Myanmar’s Rakhine State: an avoidable war

Sign outside Mandalay Palace, Mandalay, Myanmar Sign outside Mandalay Palace, Mandalay, Myanmar © Adam Jones, Ph.D./Global Photo Archive/Flickr

This article is a presentation of the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) report on the current situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Myanmar has endured several decades of internal wars and political instability. The history of this once prosperous region has seen the rise and fall of independent kingdoms, a long period of British colonisation until World War I, and serious intercommunal distrust and violent clashes in subsequent decades. The country became progressively more impoverished under authoritarian rule during the late 1900s, and the Rakhine people and other ethnic minorities living in Myanmar’s border areas were discriminated and marginalised, causing the deep-rooted grievances still at play today. 

The clashes in Rakhine State have intensified in recent years, following the military led anti-Rohingya campaign in 2016-2017, which drove much of the population to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh. The current armed conflict between the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army, an armed group mostly made up of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, is considered the most serious yet, having entered a phase of even further escalation in early 2019. 

With Myanmar’s general election planned for November 8, and a potential coronavirus outbreak looming against this backdrop of already overstretched resources, analysts are concerned about the government’s military approach to the crisis. The ICG report examines the political dynamics at play in Rakhine State, how tensions may escalate in the run-up towards the election, and the implications of the Arakan Army conflict for resolving the Rohingya crisis and for coronavirus preparedness operations.

The Arakan Army insurgency in Rakhine State from 2015, and their popularity in ethnic Rakhine communities, does not reflect a desire for conflict, but rather the growing political disaffection among the Rakhine population due to years of political oppression. Since Myanmar’s political liberalisation in 2011, the main Rakhine political party managed to secure a majority in State and local elections, only to have their political authority denied by the national government. This inevitably resulted in a widespread sense of disenfranchisement among the Rakhine people, fuelling their support for the Arakan Army.

The Arakan Army now has unchecked control of many of the towns, in which it governs clandestinely, posing serious security challenges and contributing to the growing death toll of civilians caught in the crossfire. In order to disrupt the group’s activity, which is primarily coordinated online, the government has placed an internet ban in the conflict zone since June 2019, which is hampering the dissemination of pandemic-related information and disease surveillance operations. Further exacerbating the situation, the Myanmar authorities designated the Arakan Army as a terrorist organisation in March 2020, following a major attack. This designation is particularly problematic as, without giving the government significant prosecutorial powers, it further ostracises the group and its leaders, crushing all hopes for a negotiated solution to the conflict, and with it, any realistic expectation of cooperation on coronavirus preparedness response, a fair election process, or mediation efforts towards national peace and stability.

The two major crises, the Arakan Army conflict and the plight of the Rohingya, are interlinked and must be addressed with the same urgency. At the very heart of the conflict lie the underlying political grievances of the ethnic Rakhine around political marginalisation. Therefore, any credible solution to the conflict must engage with this reality and focus on renewing the Rakhine people’s faith in the political process, ahead of the upcoming election. Negotiating a pause in hostilities would allow for electoral preparations to go ahead safely, in as many areas as possible, honouring the votes of communities caught in the conflict zones and the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians across the nation. A temporary ceasefire would also create the possibility for agreements on coronavirus response measures. Lifting the internet ban would consent the go-ahead of coronavirus awareness and response operations, allowing free humanitarian access and for the crucial Covid-19 testing and reporting to take place safely.

If the government were able to make progress through these steps and build trust, it could then tackle some of the long-standing issues affecting the region, arrange the return of internally displaced people and implement a refugee repatriation process, resolve the Rohingya crisis and improve the lives of this ethnic minority at home, and ultimately pave the way for durable intercommunal mediation efforts. But repatriating the Rohingya will remain impossible so long as the region remains a war zone. Any solution to the country’s underlying social tensions, and potentially the key to restoring national stability, is thus directly dependent on the effective resolution of the Arakan Army conflict. 

The government has no realistic prospect of defeating the Arakan Army on the battlefield, yet it does not appear to have a political strategy for de-escalation. On the contrary, its approach so far has only sparked greater political confrontation and armed violence. The run-up to the upcoming general election could lead to further social tensions, unless opportunities for mitigating conflict risk are identified. 


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Author: Giulia Ferrara

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