The Reality in Rakhine and Myanmar’s Complex Political Conundrum

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 9 September 2017

What we can say definitively about the motivation behind the recent attacks in Rakhine State is that they were a violent rejection of meaningful recommendations made by the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine State Advisory Commission and a total obstruction against implementation as promised by the Myanmar government.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), led by Attaullah Abu Ammar Jununi – who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia – launched its synchronized attacks against 30 police outposts in Maungdaw on Aug. 25, hours after former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan presented comprehensive long-term solutions to solving the issues in Rakhine and integrating the local Muslim community (who self-identify as Rohingya).

The Myanmar government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the commission’s final report recommendations and officially said that it would implement them “within the shortest timeframe possible.”

Within a few hours of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s meeting with Kofi Annan and his commission members on Aug. 24, the State Counselor’s Office released a statement saying: “As an immediate step, the government will form a new Ministerial-led committee responsible for the implementation of the commission’s recommendations.”

The statement also said, “We hope to set out a full roadmap for implementation in the coming weeks.”

That’s not exactly what the ARSA – designated a “terrorist” group by the government after its attacks – had in mind when it launched simultaneous attacks.

Two weeks since the attacks, the government still cannot set out to implement the recommendations as it has been too busy trying to control the situation on the ground, which is in turmoil due to the ARSA’s attacks, militant supporters’ attacks on ethnic Rakhine and other groups as well, and military “clearance operations,” – all of which have forced hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees to the Bangladesh border and thousands of Rakhine refugees to other cities in the state.

But the ARSA’s violent methods have been a victory for them, at least so far. Their attacks – which killed more than a dozen security or government officials – may be seen by some outsiders as a ‘legitimate’ retaliation to alleged military oppression and human rights abuses against Muslims in Rakhine State. Beyond that, they have led to heavy criticism of the Myanmar government and its de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is under attack by rights groups, campaign groups and the international media for not publicly defending the rights of the Muslim refugees.

But their criticism comes from a lack of knowledge regarding the country’s complex political situation.

Emphasis of the international community and its media on the exodus of refugees and destruction alone is not helping this complex and volatile situation. Instead, it will prove to be counterproductive.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government are sandwiched politically by the powerful military, nationalist parties and an undemocratic Constitution.

There is no civilian oversight of the military, and it is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and three key ministerial positions – defense, border and home affairs.

Some observers have said that the country is driven by two “parallel governments.”

Nobody can clearly guess how much room the government has to use its executive power in dealing with the military in handling the latest situation in Rakhine. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that the government cannot tell the military not to launch offensives.

On Aug. 24, when Kofi Annan met Myanmar Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief said that the commission’s report included some factual inaccuracies and questioned its impartiality.

In fact, some political groups rejected the commission from the start. In Parliament, three main groups – members of the Arakan National Party, the previous ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party formed by the ex-generals, and all military-appointed lawmakers sought to abolish the commission in early September 2016. But they didn’t succeed.

Critics of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, including western media, denounced her for not criticizing military leaderships over the institution’s alleged human rights violations – showing that these groups don’t clearly understand the political situation.

The most important thing the country needs is genuine collaboration from the military leadership to continue this transition to democracy. The military could still return to power if military leaders believed it was necessary for the country. Critics of the military share a common view that since the current administration assumed office, military associates and USDP party members have a wait-and-see policy as the government confronts a difficult situation that may prove to be opportune for the opposition.

A handful of people can understand the complexity of Myanmar. Derek Mitchell, who was US ambassador to Myanmar under former President Barack Obama’s administration, told the Associated Press that the militant attacks have “in some ways empowered the military to assert themselves ‘as saviors of the country,’ which is how they like to see themselves.” The former ambassador added, “That’s not very helpful to the transition.”

Unlike him, most critics have shortsighted views without seeing the bigger picture, which is that the government and the military need to have good relations for the long-term benefit of the country.

Violence begets violence and it cannot be accepted, in response to human rights abuses or terrorist attacks. Security forces must restrain themselves from using “excessive force” against militants and from hurting Muslim civilians during field operations. The government should be assertively talking to military leadership to follow the principles of democratic reform.

But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cannot afford to publicly criticize the military, which still has both seen and unseen power as the most established institution, with the experiences of coups in 1962 and 1988 and 50 years in power.

Only smooth relations between the two sides can solve the many problems facing the country, including the current Rakhine conflict and more importantly, the peace process involving ethnic armed groups. Her speaking out against the military would only backfire.

If the international community truly wants to see Myanmar as a stable country that can prosper under democratic rule, it needs to help the government halt the violence in Rakhine immediately and implement Kofi Annan’s recommendations as soon as possible.