Attacks raise stakes for Daw Suu in Rakhine State

Ending tension in Rakhine State was always going to be a big challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi and the recent attacks have complicated her efforts to resolve a deep and complex situation.


THE DEADLY, coordinated attacks on three Border Guard Police posts in Rakhine State in the early hours of October 9 shocked the nation. Hundreds of militants armed with swords, spears and catapults were involved in the surprise attacks, which left nine police officers dead and resulted in the seizure of arms and ammunition.

The government responded to the deadliest incident in Rakhine since 2012 by moving quickly to prevent religious and ethnic tensions from escalating. The Tatmadaw launched a big security operation to hunt down the militants and recover the looted arms and ammunition.

The situation in Rakhine has been a challenge looming over the National League for Democracy government since it took power in late March.

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did not try to evade the Rakhine problem. She bravely accepted it and promised Myanmar and the international community to do her best to solve the problem, including by appointing an advisory commission headed by former United Nations secretary-general Mr Kofi Annan.

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I would like to discuss the implications of the attacks for Aung San Suu Kyi and her efforts to resolve the Rakhine problem.

In response to the attacks, Aung San Suu Kyi called an emergency cabinet meeting. She instructed officials to prevent the situation from escalating into religious and ethnic conflict and to act carefully according to the law.

Decisive action was essential. During the government of President U Thein Sein, long simmering tensions in Rakhine erupted in 2012 into violence between the Buddhist and Muslim communities that left scores dead and tens of thousands homeless, many of whom are still living in camps.

Amid heightened religious tensions violence spread to other parts of Myanmar, with the worst incidents at Meiktila in 2013 and Mandalay in 2014.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s instruction that the situation be handled “according to the law” is a significant departure from the way former military governments responded to violent incidents in Rakhine. They responded to violence with violence.

Thousands sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh and Myanmar has had to take some back. Violence compounded an already fraught situation. This is why the State Counsellor ordered that violence not be countered with violence.

The careful, systematic handling of the situation according to the law by the NLD government and the Tatmadaw has been well accepted in Myanmar and has received support from the international community.

Aung San Suu Kyi has a simple solution to solve religious tension in Rakhine. She wants peaceful co-existence between the Buddhist and Muslim communities, for which the rule of law must prevail, and more spending on development in Rakhine, the nation’s second poorest state or region.

For the time being, Muslims in Rakhine must be verified according to the 1982 Citizenship Law to determine if they are eligible for residency. At the same time, the Citizenship Law needs to be reviewed to determine if it is applicable in practice and whether it is in accord with international treaties and conventions.

During the BIMSTEC meeting she attended at Goa in India last month, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of the need to explore the causes of extremism that she said was the root of terrorism. It was also essential, she said, to “consider the situation in an objective and not an emotional manner”.

Although Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has blamed the attacks in Rakhine on law-breaking rather than religion he has expressed a view on the situation in Rakhine which differs from that of Aung San Suu Kyi.

At a meeting with the Netherlands foreign minister, Mr Bert Koenders, on October 12, the Tatmadaw chief said British imperialists had brought “Bengalis” from Bangladesh to Rakhine during the colonial era and they had never returned. The “Bengalis” did not respect Myanmar traditions and customs and the Rakhine people do not want to accept them, he said.

Verification under the 1982 Citizenship Law would determine who was eligible to remain in Myanmar but some Muslims do not want to participate in the process, and those who were not eligible for citizenship under the law must be dealt with in cooperation with the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, Min Aung Hlaing said.

What the Tatmdaw chief meant is that Muslims who do not satisfy the necessary criteria for residence under the 1982 Citizenship Law should be held in UNHCR camps until they are resettled abroad.

The Tatmadaw is not alone in holding this view. It is shared by many Buddhist citizens, including most ethnic Rakhine and members of the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party.

The prevalence of this attitude is a great challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi as she tries to find a practical solution to the situation in Rakhine that meets international standards and has the support of the Myanmar people and the international community.

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