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New Attacks on Muslim Villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
New Attacks on Muslim Villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation
Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation
Commentary / Asia

New Attacks on Muslim Villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Since 2012, Myanmar has seen outbreaks of inter-communal and anti-Muslim violence, first in Rakhine State, where there is a large population of Rohingya Muslims as well as other Muslim communities such as the Kaman. The violence then spread to other parts of the country. (See our reports Storm Clouds on the Horizon and The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, and our June 2012 conflict alert.) Reports are now emerging of deadly attacks on Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw township, an area near the Bangladesh border where the great majority of the population is Rohingya. Crisis Group has spoken to a number of individuals and organisations who have visited the area and interviewed people who said they witnessed the events. These accounts paint an alarming and consistent picture. Around 49 people are believed to have been killed in two violent incidents between 9 and 13 January. The allegations suggest that some of these killings were carried out by the police, and that the victims included women and children.

The first incident took place on 9 January, when the chief of a Rakhine Buddhist village allegedly intercepted and detained a group of eight Rohingya men from farther south in Rakhine State who were attempting to reach the Bangladesh border. In circumstances that are unclear, it appears that villagers killed these men and buried the bodies in a makeshift grave.

On 13 January, Rohingya from the nearby Du Chee Yar Tan village stumbled across the grave and photographed the bodies with smartphones. A police operation was then launched in what might have been an attempt to prevent information about the killing, particularly photographic evidence, getting out. It appears that in the course of that operation, a police sergeant was captured and killed by Rohingya villagers. This sparked a search for the officer, and when his bloody clothes were discovered a massive manhunt for his killers began. Local Buddhists also appear to have mounted a revenge attack on the Muslim villagers, with the complicity or even active involvement of some police. It is alleged that around 40 people were killed as a result.

The manhunt and search for the police officer’s body continue. As a result of the violence, all villagers have reportedly fled Du Chee Yar Tan, which has been sealed off by the authorities. An order has apparently been issued by the district chief to arrest all male residents from Du Chee Yar Tan over the age of ten. Nearby villages have been warned not to harbour anyone from the village.

The government has repeatedly denied that any killings have taken place, other than that of the police officer.

It is vital that the central government take clear and decisive action. The central government should immediately launch an impartial and transparent investigation into all alleged killings and take action with regard to any crimes committed.

The sealing off of the village and the reported order to arrest all male villagers constitute collective punishment and an intimidation that is not justified in the context of a police investigation.

Given allegations that local police (who are all Rakhine Buddhists) were involved in the killings – and taking into account previous allegations of this kind during earlier violence ­– the local officers should be withdrawn. The investigation and provision of security should be by police from outside Rakhine State, with the support of the army if necessary.

Finally, villagers must be allowed to swiftly return to the village and resume their livelihoods – and not confined to the village “for their own safety”, as has happened in other incidents.

Failure to adequately address these allegations carries strong risks. The central government may be seen as complicit in the cover-up of serious crimes, and extremists would be emboldened by the sense that anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine State will go unpunished. This could have potentially grave consequences in the region, which is still reeling from earlier episodes of deadly violence.

A critical challenge facing Myanmar as the country opens up (emphasised in our Dark Side of Transition report) is to reform the police service and, at a time of rising intolerance and bigotry, make it more inclusive of Myanmar’s diversity. A clear statement of intent from the centre to address these latest serious allegations in Rakhine State is thus not simply a question of asserting the rule of law. It is necessary to demonstrate that the nation is prepared to protect its minority communities and embrace its diversity.

Commentary / Asia

Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation

Ethnic armed conflict, the ongoing Rohingya crisis and thriving illegal business are preventing Myanmar from solving the country’s protracted conflicts. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to sustain aid and diversify its peacebuilding initiatives.

The Rohingya crisis continues to take a heavy toll on the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, and Myanmar’s international reputation, and remains a significant barrier to peace. No durable solution is on the horizon for the refugees, most of whom are in crowded camps exposed to health and natural disaster risks. Muslims remaining in Rakhine State suffer increasingly entrenched conditions of apartheid, with limited access to essential services and livelihoods. The human catastrophe on both sides of the border represents a major threat to peace and security. The ethnic Rakhine are also on a collision course with Naypyitaw, particularly over the detention and potential high treason conviction of a key Rakhine leader. This has undermined the Rakhine population’s confidence in politics and is driving broad support for the Arakan Army insurgency, which has sharply escalated attacks and threatens to tip the state into prolonged armed conflict. Elsewhere, in the north east, armed conflict has eased due to the unexpected declaration by the military on 21 December of a unilateral ceasefire in Shan and Kachin States. However, clashes between ethnic armed groups continue, the peace process remains moribund, and insecurity is exacerbated by increasingly lucrative opportunities for armed groups in drug production, human trafficking, and a range of other illicit activities.

The EU and its member states can help to address this complex set of challenges by:

  • Continuing to fund the humanitarian appeal for Rohingya camps in Bangladesh and stepping up development aid to host communities. This is the best way to give greater dignity to refugees and limit space for actors with other agendas, potentially including those promoting violence.
     
  • Providing humanitarian and development support that takes into account the differentiated needs of men, women, girls, and boys from all ethnic and religious groups in Rakhine State. Delivery of this support should avoid entrenching segregation or reinforcing apartheid policies, and should be sensitive to past human rights abuses some have suffered, including sexual and gender-based violence.
     
  • Remaining engaged with Myanmar while continuing to support international accountability measures. Disengagement and isolation will not bring positive change and will likely exacerbate the structural factors underlying Myanmar’s multiple crises.
     
  • Establishing sectoral exemptions if it decides to revoke Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme, which provides Least Developed Countries with tariff- and quota-free access to EU markets. Revoking the scheme in its entirety would harm hundreds of thousands of low-income garment industry workers, mostly young women who would lose their jobs, potentially further impoverishing their families and leaving these women at heightened risk of trafficking and exploitation.
     
  • Diversifying its support to peacebuilding initiatives aimed at ending Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. This support should aim to protect civilians, assist conflict-affected communities and de-escalate rising levels of violence, including in Rakhine State.

Deadlock in the Peace Process and a New Escalation in Rakhine State

While international condemnation helped avert Bangladesh’s planned forcible repatriation of some Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar in November 2018, the risk remains that Dhaka could revive the process or force refugees to relocate to a remote island. Uncertainty about their future is feeding fear and desperation among the refugees, creating fertile ground for potential militancy. No long-term solution is in sight. Safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation is a distant prospect, third-country resettlement is extremely unlikely for all but a tiny proportion of refugees (and currently blocked even for small numbers), and the Bangladeshi government continues to resist local integration.

In Rakhine State, living conditions for the Rohingya that were already dire are worsening. Myanmar’s government is making no concerted effort to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State – it has taken some steps on health, education and development, but made no progress on guaranteeing freedom of movement, citizenship and other fundamental rights. Nor has it made progress on holding accountable those responsible for crimes committed during the Myanmar army’s expulsion of the Rohingya following militant attacks in October 2016 and August 2017, which a UN report has said merits investigation for genocide. The government is moving forward tentatively with closing camps for displaced Muslims but without granting the freedom of movement necessary to access services and livelihood opportunities, thereby reinforcing a situation of apartheid and leaving the population indefinitely reliant on humanitarian assistance. Repression and poverty are fuelling a new wave of dangerous boat journeys from Rakhine State across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia and Indonesia; desperation in the Bangladesh camps is prompting Rohingya refugees to attempt the same route.

At the same time, deadly coordinated attacks by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, on four police posts in northern Rakhine on 4 January – Myanmar’s Independence Day – will have a major impact in Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Beyond the immediate escalation in clashes this will bring, and the added complications for addressing the plight of the Rohingya, the attacks portend something significant and dangerous for the longer term: a shift in Rakhine popular sentiment away from politics toward armed insurgency as the means of addressing their grievances. This shift threatens to plunge the state into serious and sustained armed conflict for the first time in decades. The popular perception that politics has failed comes in part from the fact that, although a Rakhine political party won a large majority of elected seats in 2015, Naypyitaw imposed a minority National League for Democracy government; subsequently the top Rakhine political leader was arrested for high treason and remains on trial facing a possible death sentence.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy.

In the restive north of the country, even with the military’s unilateral ceasefire, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government will likely struggle to reinvigorate the moribund peace process for ending Myanmar’s multiple internal ethnic armed conflicts. This is due to a loss of trust on all sides, resistance from the military and government to meaningful concessions on minority rights and greater devolution of power, and the fact that political dynamics ahead of the 2020 elections further narrow the administration’s room for manoeuvre. Armed conflict in Shan State has eased as a result of the unilateral ceasefire, although clashes between competing Shan factions continue; this will enable the military to focus more attention and firepower on the escalating conflict in Rakhine State.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy. Revenues from illegal businesses (including drug production, gem and wildlife smuggling, gambling, money laundering and racketeering) now contribute to funding and sustaining the civil war. A toxic political economy based on organised crime and corruption fosters local resentment and enormous disincentives against ending conflicts.

Moving Beyond the Status Quo

The EU should take steps in three areas. First, it should re-evaluate its approach to the Rohingya crisis. More than six years on from the initial segregation of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, the government has shown no sign of reintegrating them – rather, it has opted for an ever more entrenched system of segregation. The EU and others providing humanitarian assistance in such a context are an important lifeline for these communities, but must ensure that they take a principled approach and keep the parameters of assistance under close review to ensure they are not inadvertently reinforcing the government’s discriminatory practices. For example, the Rohingya camps in central Rakhine are not classic internally displaced persons camps but, rather, internment camps, and policy approaches must start from a recognition of this. This dynamic presents a dilemma to which there is no easy answer: withdrawing humanitarian support from this population would negatively impact on vulnerable people; continuing support as camps transition to semi-permanent confinement sites could amount to complicity in longer-term ghettoisation. The only way forward for the EU and other humanitarian actors is to continuously assess their approach and the evolving context to ensure they are minimising harm.

The EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme.

The EU should continue its vital support to the camps in Bangladesh while also continuing to push for accountability for those responsible for violence against the Rohingya. Domestic processes such as the government-appointed Commission of Enquiry are not credible; this leaves international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court, and the UN-established body charged with preparing case files for future criminal proceedings, as the most likely route through which perpetrators could be held to account.

Second, the EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme. Such a move would have a catastrophic impact on many workers, particularly girls in the garment industry, without doing anything to punish the perpetrators of crimes in Rakhine State and elsewhere, who should be the focus of the EU’s actions in this regard. Hurting vulnerable workers would damage the EU’s reputation in Myanmar and beyond, and hamper its ability to engage with the government and other actors for no positive gain.

Last, the EU has a leading role on Myanmar’s peace process, having been a key donor since its inception. While the EU should continue to support the stalled negotiations, it should also make a realistic assessment of prospects for success, particularly as the country heads to elections in 2020. Redirecting EU funds to local initiatives could have a greater impact than support to the formal process at national level. Recognising that no imminent end to the armed conflicts is in sight, funds should go toward de-escalation efforts, peacebuilding and protecting civilians. The EU should also extend support to the Anti-Corruption Commission and related initiatives. Such support could strengthen government efforts toward combating organised crime, including drug production and human trafficking, which are rampant in conflict-affected areas and help fuel those conflicts.