Sept 13, 2017
An inadequate response from the authorities to the violence last October contributed to a situation that enabled the ARSA to recruit more supporters for the attacks last month.
The conflict in northern Rakhine State was continuing to escalate late last week, following the coordinated attacks launched by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25. A statement issued by the office of tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the death toll from the fighting to September 4 included 13 members of the security forces, two public servants, 370 ARSA members, and 30 civilians, of whom 15 were Rakhine, and seven each were Muslims and Hindus. The statement said 37 extremists had been captured and 26,747 people had fled their homes.
However, the number of people fleeing is highly disputed. On September 10, Reuters reported that 294,000 people have fled to Bangladesh since August 25, citing figures from UN staff working near the border. As the numbers indicate, the conflict is much more serious than the fighting after the ARSA attacks last October or the communal violence in Rakhine in 2012. The roots of the conflict lie in tensions that have simmered between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine for decades. But there are more immediate causes, which I will discuss this week.
The communal violence in Rakhine in 2012 erupted after a Rakhine woman was raped and murdered. Scores of people died and thousand of homes were torched. However, there is a difference between the violence that occurred in and around the state capital, Sittwe, in 2012 and the conflict that began in Maungdaw and Buthidaung late last month. In Sittwe District, the Rakhine form the majority. After the violence in 2012, about 140,000 Muslims, and some Rakhine, were resettled in camps for the internally displaced. Since then, only about 20,000 IDPs have been able to return home, with the rest confined to the camps.
It’s a different situation in northern Rakhine, where Muslims comprise the majority, and fewer than 10 percent of the population are estimated to be Rakhine. When violence occurs in northern Rakhine, it is the Rakhine who are forced to flee before they can be resettled in their villages by the authorities. The authorities are also trying to establish more Rakhine villages in the area.
After the National League for Democracy government took office almost 18 months ago, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi unveiled a plan to alleviate hostility between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine and promote peaceful coexistence through economic development in the state.
Aung San Suu Kyi formed a committee, which she chaired, to implement the plan but it was disrupted by the October 9 attacks, when ARSA militants attacked some Border Guard Police posts, leaving nine policemen dead.
When the tatmadaw responded by launching a clearance operation to restore order to northern Rakhine, it was accused by the international community of human rights violations.
A curfew was imposed in Maungdaw after last year’s attacks, and restrictions on Muslims prevent them from travelling from one township to another. Fear is pervasive in northern Rakhine and the situation has badly affected business.
Before the October 2016 attacks, the fishing industry provided a living to many Muslims. After the attacks, many Muslim fishermen were no longer permitted to go to sea. Fishing boats were registered, and anyone lacking a verification card was banned from fishing. Rakhine or Hindu fishing-boat owners found themselves unable to hire Muslim deckhands. The fishing industry in northern Rakhine essentially collapsed.
A similar fate has affected border trade with Bangladesh. In northern Rakhine, border trade was dominated by Muslims but it has also collapsed because they cannot cross to Bangladesh without an ID card. Since last October’s attacks, Muslims living in northern Rakhine have lost their freedom of movement and many have also lost livelihoods. Some of the Muslims whose houses were burned down were denied permission to rebuild.
The situation has created an opportunity that the extremists have exploited. They have recruited Muslim villagers by telling them they have nothing to lose from resorting to violence. The extremists have used coercion to swell their ranks and they have also been accused of murdering Muslim villagers suspected of being government informers. The authorities cannot prevent these killings. The government’s failure to protect Muslims and guarantee their safety has contributed to the success of the extremists in persuading innocent, ignorant people to participate in acts of violence.
The fighting in northern Rakhine has seen extremists armed with home-made rifles, swords, daggers and catapults daring to attack members of the security forces equipped with automatic assault rifles, mortars and other weapons, who travel in armored vehicles and are backed by helicopters.
When all facts are considered, it is found that the responsible authority has failed to take the precautionary measures that might have prevented a repeat of the October 2016 attacks, and has also made mistakes in social and development work. These failures have enabled extremists to incite many Muslim villagers to resort to violence.
*The writer is a Myanmar political analyst.