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Reality Bites for Aung San Suu Kyi Amid Surging Violence
Reality Bites for Aung San Suu Kyi Amid Surging Violence
Op-Ed / Asia

Reality Bites for Aung San Suu Kyi Amid Surging Violence

Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review

On Oct. 9, as many as 500 to 800 people armed with knives, slingshots and a small collection of firearms launched three separate, coordinated attacks on border police bases in northern Rakhine State, near Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. Nine police officers and eight attackers were killed, and at least 50 weapons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition were looted. There have been several deadly clashes since, as the security forces attempt to capture the attackers and retrieve the arms cache, with at least 22 further casualties on both sides.

More than 90% of the population in this area is from the long-oppressed minority Muslim Rohingya group. It now seems almost certain that the attackers were mostly local people, probably with some form of assistance from across the border in Bangladesh -- where many Rohingya have sought refuge -- or possibly further afield.

How they were organized, and whether this represents the emergence of a new mujahedeen armed group, or a local uprising with no institutional structure, remain unclear. But the large number of attackers and their sophisticated tactics showed an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that up to now has seen little sign of organized violent resistance from the Rohingya.

The broader concern is that a new threshold of violence has been passed.

The broader concern is that a new threshold of violence has been passed, and that the years of oppression, resentment and hopelessness among the Rohingya have morphed into a violent response. The idea of organized resistance has been discussed as a theoretical option by some in the Rohingya community since at least 2012. But the practical difficulties, a majority view that violence would be counterproductive, and slivers of hope of a better future under a new government militated against violence.

Over the last year, there has been a creeping sense that nothing is going to change, and the escape valve of illegal migration by boat to Malaysia has largely been closed following crackdowns there and in Thailand. Faced with a grim reality today, and no sense of hope for tomorrow, it is little wonder that radical solutions may have become more appealing to some Rohingya.

Downward Spiral

The majority of this community and its religious leaders continue to eschew violence. But the latest attacks, which appear to have been several months in the preparation, threaten to draw the entire population into a downward spiral of deadly confrontations, violent crackdowns by the security forces and toxic relations between local communities and the authorities.

There will be no winners, and ordinary Muslim villagers will almost certainly be the biggest losers. The security forces do not have the community relations in this area that would help them effectively distinguish friend from foe. This means that all adult Muslim men will be regarded with suspicion, and potentially suffer violations of their dignity and rights, further polarizing the situation.

At a national level, the space for even incremental progress on Rakhine has likely all but closed.

At a national level, the space for even incremental progress on Rakhine has likely all but closed, and Suu Kyi's efforts to steer the country in a more moderate, tolerant direction have been dealt a serious setback. The recent attacks, whether found to be linked to regional or global jihadi movements or not, will amplify the existing angst over an Islamic extremist threat to the country, and a pervasive distrust of Muslims among the Buddhist majority. Radical Buddhist nationalist groups -- who have been on the back foot since the elections -- will be emboldened and are already using the incident for fearmongering. It will now be much harder for moderate voices to be heard.

At the same time, and unconnected with the situation in Rakhine, armed conflict is escalating again in Myanmar's northeast, imperilling the peace process. Suu Kyi's peace initiative got off to a fairly good start after her administration took office earlier this year. Her "Panglong-21" peace conference in early September was important for its broad inclusion of armed groups, something the previous government had not been able to achieve.

Yet, the challenges are enormous. Many groups attended not out of support for the process, but because they considered they had no alternative given Suu Kyi's wide domestic and international support and legitimacy. Many felt they were treated poorly and the conference was badly organized. The largest opposition armed group, the United Wa State Party, sent only a junior delegation that walked out on the second day.

The escalation of fighting in northern Kachin and Shan states in recent weeks, including use of air power and long-range artillery by the Myanmar military, has further eroded trust -- particularly as civilian targets have been hit. Photos of a dead child, and others being treated for gruesome injuries in a hospital across the border in China, have been widely shared and prompted great anger in minority communities.

From here, the peace process gets much more difficult. The announced scheduling of further Panglong-21 conferences every six months (the next in February 2017) imposes a rigid timeframe that limits the flexibility required to overcome obstacles, and provides an easy target for spoilers. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, a necessary condition for participation in future peace conferences and related political dialogs that has been clearly articulated by both the government and military. So far, only eight out of 18 groups have signed.

Devastated Lives

The importance of making progress should be compelling for all sides. The current government's five-year 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. Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal solution and has unparalleled political authority to deliver it, particularly with the Burman majority.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity and start discussing the contours of that deal. But the lack of trust is stifling progress and the complexities of a peace process with at least 18 armed actors, pursuing diverse agendas, is overwhelming. Optimism for substantial progress over the next few months is starting to recede.

For Rakhine State and the peace process, relations between the civilian and military branches of government are critical. Earlier concerns that there might be confrontational relations between the two, or that the military might actively seek to undermine Aung San Suu Kyi, have receded. It is now clear that there is reasonably constructive cooperation between her and the commander-in-chief. Rather, the concern is that the implicit basis for those constructive relations is that neither side interferes in the other's domain. Some armed groups have stated that the upswing in clashes is an attempt by the military to use its might to pressure them to sign the ceasefire agreement. The reality is likely more worrying: that the close, strategic civil-military coordination required under such a scenario does not yet exist.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity and start discussing the contours of that deal.

Rather, the military feels relatively unconstrained in pursuing its security agenda -- which would mean that if its actions start to undermine any prospects of progress in the peace process, as they probably already are doing, there is no one to pull it back. The bottom line is that only with very close, day-to-day coordination between Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief -- or, even better, civilian control of the military -- would it be possible to calibrate a good cop/bad cop approach. Without it, the current escalation in fighting represents a grave threat to the process.

In Rakhine, the actions of the security forces over the coming days and weeks will be critical in whether a downward spiral of confrontation and violence develops. Here too, Suu Kyi has given the right messages, but lacks the ability to directly calibrate the security response to ensure it is consistent with her political objectives.

The attacks in Rakhine and difficulties of the peace process are a reminder that the biggest challenges facing Myanmar are not easily fixed by a new government armed with good intentions and better policies. They are deep structural problems that have bedeviled the country since independence. This harsh reality is now coming to the fore. The new government's honeymoon period is over.

Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 7 March 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Briefing 155 / Asia

Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees who have little hope of going home any time soon. The government should move to improve camp living conditions, in particular by lifting the education ban and fighting crime. Donors should support such steps.

What’s new? With no near-term prospect of returning to Myanmar, almost a million Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh face an uncertain future. An impressive aid operation has stabilised the humanitarian situation; attention must now turn to refugees’ lives and future prospects, in particular improved law and order and education for children.

Why does it matter? A lack of security and hope creates major risks. Militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity in the camps, consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political leaders. Without education opportunities, children will be left ill equipped to thrive wherever they live in the future.

What should be done? Bangladesh should institute an effective police presence in the camps and bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice. It should also lift its ban on formal education in the camps. If it does, donors should help meet the costs of these and other measures to improve refugees’ lives.

I. Overview

Eighteen months on from the mass expulsion of 740,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, no sustainable solution for the refugees is in sight. Repatriation to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal – not only to relieve the huge burden on Bangladesh but also because that is the strong preference of the refugees themselves. But the unfortunate reality is that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will be unable to return home to Myanmar for the foreseeable future. Systems are now largely in place to provide for their essential humanitarian needs in the sprawling refugee camps. It is now time to move beyond the emergency phase of managing this crisis. Shifting focus in this way requires Bangladesh to ease its restrictions on longer-term assistance. Specifically:

  • The Bangladesh government should lift its ban on the provision of formal education in the camps; local and international organisations are ready to provide such education.
  • It should also improve law and order in the camps, where militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity and are consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political voices and leaders. This requires instituting a regular and effective Bangladeshi police presence in the camps and investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.
  • For their part, donors should help Bangladesh not only to meet the refugees’ immediate humanitarian needs but also to cover the costs of measures that improve their lives and prospects for the future.

II. Slim Prospects for Return

The Myanmar security forces’ mass expulsion of Rohingya starting in August 2017 created a major humanitarian emergency in neighbouring Bangladesh and the largest refugee settlement in the world.[fn]This briefing is based on an April 2019 visit by Crisis Group to Dhaka and the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, including interviews with refugee leaders, humanitarian agencies and local analysts. For more background on the situation of the Rohingya, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 296, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 16 May 2018; 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; and Asia Briefing N°153, Bangladesh-Myanmar: The Danger of Forced Rohingya Repatriation, 12 November 2018.Hide Footnote Around one million Rohingya, from this and previous exoduses, live in a cluster of densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar district, as well as some in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Some eighteen months on from the main exodus, a major humanitarian operation by local and international aid groups has successfully addressed the immediate priorities. Life-saving essentials – food, water, sanitation, shelter and basic health services – are now in place. As the monsoon season looms, the camps are much better prepared this year than before: drainage has been improved and roads through the camps have been surfaced. But there are limits to what can be done to mitigate risk in such densely packed camps carved out of former forest and where there are almost no flat areas. A heavy monsoon (unlike last year’s unusually mild one) could still take a serious toll, and a cyclone – a relatively frequent event in this region – would be devastating.

The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects.

There is no prospect that the refugees will be able to return home to Myanmar’s Rakhine State any time soon. The Myanmar authorities still have not addressed the fundamental issues of Rohingyas being denied citizenship, freedom of movement, security and other basic rights. Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army – a militant outfit that draws its support mainly from the ethnic Rakhine population (a mostly Buddhist group distinct from the Rohingya Muslims) – has escalated sharply since January.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote The fighting has affected remaining Rohingya communities, both because they are caught between the warring parties and sometimes find themselves in the crossfire, and because of the uncertainty and fear that fighting brings. This creates a further impediment to the refugees’ return. The conflict also has pushed repatriation down the list of priorities in Naypyitaw, which is currently focused on the Arakan Army insurgency and national elections in 2020.

III. Fraught Conditions in the Camps

The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects. A key priority is education. The Bangladesh government currently prohibits the provision of formal education to the refugees. This restriction robs families of their hope for a more economically secure future and ensures that a generation of children will be deprived of the skills they will need to flourish, wherever they ultimately live.

Informal private “tuitions” held in private dwellings and networks of madrassas that only teach the Koran do not adequately fill the formal education gap.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders and humanitarian agencies, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 2019.Hide Footnote No evidence has emerged of these madrassas promoting violence or intolerance among children, or of indoctrination or recruitment by local or transnational jihadists. However, a policy of denying young people formal education and leaving them reliant on unregulated madrassas almost certainly increases the risks of such groups gaining a foothold in the camps.[fn]Bangladeshi officials also cite this as a risk. See “Delayed repatriation risks breeding Rohingya terrorists: Bangladesh official”, The Irrawaddy, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Already, the Chittagong-based Islamist movement Hefazat-e-Islam – which has publicly called for jihad against Myanmar – has considerable influence over the madrassa network in the camps, through the funding and religious scholars that it provides.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalists and analysts, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 2019. For more details on Hefazat-e-Islam, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°295, Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh, 28 February 2018. On the calls for jihad, see “Hefazat: Jihad against Myanmar if Rohingya killing continues”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Equally concerning is the lack of law and order. One prominent refugee leader described the security situation as “very serious”, saying he was “unable to sleep at night” for fear of attack.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya refugee leader, refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote A determined and often violent struggle is currently underway for de facto control of the camps. At stake is informal political authority over a huge population and access to lucrative economic rents from the camp economy – both licit and illicit – through corruption and extortion. The groups vying for control include the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which has shown that it is willing to deploy deadly violence to further its aims; informal networks of religious leaders; non-violent political and civil society groups; and a random assortment of criminal gangs.

Violent groups operate freely in the camps. As evening draws in and humanitarian workers withdraw to their bases in Cox’s Bazar town, security is in the hands of untrained and unarmed night watchmen appointed from among the refugees. Overstretched Bangladeshi police are focused on perimeter security and protection of local Bangladeshi communities and remain mostly outside the camps at night. Refugees express serious concerns about their personal security, and militants and gangs are intimidating, kidnapping and killing with impunity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders, analysts and humanitarian workers, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019. See also “In Rohingya camps, a political awakening faces a backlash”, Reuters, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Murders and other forms of violence are an almost nightly occurrence; the police rarely investigate, and perpetrators have almost never been brought to justice.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority.

This creates a toxic political environment within the camps. Without basic security, non-violent political actors face intimidation or worse. For example, ARSA was likely responsible for the grisly murder of Arif Ullah, a camp leader, in June 2018 – based on the manner of his killing which is typical of ARSA (a deep knife cut to the throat) and the fact that death threats typical of ARSA had been circulating against him on WhatsApp, accusing him of being too close to the Bangladesh army.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts with detailed knowledge of the security situation in the camps, Bangladesh, April 2019.Hide Footnote Some refugee leaders to whom Crisis Group spoke in April 2019 had received credible death threats, they believe from ARSA, and fear for their lives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote Amid the lawlessness, violent actors are likely to further consolidate control, which will stifle peaceful political organisation among the refugees and constructive debate about how to shape their own futures. Effective control of the camps will pass to those who prioritise accumulation of power or wealth, or militant agendas, over the future well-being of the community.

The burden of ameliorating these problems disproportionately falls on Bangladesh. Understandably, Dhaka’s policy response is focused on repatriation, which it sees as the only viable durable solution for the refugees. Making life better for the Rohingya where they are now would not only impose financial strain on Bangladesh but might be perceived as working at cross-purposes with Bangladesh’s interest in Rohingya returns to Myanmar.

IV. Improving Refugees’ Medium-term Prospects

Returns to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal – not only to relieve the hardship visited on Bangladesh and avoid consolidating what a UN investigation called ethnic cleansing, but also because that is the preference of the refugees themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and refugee leaders, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019 and 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 International pressure on Myanmar through the UN and by countries having influence in Naypyitaw should continue to focus on improving the situation of Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State, a prerequisite for any sustainable return. This pressure should include insistence on implementing the Kofi Annan Commission recommendations of August 2017, in particular its detailed suggestions on addressing discrimination and ensuring freedom of movement and a credible pathway to restoring Rohingyas’ citizenship rights. It is only by demonstrably improving conditions in Rakhine that any refugees would consider returning home.

At the same time, Bangladesh should recognise – even if it does not want to state this publicly – that no major repatriation is on the horizon. In this context, policies that restrict the Rohingya refugees’ ability to prepare for an uncertain future should be eased. Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority, and there exist local and international groups with the ability and willingness to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian agencies, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote Measures to improve law and order would include instituting a regular Bangladeshi police presence in the camps, investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. Failure to address these issues now will do significant long-term harm to the refugees, and potentially fuel insecurity and instability in this part of Bangladesh.

Though some of the burdens to be borne by Bangladesh are unavoidable, donors can and should, at least, lessen the financial impact on Dhaka. If the implications of the Rohingya refugee crisis for regional peace and security are not to worsen, donor countries need to be generous in their support not only to the annual humanitarian appeal but, if Dhaka’s restrictions are eased, also to longer-term assistance to the refugees.

Brussels, 25 April 2019

Appendix A: Map of Rakhine State