By Ellen Chambers —
Renewed communal violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State underscores the imperative for greater emphasis on peacebuilding in the country’s troubled west. The recently established Rakhine State Advisory Commission, led by former-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, is essential in the effort to tackle tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim populations. Its orientation to finding “the best possible solutions to prevailing problems,” with a focus on conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, and development, makes it an appropriate platform for addressing the highly intractable and politically sensitive issues in Rakhine.
In the latest surge of violence, nine Myanmar police officers were killed on October 9 when a group of at least 300 assailants, allegedly belonging to local Islamist group Aqa Mul Mujahidin, led a coordinated attack against three border police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships. An October 14 statement from the President’s Office claimed the attacks had been “systematically planned” and bolstered by “foreign funding.”
In the days following, security crackdowns have spurred further violence, with ensuing clashes killing an estimated 30 militants and five military personnel. Despite State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s pledge to deal with the situation according to the rule of law, senior military officials apparently are exercising the right to shoot suspected militants. Unconfirmed reports of indiscriminate and extra-judicial killings of Muslim Rohingya have emerged, making the situation ripe for intensified violence.
As rumored information circulates, the potential for renewed inter-communal conflict, which had a devastating impact in 2012 when over 100 were killed and 140,000 Rohingya were moved into camps, is significantly heightened. The vast majority of Rohingya reject violence as a means to advance their grievances, which makes it crucial that the recent attacks don’t overshadow their continued mistreatment. It is equally critical that the actions of a radicalized minority aren’t used to drum-up anti-Rohingya sentiment among Buddhists.
The situation in Rakhine, while requiring immediate stabilization and justice, more importantly underscores the need to find long term solutions to protracted problems. The Rakhine State Advisory Commission, announced on August 23 by Aung San Suu Kyi, is an appropriate platform for addressing deep-rooted grievances. Its highly experienced panel, combined with a stated commitment to impartiality, makes the commission well equipped to advise the government on how to address the longstanding animosity and resentment.
The latest flare up of violence has prompted the rapid spread of unverified information regarding the assailants and their affiliation, as well as policing actions by state security forces. The lack of substantiated evidence highlights the importance of the Rakhine commission, given that it is designed to be an investigative mechanism. Its mandate to “undertake assessments” will result in the submission of a report that is corroborated by facts and evidence. The report will also include a set of non-binding recommendations based on consultations with “all relevant stakeholders,” which ensures the commission will be non-intrusive. Emphasizing these characteristic is critical in helping to placate domestic opposition.
If recent events offer any indication, steps to address tensions in Rakhine will continue to be met with a popular backlash. Thousands of local Buddhists on October 6 protested Kofi Annan’s arrival in Sittwe ahead of the commission’s inaugural meeting, rejecting the intervention of foreigners in state affairs. A week later, the Rakhine State legislature on October 14 approved a proposal denouncing the legitimacy of the advisory commission.
In light of strong domestic opposition from Buddhist, incremental and measured steps, especially when it comes to the issue of citizenship, are most appropriate. The 12-month timeline for the commission to submit its report will allow for a comprehensive assessment of the situation and thus limit the potential for the delivery of band-aid solutions. In the interim, however, the government should work to ensure basic provisions, including easing restrictions on movement and granting aid agencies unobstructed access to disenfranchised communities.
The previous government’s attempt in 2014 to develop a citizenship verification process for Rakhine’s Muslim population was met with local opposition and, as a result, was swiftly suspended. The pilot project saw 200 Muslims granted citizenship, infuriating Rakhine Buddhists who disputed the decision on the basis that Rohingya are not among the country’s 135 recognized ethnic groups. Aware of previous failed efforts, Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to establish the commission reflects a more cautious – but nonetheless genuine – approach. As previous experience has demonstrated, attempting to do ‘too-much too-soon’ is not the most effective way to deal with the state’s complex problems.
Additionally, the commission’s credibility, underscored by the leadership of Kofi Annan, will make it difficult for the government to reject the findings a year from now. Aung San Suu Kyi has demonstrated concern for the barrage of international criticism she has received over failing to address rights abuses in Rakhine State, which prompted her decision to launch the commission. Outwardly rejecting the commission’s findings would only see such criticism intensify.
While it may be too early to determine success, Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to establish the commission was a prudent and calculated move, reflecting what seems to be a genuine effort to address the root causes of long-standing communal problems. The rising tide of Buddhist nationalism, however, will continue to present immense challenges for the advisory commission as it attempts to repair distrust and foster permanent reconciliation.