and the verification proposal was quietly dropped.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Yangon and Dhaka, January 2018. See also “100,000 Rohingya on first repatriation list”, Dhaka Tribune, 27 December 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On 15 January, Myanmar provided Bangladesh with a list of 508 Hindus that it wanted included in the first batch of returnees, as well as 750 Muslims whose residence in Myanmar it had verified. There was no indication that any of these people wished to return to Myanmar, and Bangladesh has not proceeded with their repatriation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Yangon and Dhaka, January 2018. See also “Myanmar says over 1,200 refugees to return from Bangladesh next week”, The Irrawaddy, 16 January 2018.Hide Footnote
  • During the 15-17 February visit of the Myanmar home minister to Dhaka, Bangladesh handed over a list of 1,673 Rohingya families (8,032 individuals) “to start the first phase of repatriation”. Myanmar says Bangladesh failed to use the agreed-upon form, and omitted key identifying information – including declarations of willingness to voluntarily return – making it impossible to assess the list. Myanmar nevertheless announced in early April that it had verified 675 from the list as eligible for repatriation, although it is unclear if or when these people will return, and they were not asked if they are willing to do so.[fn]“Union official: the real Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 March 2018; “Myanmar to accept over 600 refugees from Bangladesh”, Mizzima, 5 April 2018.Hide Footnote

The major obstacle to return remains fear. Crisis Group interviews in the last several months with Rohingya in the Bangladesh camps suggest that the vast majority of refugees want to return to their villages in Rakhine State as soon as conditions allow; few expressed a desire to go to third countries or settle permanently in Bangladesh. But the Rohingya are only willing to return if they can do so in safety and with dignity. Many refugees said they had lost everything – homes, land, cattle, businesses and savings, as well as loved ones. They believe now is the time to secure their right to compensation for everything they have lost. They understand it will be difficult to obtain that right, but having no real alternatives, they are resigned to waiting and hoping.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “‘I still don’t feel safe to go home’: Voices of Rohingya refugees”, Oxfam, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Without an acceptance of the past, there can be no meaningful steps to ensure that the abuses will not happen again.

Myanmar has done little to create an environment conducive to return. The inaction begins with the fact that the government and military continue to deny the seriousness of the violence that occurred. Without an acceptance of the past, there can be no meaningful steps to ensure that the abuses will not happen again. The only official acknowledgement of wrongdoing relates to the extrajudicial executions of ten Rohingya men in Inn Din village, though the local Reuters journalists who exposed the case remain in prison facing charges under the Myanmar Official Secrets Act.[fn]“Tatmadaw investigation team issues statement on findings of discovery of unidentified bodies in Inndin Village cemetery in Maungtaw Township”, Naypyitaw, 10 January 2018; “Massacre in Myanmar”, Reuters, 8 February 2018; “Myanmar police witness says searched Reuters reporter’s home ‘for news’”, Reuters, 7 March 2018.Hide Footnote In a 19 March speech, the Myanmar Armed Forces’ commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, reinforced the view that the Rohingya are outsiders, saying they “do not have the characteristics or culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar”. The UN secretary-general expressed shock at these comments.[fn]“UN chief hits out at Myanmar army leader over comments”, AFP, 27 March. The commander-in-chief referred to the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, a term widely used in Myanmar to imply that they are foreigners from Bangladesh.Hide Footnote

Rakhine Buddhists and other non-Muslims in the state remain staunchly opposed to any refugee return. Many across Myanmar share such views. A recent legislative debate provides a striking example of the strength of domestic sentiment against repatriation. On 14 March, the lower house debated a motion calling on the government to review its decision to relocate 55 (Muslim) Kaman families from Rakhine State to Yangon. The families are among those who were displaced from towns in southern Rakhine by communal violence in 2012 and have been confined to camps since then. Unlike the Rohingya, the Kaman are a recognised ethnic minority who at least in principle enjoy full citizenship.

Yet during the debate, a representative from the military bloc in the lower house expressed concern that “terrorists can pose as IDPs [internally displaced persons]”.[fn]“MPs to discuss motion on reviewing resettlement of 55 households from IDP camps”, GNLM, 6 March 2018; “Pyithu Hluttaw debates relocation of IDPs to Yangon”, GNLM, 15 March 2018.Hide Footnote When originally proposing the motion on 5 March, a representative from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party compared the relocation to the “spreading of cancer cells”.[fn]“Racist Myanmar MP: ‘Ethnic Kaman Muslims are cancer cells’”,, 6 March 2018.Hide Footnote The motion was eventually defeated, with a government representative pointing out that the Kaman are citizens and as such are entitled to live wherever they want in Myanmar but that the reason for their move to Yangon is that local officials have obstructed their return to their homes in southern Rakhine. Any return of Rohingya refugees, who face much greater bureaucratic and legal obstacles to establishing their citizenship, will face far fiercer opposition given the animosity toward them from a broad section of Myanmar society, local media and elites across the political spectrum.

III. Situation in the Bangladesh Camps

The lack of any realistic prospect of repatriation means that the Rohingya refugees will remain in the Bangladesh camps for an extended period. The conditions in those camps are dire, and they are likely to remain so despite a huge and costly international humanitarian operation projected at around $1.2 billion per year.

Most refugees in the camps have had little time to consider the future. They have been focused on daily survival.

That operation has succeeded in providing emergency food, shelter, water, sanitation, health and protection services to some 900,000 refugees, while tackling diphtheria and measles outbreaks.[fn]The 900,000 figure includes approximately 700,000 who have arrived since August 2017; several tens of thousands who arrived earlier in 2017; and others who have arrived in recent years.Hide Footnote Yet the reality is that the camps, the largest and most densely populated refugee settlements in the world, were not planned and are not suitable for habitation. Much of the area is rapidly cleared forest land, vulnerable to landslides and at serious risk from cyclones. Makeshift shelters, water supply points and latrines could be flooded or overwhelmed by monsoon rains that will arrive imminently. A large preparation effort is underway, but it faces fundamental constraints of geography.[fn]“UN launches 2018 appeal for Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi host communities”, joint UNHCR/International Organisation for Migration press release, 16 March 2018.Hide Footnote

Most refugees in the camps have had little time to consider the future. They have been focused on daily survival. Now they are preparing for the rains – many arrived at the tail end of the last monsoon season and are aware of the impending challenges, and there have already been some storms. Most count on international concern translating into real improvements in their prospects for return. A major fear remains the possibility of forced repatriation, which occurred following the 1978 and 1991-1992 exoduses, exacerbated by the diplomatic manoeuvring between Bangladesh and Myanmar described above.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. For discussion of repatriation following the 1978 and 1992 exoduses, see Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., section II.C; “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a cycle of exodus?”, Human Rights Watch, September 1996.Hide Footnote

A. Leadership and Governance in the Camps

Given the chaos of the 2017 exodus, and the difficult conditions on arrival in Bangladesh, leadership and governance structures among refugees have been somewhat ad hoc. Village populations generally did not arrive in the camps together, and therefore are not living together, prompting the emergence of new geographically based leaderships.

There has long been a system of informal leadership in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, known as the majhi (traditional leader) system. This system was established at the time of the last major refugee flight in 1991-1992, but it was bedevilled by corruption and the majhis’ abuse of power. In 2007 the majhis were replaced with elected camp committees with a facilitation rather than decision-making role.[fn]“Rohingya crisis: Situation analysis”, ACAPS, November 2017.Hide Footnote

In the initial stages of the latest exodus, before the aid operation kicked in, the delivery of assistance was disorganised; refugees living close to main roads received goods from well-wishers, whereas those in less accessible areas received little. When the Bangladeshi army took charge of crisis management in mid-September, it instructed refugees to select a majhi for each group of 50-200 households. Those chosen were tasked, among other things, with drawing up family lists that the army used as the basis for food distribution.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

While refugees with whom Crisis Group spoke expressed no serious grievances against the majhis, the potential for abuses of power similar to those that blighted the system in the past is clear.

These majhis are now the lowest level of political organisation in the camps, the primary dispute resolution mechanism (sometimes supported by committees of elders that they arrange), and the interface between refugees and the Bangladeshi authorities and aid agencies. Above them are two further levels: “head majhis” (representing larger “blocks” within the camps) and “chairmen” (representing entire camps, or sections of larger camps). Since it is often not feasible for authorities to deal individually with the hundreds of majhis, many interactions are at the level of head majhis or chairmen.[fn]To give a sense of numbers, in the Balukhali mega-camp which hosts more than half a million refugees, there are over 800 blocks, each represented by a head majhi.Hide Footnote All of these leaders are men. While refugees with whom Crisis Group spoke expressed no serious grievances against the majhis, the potential for abuses of power similar to those that blighted the system in the past is clear.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. Due to the risk that majhis may be unrepresentative or corrupt, some aid agencies have established parallel project structures that do not automatically go through the majhis.Hide Footnote

While the majhis have the greatest day-to-day influence over refugees’ lives, local Bangladeshi power-holders also have significant clout – including current and former local government officials. Some of these individuals were implicated in the early days of the exodus in allegedly taking money from arriving refugees to allow them to put up shelters on government and forest land, though a number of them have denied the charges as politically motivated. These reported scams were mostly shut down by the Bangladeshi army when it stepped in. Nevertheless, these local power-holders are likely to continue controlling some aspects of the political economy related to the refugees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Extortion adds to Rohingyas’ woes”, New Age Bangladesh, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The Bangladeshi army and intelligence service have asserted their authority in the camps and environs, through perimeter controls, checkpoints and informants – albeit with a focus on major security threats rather than low-level criminality, which is mostly handled by the majhis. The majhis have also organised a system of volunteer night watchmen or sentries, at the request of the army and local magistrates. Sentries are provided with a torch, jacket and baton, with each sentry responsible for a block; they report through the majhis to the army each morning.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

ARSA is a significant presence in the camps. That ARSA members and supporters are there is unsurprising, given that the militant group had firmly established itself in Rohingya villages across northern Rakhine. Its members were recruited from and lived in those villages – and fled to the Bangladesh camps with the rest of the population. A small number of senior leaders and prominent cadres avoided entering the camps or being biometrically registered by the Bangladeshi authorities. These men stayed out of the camps as a security precaution and to be able to move more freely.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and representatives of humanitarian agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. Refugees are able to move freely within and between camps, but they are restricted from travelling to Cox’s Bazar or Chittagong, except with medical referral. It has up to now been easy for them to travel to the town of Teknaf, but since early March soldiers at checkpoints have started asking about reasons for travel.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s attack on a Myanmar military convoy in northern Rakhine State on 5 January 2018 demonstrated its determination to remain relevant as a fighting force.

What has been less certain is the extent to which ARSA would be able to regroup in the camps, mobilise the population and project its authority. It was able to do so in Rakhine State by leveraging the anger and desperation of a community facing daily oppression, and by building strong networks through prominent local community and religious leaders. It offered hope, or at least a sense of agency, and bolstered its position via a combination of religious legitimacy and fear.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote Mobilising in the Bangladesh camps is a completely different prospect. Village populations are scattered across the camps, new leaders (the majhis) are emerging, and the “common enemies” that ARSA rallied against – the Myanmar security forces – are far away across an international border. When the majority of refugees are struggling to establish basic standards of living in the camps and come to terms with the catastrophe triggered by ARSA’s last major action, the militant group’s raison d’être has undoubtedly been weakened.

ARSA’s attack on a Myanmar military convoy in northern Rakhine State on 5 January 2018 demonstrated its determination to remain relevant as a fighting force.[fn]“Five security personnel injured in ambush attack in Northern Rakhine”, GNLM, 6 January 2018.Hide Footnote Its immediate statement claiming responsibility, and its subsequent statement the same month rejecting repatriation proposals, also made an apparent attempt to position the group as the political voice of the Rohingya.[fn]ARSA press statements, “Turaing ambush against the Burmese terrorist army”, 7 January 2018; and “Burmese terrorist government’s unreasonable repatriation plan for Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh”, 20 January 2018. Available on the group’s Twitter account, @ARSA_Official.Hide Footnote

There is evidence, albeit thus far limited, that ARSA is organising in the Bangladesh camps. First, some acts of violence in the camps can be plausibly linked to ARSA. There have been a small number of killings of majhis and other leaders attributed in the media to criminals or to the fact that the victims were working with the Bangladeshi authorities on potential returns. It seems, however, that in at least a few of these cases, the person killed may have been on an ARSA hit list since before the exodus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and others with knowledge of the situation, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Rohingya leader shot dead in Cox’s Bazar”, Dhaka Tribune, 20 January 2018; “Second camp ‘leader’ killed in Bangladesh refugee camp”, AFP, 23 January 2018; “Bangladesh tightens security in Rohingya camps”, The Irrawaddy, 2 February 2018.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s presence in the camps does not imply that it can sustain an insurgency in Rakhine State, even if that were to remain its main focus.

Second, ARSA members themselves claim to have influence over the majhis. Indeed, it would be surprising if some of the majhis were not linked even more directly to the group given the extent of ARSA’s previous mobilisation and support in Rakhine State ­– and its success in imposing its will through violence. This combination of persuasion and targeted violence is precisely analogous to ARSA’s earlier tactics in Myanmar. Another opportunity for ARSA to exert its influence is through its members or supporters volunteering as night watchmen. Finally, religious leaders – some of whom were key ARSA community mobilisers and leaders in Rakhine State – continue to be important in the camps.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and others with knowledge of the situation, October 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s presence in the camps does not, however, imply that it can sustain an insurgency in Rakhine State, even if that were to remain its main focus, which itself is not certain. The strong presence of Bangladeshi army and intelligence personnel in and around the camps, plus the geography of the area and its high population density, means that ARSA will find it difficult to reorganise in Bangladesh without the authorities knowing. Now that the majority of the Rohingya population is in Bangladesh with little prospect of return, other objectives, notably organising to lobby for improved living conditions and opportunities in Bangladesh, are likely to assume greater importance for refugees – and hence for any group that draws its constituency from them – than mobilising for an insurgency across the border. Much, therefore, depends on how the political situation in Bangladesh evolves.

B. Refugee Views on ARSA and the Use of Violence

Finally, the world has learned how much we have been suffering.

Detailed Crisis Group discussions with refugees indicate that the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya, sparked by the ARSA attacks, has influenced perceptions of ARSA in different ways. Some refugees adopt the view that, whether or not those attacks had taken place, the Myanmar authorities would have found a way to drive them from their land. Others believe that the Rohingya lost everything as a result of the attacks, while gaining nothing. Many expressed the hope that something positive might come from their plight, as the Rohingya have never before received so much global attention. “Finally, the world has learned how much we have been suffering” was a commonly aired sentiment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, October 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

Many of those who had supported or engaged in ARSA’s resistance saw violence as a last resort. They believed that ARSA’s rationale was bolstered by fatwas (religious judicial opinions or binding religious edicts) from Rohingya clerics in Rakhine State and in the diaspora declaring armed struggle to be legitimate or even obligatory. On the other hand, other voices among the Rohingya, including leading clerics, had long counselled against violence and continue to do so.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, The Politics of Rakhine State and A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

This question was the subject of a detailed media report in Bangladesh in March 2018.[fn]“Rohingya muftis prohibit jihad and self-defense”, Dhaka Tribune, March 2018.Hide Footnote The article cited the issuance of a fatwa by 47 Rohingya muftis (Islamic scholars who interpret religious law) condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defence, against Myanmar.[fn]The Arabic root of “jihad” refers to striving in God’s service. Many Muslims find its use in the political violence context imprecise and offensive, reducing a complex religious concept to war-making. In reference to violence, it can encompass insurgency and guerrilla war as well as terrorism. For the vast majority of Muslims, today’s “jihadists” pervert Islam’s tenets. But it is hard to escape the term. Groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS self-identify as “jihadist”, and while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent “jihadist” ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this history; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that might constrain combat tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: that fighting to return society to a purer Islam is proper; that violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them is justified; and that, in fact, there is a duty to use violence if Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. This report’s use of “jihadist” is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or to detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. For more about Crisis Group’s use of this term, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote It stated that Deobandi madrassas in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan backed the fatwa (Deobandi Islam is a Sunni revivalist movement to which the most influential Rohingya clerics adhere).

There has always been, and continues to be, a strong current of thought among Rohingya that opposes any form of violent resistance. Yet two considerations are relevant to assessing whether the fatwa represents a significant shift in sentiment away from ARSA and militancy among the Rohingya. First, it is not new; it was issued in October 2017, at the height of the exodus, a time when Rohingya leaders felt it was vital to reassure Bangladesh that the refugees did not represent a security threat. Second, the fatwa did not categorically reject the idea of violent resistance; it did, however, caution against it at the time of issuance. That is, it was not a rejection of ARSA as such, but rather of particular tactics the signatories viewed as premature or misguided.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, muftis who signed the fatwa, Bangladesh, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Many observers have expressed concern about the risk of transnational jihadist groups – that is, groups such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the Islamic State or their Bangladeshi affiliates – exploiting the Rohingya crisis to mobilise or recruit in the camps. While this concern is legitimate, given the security landscape in Bangladesh, there is no evidence that such exploitation is happening, nor that a counterterrorism lens is useful for understanding the evolving situation in the camps. ARSA has always distanced itself from transnational jihadism, and the group, its members and refugees interviewed continue to do so.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The Bangladeshi authorities share this assessment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladesh intelligence official, Dhaka, April 2018; Bangladesh security officials, Cox’s Bazar, January 2018. This assessment will be examined in greater detail in a forthcoming Crisis Group report on the challenges the Rohingya crisis poses for Bangladesh.Hide Footnote

IV. What Next for the Crisis?

A. In Bangladesh

There is little prospect that the situation in Rakhine State will improve sufficiently in the near future for voluntary repatriation to be conceivable. The future of the refugees is thus very much dependent on developments in Bangladesh.

Sympathy for the Rohingya among the Bangladeshi populace remains widespread, and the government calculates that pressure on the refugees to return would be ill advised in an election year.

Little suggests Bangladeshi authorities are inclined to force refugees back to Myanmar. Sympathy for the Rohingya among the Bangladeshi populace remains widespread, and the government calculates that pressure on the refugees to return would be ill advised in an election year.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opinion polling professional, Dhaka, April 2018. This assessment will be examined in a forthcoming Crisis Group report on the challenges the Rohingya crisis poses for Bangladesh.Hide Footnote It would also damage relations with donor countries that are funding the $1.2 billion per year humanitarian operation. Public opinion and government calculations could easily shift, however. Two factors will be especially important.

First is the sentiment of the host community in Cox’s Bazar. Currently, relations between refugees and locals are relatively good – better, in fact, than during the 1990s crisis, even though the numbers of refugees now are far higher. But continued positive relations cannot be taken for granted. In the two sub-districts where the refugee camps are located (Ukhia and Teknaf), refugees outnumber the local population two to one. The rapid influx has placed a huge burden on the host community – prices have risen, day labour rates gone down, farmlands been lost, transport times lengthened, and deforestation and environmental degradation worsened. Locals worry about the health and security implications of the camps. Their sympathy could easily dry up as the crisis becomes protracted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of local community and refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Rohingya refugees test Bangladeshi welcome as prices rise and repatriation stalls”, Reuters, 28 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Second is whether sentiment in Bangladesh as a whole and the government’s stance in particular shifts after the elections. This could happen even if the current Awami League government holds onto power, which seems likely. Bangladesh has always insisted that the refugees must return to Myanmar, and it has rejected the idea of local integration. Pressure on refugees to return to Myanmar remains a future possibility, even if the Bangladeshi population and government for now largely welcome them.

At the same time, Bangladesh has made clear that it is making contingency arrangements. It has moved forward with a $280 million plan to resettle 100,000 Rohingya refugees on an isolated and flood-prone island, Bhasan Char, in the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladeshi navy issued a tender on 24 November 2017 for development of the island camp and necessary flood defences; the government says it has no timeline for the development – indeed, no allocation from the budget has reportedly yet been secured[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Bangladeshi civil society who has closely followed the matter, May 2018.Hide Footnote – and that no Rohingya will be moved against their will. The plan has alarmed aid agencies, however, who have concerns about the site’s suitability and the difficulty of access to it. Refugees strongly oppose moving to the island, but they seem to think that the scheme will never get off the ground. If their relocation were to appear imminent, serious resistance could be anticipated.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and aid agency representatives, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Floating island: New home for Rohingya refugees emerges in Bay of Bengal”, Reuters, 22 February 2018; “Dhaka bemoans lack of funding for Rohingya refugee island”, Reuters, 27 March 2018.Hide Footnote Demonstrations already took place in January, when refugees believed they might be pressured to repatriate.[fn]“Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh protest repatriation move”, AFP, 20 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Most [refugees] say they want to return to Rakhine State but are resigned to the fact that they may have to wait for an extended period in Bangladesh before that is possible.

In general, refugees have strong communications networks and, despite being mostly illiterate (the Rohingya language has no written form in general usage), have access to considerable information about their predicament and the attendant international debate. Almost all refugee families also have access to a smartphone – like Myanmar as a whole, which has one of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates.[fn]Smartphone penetration in Myanmar is 80 per cent, significantly higher than in its neighbours (Singapore is 78 per cent and Thailand 59 per cent). Realizing Digital Myanmar, Telenor, February 2018.Hide Footnote These devices are now connected to Bangladeshi networks through SIM cards purchased on the black market (refugees are officially prohibited from purchasing a Bangladeshi SIM card). WhatsApp serves as essentially the sole means of communication for Rohingya, mostly via sharing of audio files and video clips. Most refugees are members of multiple WhatsApp groups, giving them access to news and religious teachings, as well as a connection to their families, including those still in Myanmar or in other countries.[fn]Of the many WhatsApp groups, some connect people from a particular village in Rakhine (eg, the Taung Bazar group and the Badanar group); others are content-based, such as the Rohingya Ettafaq (Unity) group, the Rohingya social media group, the Arakan Azad (Freedom) group and the Rohingya National news group.Hide Footnote Some of these WhatsApp groups also could serve as a means of coordination and mobilisation, particularly should the refugees face major challenges, such as forced repatriation or resettlement to the island.

To the extent that refugees have had time to think about their future in any detail, most say they want to return to Rakhine State but are resigned to the fact that they may have to wait for an extended period in Bangladesh before that is possible. Very few express an intention to go to third countries. In any case, possibilities for doing so are limited: the smuggling route by boat across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia remains extremely difficult, the land route via India across Myanmar to Thailand is expensive and fraught with peril, and only a handful of refugees have the resources and connections to leave by air. Informal integration in Bangladesh is also more difficult than in the past. Authorities now restrict marriages between refugees and locals, and because Bangladesh IDs are now biometric, they are more difficult and expensive to obtain on the black market than they were previously. Some refugees have avoided entering the camps and being registered, to make it easier to move around and to leave – but their number appears to be very small (it includes some senior ARSA members, as mentioned above).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and analysts, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

B. In Northern Rakhine State

Beyond building the physical infrastructure to support limited returns, Myanmar has made no real progress in creating conditions on the ground that would give refugees the confidence to return. In the meantime, among the 100,000-150,000 Rohingya remaining in northern Rakhine, a few thousand per month continue to leave for Bangladesh.

Rohingya in northern Rakhine report that they have no wish to leave unless circumstances compel them to do so. Those that are leaving cite reasons including their inability to obtain food or medical treatment for serious illness or injury; the confiscation of their land; and accusations by the authorities that a family member is an ARSA member.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya villagers in northern Rakhine State and recently arrived refugees in Bangladesh, January-March 2018. See also “Confidential briefing note on the Maung Nu massacre and its aftermath”, Arakan Project, 22 February 2018 (non-public); and “Remaking Rakhine state,” Amnesty International, March 2018.Hide Footnote Recent arrivals from north Rathedaung and south Buthidaung reported fleeing due to food shortages and land confiscation (such as for a new border guard police base in Ah Lel Chaung village-tract). They also relate that while there are no direct threats from police or security forces, continued discrimination and restrictions make it impossible to continue trade and rural livelihoods. The rural economy has virtually collapsed, and poor people say they have to survive on the few day labour opportunities remaining or rely on remittances from family or friends in Yangon or overseas.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Non-Muslim villages are expanding and new migrants arriving, with some new villages being constructed on what were Rohingya villages and lands.

Much of Maungdaw township’s rural areas and other parts of northern Rakhine are now virtually depopulated. These areas will not remain as they are, frozen in time pending eventual repatriation in the months or years to come. Many villages were burned to the ground, and those – as well as some that were not burned – are now being bulldozed and trees and vegetation uprooted. Non-Muslim villages are expanding and new migrants arriving, with some new villages being constructed on what were Rohingya villages and lands. The government, or private companies under their direction, are constructing new roads and extending the electrical grid. The military and Border Guard Police are rolling out additional security infrastructure. The government is pushing for development projects and Myanmar conglomerates have been encouraged to look at business opportunities in the area. Whether these activities reflect a government strategy to remake northern Rakhine as a Buddhist-majority area – as some rights groups and other observers have claimed and as Rakhine nationalists have advocated – is unclear.[fn]For details of the changes that are taking place, see “Remaking Rakhine state”, Amnesty International, March 2018. See also “Burma is pumping millions into rebuilding Rakhine, but is it for the Rohingya?”, Washington Post, 14 March 2018; “With Rohingya gone, Myanmar’s ethnic Rakhine seek Muslim-free ‘buffer zone’”, AFP, 16 March 2018; “‘We have no intention of hiding anything’: Myanmar rebuilding in Maungdaw, Rakhine state”, Channel News Asia, 20 March 2018.Hide Footnote But whatever the motives, the consequence will be that with boundaries and landmarks erased, refugees’ return to their original homes and lands will be near impossible, and the possibility of any return at all greatly reduced.

In the meantime, relations between the (Buddhist) ethnic Rakhine population and the government have deteriorated sharply in 2018. The Rakhine State crisis thus has become three-sided, pitting not only the Rakhine against the Rohingya but Myanmar authorities against both, which further undermines prospects of stability and of addressing the Rohingya’s plight. Two incidents in particular have ignited ethnic Rakhine anger. First was a police crackdown in January on an anti-government demonstration in the ancient Rakhine capital of Mrauk-U that left seven Rakhine participants dead and at least a dozen hospitalised; they had been protesting a government decision to ban events commemorating the 223rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan Kingdom. The shootings were followed two days later by the arrest of the most prominent Rakhine politician, the lower house MP Dr Aye Maung, for comments at a literature festival that the authorities said were seditious and supportive of the Arakan Army. He and a second person were subsequently charged with high treason, which carries a mandatory sentence of death or life imprisonment.[fn]Burma Penal Code section 122, as amended by Burma Act XX, 1950. Death sentences are still handed down, but judicial executions are no longer carried out in Myanmar. For details on the incidents, see “7 people reported dead after police crackdown on protest in Mrauk-U”, The Irrawaddy, 17 January 2018; “MP, author charged with high treason”, The Irrawaddy, 9 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The government now faces the additional problem of deepening Rakhine nationalist disaffection, which could tip into instability or violence.

The perceived lack of a credible government response or accountability for the police shooting, and Dr Aye Maung’s ongoing prosecution in Sittwe court, both continue to inflame local sentiment. On 30 January, the Mrauk-U administrator was stabbed to death, likely because of his perceived role in the crackdown. In the early hours of 24 February, three bombs exploded in Sittwe, at locations that appeared to target the government – near a senior official’s home, a court and a government office, respectively. A policeman was injured. Three other devices were found and deactivated. No group claimed responsibility but there has been widespread speculation that it may have been the Arakan Army, the only group seen as having the motive and capacity. If it is responsible, the murder and bombings would mark a significant escalation for a group that normally only attacks military targets in rural areas. On 17 January, it had issued a statement threatening “serious retaliatory measures” against those responsible for the Mrauk-U shootings.[fn]United League of Arakan/Arakan Army statement, 17 January 2018. See also “Three bombs rock Myanmar’s northwestern city Sittwe, policeman injured”, Reuters, 24 February 2018.Hide Footnote

At a time when it must grapple with unprecedented challenges in Rakhine State, the government now faces the additional problem of deepening Rakhine nationalist disaffection, which could tip into instability or violence. The government would be well advised to ease tensions with the Rakhine community. Of course, this should not include acquiescing to Rakhine demands that are contrary to human rights norms or Myanmar’s international legal obligations; nor should it detract from the obligation to hold Rakhine politicians or anyone else accountable for hate speech or inciting violence. But the government should review its high treason prosecutions against Aye Maung and his co-accused, which may not serve the public interest at this time, and ensure there is accountability for the police shootings in Mrauk-U.

V. Role of the International Community

The Rohingya crisis presents a significant dilemma for the international community. On one hand, it is vital to insist on the right of the Rohingya to return home and Myanmar’s obligation to create conditions conducive to that, as well as to pursue accountability. On the other, no voluntary repatriation is feasible for the foreseeable future, which means concerted efforts are required to ease the burden on Bangladesh and provide alternative options for the refugees.

The harsh reality is that concerted international pressure thus far has not altered Myanmar’s political stance on [the Rohingya] issue.

Until now, many countries have been concerned that explicitly acknowledging that the refugees are unlikely to go home would relieve pressure on Myanmar to accept them back and could be seen as rewarding the architects of ethnic cleansing. But the harsh reality is that concerted international pressure thus far has not altered Myanmar’s political stance on this issue and even such increased efforts as could be plausibly achieved – given that China and Russia remain opposed to any punitive action from the Security Council – are highly unlikely to do so. The risk of failing to develop long-term strategies for the refugees now is not just that hundreds of thousands of people will continue to live in limbo. It is also that the status quo could morph in dangerous ways.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, op. cit.Hide Footnote If host communities or national political sentiment in Bangladesh turns against the refugees, the government may pressure them to return against their will or force them into more isolated camps in Bangladesh, such as those being constructed on Bhasan island. Such developments could prompt instability or violence on either side of the border – in Bangladesh, because the refugees would resist, perhaps even violently, and in Myanmar, because a forced return could lead to communal clashes with hostile non-Muslim communities and could prompt ARSA to mobilise in support of returnees.

In Bangladesh, it is vital that international donors not only support the humanitarian operation by funding the Joint Response Plan,[fn]The Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, launched by UNHCR and IOM in March 2018, is an appeal for $951 million to support the humanitarian operation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for the period March-December 2018 (
).Hide Footnote
but also that they invest heavily in development support for the affected part of Bangladesh, to reduce the burden on local communities and the government and to create an environment more conducive to any future local integration.

In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the situation needs to be stabilised so that the lives and livelihoods of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities who remain – in all parts of the state – are more secure and the exodus to Bangladesh from the north of the state ends. This challenge is not primarily one of development, but one of policy. As an immediate step in northern Rakhine, the government needs to ease the draconian restrictions on freedom of movement – curfews, checkpoints and other impediments – so that agriculture, fishing and trading can resume in rural areas and there is better access to services. It should follow through on promises of closer cooperation by providing unfettered access to the UN and its international NGO partners – including by quickly reaching agreement on the memorandum of understanding it is discussing with UNHCR and the UN Development Program. In the longer term, the only credible solution is progress on desegregation, citizenship and equality in all parts of Rakhine State, as outlined in the report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Kofi Annan.

The UN Security Council visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar from 29 April to 1 May demonstrates the deep concern of Council members and will likely strengthen their commitment to ongoing scrutiny of the situation.[fn]For a summary of the visit, see the series of “dispatches from the field” by Security Council Report, available at Footnote The UN secretary-general’s appointment in advance of the visit of a special envoy for Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, gives the UN an important new avenue for political engagement with the government.[fn]“Secretary-General Appoints Christine Schraner Burgener of Switzerland as Special Envoy on Myanmar”, UN Press Release, 26 April 2018.Hide Footnote These developments – in particular, a strategic combination of continued Council scrutiny with sustained diplomatic engagement by the special envoy – could create new opportunities to make at least some progress on the immediate steps outlined above. Indeed, at the end of the Security Council visit to Myanmar, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi issued a press release stating that “this is the appropriate time” for strengthened cooperation with the UN on Rakhine State and expressing confidence that the Council’s visit would be “an important turning point in this regard”.[fn]Press Release, Ministry of the Office of the State Counsellor, Naypyitaw, 1 May 2018.Hide Footnote This signal, along with the appointment of President Win Myint at the end of March 2018, which could lead to redistribution of political authority in the government, may open space for changes in the government’s approach. Progress on longer-term solutions through implementation of the Annan Commission recommendations will remain extremely difficult.

VI. Conclusion

The massive exodus of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh has slowed to a few hundred per week. But no repatriation has taken place or appears likely. The large majority of Rohingya are now in Bangladesh, living as refugees in squalid mega-camps. The threat of landslides and floods looms large as the monsoon and cyclone season approaches, with a concomitant risk of waterborne disease. Those who remain in northern Rakhine State are in a precarious position, unable to move freely or sustain livelihoods; many may be forced to flee to Bangladesh in the coming weeks and months.

Efforts to pursue accountability – whether through the International Criminal Court or other mechanisms – remain vital, as does pressing Myanmar to improve the situation in northern Rakhine and create conditions conducive to voluntary return. At the same time, large-scale voluntary returns for now are highly unlikely. The imperative must be to find sustainable solutions for the refugees in Bangladesh. In addition to supporting the humanitarian operation, donors should invest in developing the affected area of Bangladesh to help host communities and to create conditions amenable to local integration. The reluctance of the international actors to openly acknowledge that the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya forced out by Myanmar’s military operations are unlikely to return any time soon is understandable. But the lack of sustained political discussions and concrete planning for the refugees’ extended stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their plight and could propel the crisis in a dangerous new direction.

Brussels, 16 May 2018

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar Mike Shand/International Crisis Group,2017