Dateline Irrawaddy: Violence in Rakhine

By The Irrawaddy 9 October 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! There is no doubt that the violence in Rakhine State is more serious than we first thought. Last month, terrorist group ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] released a statement and declared one month’s ceasefire. The one month will be over on the 9th of this month. We’ll discuss if ARSA is likely to resume their terrorist attacks at that time or try to take political advantage of the sheer number of displaced persons, and if the international community is merely engaged in controversy over the terminology of Bengali or Rohingya or whether [the international community] is supporting the Rohingya ethnicity concept and their claims on territory. We will also discuss the impact of the historical legacy on the Rakhine issue and what our reporter Ko Moe Myint, who went to Rakhine State together with foreign diplomats recently, saw on the ground. Our reporter Ko Moe Myint, and U Maung Maung Soe, who has been continuously analyzing and commentating on the Rakhine, issue will join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

The Rakhine issue has seemingly become more complicated, rather than shaping up in black and white. U Maung Maung Soe, you have recently come back from Rakhine. What did you see and hear on the ground? ARSA’s ceasefire will expire on the 9th of this month. Will they resume attacks or do they have plans to make political strikes?

Maung Maung Soe: After the attacks on Aug. 25, Bengali villages were damaged and burnt, and there were reports of people fleeing. Around 400,000 refugees reportedly fled to Bangladesh. And ARSA said they would cease fire for one month. But even after attacks have ceased, Bengali villagers are still fleeing [to Bangladesh] till today. Some accuse that they flee because of the threats of nearby ethnic Arakanese villagers. Some reports from the ground claim that Mawlawi [Islamic scholars] who have links with ARSA are intimidating Bengali villagers to leave [for Bangladesh] by the 9th of this month. Arakanese people are the minority in Buthidaung and Maungdaw. Most of the Arakanese villages have only 40 to 50 households. Only a few Arakanese villages have more than 100 households.

KZM: Muslims are the majority there.

MMS: There are many Bengali Muslim villages with 500 to 1,000 households. Their population is around 250,000 in Buthidaung alone. And ethnic Arakanese population is around 40,000. The Bengali population is even bigger in Maungdaw. There are around 500,000 Bengalis while there are only around 30,000 ethnic [Arakanese] people. So, it is impossible that the minority threatens the majority. So my view is that ARSA is trying to gather all the Bengalis in the region at the Bangladeshi border. According to reports on the ground, normally rice cultivation starts in May in Maungdaw as the monsoon comes early in Rakhine State. But this year, [self-identifying Rohingya] didn’t grow rice [in May]. They only grew sparsely in July. So, this suggests that they had already known there would be clashes ahead. They also know that there will automatically be organizations which would provide foods for Bengalis when they get into Bangladesh. So, my view is they are trying to gather massive crowds of Bengalis at the border in order to launch a political strike. It seems that they have no intention to come back immediately even if the government says it would accept them back according to the 1993 criteria [agreed with the Bangladesh government]. They are gathering to launch a political attack and press demands for their political ambitions. Perhaps they know there will be countries which would back them, and feed the Bengalis who fled. So they have made preparations to fight politically. About the armed attacks, they may launch attacks if their families are not left [in Rakhine State]. We should be on the alert for armed attacks, but we can’t predict the possibility of a large-scale attack.

KZM: Ko Moe Myint, what is your assessment of what Ko Maung Maung Soe said? U Maung Maung Soe, you deny the allegations of foreign news agencies that Arakanese and other ethnic people have threatened them. We also heard reports that ARSA have been calling on them to leave Rakhine State. Ko Moe Myint, what have you heard during your trip to Maungdaw with foreign diplomats?

Moe Myint: It is difficult to make an overall assessment of the issue on the ground. The situation is different from segment to segment and place to place. In Rathedaung, Arakanese people outnumber Muslims and there are fewer Muslim villages—but not small, there is a population of around 3,000 villagers. There were cases in which Arakanese people picked a fight or quarrel with Muslim villagers if they encountered them while they went fishing outside their villages. But it was not that whole Arakanese villages went to Muslim villages and threatened them. There might have been quarreling and swearing during encounters. And this news was spread by word of mouth and exaggerated during the process, and later rumors emerged that whole Arakanese villages threatened [self-identifying Rohingya].

KZM: It can be said that there has been disharmony and hostility between two societies on the ground for a long time. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in her speech that there is no harmony, but only deep hostility between two sides. And about the armed attacks, we can’t predict exactly. Former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell—he has an understanding of Myanmar—has recently said that the issue is not merely about the controversy over the terminology of Rohingya or Bengali. Beyond the terminology, (Many people here believe) Rohingya have an agenda to demand ethnicity—to add Rohingya as the 136th ethnic group in Myanmar which currently has 135 ethnic groups. And if they get ethnicity, they would demand territory—a Rohingya State or Muslim State—like Rakhine State. Derek was telling the international community that it is a very complicated issue. He implied that Myanmar citizens and ethnic Arakanese people have serious concern for this—a separatist agenda by other means.  What is your assessment, U Maung Maung Soe?

MMS: The international community’s perception of the Rakhine issue is influenced by democracy and human rights. But to view this issue only from the points of view of democracy and human rights is not enough. We also need to view this from the historical aspect so as to get correct understanding of it. French historian Jacques Leider has said that Myanmar-Bangladesh border divides two groups of societies, languages and culture. The other side is Indo-Aryan group and this side is Tibeto-Burman group, divided by the border line. Even after the British had colonized India, it treated the area from [Bangladesh’s] Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar to [Myanmar’s] Nat River, which is the border today, as a deserted area. There was no human habitation there then.

The culture, language, and faith of this side are different from those of the other side. Talking of the problem of so-called Rohingya people, we need to take a look back into history. Relations started in the 15th Century when Arakanese King Minbagyi invaded 12 regions in Chittagong and Bengal. Arakanese overpowered and invaded them. In the 16th Century, Mughal re-captured those areas. This is the first relation.

When the Arakanese king occupied those areas in the 15th Century, they brought around 4,000 prisoners of war. Today, they are called Myaydu Muslim. Though they are Muslim followers, they speak Myanmar language and dress like Myanmar people now. They are a minority and not problematic.

Then, Kaman came into Myanmar in the 16th Century. They belonged to Persian tribes. They fled the power struggle for the throne between Mughal kings and took shelter in Rakhine State. Today, they are recognized as Kaman. Kaman means archers. Their population size is not problematic to Rakhine State. Kaman people speak Arakanese language and dress like Arakanese people. But in 1825, the British occupied Rakhine State, and the Suez Canal was opened after 1860. Then, the British needed laborers to transport rice in bulk.

KZM: So, they needed laborers?

MMS: So, they brought in cheap laborers from Chittagong of the Indian subcontinent. Initially, they came into Myanmar in cultivation season, then went back and came again in harvest, then went back.

The British built a railroad between Buthidaung and Maungdaw. They brought in laborers by train, by ship. As time went by, those people settled there. According to 1930 statistics of the British, 40,000 people came into Rakhine State, and the number was 20,000 in 1934. Their population had increased gradually. The British brought them not only into Rakhine, but also down to Yangon, Hanthawaddy District which is today Bago Region, Kungyangon and so on. As a result, anti-Muslim riot broke out in Yangon in 1938. An investigation into the riot was launched and led by economist James Baxter. The investigation report stated that the number of laborers who were brought into Myanmar from India subcontinent had increased yearly, and clashes between racially and culturally different peoples had increased and needed to stop. But no action could be taken to stop it as World War II broke out in 1942.

KZM: So, it is fair to say it is one of the legacies of the British.

MMS: This is a colonial legacy. To summarize the points I’ve made, they are not native people. Arakanese people have the same view, which is factually correct according to history. They are in fact immigrants brought in by the British. They were brought not only into Rakhine State, but also to Yangon and Mandalay. Their population is estimated to be around two to three million. They were given citizenship according to citizenship law. But local Muslim people are not problematic because they take themselves as Myanmar citizens, and live through thick and thin with Myanmar. They claim themselves to be Myanmar Muslims. They don’t demand a separate ethnicity or ethnic rights. They are not problematic.

But [Bengalis] have demanded ethnicity. At Alel Than Kyaw Conference in June 1951, Bengalis called themselves Arakan Muslim. There was not the term ‘Rohingya’ at all then. So, we can conclude that ‘Rohingya’ is a term that was made up later. There are also calls for establishment of a safety zone now. Taking a look back at history, the Alel Than Kyaw Conference in June 1951 made a lot of demands including equality between Arakanese and Muslim people, designation of a Muslim state, appointment of Muslim ministers in the Rakhine State government, 50-50 sharing of all of interests of Rakhine State between Arakanese and Muslim people, and teaching of Urdu language at government schools, and not teaching other languages without Muslims’ approval. Now, they are making similar demands made at 1951 Alel Than Kyaw Conference.

We can give immigrants citizenship depending on the length of time they have lived in the country. We can give them democratic and human rights. But if they ask for ethnicity and ethnic rights, it is difficult to accept. It is highly unlikely. So, this problem is the root-cause of entire problem, and we must handle this carefully.

KZM: Ko Moe Myint, you went to Maungdaw and other places together with around 60 diplomats on Oct. 2. What did you see on the ground? It was the government-guided trip. Were diplomats satisfied with the trip or did they make complaints?

MM: We went to Kha Mauk Seik by helicopter. And we saw a few houses—not entire village—on fire at a Muslim village around one mile from Kha Mauk Seik. I asked Hindu and Arakanese people from nearby villages and they said no one was living there, and no security guard was guarding there. And police only occasionally pass through that village during their patrols. Why such a place was on fire while diplomats were visiting the area? So, it is questionable why such a place was on fire, diplomats pointed out.

To keep the balance, the government took the diplomats to Muslim villages, Arakanese villages as well as harmonious communities as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [suggested]—places like Nga Khu Ya villag where Muslim, Hindus and Arakanese people live together. Diplomats met Hindus and Muslims as well. And most of the people on the ground have concerns because of the news that they would be fiercely attacked if they failed to leave by the 9th of this month. According to the accounts of Hindus, ARSA leader Ata Ullah has sent video message to all of his followers. And villagers also received phone threats. Hindu villagers talked about these to diplomats as well as journalists. Diplomats were divided into three groups in the trip, and I was in the group of EU and UN diplomats. Villagers are not educated and most of them only have primary school-level education. The questions asked to such people by EU and UN diplomats were even more detailed than a police investigation. So, villagers were not able to answer some questions. When diplomats arrived back from their respective trips and gathered at a gathering point in Sittwe, they were shaking heads—because of the things they saw on the ground and from helicopter, there were many burnt grounds and they took pictures of them from helicopter.

KZM: The situation was very bad.

MM: Yes. They were talking to each other, shaking their heads. The government took diplomats to Rakhine State to witness the situation on the ground, and said that there is nothing covered up on the ground. But with this first trip, the government was only able to show the situation, but could not properly explain the real causes of the problem.

KZM: Because it happened more than one month ago.

MM: The EU and the UN have released statements as you might have read, and diplomats have focused on a [UN] fact-finding mission. The government said we could talk freely to villagers during the trip, but villagers, for example Muslim villagers, gave different accounts to the government and us. Their statements were different. UN reps do not have trust in the government’s guided tour. They think it was difficult to grasp reality.

KZM: The international community has made the same voice about the Rakhine issue, mainly focusing on human rights and helping victims on humanitarian grounds. But there are slightly different views on this between the US, UK and other countries. U Maung Maung Soe, you said the issue is the legacy of the British colonial rule. We’ve seen that the UK government’s stance is different from others. What is your assessment?

MMS: For the moment, the British government, Parliament and Oxford University are being childish. Very childish. I think they are one-sided and hardly fair. Simply childish. They should take a look back at the Afghanistan problem. Who instigated Taliban to fight with Russia? Who provided them with weapons? It was the United States of America. Everyone knows this. They provided weapons for Afghan people, saying they were being oppressed. But, what happened as a result? This is the very reason Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist organizations have grown. Then, United States of America had to fight in Afghanistan. So, it was like they have to use an axe because they failed to use a needle in time. When we look at a problem, we should not be one-sided. Only when we have a balanced view, we will be able to solve the problem. What I would like to suggest to the persons from western countries is that you should take lessons from Afghanistan. Only then this problem could be solved correctly. Otherwise, we will have to face a very big problem.

KZM: Thank you for your assessment.

The story was updated to clarify the former US Ambassador to Myanmar’s comments on what the majority of Myanmar people think about the terminology and Rakhine issue.