Despite Pressures, Myanmar Government Should Not Abandon Long-term Goals for Rakhine State

By Khin Maung Myint

Based on the controversial reporting of foreign media over the exodus of tens of thousands of stateless Muslims to Bangladesh, some international leaders and human rights organizations are accusing the Myanmar government of committing ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the western part of the country. However, they turn a blind eye to the atrocities of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) that started attacks on the government security forces on 25 August with the support of some local stateless Muslims. To provide a comprehensive perspective of the current crisis, Mawkun magazine interviewed Rakhine history expert Dr. Jacques P. Leider, who has researched Rakhine history and its crisis for more than two decades.

Photo- Khin Maung Myint

Mawkun: Why do you think the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched attacks in northern Rakhine State soon after the report by Kofi Annan-headed commission came out?

Leider: If there was an intention to wreck the beacon of hope that the Annan report represents, this attack must be strongly condemned. Sadly enough, it looks as if ARSA has already successfully distracted attention from the Commission’s report. The international media have rapidly turned away from Rakhine State’s prospects to the narrative that highlights the violent counter-insurgency of the army and the mass flight to Bangladesh. In this context, the government should stress its commitment to apply the Annan Commission’s recommendations. Despite the huge pressures now, the government should not abandon the long-term goals in Rakhine State. It should demonstrate courage and make clear that it will pursue its effort for improving the life of the people in Rakhine State and not let itself get bullied by ARSA.

The government cannot take the lead without the support of the security forces in the border region. But the security forces also need the full support of the government to explain and defend its actions. Focusing on the destruction of ARSA first and pushing back the implementation of the recommendations to a later day would be wrong. The nefarious logic of the terrorists can only be defeated by clear signs of economic and political progress. The reforms and necessary policies proposed and discussed since 2013 should therefore not be delayed due to the ongoing violence in the north. Slowing down the efforts will only play into the hands of the terrorists’ propaganda.

Mawkun: The government and army said that the extreme terrorists have the ambition to establish Islamic State in that area. In the past, Bengalis tried to make northern part of Rakhine State as their region without success. Do you think they are now implementing their dream again?

Leider: Your question refers to the danger of separatism that forms part of the root causes of the Rakhine State crisis. During the late 1940s and the 1950s, the project of an autonomous Muslim zone was strongly promoted by a section of local Muslim leaders. The creation of the short-lived Mayu Frontier Administration (1961-64) satisfied those demands partly. So a certain similarity between these events in the past and the current situation exists, though we did not yet hear much in terms of an ideological project or political objectives from ARSA.

One should recall, nonetheless, that in the 1990s the “Rohingya”-denominated exiled organizations wanted to join the anti-military regime front of students and ethnic organizations. Therefore, groups like ARNO (Arakan Rohingya National Organization, founded 1998) subscribed to the principle of federalism and the unity of the nation. But due to the marginalization of the Muslim community (illustrated in recent years by the excessively slow process of citizenship verification, loss of representation and uncertain government policies), a part of the Muslims may now, once again, be attracted by the idea of an autonomous Muslim area. This is a threat to the national unity that neither the government nor the army will leave unanswered. But this full answer should not just be more guns, pressure, and oppression, but good policies.

As for the geopolitical questions within the Bay of Bengal region, they are not so easily explained as some writers would suggest when, for example, evoking China’s and India’s interests in Myanmar. ARSA might be seen as a partner for Islamist organizations in Bangladesh, but the authorities in Bangladesh as much as in Myanmar will be upset by the prospect of a Kosovo-like political construct in the south of Chittagong Division. It is far from sure that there is any substantial internal and external support for a separatist project. Even in the late 1940s, members of the old local Muslim community did not support separatism. To make a correct assessment of the actual risks, one should differentiate between the statements from the international Rohingya networks and the expression of recognized Muslim leaders in Yangon or Rakhine. There is not a single position of the Rohingya as they do not have all the same interests. Finally, ARSA does not look like ready to build its own state. Some commentators will argue that the oppressed Muslims have nothing to lose by fighting, but this is not a level political field. Rather than a dream, it promises to become a nightmare for everyone.

Mawkun: The government has been unable to solve the old problem that broke out in 2012. What kinds of new pressures has the current problem put on the government?

Leider: Foreign media who ask me these days to comment upon the current challenges in Myanmar start with questions on the “silence” of the state counsellor! So, some of the newest pressure seems to spring mainly from the international disappointment with the NLD leader.

It is a fact that the Rakhine State crisis issues have become more complicated since October 2016, mainly because of the political stalemate and the impact of the latest violence. Some challenges are new and home-made, and some are not so new because the root problems have not been dealt with. The repeated attacks on the border security forces and the tsunami-like international protests that have followed the heavy military response have seemingly shaken the government’s confidence; the lack of communicating a strong message to the outside world explaining the official approach has left the government on the defensive; confusion about the implementation of reforms and the absence of a broad consultation process is, moreover, a persistent source of local disappointment.

Myanmar is a country where people want to look up to determined leadership. Yet, today we live in a world where a powerful vision for the state’s leadership needs to be followed up with coordinated action. The habit of forming working committees to demonstrate activity will not satisfy the expectations of the younger generation in Myanmar. What I want to say is that pressure does not only come from the headlines on Rakhine State, there is pressure because the old “recipes” to handle problems do not work anymore.

Also, it is not like nothing has been changing. People have been learning from recent experience. As I was recently invited by the Myawaddy Publication Group to attend a talk show on Rakhine and speak openly about this topic so sensitive for the defense services, I felt that there was a readiness to try something new. I have noted that the Muslim and Buddhist people in Rakhine at the grass-roots level have refrained from new riots. Party members within ANP (and other parties) are having lively and healthy discussions. This is often referred to as disunion, but in fact, this is the way that progress can be realized because in the end citizens will vote those who can deliver results. While the country is moving in the right direction, a big, if not the biggest, current pressure or challenge for all actors is the need to communicate in more efficient ways.

Mawkun: What kinds of challenges and obstacles will lie ahead for the NLD-led government to carry out what the Annan report suggested?

Leider: Much of what the Annan report recommends is of a broader national relevance and should be, as a matter of fact, uncontroversial because it is in the interest of the state and the population in general: health policies, the application of norms of justice and fairness, human rights training for security forces, and a system of check-and-control. These are subjects that require determination of the government’s line ministries and administrative efforts to follow up.

All the topics concerning “social engineering” such as dissuading the influence of hardliners, fighting hate-speech, providing training in mediation and dialogue as well as higher education, may also sound uncontroversial for people from western countries. But in fact, they require utmost determination and leadership from the government’s side. It is not enough to say “the government should empower” or “the government should initiate”. Both Muslims and Rakhine are very conservative societies. And, the government should consult with local people, and convince them of the need to fight hate-speech and accept such training. Much violence and radicalism have been driven by fear and anxiety. Adopting only a top-down approach will not be successful.

The recommendations regarding consultation with ASEAN countries and the further development of relations with Bangladesh are, I believe, extremely relevant, to prevent the country’s diplomatic isolation, learn from neighboring countries, and promote the search for solutions.

Mawkun: The new government doesn’t take the voices of Rakhine lawmakers into consideration when they solve the Rakhine conflict. What consequences can be expected?

Leider: There’s nothing good to be expected if the deadlock to which you refer is going to last.

Photo- Khin Maung Myint

Mawkun: How can the international community help Myanmar government to curb terrorism and solve the stalemate problem?

Leider: This is a technical issue of cooperation of Myanmar with those countries that have relevant information and the creation of mechanisms of exchange of information. If Myanmar is hit by cases of Islamist infiltration and activism, the authorities will have to seek such types of mechanisms that will give the country the necessary tools to take action and obtain timely information about threats. In this area as in other still unreformed areas of public administration, it is reliable information about terrorist threats that is needed to prevent panic and rumor-mongering.

Mawkun: Some human rights activists and Islamic leaders are accusing that Myanmar government is committing genocide in northern Rakhine State.  But they turn a blind eye to the terrorists’ atrocities such as using innocent Muslims as a human shield. Why do you think they take such a position?

Leider: They take such a position because they believe that they can get away with it and the truth will not be revealed. ARSA seems confident that it can win the media war, and has the delusion that it can gain acceptance by fellow Muslims as an insurgency group. It tries to manipulate the humanitarian crisis for its own goals. Only transparent information, rational discourses, and good arguments can counter such forms of manipulation and distorted communication.

If there is an accusation of such a major crime as genocide, it should certainly be investigated. There are many ways to describe the marginalization of the Muslim population and their deprivation of rights, but the accusation of “genocide” has certainly backfired in the very tense context of the last years. It has made the efforts to explain the decline of communal relations over several decades more difficult. It is important to criticize failed state policies, but the organizations that criticize are not beyond criticism themselves. Human rights organizations are making choices, follow political trends and cultivate media strategies to make their campaigns successful. When one reads, for example, older Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports over several years, one can see these changes in approaches and criticisms. This does not mean that their role as observatories is not important. It is. But they are not infallible and beyond criticism. This is the problem in Myanmar: when foreign experts, applying a certain methodology to appreciate if there is “slow genocide”, write a report, they obtain an immediate worldwide attention because of their academic credentials. But in Myanmar, there is no one qualified or determined to answer on a similar methodological basis. Just denying the accusations is not enough.

Mawkun: Some human rights activists and Rohingya/Bengali activists are calling for international intervention. Do you think it will happen? What scenario do you expect to see if it happens?

Leider: Regarding an international intervention, I feel that there is more talk than any real prospect of such an intervention. Calls come from outside the country, not from inside. Rohingya/Bengali political activists abroad have a long tradition of pleading for foreign support. However, even the Myanmar Muslim community throughout the country will hardly welcome any such initiative that would polarize ethno-religious differences. It is difficult to see what interest neighboring countries would have in such interventionist activism. Let’s be frank: intervention would suppose international coordination and consultations with the Myanmar government, the security forces and the neighboring government of Bangladesh. But based on what topics exactly, besides a focus on Responsibility to Protect (R2P), that coordination should take place? That is entirely unclear. The kind of scenario one could expect would mean more political complications, more mushrooming of INGOs within the crisis management, little hope for reconciliation and an unending collision of interests of multiple stakeholders.

Mawkun: What can be done to stop the current concerning situation from worsening?

Leider: Much has been said and written to face the issues of the Rakhine State crisis since the rule of President Thein Sein. In the medium and long terms, peace work needs patience, goodwill, self-criticism, and dedication to implement. But your question focuses on the immediate situation where the violent confrontation, the mass flight to Bangladesh and the pressure on Myanmar’s authorities, make headlines and put the government under pressure.

The government, the security forces, and Rakhine politicians may disagree about policies and priorities for Rakhine State, but in the current situation, it would be very useful to forget their disagreements for a moment and coordinate their response with regard to the outside world. Besides the statements on the rejection of terrorism and foreign interference, there should also be clearly formulated commitments regarding the improvement of the living conditions and efforts to protect the civilian population. Finally, what the government can do is to show an acceptance that the country has indeed a big Muslim population in North Rakhine to take care of.

This is not a time where people can just only complain that the outside world of foreigners does not understand them. It is useless to state that foreigners get it all wrong and don’t understand the country. Most parties in Myanmar already agree on this point and are right to say so. But it is not possible to change negative perceptions in a short while. To counter the mass of criticisms, Myanmar needs to invest in positive communication strategies that emphasize that the country is not closing its eyes before the problems, but ready to face them. As Myanmar’s government is constantly accused of what it does not do, there should be a better communication and outspokenness on what it really does and what it still intends to do. High-level diplomacy with the country’s friends is necessary, but may also not be enough in these challenging times. When the security forces, on their side, step out of the shadow and try to better communicate their actions and their strategy for ensuring national security, people will be ready to listen more than is often the case and it will raise their professional profile.

A country’s image does not only depend on the actions of the government. Governments should lead, but they come and go. A national consensus on what is good for the country is something that stretches beyond government policies.

Outside the government and the security forces, the Rakhine society in particular faces challenging tasks. It has shown a fair measure of patience. People have restrained their anger and shown restriction. Rakhine wants to be rewarded for that patience. But in these stressful times, Rakhine civil society should also be more outspoken that peace and communal harmony are foremost goals. Saying “No Rohingya” and “No white-cards” to express one’s political griefs is not enough in 2017. It will only maintain the negative perception of Rakhine. Governments can promote development, but they cannot instruct the Rakhine ethnics how they plan to live in the future with the Muslim community.


အမျိုးအစား - English (အင်္ဂလိပ်ဘာသာ)

"Myanmar Observer Media Group [MOMG] was founded in 2011 with aims to deeply observe challenging issues of Myanmar, to strongly encourage policy change through in-depth and investigative stories, and to vastly improve journalism skills among local journalists through trainings and workshops. The first edition of Mawkun came out in August 2012 after the censorship board was abolished. The magazine is published in Myanmar Language and its normal size is around 120 pages."