Conflict in Rakhine State escalated dramatically in late August and has since mushroomed into an enormous crisis comprising countless tragedies. It has forced more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee their homes, cost at least hundreds of civilians their lives, and destroyed nearly 300 villages.
More than two months since militant attacks sparked this severe period of violence, the urgent question is how to end the rooted conflict so that some form of normalcy can be reestablished in the region. The answer depends on all the key players—the government, Tatmadaw (the military), Arakanese and Rohingya people, and the international community—to form a common understanding.
Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) clearly planned its violently orchestrated attacks before Kofi Annan, chairman of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, released recommendations on improving the situation in Rakhine, which the government vowed to implement. ARSA launched the attacks on Aug, 25, hours after the recommendations were published.
The military then executed its notorious “clearance operations,” which caused a mass exodus of people to flee to Bangladesh where they languish in squalid camps. The military should have been restrained, but little else was expected, considering the some 500,000 ethnic refugees and internally displaced people driven from their homes in Myanmar’s north and northeast because of clashes between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups. ARSA knew the nature of Myanmar’s military and should not have provoked it.
In dealing with the latest round of violence in Rakhine, the military should have fully collaborated with the incumbent administration led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who said in her diplomatic briefing on Rakhine on Sept. 19: “The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the Code of Conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians. Human rights violations and all other acts that impair stability and harmony and undermine the rule of law will be addressed in accordance with strict norms of justice.”
But the magnitude of the exodus has not indicated the presence of such restraint.
Albeit with limited control on security matters, the civilian government failed to facilitate access to the crisis area for media and international organizations. It failed to provide enough information on the crisis, and now must keep both its people and international community regularly updated on the situation.
In this sense, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must make regular public speeches and appoint capable and articulate spokespeople who are immediately available for local and international press. Whenever needed, press conferences must also be held.
The government’s duty is to accelerate the repatriation process, as it has promised. It must ensure the safety of all returnees and their households. Equally important is the need for the government to rightly grant citizenship for the Rohingya under the under the National Verification Card process, which was resumed in October in conflict-torn parts of Rakhine.
Arakanese people cannot deny co-existence with Rohingya people who have lived and were born here. Meanwhile, Rohingya should not have a separatist agenda—as many Arakanese perceive—beyond citizenship and their basic rights.
Western countries, the United Nations, and international organizations must understand the Rakhine issue is much more complicated and sensitive than most of them know. They must be aware that such instability poses a potential threat to the fragile state of Myanmar’s democratic transition.
They cannot rule out a possibility of a return to military rule if the military leadership feels the Rakhine conflict is endangering the country’s “stability.” Moreover, there are political opportunist and ultranationalist groups quick to undermine the country’s first elected government since 1960.
Grasping that the government is still in the early stages of dealing with issues spawned under the decades-long military rule is also crucial. The government can not rid itself of many ex-military senior officials in its ministries and main mechanisms such as the General Administration Department. Analysts see these officials as capable of hindering the government’s efforts.
Last but not least, the international community must know that relations between the government and the military—the most powerful and established institution in Myanmar—are not stable. When asked in an interview with Radio Free Asia, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described relations as “normal.” But other signs suggest relations are not good, meaning this transition is still at stake.
As it would be in other countries facing a similar crisis, the government and military are the most important actors and must work together. The crisis calls for international help, so the international community, particularly the West, needs clever diplomacy, a deep understanding of the country’s history and a vision of the bigger picture in order to approach these two key actors and allow all stakeholders to collaborate.