A Rakhine family shelters at Tain Myo IDP camp in Mrauk-U Township in September last year. Tens of thousands of Rakhine State residents have been displaced by conflict between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw since December 2018. (Kyaw Lin Htoon | Frontier)

ASEAN must do more in Rakhine

Regional action is needed to stem the unprecedented violence in Rakhine State and should include a push by ASEAN leaders for a ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army.


VIOLENT conflict between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army has been ravaging Rakhine State since late 2018. Since early February, though, the situation has deteriorated dramatically. There have been reports of serious and indiscriminate violence for more than eight weeks now. The use of jet fighters, helicopter gunships, heavy artillery and landmines near schools, pagodas and villages continue to cause many civilian casualties while increasing the already large number of displaced people.

Much hope has been placed in the ability of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court to make a difference in crisis-ridden Rakhine. Indeed, dealing with accountability for alleged atrocity crimes against the Rohingya is a critically important element in efforts to resolve conflicts that have been plaguing the state since independence.

The engagement of the world’s top courts is a major step forward but it is no panacea for the problems facing the state’s diverse population. The courts deal explicitly with the situation of the Rohingya who have clearly borne the brunt of violence, persecution and discrimination. But other communities also have legitimate grievances.

A comprehensive approach is needed to deal with the pernicious mix of violent conflict, underdevelopment, and lingering grievances towards the central government that affect all communities in Rakhine. This was the main conclusion underpinning the 2017 report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

Such efforts should run in parallel with the court cases in The Hague. Only then can the diverse population try to move forward as one and reap the benefits of peace, stability and development.

Unfortunately, the hope that the court cases might be a catalyst for transformation in other areas is receding rapidly. Since 23 January, when the ICJ ordered the government to prevent the commission of genocidal acts, the level of violence in Rakhine has reached an unprecedented level.

On February 3 the government ordered a doubling of the number of Rakhine townships under internet black-out, fuelling fears that the military was about to escalate its fight against the insurgent Arakan Army. That premonition seems to have been correct.

Many of the casualties have been children. This prompted the deputy minister for education – a member of the same government that implemented the blackout – to appeal to both sides not to fire heavy artillery into school compounds. That such a plea had to be made says much about a lack of respect for even the most basic rules of humanitarian law. 

Although Myanmar’s military is rightly criticised for its indiscriminate use of violence, it cannot on its own impose an internet shutdown. It needs the government’s cooperation to instruct internet providers to halt services in a given area. The government and the military share responsibility for the blackout that affects more than one million people whose right to safety, security and access to basic services and livelihoods are affected.

A senior government spokesperson brushed such concerns aside. He justified the blackout as a national security measure and said “other countries do likewise if they find it necessary”. Students who took part in peaceful demonstrations against the blackout have been arrested. 

Analysts now assess the campaign against the AA as the most serious conflict the military has faced in decades, and probably its most costly. The insurgents’ popularity among the ethnic Rakhine population has helped the AA expand its reach and broaden its attacks on highways, urban areas and waterways. 

The designation of the AA as a terrorist organisation, in which the group was described as a “danger to law, order, peace and stability”, has left the ethnic Rakhine community with few options. The government has made clear it is not interested in peaceful solutions that would include addressing the long-standing and legitimate grievances of the Rakhine, the Rohingya and all other communities. As a result, popular support for the AA is only likely to increase.

It is important to note that while the military may have been the driving force behind the terrorist designation, the final decision required government approval.

A hint of what may be behind the government’s assent came from a military spokesman, who RFA quoted as saying that “legally designating the AA as a terrorist group means that the government can take a stronger stance on this issue internationally”.

Are the military and the government trying to justify earlier atrocity crimes against the Rohingya by showing that the security situation in Rakhine demands a heavy-handed approach? If so, it is a flawed strategy, because the designation of the AA as a terrorist group does not suddenly make permissible the indiscriminate use of violence and the violation of other international norms and standards, including those related to atrocity crimes.

Given the alarming escalation of violence in Rakhine, the obvious reluctance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to become more substantially involved is increasingly untenable. This is particularly so when you consider that the bloc’s charter underlines “respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Fortunately, voices for a more pro-active strategy are becoming stronger.

Mr Eric Paulsen, Malaysia’s representative on the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, recently said that the regional grouping is at risk of becoming a bystander while the resolution to the Rohingya crisis is sought elsewhere. He said ASEAN’s current humanitarian support coupled with quiet diplomacy was ineffective and urged the regional grouping to show strong political will and commitment to a strategy to address the underlying causes.

In an article in The Diplomat in March, former Thai foreign minister Mr Kasit Piromya said ASEAN’s efforts to facilitate and promote the repatriation of Rohingya refugees were “rushed and one-sided”. He also concluded that ASEAN was “totally embracing Myanmar’s narrative” on the situation in Rakhine. Thailand’s political opposition has also indicated that a more effective strategy is needed.

ASEAN members have been providing support for Myanmar’s stated plans to repatriate the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. But the situation in Rakhine is now such that repatriation is impossible, while the Rohingya do not want to return without guarantees for their rights and safety.

It makes no sense to repatriate them without tackling the underlying causes of their enforced deportation. As seen since the late 1970s, returning Rohingya against their will leads to an unsustainable “revolving door” policy. 

The humanitarian support provided by ASEAN and its members is welcome but will be wasted unless their engagement is broadened to include assistance to deal with the root causes of the Rakhine crisis, including the situation of the Rohingya.

If the bloc does not help Myanmar tackle the root causes of the crisis, the situation will only get worse. Taking steps towards the equal treatment of all who call Rakhine home, dismantling the apartheid state, restoring citizenship rights and ensuring accountability of those responsible for atrocities will be a major contribution to maintaining and enhancing regional peace, security and stability – issues that are part of ASEAN’s core mandate.

As COVID-19 consumes the attention of ASEAN’s leaders, let them not forget that the time to assist Myanmar is now.

First, they should use their influence to obtain a ceasefire in Rakhine, as well as ensuring the provision of immediate humanitarian access to all communities. The present chaos and humanitarian disaster are appalling and the consequences are rippling across national borders.

Secondly, they should use their good offices to help find a negotiated solution, one that takes account of the deeply felt grievances of all communities and uses the widely supported recommendations by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for all.

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