Rakhine State Conflict Exasperates Faltering Peace Process

By Nyein Nyein 11 October 2017

Myanmar has been attempting to bring about peace in the country for almost six years now, with the Union government convincing only eight of Myanmar’s 21 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to sign its landmark nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA).

On Sunday, the government and NCA signatories will celebrate the two-year anniversary of the signing of the accord in the country’s capital Naypyitaw.

The government’s peace commissioners have said they are attempting to achieve peace with all EAOs including members of alliances—namely the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC). The government, however, does not recognize the latter as a bloc and would rather meet each of the seven FPNCC groups separately.

Earlier this year, the State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she “hopes 2017 can be designated as a year of peace,” as her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) has marked national reconciliation and peace as a priority.

Not long after she uttered the words, peace observers and advocates said her imaginations of peace were sure to fail—they described the peace process as languid, with both formal and informal negotiations stalling.

Two possible reasons for stalling progress: The Myanmar Army’s reluctance to hold national-level political dialogues—a key step in NCA signing—in either Shan or Rakhine states due to unsuitable venues and lack of security respectively. And the military’s reluctance to accept three EAOs—the Arakan Army (AA), Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

In addition to these hurdles, conflict in Rakhine State that began in August added delays to already faltering peace talks between the government and EAOs.

Violence flared when recently-established Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police and military outposts in northern Rakhine State—killing 12 members of the security forces.

Ensuing military clearance operations have brought waves of international criticism over the treatment of Muslim minority the self-identifying Rohingya—of whom more than 500,000 have fled to Bangladesh bringing with them reports of rape, torture, extra-judicial killing and destruction of property by government forces.

Self-identifying Rohingya continue to leave at a rate of thousands a day despite some Muslim communities remaining intact.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—who also leads the country’s peace process—has had to focus on the Rakhine State situation, including the implementation of recommendations by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In line with one of the recommendations, the government has said it will register repatriated Muslim refugees from Bangladesh through the national citizenship verification process.

As this situation unfolds, ARSA appears to have positioned itself alongside Myanmar’s other EAOs.

Some ethnic armed group leaders have denounced ARSA’s violence while the humanitarian catastrophe of the self-identifying Rohingya has grabbed the world’s attention.

ARSA announced a unilateral ceasefire for one month to allow humanitarian assistance, which ended on Monday. The group offered peace talks with the government on Sunday, which were rejected on the grounds that they did not negotiate with terrorists.

In a statement dated Oct. 7, ARSA said: “If at any stage, the Burmese Government is inclined to peace, then ARSA will welcome that inclination and reciprocate.” Defense Minister Lt-Gen Sein Win reiterated the government’s stance of non-negotiation in comments to The Irrawaddy.

Harn Yawnghwe, who has been involved in Myanmar’s peace process since its inception and is director of the Euro-Burma Office, told The Irrawaddy this week that even if the government does not want to it should hold talks with ARSA.

“For me, I think through armed conflict it is hard to find solutions, while negotiations can help reduce tensions,” he said.

As Myanmar’s peace talks with EAOs stall, it is interesting to see which groups see ARSA as a potential partner in negotiating peace with the Union government.

Shan, Karen, Pa’O, Mon, and Arakanese ethnic leaders The Irrawaddy spoke to rejected ARSA as an ethnic armed group—claiming leaders were raised in Pakistan and that the group’s intentions deviate from other EAO’s fight for ethnic equality, autonomy, self-determination, and federalism.

Some leaders The Irrawaddy spoke to agreed with the government’s argument that the self-identifying Rohingya are not indigenous to Myanmar and therefore have no basis for claiming territory.

Self-identifying Rohingya should be given citizenship in line with the government’s national verification process, all ethnic leaders The Irrawaddy spoke to agreed.

Many ethnic leaders, however, refused to comment officially on the issue—with the excuse of not knowing the full details of Rakhine State affairs.

KNU vice chairman Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win said the EAO had been sharing views on Rakhine affairs within their peace process steering team (PPST) but said “as the Rakhine state affair is a sensitive issue, we are very careful [not to publicize our stance].”

But ethnic leaders both on and off the record reasoned that as “Rohingya” are not listed as an ethnicity of Myanmar and they did not know ARSA leaders, it would be hard for them to accept the armed group’s call.

Chairman of NCA-signatory the Arakan Liberation Party U Khine Soe Naing Aung said there had been many groups in history attempting to represent Rohingya, but they were rejected as the group is not a nationality of Myanmar.

He said Rakhine State affairs affect the whole of Myanmar and he believes the NLD government should work to provide citizenship, neutralized citizenship or associate citizenship to Muslims in Rakhine State.

Chairman of Pa’O Nationalities Liberation Organization Khun Myint Tun echoed the view that Rakhine State affairs must be viewed as a Union affair in which all are concerned in finding a solution.

He said the problems in Rakhine State were rooted long before independent Myanmar: “So we have to accept that there are inhabitants who have been living in the area since the [British] colonial times and who have migrated from neighboring Bangladesh over time. We need to see [the situation] fairly and work out for better solutions.”

Also many [EAOs] wouldn’t publicize their views on either support or denouncing the ARSA “to avoid the international pressure,” Khine Soe Naing Aung said.

It’s not surprising that ethnic armed leaders refused to agree with the government or military’s line on Rakhine State publicly—virtually all ethnic armed groups have suffered from the Tatmadaw’s oppression in one way or another over the past six or seven decades.