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WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency
WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency
Report 238 / Asia

Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Even as Myanmar’s democratic transition continues apace, ethnic violence in Rakhine State represents a threat to national stability. It demands decisive moral leadership from all the country’s leaders as they strive to find long-term solutions to the many challenges that lie ahead, including longstanding discrimination of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities.

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Executive Summary

Myanmar’s leaders continue to demonstrate that they have the political will and the vision to move the country decisively away from its authoritarian past, but the road to democracy is proving hard. President Thein Sein has declared the changes irreversible and worked to build a durable partnership with the opposition. While the process remains incomplete, political prisoners have been released, blacklists trimmed, freedom of assembly laws implemented, and media censorship abolished. But widespread ethnic violence in Rakhine State, targeting principally the Rohingya Muslim minority, has cast a dark cloud over the reform process and any further rupturing of intercommunal relations could threaten national stability. Elsewhere, social tensions are rising as more freedom allows local conflicts to resurface. A ceasefire in Kachin State remains elusive. Political leaders have conflicting views about how power should be shared under the constitution as well as after the 2015 election. Moral leadership is required now to calm tensions and new compromises will be needed if divisive confrontation is to be avoided.

The president has moved to consolidate his authority with his first cabinet reshuffle. Ministers regarded as conservative or underperforming were moved aside and many new deputy ministers appointed. There are now more technocrats in these positions, and the country has its first female minister. The president also brought his most trusted cabinet members into his office, creating a group of “super-ministers” with authority over broad areas of government – a move perhaps partially motivated by a desire to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the legislature. A dispute over a controversial ruling by the presidentially-appointed Constitutional Tribunal led to impeachment proceedings and the resignation of the tribunal members, highlighting both the power of the legislature, and the risks to a political structure in transition as new institutions test the boundaries of their authority.

The transition has been remarkable for its speed and the apparent lack of any major internal resistance, including from the military. It will inevitably face enormous challenges. The ongoing intercommunal strife in Rakhine State is of grave concern, and there is the potential for similar violence elsewhere, as nationalism and ethno-nationalism rise and old prejudices resurface. The difficulty in reaching a ceasefire in Kachin State underlines the complexity of forging a sustainable peace with ethnic armed groups. There are also rising grassroots tensions over land grabbing and abuses by local authorities, and environmental and social concerns over foreign-backed infrastructure and mining projects. In a context of rising popular expectations, serious unaddressed grievances from the past, and new-found freedom to organise and demonstrate, there is potential for the emergence of more radical and confrontational social movements. This will represent a major test for the government and security services as they seek to maintain law and order without rekindling memories of the recent authoritarian past.

A key factor in determining the success of Myanmar’s transition will be macro-political stability. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will compete for seats across the country for the first time since the abortive 1990 elections. Assuming these polls are free and fair, they will herald a radical shift in the balance of power away from the old dispensation. But an NLD landslide may not be in the best interests of the party or the country, as it would risk marginalising three important constituencies: the old political elite, the ethnic political parties and the non-NLD democratic forces. If the post-2015 legislatures fail to represent the true political and ethnic diversity of the country, tensions are likely to increase and fuel instability.

The main challenge the NLD faces is not to win the election, but to promote inclusiveness and reconciliation. It has a number of options to achieve this. It could support a more proportional election system that would create more representative legislatures, by removing the current “winner-takes-all” distortion. Alternatively, it could form an alliance with other parties, particularly ethnic parties, agreeing not to compete against them in certain constituencies. Finally, it could support an interim “national unity” candidate for the post-2015 presidency. This would reassure the old guard, easing the transition to an NLD-dominated political system. Critically, this option could also build support for the constitutional change required to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to become president at a future date, a change that is unlikely prior to 2015 given the opposition of the military bloc, which has a veto over any amendment. Pursuing any of these paths will require that the NLD make sacrifices and put the national interest above party-political considerations. With a national leader of the calibre of Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm, it can certainly rise to this challenge.

Jakarta/Brussels, 12 November 2012

Impact Note / Asia

WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency

Crisis Group’s Myanmar report on 15 December 2016 revealed the emergence of a game-changing Muslim insurgency in the country’s Rakhine state. In this Editorial, the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Page introduced the report to readers as evidence of how Burma’s abuse of the Rohingya Muslims has created violent backlash.

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal on 19 December 2016 under the headline Asias New Insurgency.

Even as Burma has made dramatic progress toward democracy and pluralism, the military has waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority. The government has forced more than 100,000 into squalid camps and prevented them from receiving aid.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled abroad, many losing their lives in the process. Another million are still in western Burma’s Rakhine state, but they have difficulty finding work because the government stripped them of their citizenship in the 1980s.

As government troops take revenge on civilians, they risk inspiring more Rohingya to join the fight.

Now this immoral policy has created a violent backlash. The world’s newest Muslim insurgency pits Saudi-backed Rohingya militants against Burmese security forces. As government troops take revenge on civilians, they risk inspiring more Rohingya to join the fight.

A report last week from the International Crisis Group (ICG) describes the new insurgent force that carried out a well-organized October attack on three border-police bases in Rakhine, killing nine police officers and setting off reprisals from the military.

Called Harakah al-Yaqin, Arabic for “the Faith Movement,” the group answers to a committee of Rohingya emigres in Mecca and a cadre of local commanders with experience fighting as guerrillas overseas. Its recent campaign – which continued into November with IED attacks and raids that killed several more security agents – has been endorsed by fatwas from clerics in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Emirates and elsewhere.

Rohingyas have “never been a radicalized population,” ICG notes, “and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive.” But that is changing fast. Harakah al-Yaqin was established in 2012 after ethnic riots in Rakhine killed some 200 Rohingyas and is now estimated to have hundreds of trained fighters.

The government decision to disenfranchise all Rohingyas before the vote likely drove more recruits into the insurgents’ ranks.

The military response to Harakah al-Yaqin is making Rohingya life even more desperate across northern Rakhine. The ICG cites “reports of suspects shot on sight, burning of many houses, looting of property and seizure or destruction of food stocks – as well as of women and girls raped.” Satellite photos show at least 1,500 buildings recently burned, while aid workers and journalists have been kept away. Some 30,000 Rohingyas are newly displaced.

Burma’s government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon and Nobel Peace laureate whose party swept last year’s landmark election, but she governs under a constitution imposed in 2008 by the old military junta. Its antidemocratic provisions bar her or any other elected official from controlling the military or the defense and border ministries, so last year’s election had little effect on the Rohingya. The government decision to disenfranchise all Rohingyas before the vote likely drove more recruits into the insurgents’ ranks.

Can Ms. Suu Kyi prevail on the military to exercise restraint and, in the longer term, begin bringing the stateless and desperate Rohingya into Burma’s national life? Does she want to? So far she’s done little beside speaking with foreign leaders and appointing former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head a commission of inquiry. Without significant changes in state policy, Rakhine’s incipient insurgency could grow into a jihadist threat that spreads beyond Burma’s borders.