Bangkok Post

August 28, 2017

Rakhine Violence Leaves Aung San Suu Kyi Reeling

By Larry Jagan*


Myanmar’s restive western state of Rakhine erupted into violence on Friday, leaving the government’s efforts to find a solution to the communal tension there in tatters. Insurrection and arson engulfed large areas around Maungdaw and Buthidaung.

More than 30 police stations were attacked in the early hours, by what the government called terrorists and Bengali extremists. Skirmishes continued over the weekend.

The violence exploded only hours after Kofi Annan and his Rakhine Advisory Commission had unveiled their latest report and recommendations, which had been a year in the making.

“Neither the human rights activists and nor the local Rakhine population are likely to be satisfied with our findings,” a member of the commission told the Bangkok Post.

But no one — not even the Myanmar military, could have foreseen the ferociousness of these assaults in the aftermath of the launch of the report.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi condemned the terrorist actions in remarks released immediately after the attacks. She also said the government had been aware of a risk of attacks coinciding with the release of the commission’s final report.

But she took the opportunity to emphasize that the current administration remains committed to “finding lasting solutions” for Rakhine.

The death toll from the latest widespread attacks staged by the Muslim insurgents has climbed to over 100, including nearly 80 alleged insurgents, and 12 members of the security forces, according to the government.

Government staff and aid workers have been evacuated. Thousands of Muslim villagers have also fled the fighting, with nearly 90,000 trying to flee across into Bangladesh since Friday.

This outbreak of violence certainly points to the inadequacies of ignoring the security needs of Rakhine — something for which critics have condemned Mr Annan.

“While Myanmar has every right to defend its own territory, a highly militarised response is unlikely to bring peace to the area,” the nine-member commission said in its report.

Responding to the attacks, Kofi Annan said: “I strongly urge all communities and groups to reject violence.”

The attacks mark a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since last October, when a similar offensive prompted a major military counter-insurgency operation, which was beset by allegations of serious human rights abuses. The UN human rights rapporteur Yanghee Lee condemned the sweep.

The UN human rights council was so alarmed by the human rights envoys findings, it commissioned an international fact-finding mission to investigate further the military’s conduct in Rakhine — and allegations by Rohingya villagers of systematic rape, murder and arson at the hands of soldiers — during last year’s security mop up, in response to a series of attacks on border police guard posts, which left nine dead. So far the Myanmar government has steadfastly refused to issue the three-person team with visas.

Recent developments have highlighted the critical importance of finding ways to resolve what is increasingly becoming a major communal issue: between the Rakhine majority Buddhists and the displaced Muslim Rohingyas or Bengalis, as the local population calls them, and most members of the government.

In fact, many diplomats fear the government’s reform program and the future of the National League for Democracy government may be in danger of failing if a solution is not found.

Local politicians and residents are campaigning vociferously against the UN’s activities in the northern Rakhine area, and their humanitarian support for the displaced and stateless Rohingya population.

Some even complain they are effectively funding the alleged “terrorist” activities. On top of this there are a number of other rifts, increasingly between the Myanmar government and the UN on one hand and the civilian and military wings of the government.

What started out to be a turning point for Rakhine and the country — the final report and recommendations of the Kofi Annan advisory commission on Rakhine — has been effectively scuppered.

Aung San Suu Kyi was intent on using the Annan recommendations as the government’s shield against increased international efforts “to interfere in Myanmar”.

It was also intended to establish substantial action to avert the growing communal tension in Rakhine. But some the recommendations are also highly contentious.

“We are well aware that our recommendations on citizenship and freedom of movement touch on profound concerns of the Rakhine population,” Mr Annan said on Thursday.

“[But] if [these issues] are left to fester, the future of Rakhine state — and indeed Myanmar as a whole — will be irretrievably jeopardized,” said Mr Annan.

The commission — very subtly — also suggested the citizenship law needed to be reviewed and brought into line with international standards.

But any changes to the citizenship law will not be accepted by the country’s hard-liners, especially the military and the commander-in-chief: for them it is sacrosanct.

But the battle between Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing is increasing now over the militarization of Rakhine.

The army — and local Buddhist politicians — want a state of emergency declared in Rakhine, especially in the wake of the last “terrorist” attacks.

The State Counsellor has repeatedly resisted this, according to government insiders, although limited curfews have been imposed in some areas.

But her resistance maybe on the verge of caving in, something human rights activists suggest would give the army carte blanche in Rakhine.

Finally, the Annan commission suggested the government appoint a minister to coordinate the government’s plan of action.

This would be a strong strategic move. A minister would have power and show the government’s commitment.

This would also mean a great measure of coordination of the military in Rakhine — though not over operational matters.

*Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service news editor for the region.