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Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks
Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks
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

A Myanmar border guard police officer stands guard in Tin May village, Buthidaung township, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar on 14 July 2017. REUTERS/Simon Lewis
Statement / Asia

Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks

The Rohingya insurgent attacks that killed twelve Myanmar soldiers and officials and perhaps 77 of their own number is a serious escalation of a ten-month-old crisis. They make implementation of this week’s recommendations to address Rohingya grievances from Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission both harder and more urgent.

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In the early hours of 25 August, militants from Harakah al-Yaqin – a Rohingya insurgent group that now refers to itself in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – mounted coordinated attacks on 30 police posts and an army base in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The government reports that the attackers, equipped with hand-held explosive devices, machetes and a few small arms, killed ten police officers, a soldier and an immigration official. Reportedly, 77 insurgents also were killed and one captured. In response, the military is conducting “clearance operations” across the area and police in rural outposts have moved to more secure locations in case of further attacks. Clashes continue in some locations, and there are reports of vigilantism against Rohingya communities. Both Rohingya and Buddhist residents are attempting to flee the areas affected. Time is not on the government’s side if Rakhine state is to be pulled back from the brink. It must quickly take bold measures to address legitimate Rakhine and Rohingya concerns.

This episode represents a very serious escalation in the conflict and was preceded by a significant rise in tensions in northern Rakhine. The insurgent group launched its first operation in October 2016, when it conducted a complex, deadly, coordinated attack on three border police bases in northern Rakhine state. A months-long, heavy-handed military response followed, including a new deployment of Myanmar army troops. As a result, some 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and, in February 2017, a UN investigation concluded that there had been grave and widespread abuses by the military that “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity. A domestic investigation has rejected these claims.

The path to a long-term solution is clear, if challenging. It has been set out in considerable detail in the final report of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission, released on 23 August and welcomed by the government. It involves addressing the legitimate grievances of the Rakhine, while ensuring freedom of movement, access to services and livelihoods, political participation and citizenship rights for the Rohingya. The recent attacks have created a far more difficult political context for the government to implement these recommendations, but have also reinforced the urgency of doing so.

[T]he Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence.

The current crisis was neither unpredicted nor unpreventable. The anti-Muslim violence of 2012, and the emergence of the new insurgent group last year were both clear signals that the volatile dynamics of Rakhine state urgently need a political, not just a security response to address the concerns of all communities in the state. Yet the Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence. These include extreme discrimination by Myanmar’s society and state as well as a progressive erosion of rights and barriers to obtaining critical identity and citizenship documents, the community’s disenfranchisement before the 2015 elections, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. These factors, in combination with the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rohingya communities that resulted from separate violence in 2012, and the military crackdown last year that targeted civilians, create an environment where ARSA can increase its legitimacy and recruiting base among local communities and more easily intimidate and kill Rohingya who disagree with it and lack any real protection from the state. 

There are clear lessons for the Myanmar government from the previous episodes of violence and from the present crisis. Crisis Group has noted repeatedly that an aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation. In the immediate future, if the military response is not to entrench worsening cycles of violence, it must respect the principle of proportionality and distinguish between insurgents and Rohingya civilians. It must provide protection to all civilians caught up in or fleeing the fighting. And it must provide unfettered access to humanitarian agencies and media to affected areas, lest it contribute to a dangerous, violent polarisation, increase alienation and despair, and enable provocative misinformation to take hold.

Crisis Group has noted repeatedly that an aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation.

ARSA’s violent actions inevitably will harm, not help it, despite its claims to be fighting the Myanmar state – and not Rakhine civilians – for the Rohingya cause. ARSA will face international censure for the violence of its attacks, which will increase if it seeks to improve its fighting capacity. The Myanmar government formally declared it a terrorist group under national law on 25 August. This has limited legal implications but will placate nationalists who have been calling for the government to be unequivocal on this point. It also means that Myanmar is likely to increasingly present this as a fight against transnational terrorism rather than domestic insurgency. In short, by resorting to violence, ARSA’s leaders are hardening social divisions and biases against the Rohingya, and increasing anti-Muslim sentiment across Myanmar.

ARSA are well aware that their latest attacks are likely to provoke a strong military response and political backlash, as they did in 2016, which will greatly harm Rohingya villagers. That almost certainly is its aim. Despite its claim that it is “protecting” the Rohingya, it knows that it is provoking the security forces into a heavy-handed military response, hoping that this will further alienate Rohingya communities, drive support for ARSA, and place the spotlight of the world back on military abuses in northern Rakhine state. A disproportionate military response without any overarching political strategy once again will play directly into ARSA’s hands.

There is no evidence that ARSA’s goals or members support a transnational jihadist agenda, despite indications that the group may have received some training from members of such outfits. That will not stop those who resent all Muslim groups and grievances from characterising it as such. On the other side, another harsh military response and the continued displacement of scores of thousands to camps in Bangladesh will create conditions ripe for exploitation by transnational jihadists. 

The deepening crisis in Rakhine state threatens to sweep aside all other priorities.

The costs of failing to address the roots of the crisis inrease every day. The impact will not fall only on Rakhine state, but on Myanmar as a whole, where anti-Muslim sentiment and Buddhist nationalism are on the rise, threatening fragile communal relations. The government has many other urgent issues to deal with, including its complex peace process with multiple ethnic armed groups and the difficult job of steering the economy and ensuring greater prosperity for all the people of the country. The deepening crisis in Rakhine state threatens to sweep aside all other priorities, as it will continue to dominate both domestic debate and international engagement with Myanmar.