Mrauk U violence signals another dark turn in Rakhine

Once again, Rakhine State has been plunged into crisis.

THE KILLING of at least eight people by police in Mrauk-U on January 16 is a tragedy – and one that was almost certainly avoidable.

The circumstances are not totally clear. The police version of events has been publicised in state media but we should be cautious about accepting this as completely accurate. It does seem as though the police were heavily outnumbered, facing a large, aggressive crowd – some of whom were armed – and fired live rounds only after issuing repeated warnings.

By this point, some form of violence was probably unavoidable.

But tensions should not have been allowed to escalate so rapidly. The government’s investigation should focus, in part, on the decisions taken by its own officials that inflamed the situation. It needs to learn from what happened and ensure there is no repeat.

This is not to absolve those in the crowd who were seeking to attack police. There is no place for protests or riots that harm other people or damage property. But it’s hard to deny that the last-minute decision to cancel an event commemorating the fall of the Rakhine kingdom, the arrest of writer Wai Hin Aung and rumours of the impending arrest of politician Dr Aye Maung all conspired to ignite an already volatile situation.

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Were these actions justified? That’s very much debatable. There doesn’t appear to be much evidence to link either Wai Hin Aung or Aye Maung to the Arakan Army, which was the basis for their arrest under the Unlawful Associations Act.

Of course, arresting them only drew further attention to their alleged comments at the Rathedaung talk. If there was no response, it’s quite likely that the speeches would have attracted minimal attention and then disappeared quickly into the online ether.

Once again, the authorities have shot themselves in the foot.

But even if one accepts that all of these steps had to be taken, their timing created a perfect storm of ethno-nationalist anger for which the security forces seem to have been woefully unprepared. The government’s apparent surprise at the outpouring of rage suggests it’s out of touch with how many people feel. If it needed a reminder that the anger is real, let’s hope one deadly encounter suffices.

These clashes underline a point that has often been lost in the discussion about Rakhine State. The conflict tends to be mischaracterised as solely between Buddhists and Muslims, and purely as a legacy of colonial rule. But this narrative conveniently overlooks the fact that the government and security forces – which are overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Bamar – are not neutral players. They have blood on their hands, too.

Former governments of all stripes have badly failed all the people of Rakhine State, both Buddhist and Muslim. Even before communal conflict erupted in 2012, Rakhine was – according to some measures, at least – the most impoverished state or region in the country. That simply should not be the case. There is much to be angry about.

The management of the state’s political institutions since the start of the transition hasn’t been much better. Neither the Union Solidarity and Development Party nor the National League for Democracy have done much to address the legitimate grievances of the Rakhine people.

That is not to condone the mob violence at Mrauk-U. But while laws for public security and safety are necessary, they need to be applied with caution, and with consideration to the likely consequences.

This editorial first appeared in the January 25 issue of Frontier. 

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