Dateline Irrawaddy: Will International Sanctions Over Rakhine Impede Myanmar’s Democratic Transition

By The Irrawaddy 28 October 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Ongoing conflicts in Rakhine State have had a considerable impact on Myanmar’s democratic transition. It is likely that western countries will impose targeted sanctions on the Myanmar Army. Under such circumstances, how will Tatmadaw leaders respond? How will Myanmar’s relations with the international community change? What are the policies and weaknesses of the government in handling the issue? And will the Rakhine issue put the country’s democratic transition in a negative direction? Ethnic affairs and Rakhine issue analyst U Maung Maung Soe joins me to discuss these issues. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

ရခိုင္အေရးေၾကာင့္ ျမန္မာႏိုင္ငံ က်ရႈံးေနၿပီလား (႐ုပ္/သံ)

Posted by The Irrawaddy – Burmese Edition on Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Rakhine issue broke out months ago on Aug. 25, and is not yet over. First of all, I think it has had a profound impact on the democratic transition of the country. Myanmar was a charmer on the international stage before the most recent and serious outbreaks of violence in Rakhine over the past three years and even since 2011 when the country started to open up. Everyone was interested in the country and wanted to come and invest. But the problem we are facing is quite serious as around 500,000 to 600,000 have left the country. It is a black stain on Myanmar’s democratic transition. Recently, the US State Department said that targeted sanctions would be imposed on Myanmar. They assessed that the security forces led by the military, rather than the government, used excessive force in conducting clearance operations. It is likely that targeted sanctions will be imposed on military leaders by the US or the EU. What will be the response if that happens, and how will our country’s relations with the international community change?

Maung Maung Soe: As you’ve said, it is true that Rakhine issue has become a setback in Myanmar’s democratic transition. But I don’t think the international community will impose the same punishments as the past. There were strict sanctions while the country was under the military regime.

KZM: Including economic sanctions.

MMS: Yes. But this time, they would assume that the military is mainly responsible, and put limited sanctions. If they impose sanctions on the military, they would target some military leaders. Such sanction would have an impact on the functions of the military. But for the country as a whole, it is unlikely to create impact. But then, it may have some impact on the national reconciliation efforts of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. As President U Htin Kyaw has said in his message to the UN [at 72nd Anniversary], I’d like to urge the UN to pay attention to the interests of each individual UN member. I mean, the UN needs to understand the democratic transition and complexity of our country. I don’t mean they should ignore the Bengali issue. Call it a human rights problem or citizenship problem of Bengalis, it is important that the truth is adhered to. The problem today has not just erupted recently, but had been simmering for years—since 2012 or even before. So, it is not reasonable to punish the current government for this. It would be best for the international community to support the reforms of the government, I think. If it imposes sanctions, it would hinder the reforms of the government.

KZM: In the early days of the conflict, the international community blamed both the government and the military. Now, they blame separately, saying that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t have complete authority over security forces. They now target the military. Anyway, the military leadership plays a major role in the democratic transition of Myanmar. So, the US, UK and EU have invited and held talks with the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services. Regarding relations with other countries and the military, for example, UK has cancelled engagement with the Myanmar military and stopped a scholarship program immediately. And Myanmar military responded that it would not send [staff to the UK]. So, I think it is difficult to restore such relations between international countries and the military leadership?

MMS: Yes, it would be difficult. I think it will have an impact on the democratic transition of Myanmar. The problem erupted all of a sudden, but because of long-running causes. It erupted while the government of National League of Democracy (NLD) was starting to make changes to it. The international community said that the report of Kofi Annan commission is acceptable to them. And Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she would implement what she can start with the recommendations in the report. Shouldn’t the international community wait and see? If they are forcibly putting pressure on the government rather than encouraging it [to implement those recommendations], the outcome would not be good. Again, we can’t leave out the military in national reconciliation process. This is the problem of our country.

KZM: Concerning the Rakhine issue, most of the Myanmar people and commentators better understand the situation, but the international community—maybe they have got in a corner because of alleged human rights violations and the UN’s strong criticism—according to the UN figures, 500,000 to 600,000 refugees have left Myanmar. Therefore the United States of America as well as other countries are compelled to do something. But then, thinking our local politics simply about national reconciliation, the cooperation of Tatmadaw is extremely important for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in democratic transition. If sanctions are targeted at the Tatmadaw, will it affect the relations between the two?

MMS: Yes, it will. If this happens, there will be increased tensions in our country. The increased tensions will make democratic transition more difficult. Then, our country is likely to be faced with another serious crisis.

KZM: The current situation suggests that we are back in a crisis.

MMS: Yes, we are back in a big crisis. Talking of the military, it has not got a positive reputation both at home and abroad. At such a time, there arose criticisms [concerning its response in Rakhine]. Excessive force might have been used in operations in Buthidaung and Maungdaw. And the Tatmadaw said that it was investigating [into alleged abuses]. But then, Bengalis fled not only because of security forces using excessive force. Because they keep on fleeing in the past two months. We need to find out the reason why they are fleeing. It is no longer because the security forces use force. Security forces might have used force in the early days [of the conflict]. But we didn’t witness on the ground. Yes, there might have been the use of excessive force. But then, as far as I’m concerned, organizations related to Bengalis and ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] are gathering those refugees in Bangladesh. They are doing so to demand their political rights like in the case of Kosovo, I assume. We need to foresee such a possibility. You can’t approach to this problem one-sidedly.

KZM: The Rakhine issue has put Myanmar’s politics back into tight corners. Anyway, the government has to address this issue. And it is addressing. The international aid may not directly come into Myanmar like it did in the past. It seems that the aid may go to those 600,000 refugees who have fled from Myanmar. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has recently accepted donations from local businessmen for rehabilitation works in Rakhine State. She received nearly 18 billion kyats. So, according to this and her previous messages, it seems that her policy is kind of self-reliance for rehabilitation. But, international assistance is also necessary for us. What will the government require to solve the Rakhine issue, and to get out of this tight corner?

MMS: As you’ve said, the international assistance to Myanmar will decline. It is estimated that a sum of over US$ 400 million will be required to help refugees in Bangladesh. But then, only over US$ 300 million was earmarked at the meeting [of UN agencies in Geneva]. So, it seems that the large proportion of the sum will go to refugees in Bangladesh. So, we have to do our own for rehabilitation. Though the government has got 18 billion kyats now, it won’t be sufficient. But then what we need mainly is political strength. As the report of Kofi Annan Commission has pointed out, representatives of two communities must involve in solving this issue. For the time being, there are many difficulties and restrictions for Bengali representatives to participate. We still can’t reach them. But for Arakanese community, we can involve representatives elected by Arakanese people. They may have different and radical views. But those differences must be addressed through negotiation. We must involve in Arakanese community and their representatives in solving this problem. It is the only way forward on self-reliant basis. Now, there are committees for Rakhine State such as Rakhine State development committee, committee to implement the recommendations of advisory commission, and the last one committee for humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation and development committees formed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But then, those committees do not include people of concerned societies. If we are to go on a self-reliant basis, representatives of the Arakanese community must be included. The problem must be solved together with them. Some of them may have extreme views and may oppose against illegal Bengali immigrants. In a recent interview [about the violence in Rakhine], a teacher from Indaing said his father was murdered in violence, and they could do nothing. So they are emotional to accept them back or co-exist with them. On Oct. 21 evening, two Diangnet villagers from Aung Thabyay village were killed while they were hunting a boar. Two escaped but with injuries. So, such attacks have not yet been over. So, they are deeply emotional, and we can’t stop them from feeling emotional. However, we must solve the problem together with them. Because they live in there.

KZM: After the Aug. 25 attacks, refugees fled, many Hindus as well as other local ethnic people were killed. And there were a lot of arson attacks. Taking a look at the big picture, the bitter truth is that it is now very difficult to restore harmony between two communities—the Rakhine community and the other community. I think it is hard to restore the situation even before August 25. The problem in Rakhine, the western gate of Myanmar has affected the entire country. The peace process is not yet over, and the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] is not yet signed by all groups though it has been two years [since the first signing of NCA]. The fire is burning in Rakhine State and touch wood, if clashes recur? What do you assess?

MMS: It is a real cause for concern. In national reconciliation of our country, federalism is the key.

KZM: It is the most basic part.

MMS: Seven ethnic groups of FPNCC [Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee] which accounts for around 80 percent of armed ethnic groups have not yet signed NCA. While we are facing a problem at the western gate of the country, and the international pressure is mounting, we do hope that tensions [with armed ethnic armed groups] could be defused. However, according to what I heard from the speeches on 2nd year anniversary of NCA on Oct. 15, [the government and the military] stick to NCA, and there was criticism against those who don’t sign NCA. The government didn’t talk much, but the military voiced criticism. It is still difficult to bring those to table to hold political talks on national reconciliation. At such time, there are some tensions. There were tensions after SSPP [Shan State Progressive Party] troops in Wan Hai [SSPP Headquarters] area were asked to move from there in order to build a road on the bank of Thanlwin River. Then, tensions eased and recently rose again when [SSPP] troops stationed between Thanlwin River and the south of Mongshu, Mongtung were asked to move. If they refuse to move, there may be clashes. Likewise other armed ethnic groups based in northern Myanmar such as TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], AA [Arakan Army], Kokang and KIA [Kachin Independence Army]—if they can’t participate in political dialogue for not signing NCA, will they just do nothing to achieve their ambitions? Or if the military will carry out assault? What will happen in western gate if large-scale wars break out in northern Myanmar? Though ARSA is not making serious attacks at the moment, it is not impossible that they may take advantage of clashes in northern area, should it happen, and launch attacks in western gate. If then, our country is likely to become a failed state. As I’ve said, the government should make relaxations at the same time so that armed ethnic groups can join the peace talks. Only then, it will be able to pull our country out of crisis. Otherwise, our country will get into worse crisis, I’m worried.

KZM: Scholars assess that Myanmar has become nearly a failed state. They say Myanmar is on the verge of becoming a failed state, and just one more step away from it. I think our country is in a corner. Both the government and the military are in a corner. And it is fair to say that the international community is in a corner in handling Myanmar. If they don’t take these things into consideration, what they did once to support and assist to democratize Myanmar will come to nothing. Thank you for your discussion.