Avoiding a Return to War in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Anti-government protests in Rakhine State Anti-government protests in Rakhine State Saw Wunna on Unsplash

This article is a summary of the most recent report on Myanmar by the International Crisis Group, regarding the current situation in Rakhine State.

The report presented here. published on June 1, 2022, has been produced by the International Crisis Group, an international NGO for research and studies on conflicts based in Brussels. The aim of this report is to analyze the recent developments in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, a region in the west of the country on the border with Bangladesh, and the relations between the Arakan Army and the military junta that governs the country following the coup in February 2021. In addition, the report also proposes a series of recommendations that parties involved should follow to avoid a possible return of the war in Rakhine.

The methodology implemented is based on local accounts by several inhabitants of the region, as it was not possible for the International Crisis Group to travel to the country due to the restrictions implemented by the military junta after the seizure of power and those relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local sources consulted included Rakhine and Rohingya ethnic individuals residing in Rakhine State, as well as members of Burmese civil society organizations and international NGOs operating in the area, diplomats, and humanitarian workers.

The first part of the report is essentially an examination of the de facto governance of the Arakan Army in the rural and northern areas of Rakhine, which make up between 50 and 75% of the state's territory. Following the 2020 truce with the country’s armed forces, the Arakans have begun to dismantle much of the central government’s administration and replace it by appointing local administrators loyal to the insurgents. The Arakan Army has in fact appointed political, judicial, and law enforcement officials as a starting point for eventually controlling the rest of the political, social, and economic life of the state.

In contrast to the Arakan, the Myanmar army (Tatmadaw) still controls the major urban centers and the south of the country, as well as the formal management of a large part of national social services such as health and education. However, at present the two factions are in a state of truce. Not only did the Arakan not react violently to General Min Aung Hlaing's military coup, effectively recognizing him unofficially, but they also refused to cooperate with the Government of National Unity (NUG) which currently represents the first anti-coup force.

The ethno-nationalist agenda of the Arakan foresees the creation of a confederation for the state of Rakhine completely autonomous from the capital Naypyitaw, but at present the circumstances require that the two factions continue to coexist in a regime of cohabitation. The reason why this situation has so far been tolerated by both sides lies mainly in the fact that a resumption of hostilities is not sustainable in the long run. This is especially true for the Tatmadaw, which enjoys a limited territorial presence and practically non-existent legitimacy at the popular level in Rakhine, as well as for the fact that it is still too focused on consolidating its power at the national government level. As a result, in recent months the Myanmar National Army has pushed for an ever-greater formalization of the relations with the de facto administration of the Rakhine State. This path has been characterized by a series of initiatives such as the removal of the Arakan Army from the list of terrorist organizations officially recognized by the junta, the release of individuals linked to the organization, and collaboration in the distribution of anti-COVID vaccines in the region. As previously reported, the Arakan administration has exploited this situation to further consolidate itself in the dynamics of state governance. The legitimacy of the Arakans is not only limited to the Rakhine people, and they enjoy recognition also from the significant Rohingya presence. Indeed, the Rohingya issue represents one of the major disputes between the two factions and largely involves neighboring countries, especially Bangladesh.

The Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in the world: Muslim, officially discriminated by the central government of Myanmar (which does not include them among the 135 recognized ethnic groups in the country) and constantly subjected to the abuses of the Tatmadaw. After the massacres committed against them by the army in 2012 and the subsequent repressions of 2016/2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have had to take refuge in Bangladesh, where many of these refugees still reside today. These violent actions were regarded as ethnic cleansing, which according to the International Court of Justice amounted to a violation of Myanmar's obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Members of the Rakhine ethnic group have often taken part in the persecution of the Rohingya, but after the start of hostilities between the Arakan Army and the central government in 2018, the former began to reinforce the narrative that the true enemies of the Rakhine were Naypyitaw's civilian and military officials, leading to better integration of the Muslim minority in the region. Probably one of the reasons why the Arakans have begun to be more tolerant toward the Rohingya lies in the need to differentiate themselves from the policies of the central government, to obtain greater recognition and legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the international community. Several members of the Rohingya community have been involved in the local administrative structure of Rakhine State, and in general they have seen their freedom of movement and access to social services improve considerably. Despite this, the status of the Rohingya under the Arakans is still far from having achieved full recognition and tolerance. According to local sources, the members of the community still suffer from unequal treatment compared to the Rakhines, especially in the judicial sphere.

Despite the general state of truce that began in November 2020, a return to open conflict is a plausible option. This is due to the expansionist ambitions of the Arakan Army, which cannot be fully accepted by the Tatmadaw. In fact, the national army has recently expressed doubts about the extent of these ambitions, especially regarding the desire on the part of the insurgents to gain control over areas that the junta considers militarily strategic. For the Tatmadaw, a renewed conflict with the Arakan could require even more efforts and losses than that of 2018, given that in the meantime the latter can count on almost 2,500 troops and over 30,000 trained reserves. 

However, the humanitarian consequences of a resumption of hostilities risk being devastating for the local population, especially the Rohingya. A tangible solution for both sides would be to move from the current informal ceasefire to a consolidated and official armistice. Given that the presence of the Arakan has already been effectively recognized by the central government, the Tatmadaw is apparently more open to formalizing a long-term sustainable truce, which was deemed unthinkable before the coup. Furthermore, it is possible that the junta could exploit this pacification process with ethnic militias present throughout the country to undermine the legitimacy of the anti-coup forces of the NUG. From the point of view of the Arakan, a formal armistice could be an opportunity to further consolidate their presence in the region, in addition to the fact that official recognition by the central government would constitute a decisive political victory, also at the international level.

What are the implications for humanitarian aid and for the work of humanitarian organizations in the region? In recent years, NGOs and organizations operating in this sector have been prevented from operating efficiently due to hostilities and the pandemic. Some restrictions were removed by the military regime after the coup, tending to improve its image internationally. Despite this, most humanitarian operations in Rakhine State are hampered by high levels of insecurity for aid workers, entry bans, delays and negligence in issuing visas to enter the country, and excessive checks by the authorities.

The Arakan Army has proved to be fairly tolerant of humanitarian workers, approving the documents and visas issued by the central authorities and granting them relatively broad freedom of movement. However, the local militia has recently begun to exercise greater control of humanitarian activities in the region, as it claims to be recognized as a state entity. This situation has proved to be very limiting for NGOs, which now must respond to two parallel administrations, leading to bureaucratic delays and effectively limiting their ability to operate efficiently.

The International Crisis Group recommends the Arakan Army authorities changing their path and allow NGOs to work with the central authorities without being subjected to a parallel regime, as these organizations work in other areas of the country too. Pursuing this current path risks damaging the Arakans’ interests, as it could compromise the broad legitimacy they enjoy with the local population, who would be deprived of the aid they need.

It would be appropriate for international organizations to develop a common and comprehensive framework of action for relations with the Arakan Army. This approach must be developed from scratch, but it could prove to be an opportunity to positively influence the policies and practices of the local faction.

Finally, an official truce between Arakan and Tatmadaw would have major consequences on the repatriation prospects for Rohingya refugees. Although the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed a repatriation agreement, no Rohingya refugee has ever returned through official channels. After the coup, the situation for them is even more difficult, as many are unwilling to return to Myanmar in this context (despite the inhumane living conditions reported in the Bengali refugee camps). A formal and sustainable truce between Arakan and the central government could potentially persuade members of the Rohingya ethnicity to return to Rakhine State, given the greater degree of tolerance they enjoy under the Arakan administration. However, Army leader Arakan Twan Mrat Naing recently expressed slight skepticism about the actual material possibilities of repatriating so many people, a dynamic that risks causing unrest and violence in the state.

Ultimately, both parties involved should pursue the path of sustainable peace through the implementation of a binding and lasting peace treaty. Such an agreement would not only reduce the risk of further humanitarian disasters in Rakhine but could also strengthen return prospects for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees currently in camps across the border.

 

To read more, check the full report:
https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/325-myanmar-rakhine-state.pdf

 

by Ignazio Alcamo

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