Myanmar’s problem state

Tom Lambert on a new way to tackle the plight of the Rohingya Muslims

Lying on the border with Bangladesh, with more than 100,000 internally displaced people following bouts of violence in 2012 and 2016, Myanmar’s Rakhine State is racked with communal tensions that show no sign of abating. For the Rohingya Muslims, who account for roughly a third of the state’s population but who are deprived of citizenship, access to education and healthcare is severely limited by the government.

At the same time, the majority ethnic Rakhine, who are Buddhist, also face entrenched poverty after decades of neglect by government. Overall, 78 per cent of the population lives in poverty making it the poorest state in Myanmar, which is the poorest country in Southeast Asia.

On June 13, 2017, news broke that Renata Lok-Dessallien, the United Nations top official in Myanmar, was being replaced. A BBC report at the time cited her shortcomings as a leader: there were tensions among her ‘dysfunctional’ team, and her approach was perceived as failing to give priority to the rights of the Rohingya. Lok-Dessallien was known for her co-operative − some say sympathetic − relationship with the government that sought to coax decision-makers into changing their behaviour, rather than the uncompromising and very public approach to human rights protection advocated by others. Her dismissal has been taken as a repudiation of her strategy. It has raised questions for aid donors and diplomats in Myanmar. Can the international community effect change in Rakhine? And if so, how could this be done in a country where the military still holds the levers of power?

After several years in Rakhine, working for the UN directly with the state government and more recently advising Kofi

Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, it is clear to me that a confrontational approach on its own would be wrong. While pressing human rights issues is a vital component of any strategy, it must be part of a plan that includes broader engagement. A narrow approach would fail for several reasons.

First, this has already been tried – and has failed. Following two bouts of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012, aid donors launched a humanitarian response that was geared largely towards the Muslims, given that they were disproportionately affected by displacement. This, coupled with international condemnation and simplistic reporting in the foreign media, led the Myanmar government and the Rakhine population to believe that the international community was siding with the Rohingya.

By placing human rights abuses at the centre of its response, the international community largely ignored the grievances of the ethnic Rakhine. Decades of political and economic marginalization by the central government have fostered resentment, particularly amongst ethnic Rakhine, which colours their perception  of any outside intervention in Rakhine State. This perception is compounded by their fear of a Muslim threat from the north, resulting in a bunker mentality.

While aid organizations have worked tirelessly to support those most in need, the ethnic Rakhine have been left wondering why, in their view, successive military regimes, the Rohingya Muslims and now international bodies, are depriving them of much-needed economic support. Following the violence of 2012, anti-internationalist sentiment intensified. In March 2014, UN and international NGO offices in Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, came under attack. When the violence died down, the government expelled Médecins Sans Frontières from the country.

‘Allegations of gang rapes and mass killings have been levelled at the Myanmar army and documented in a UN flash report’

At the same time, opposition among Myanmar’s Buddhists, some 89 per cent of the population, to the granting of citizenship to the Rohingya, perceived to be illegal immigrants despite their deep-rooted ancestry in Myanmar, has deepened. While the international community continues to protest at the treatment of the Rohingya, the government has little room for manoeuvre because there is no support within the country to improve the lot of the Rohingya. At the same time, security analysts who work with the Myanmar army conclude  that the security forces view talk of human rights as a vehicle for foreign intervention. Given this, a return to an approach centred on human rights is likely to polarize relations with the military even more. If foreign organizations seek to effect change, they need to adopt a broader and more sustainable approach to Rakhine. This includes listening to Rakhine concerns and building relations with them.

That process has been tried in recent years but has not had the international support – moral or financial – to make significant inroads. It has involved talking to hardliners on both sides, while building relationships with government both in

Rakhine and in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. This approach, adopted by the UN and others from 2014, has borne some fruit. In June 2016, the Rakhine state government asked for UN support in designing a five-year socio-economic development plan that would include the Rohingya. Technical experts were embedded in the state government for six months. This was the first time any state government in Myanmar had approached the UN for planning support.

In September 2016, the Myanmar government formed the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The inclusion of international members and the appointment of Kofi Annan as its chairman signalled that the central government recognized the value of international co-operation on Rakhine while buying the government time. Progress on implementing the commission’s interim recommendations, released in March of this year, has been slow, which is not surprising given the limited capacity of the state government. Nevertheless, the central government’s commitment to deliver social services in Rohingya areas and bring tangible benefits serves as an important platform to improve life for the Muslim minority.

For some, however, progress has been too slow. On October 9, 2016, a previously unknown Rohingya insurgent group attacked Border Guard Police posts, killing nine officers. The attacks by the group, known then as Harakah al Yaqin and now as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, prompted a brutal and clearly disproportionate retaliation by the Myanmar army that has driven more than 75,000 Rohingya Muslims over the border into Bangladesh. Allegations of gang-rapes and mass killings  have been levelled at the Myanmar army and documented in a UN flash report released in February 2017. The UN Human Rights Council decided to send a mission to investigate. The Myanmar government continues to deny the allegations and has blocked the mission’s entry.

The situation today is one of stalemate between the international community and the Myanmar government. Yet, the violence from ARSA underscores the urgent need to bring tangible improvements to Rakhine as further stagnation will only add impetus to ARSA’s core message that neither the international community nor the Myanmar government will help the Muslims. The fact remains that sustainable solutions in Rakhine can only be achieved by working with and through the state and central government.

While the government should permit access for the UN Human Rights Council, that mission cannot be the only tool for change in Rakhine. This means working with officially mandated initiatives such as the socio-economic development plan and the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The international community must take the route of constructive engagement with these plans, rather than isolating itself once again with rhetoric that has little impact on how the Myanmar government acts in Rakhine.