The differences blocking a solution to tensions in Rakhine State

Sharp differences between the government on one side and Rakhine leaders and the Tatmadaw on the other are an obstacle to resolving the situation.


IN AN interesting coincidence, two meetings on the security situation in Rakhine State took place simultaneously in Nay Pyi Taw on August 9. One was headed by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and attended by government ministers. The other was hosted by Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and attended by leading members of the Arakan National Party, including its chairman, Dr Aye Maung.

The ANP delegation said Min Aung Hlaing had promised to do what he could to boost security in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw Township. The next day, plane loads of troops were seen arriving at the Rakhine capital, Sittwe. The meetings raise two questions. Is the security situation in Rakhine heading for another crisis? Is the attempt by Aung San Suu Kyi to solve the situation in Rakhine a failure?

The problem in Rakhine has existed since independence and was first tackled by a series of military governments. Under junta rule there was conflict between ethnic Rakhine and the military, between Muslims and the military, and between Rakhine and Muslims.

The most serious conflict under junta rule was between the oppressed Rakhine and the military, as that between Muslims and the military and between Rakhine and Muslims was not as severe. That changed after the eruption of communal violence in 2012 exacerbated the hate and hostility between the Rakhine and Muslim communities, creating tensions that President U Thein Sein’s government was unable to resolve.

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The hate and hostility was undiminished when the National League for Democracy government took power, fuelled partly by long-standing grievances among the Rakhine over the lack of development in the state, one of the country’s poorest.

To address the situation in Rakhine, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has supported development projects and the practical implementation of citizenship verification for Muslims in an effort to enable the two communities to coexist in peace as they did before 2012. The NLD government also tried to address human rights violations in the state.

However, tensions have risen sharply since Muslim extremists raided border guard posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships on October 9 last year, leaving nine policemen dead. The Tatmadaw responded with an operation aimed at detaining those involved in the raid, recovering the weapons they stole and restoring law and order in the Muslim-majority area.

The Tatmadaw operation led to accusations by the United Nations and other organisations of human rights violations and the government responded by appointing an investigating commission chaired by Vice President U Myint Swe, a former general.  In a final report handed down on August 6, Myint Swe said the commission had found “no evidence of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing as the [UN] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights claimed”.

Violence continues in northern Rakhine and is claiming victims from both communities. Muslim extremists have been accused of killing Muslims suspected of collaborating with the authorities. Tensions also rose after the bodies of six members of a small ethnic Rakhine sub-group, the Mro, were found early this month in the Mayu mountain range near Maungdaw. They had reportedly stumbled on a jungle camp.

The government blamed the killings on extremists, but some sources said the villagers might have been killed by drug traffickers. Hundreds of Muslims have been arrested following the discovery of training camps in the area and many Buddhists have fled. Concern over the situation, including the killings of the Buddhist Mro, prompted the ANP to seek the August 9 meeting with the Tatmadaw and urge it to take action.

An obstacle to a solution in Rakhine is the vast difference between the views of the NLD government and those of ANP leaders and the Tatmadaw. Aung San Suu Kyi wants the Buddhist and Muslim communities to live in peaceful coexistence while priority is given to economic development in the state. This is one reason why her government appointed the commission headed by former UN secretary-general Mr Kofi Annan a year ago to propose solutions to conflict, displacement and underdevelopment in Rakhine.

The view of Rakhine leaders and the Tatmadaw is that most Muslims in Rakhine are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They want Muslims in Rakhine to be verified according to the 1982 Citizenship Law and those who do not qualify to be held in camps for illegal immigrants unless and until they are accepted for resettlement by any country that wants to accept them.

It can be seen that the NLD government on one side, and Rakhine leaders and the Tatmadaw on the other, have diametrically opposing views for resolving the situation.

The goals that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government want to achieve in Rakhine include economic development and national citizenship verification. They want Muslims confined to camps for the internally displaced to be able to return to their villages and farm their land, for both communities to live together in harmony, and a reduction in oppression and human rights violations. However, not one of those goals is yet to be achieved.

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