Guest Column

Would a Cyclone Stop the War in Rakhine?

By Ye Min Zaw 20 June 2019

When humans cannot find a logical answer to our problems, we tend to look for a solution from mother nature. Myanmar, as a conservative Asian country, has no shortage of supernatural thinking which is deeply rooted in our culture and in the form of worship. Perhaps at this time, we need to hope that a powerful force of nature will take a role in stopping a bloody war that is ongoing in Rakhine State. This time, it might be in the form of a destructive cyclone. Should we expect a cyclone to stop, at least temporarily, a war between two human gangs? It could be the worst form of a ceasefire ever, but it could in fact be a blessing in disguise. It might sound absurd, but this is a call for the leaders who are waging war to think twice before a real cyclone heads towards their people.

As of the end of May, over 30,000 people have been displaced due to fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar military, in western Myanmar, according to recent UN findings. The newly displaced people are from towns and villages across seven townships, including Palatwa of southern Chin State. Some observers say that the toll of casualties, both civilian and armed persons, has reached 100. The majority of the newly displaced people are living in temporary shelters such as monasteries or in makeshift tents. The government rhetoric has been reassurance to have all internally displaced persons (IDPs) in proper shelter before the monsoon season is in the air. Local community service and humanitarian organizations are overstretching their resources to fulfill the needs of the displaced in the volatile region. However, they frequently face restrictions in delivering aid. The loud calls of local activists and the international community for unfettered humanitarian access has seemingly fallen on dead ears. Consequently, the needs of the IDPs are not adequately fulfilled.

Rakhine State is the most cyclone-prone area in Myanmar. In recent history, regular cyclones have repeatedly affected the state’s population. Cyclone Mora in 2017, though touching down in Bangladesh, flattened hundreds of homes and public services such as schools and hospitals. In 2015, Cyclone Komen displaced 1.7 million across 12 states and regions, with 9 million affected and 172 killed, causing a loss of over 3 percent of GDP for Myanmar. It was no doubt that Rakhine bore the brunt of the damage. Cycle Giri in 2010 was also a major blow that claimed thousands of lives in Rakhine and took many years to recover from. In addition to major natural disasters, the coastal region is also liable to other disasters such as man-made conflict and war.

A person born in Rakhine is susceptible to more difficulties than a person born in any other area of Myanmar because the state is poor, disaster-prone and has very limited infrastructure. Geographically the people are vulnerable to the force of nature. The low education status and a lack of risk-reduction knowledge makes them even more exposed. On top of that, displacement from conflicts and fighting adds an extraordinary burden on these most vulnerable communities.

Rakhine State has had hundreds of thousands of displaced since communal violence broke out there in 2012. Now, those tallies are driven up by conflict in northern parts of the state. If a major disaster came to the region today, the community would have no capacity for resilience and would have no choice but to appeal for support externally. In general, although there have been some improvements in recent years, disaster preparedness levels in Myanmar remain very low. There are not enough cyclone shelters nor effective disaster response plans at both community or administrative level. Although there are no accurate figures to calculate how much money is needed to prepare for cyclones and disaster risks, it would likely require millions of dollars. In conflict-torn states, people in power use their money for shells and bullets instead of cyclone shelters.

The most recent updates from the battle ground indicate no truce is in the foreseeable future. The Tatmadaw claims they have the upper hand, while the AA have announced there have been many more causalities among Tatmadaw forces. It is also noted there are two differing—even opposing—narratives from the two parties after every event. No hint of a move towards reconciliation has been given.

The Tatmadaw announced a unilateral truce for the first time in December 2018 and have since extended it by two months until the end of June. The truce excludes Rakhine State, apparently because of the threat of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), and this upsets the AA leaders. Unsurprisingly, the war between the two forces has intensified, even causing damage to the historical heritage sites in Mrauk-U. Some local reports say the Tatmadaw is firing heavy artillery shells like rain in any direction where they think the AA might be.

Some local analysts projected that the fighting will slow down with the onset of the monsoon season which usually brings particularly heavy rainfall to Rakhine. Meanwhile, the topography of Rakhine makes it largely inhabitable for major settlements of troops. The AA, however, have already proved to some extent they are capable of living in the Rakhine mountain ranges, particularly in the north close to Chin State.

Though it is possible for fighting to continue under the heavy rains, would it be possible for the AA to continue fighting the Tatmadaw in the event of a cyclone which would require a large-scale response? On the other hand, would the Tatmadaw facilitate a large flow of aid to the area in that scenario?

The real answers to those questions cannot be known until a cyclone lands. But it is critical, however, that they are asked before another disaster falls on the IDPs. We may not be able to blame either side for the conflict, but we must demand a disaster preparation plan for the people. This will unveil their genuine sense of duty beyond the rhetoric of working for the sake of the people. It is time to prepare for the potential of natural disaster. As a catastrophe cannot stop another catastrophe, it is not expected that a cyclone would stop the war. But the war should be stopped in the face of an upcoming disaster. Otherwise, for the displaced in Rakhine, there is nothing they can do but pray for themselves.

Ye Min Zaw studies international development with a focus on peace processes, transitional issues and Rakhine affairs. He is a medical doctor who has worked for many international organizations including UNICEF.