1) What sorts of challenges will the new government face in addressing the Rakhine issue?
Rakhine State presents a political situation that calls for long-term efforts while there is no great political prize to be won in the short term. The present government faces multi-layered, complex political and economic challenges in Rakhine State that most probably all observers are well aware of.
Moreover a large part of Rakhine State is not the NLD’s home turf which does not facilitate the planning and implementation of policies. The people in Rakhine State wish for peace, prosperity, and stability and they would like to see some rapid perceptible progress. But even more than enjoying peace and stability dividends, they wish to see themselves empowered in their own state to act and contribute to any consultation and decision-making processes.
Besides the backward economic condition of Rakhine State and the ethno-religious conundrum, Rakhine State unfortunately has come to suffer from a kind of negative international reputation that may have discouraged investors’ interest.
The new government would be well advised to show inside and outside the country that it is sincerely interested in the state’s development, launch initiatives to set the state on a track that announces a better future and promote dialogue and consultation.
2) It’s said that the previous government had failed to tackle the Rakhine issue. Why had the Thein Sein administration failed?
Critics agree about the bungled role of the security forces when violence exploded in 2012. The failure to prevent killings, destructions and the mass movement of IDPs, in a word, the failure to ensure the safety for all people throughout the state reflected the deeper failures and mistaken policies of earlier decades to tackle the administrative issue of legal residents with no official recognition of their lawful status and illegal migrants. Paradoxically, it was “state security above anything else”, (not justice, development or social peace) that had been the major doctrine of the central authorities to run Rakhine State for several decades.
Heeding good advice, the Thein Sein administration initiated an investigative commission that produced an informative report and made policy suggestions. Between 2012 and 2014, such efforts were often discredited as too little and not sufficiently addressing core issues of discrimination against the Muslim minority, but at hindsight they were steps into the right direction that contributed to inform and rationalize the debate and to help to create necessary stability.
Unfortunately later efforts towards a comprehensive approach were stalled. The current administration needs to move beyond, build trust and invest in social capital, both of which the TheinSein administration could not be expected to earn after years of authoritarianism and in the climate of extreme tensions that prevailed after 2012.
3) How should the new government approach and address this issue in short and long terms?
No progress will be made unless stability is ensured, human dignity is respected and the prevention of violence is taken care of. Nor will progress be made unless people see a perspective for their future, feel confident about their personal security and trust the government.
This situation calls for a strategic vision for Rakhine State with clear objectives, a vision that does not exist at present. It also calls for strong institutional cooperation among the relevant ministries and security forces.
To build trust, the government needs to convey a message that, despite its many uphill tasks, it really cares about the situation of the people in Rakhine State, those who supported the NLD, but also those who voted for the Arakan National Party or other parties.
Obviously, the Muslim population also brings its legitimate griefs to the forum.
Whatever the political aspects or their legal status are at the moment, whatever radical positions may exist at the present moment among the majority Buddhist population about the Muslims in the state, the truth is that issues like health, education, social welfare, agriculture, fishery, or ecological challenges that concern the life of all human beings cannot be narrowly categorized according to ethnicity or religion.
So the government necessarily has to take an inclusive approach for its social and economic policies. Most importantly, the government has to be bold in promoting the need of realistic and pragmatic politics while remaining perfectly aware that immediate results may not be obtained in a short while.
If the authorities in Nay Pyi Taw and Sittway remain too timid and poorly inspired, there is a huge danger looming that Rakhine State will become a chronic, unending and low-key political and security problem, comparable to the situation that the Thai state faces since decades in the “deep south” along the border with Malaysia.
The future of Rakhine State cannot be decided and its problems cannot entirely be resolved in Nay Pyi Taw. The challenge for the government is not to be able to decide and implement everything by itself, but to choose a slow-track course promoting dialogue and becoming an honest broker.
4) International community always tends to use the term ‘Rohingya’, while the new government like the previous government doesn’t want the international community to use that term. What would you like to recommend the international community regarding this?
One should recall that before 2012, people who took an interest in Rakhine State, like myself, could discuss freely about the legitimacy, the historical background and the ambiguities related to the term “Rohingya”. A very narrow-minded ideological battle that took place after 2012 barred that freedom.
Following the communal violence, the use of the contested term in international parlance became a matter of political correctness. There was a huge pressure by activists to do away with historical complexity and factual evidence and to impose the term Rohingya to each and everyone by matter of principle.
Moreover, while for decades both Rakhine nationalists and Rohingya Muslim nationalists had invoked history as the main fountain of legitimacy of their claims, people who had just discovered the existence of the Buddhist-Muslim discontent in Rakhine State, claimed that “history is a moot point”.
The international community should understand that the term “Rohingya” is controversial because it means and suggests different things to different communities. Invoking international principles cannot brush away this complexity and the underlying fears.
For Rakhine Buddhists, the term is in itself perceived as a political threat, charged with the historical experience of separatism and the risk of being culturally disowned. Rohingya Muslims will entirely deny such interpretations and defend their lawfulness and their right to identify as they deem fit.
The international community should understand that it is not in a privileged situation to address this matter. The new government will probably be less patient with foreigners’ prescriptive advice than the previous one. So will be the Myanmar public.
It is the responsibility of Myanmar writers, intellectuals, academics, experienced public officers to explore and debate the historical complexity and the failed policies during the previous regimes so as to inform and guide their readers about wise policies for the present times.
5) What sorts of pressures will the international community put on the new government unless the problem is solved wisely?
Myanmar is about to become the international community’s darling in the region as the country has enthusiastiဒcally set upon a learning process of democracy and development while authoritarianism is taking a solid grip on the country’s eastern neighbor.
With the new government in place, the international community is rather well disposed to provide necessary support and there is much less taste to exert pressure (such as threatening sanctions).
However, the Rakhine State conflict issues (citizenship issue, risk of communal violence, refugees in the Bay of Bengal) will certainly impact regional and bilateral relations of Myanmar unless the government signifies its readiness and determinedness to improve the situation.
6) What sort of scenario can we expect if the 1982 Citizenship Law is exercised in solving the Rakhine Conflict?
The implementation of the 1982 Citizenship Law will not solve the conundrum of the Rakhine conflict. Yet it is better to fairly implement the law than indefinitely keep the situation in limbo.
Whatever the numerical and statistical results will be, the government and the people will have to deal with the new situation after the exercise comes to an end and the government will have to ensure the protection and safety of all people in the country.
Some radicals may expect that the strict application of the citizenship law will totally exclude a great number of “illegals” from access to citizenship.
Others may be hopeful that the law will pave the way towards civil inclusion and contribute to social peace.
It is realistic to expect that for a sizable group of Muslims the application of the citizenship law should have some positive results.
The most important is that there will finally be clear and politically ascertained perspectives for the present life and for the next generation of Muslims.
Nonetheless, paving the way for social harmony and cooperation among Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State will take much more time than this and the next generation.