The end of the honeymoon

By showing strong leadership at such a crucial time in the transition, Aung San Suu Kyi could alleviate some of the national anxiety over the situation in Rakhine.

AFTER THE smooth transition of power to the National League for Democracy government and the apparently good relationship it developed with the military in its first few months in office, recent developments have highlighted the challenges facing the NLD – and most notably its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – as it strives towards building a truly democratic and peaceful nation.

In July, about a month before the landmark 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference in Nay Pyi Taw, fresh fighting erupted between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army.

The KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, was one of about 10 armed groups that attended the summit but did not sign last October’s so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Thousands were reported to have fled the fighting. A victim of the conflict last month was a two-year-old child.

Aung San Suu Kyi remained silent, though for reasons that are understandable. Myanmar’s transition was planned by the military and although relations between the government and the Tatmadaw seem amicable on the surface, distrust remains on both sides.

The State Counsellor must be careful not to alienate the military if she wants the reform process to continue. Speaking out against military offensives could jeopardise relations with the Tatmadaw and the future of the transition.

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Last month, the government was presented with a bigger challenge when militants attacked police outposts in northern Rakhine State.

The attacks and an ensuing crackdown cost the lives of nine Border Guard Police and five members of the Tatmadaw. The government says 30 “attackers” have been killed and dozens more arrested.

There has been a heavy security presence in northern Rakhine since the attacks occurred, including in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships where the outposts were located.

The crackdown has meant that humanitarian organisations have been unable to deliver food and other aid to the affected area, to which access by journalists has also been blocked.

The only accounts emerging from the area at press time continued to be from government sources.

Rights groups have made unverified claims that security forces have been involved in extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, rape and other abuses.

There is fear on all sides. A Muslim resident of the affected area told Frontier that the presence of large numbers of security personnel in his village had made people afraid. The authorities were conducting house-to-house searches in the village, he said.

Meanwhile, many Maungdaw residents – most of them Buddhists – have fled to Buthidaung and the state capital, Sittwe, because of fears of further violence by those involved in the October 9 attacks.

It is unclear who was behind the attacks. The government initially blamed a previously unknown group but its subsequent statements – in a likely reflection of concern over the possible consequences of heightened religious tensions in Rakhine and throughout the country – have been more carefully worded. 

This is a positive development compared to the previous government’s handling of sensitive incidents involving religion, which sometimes used inflammatory language.

With the nation’s attention focused apprehensively on the situation in Rakhine, it is time for Aung San Suu Kyi to demonstrate her leadership credentials.

There are political reasons why she may not be as popular in Rakhine as she is elsewhere in Myanmar, but she retains the ability to bring the country together.

Aung San Suu Kyi will be well aware of the need to continue to exercise great sensitivity while discussing the situation in Rakhine. However, there is one step she could take to help ease some of the national anxiety over the attacks and their aftermath and it is a visit to the affected area.

Such a visit would provide reassurance for affected populations and provide an opportunity to speak about the obligation of the security forces to act according to the rule of law.

The situation in Rakhine is but one of a series of challenges inherited from previous governments and is one that will take careful steps to resolve, as the State Counsellor has acknowledged.

By showing strong leadership at such a crucial time in the transition, Aung San Suu Kyi could alleviate some of the national anxiety over the situation in Rakhine, and contribute towards the process of starting to build trust again between the divided communities. 

This editorial originally appeared in the October 27 edition of Frontier. 

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