Suu Kyi Heads New Committee for Troubled Arakan State

By Moe Myint 31 May 2016

RANGOON — Burma’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is to chair a new high-level committee on Arakan State, according to an announcement from the President’s Office on Monday. The initiative could represent a change in tack for the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and Suu Kyi, who at several points have played down the significance of the ongoing crisis in Arakan State, despite international pressure.

Although the precise role of the Central Committee for Arakan State Peace, Stability and Development has yet to be spelled out, its purview includes resettling internally displaced persons (IDPs) along with “social development,” and coordinating the activities of UN agencies and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). A sub-committee will be formed for each of these two thematic areas.

Arakan State, a coastal strip along the Bay of Bengal in the west of Burma, remains one the most sensitive, conflict prone regions of the country. In 2012 and 2013, anti-Muslim violence flared across the state, leaving more than 140,000 displaced, the majority of whom were Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority concentrated in the north of Arakan State. Only small numbers have been returned or relocated—most remain confined to IDP camps, with limited access to markets, education and health care. Outside the camps, the government has kept the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority largely segregated, purportedly for security reasons.

In the last six months, Arakan State has also suffered conflict between the Burma Army and the Arakan Army, a non-state ethnic armed group, which has displaced several thousand in the northern townships of the state. Lawmakers from the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the state’s Buddhist Arakanese majority, have called in the national Parliament for the Arakan Army to be included in peace negotiations between the government, Burma Army and various ethnic armed groups—but the Burma Army remains determined to defeat them militarily.

Arakan State also suffers from severe underdevelopment after decades of neglect under former military-led governments, leaving a legacy of resentment and distrust toward central-level leaders from the Burman majority, which includes Suu Kyi. UN agencies and INGOs are perceived by many Buddhist Arakanese to be biased, in directing assistance chiefly toward displaced Muslims, despite general poverty in the state. Coordinating UN and INGO efforts, to achieve “fairness,” could also prove sensitive for the new committee.

Earlier this year, relations deteriorated between the ANP and the ruling NLD, led by Suu Kyi, after the latter made it clear it would be selecting someone from within its own party to be chief minister of Arakan State, despite the ANP winning the largest plurality in the state legislature. The ANP has since styled itself as an opposition party. The communal conflict in Arakan State is an area of acute vulnerability for the NLD government, especially given prior nationalist rhetoric about the NLD being sympathetic to Muslims.

The new Arakan committee includes as vice chairmen the Arakan State Chief Minister Nyi Pu, an NLD appointee, and Union Border and Security Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ye Aung, a military appointee. The other 24 committee members are drawn from various ministries and departments, paving the way for coordination across the apparatus of government. The absence of an ANP representative, however, is likely to only heighten political tensions in Arakan State and could contribute to local opposition to the initiatives of the committee.

Suu Kyi convened a meeting in Naypyidaw on Friday, with the Arakan State chief minister and the Union ministers of Home Affairs, of Security and Border Affairs, of Labor, Immigration and Population, and of Information. Participants discussed stability and development in Arakan State, and the controversial citizenship verification process, which reportedly resumed for IDPs in Arakan State this month.

The ANP’s chairman, Aye Maung, in conversation with The Irrawaddy, criticized what he described as the NLD’s intention to deliver stability and development in Arakan State without consulting the party with the biggest electoral mandate in the state—the ANP. He urged the NLD government to hold political dialogue with the ANP if the party wished to succeed in their aims, rather than only relying on their own ministries. He also stressed the crucial role played by “opposition” parties, such as his, in relation to any government, citing the veteran opposition role formerly played by the now ruling NLD.

However, Aye Maung remained pessimistic, saying he “dared not expect anything” of the new Arakan committee. Upbraiding the NLD on their lack of detailed policy, he said: “What is their national strategic plan?  What is their plan for the poorest states of the country [such as Arakan State]?”

Aye Maung commented on the limited powers and resources held by regional governments vis-à-vis the Union government. He stated that chief ministers of states and divisions could only request additional budgets from Naypyidaw, and that all state and divisional budgets added up to less than 10 percent of the total Union budget. These budgetary constraints, he asserted, made it “impossible” to deliver real development and stability.

Aye Maung asked whether the NLD government would outline additional special economic areas in Arakan State, with “zero commercial tax for 30 years” as a means of attracting foreign direct investment. “What can we expect of the NLD without knowing their policies?” he said.

Arakanese social activist Wai Hun Aung told The Irrawaddy that, as a first priority, the committee should address the “Bengali” (the word used by many Burmese for the Rohingya to imply they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh) issue “in line with the 1982 Citizenship Law”—a law which defines citizenship entitlement on the basis of ethnicity and condemns most Rohingya to statelessness, since they are not a “recognized” ethnic group.

Wai Hun Aung said that, secondly, the committee should invite the Arakan Army into the formal peace process between the government, Burma Army and various ethnic armed groups, in order to prevent further conflict in Arakan State. Wai Hun Aung also stressed decentralization and resource-sharing between the state and Union government as a top priority.

The announcement from the President’s Office, which was circulated online, has prompted some local Arakanese to speculate that the new Arakan committee would oversee the relocation of IDPs to urban areas of Arakan State, which could heighten tensions if implemented quickly, and would require deft management.

Since the 2012 and 2013 violence, urban areas of Arakan State have remained largely empty of Muslims, where formerly these comprised a sizeable contingent—with the notable exception of Thandwe in southern Arakan State, where a longstanding community of Kaman Muslims (a group recognized under the 1982 Citizenship Law, unlike the Rohingya) continue to live alongside their Buddhist neighbors.

Sittwe, the state capital, contains a Muslim majority ward, Aung Mingalar, but the area functions effectively as an IDP camp, with heavy restrictions on movement in and out, and comprehensive segregation vis-à-vis Buddhist families. A headcount of Muslim communities carried out this month by local authorities in Aung Mingalar—which revealed no appreciable change in the population since 2012—was driven by claims by some local Arakanese Buddhists that the Muslim population had been swelled by interlopers from the countryside.

Khaing Kaung San, director of the Wunlark Development Foundation, a Sittwe-based civil society group, said that, although conditions have been peaceful in more recent years, the time was not right for IDPs, the large majority of whom are Muslim, to be relocated within Sittwe. The “two communities,” referring to Buddhists and Muslims, still need more time to build trust, he contended, though, with a strict regime of segregation still in place, practical questions remain about how such trust could be built.

Khaing Kaung noted the many “Bengali and Arakanese houses” burned down during the fighting, and said more houses would have to be built if comprehensive relocation were to happen.

The ANP’s Aye Maung warned the NLD government to be “cautious” and “think deeply about possible negative impacts” before handling this issue. “If they throw even a small stone into the lake, there will be ripples across the surface.”

The Irrawaddy attempted on Tuesday to contact the Arakan State government’s spokesman, Min Aung, but he did not answer his phone.

Additional reporting by The Irrawaddy’s Su Myat Mon.