Making sense of a deepening crisis in Rakhine

The more attacks that the ARSA launches, the further we will be pushed away from a solution to the misery and desperation that blights the region.

THE CROWD that had gathered at Yangon’s Sule Shangri-La Hotel on August 24 to attend the launch of the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State left the event in a relatively optimistic mood.

While there were never going to be any easy fixes to the plethora of issues the government faces in tackling the situation in the state, the conversations in the corridors after the launch were upbeat; there was a general consensus that if the government followed the recommendations closely, then some progress could finally be made on a topic that has blighted the country for the past five years.

But the following morning, when news emerged of fresh attacks launched by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army on police outposts in northern Rakhine, that optimism had almost entirely dissipated.

That is not to say that the recommendations put forward by the commission could not have an impact – in fact, last week’s developments show just how important a meaningful political solution will be.

Last week’s offensive represents the beginning of a newer, even darker chapter in the conflict in Rakhine State. They are a further indication that any meaningful resolution in the north of the state is a long way off – but also that peaceful means, such as that outlined in the commission’s final report, are the only way forward.

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The leaders of ARSA, the group that announced its presence with deadly surprise attacks on police outposts on October 9 last year, have justified the latest violence by saying it is a “legitimate step” towards freeing the Rohingya from what they call the oppressive Myanmar military.

The Rohingya have certainly suffered more than most in Myanmar. The dreadful conditions many of them have been forced to endure after the 2012 violence, including restrictions on movement and lack of access to the most basic of services, represent the blackest of black marks on Myanmar’s transition to genuine democracy.

But in launching these latest attacks, the ARSA can hardly claim to have the best interests of the Rohingya people at heart. The ARSA leaders will have been fully aware that this violence will provoke a brutal response from the security forces and will only make life more desperate and dangerous for the average person living in the north of the state. It’s also hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to sabotage the work of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

Frontier stands together with the rest of the people of Myanmar in condemning these attacks.

But we also believe it is crucial to differentiate between the actions of the ARSA and the general population of northern Rakhine, most of whom recognise that resorting to violence is never going to help them achieve their goals. They are also victims caught in the crossfire.

Violence begets violence. The more attacks that the ARSA launches – and the sad fact is that we assume that more can be expected in the months and years ahead – the further we will be pushed away from a solution to the misery and desperation that blights the region.

At the same time, the Myanmar authorities must also take their share of responsibility for the current situation. Decades of neglect, oppression and mismanagement in Rakhine State have laid the foundations for the conflict.

Extremism is bred from hopelessness. If you offer some reason for optimism, you will give young men in northern Rakhine State fewer reasons to side with the ARSA. Sadly, successive governments have failed to offer even the faintest glimmer of hope. That’s the primary reason we have ended up where we are today.

The recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State offer a path forward; not all elements will be to everyone’s taste, but it is a document that seeks to acknowledge all viewpoints on an incredibly polarising issue.

The challenge now is that implementation has been made that much more difficult by the disturbing events of recent days. The Myanmar government needs to muster all the leadership skills it can to ensure that genuine progress is made.

It would be easy to shelve the Rakhine commission’s report in the wake of these attacks, when security seems the highest priority.

But the reality is that failure to address the underlying causes of the conflict will only sow the seeds of future violence.

The surest way to defeat the ARSA is not military strength and oppression. It is simply to make the group irrelevant, by showing an alternative path forward.

This editorial originally appeared in the August 31 issue of Frontier. 

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