Guest Column

Justice Must Guide the Government’s Handling of Rakhine State’s Problems

By Ye Min Zaw 26 January 2018

Close observers of Myanmar’s internal issues, particularly conflict situations, will recognize a pattern in the responses to controversial events. There are two opposing narratives; one from the government, which straightforwardly asserts there has been “no wrongdoing,” and another from the affected community, which bitterly rejects the actions of authorities.

The official line is systematically constructed using legal technicalities to defend the government’s position. Local communities largely resort to free social media platforms to spread their first-hand accounts, sometimes backed up with hard evidence. The recent crisis in Mrauk-U, in which seven people lost their lives and more than a dozen were injured, was not a unique one. It fits into a pattern that includes the murders of teachers from Kachin, and the popular protest against the Letpadaung copper mine, in which Daw Khin Win lost her life to a police bullet. Presumably, the Mrauk-U case will lead to the same outcome: impunity and no one being held accountable.

The arrest of the rabidly nationalist politician Dr. Aye Maung and the violence in Mrauk-U have added complexity to an already complicated situation in Rakhine State. The Myanmar government is currently working to repatriate Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in recent months. This is a very unpopular decision internally and the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government needs to mobilize public support, particularly from Rakhine residents. This is needed to bring some stability to the region, but the different sides are not speaking the same language.

Politically, mainstream parties have not been able to make inroads in central Rakhine State, where the nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) holds a strong position. It has never been easy for newly elected governments to impose their will. The ANP and NLD have been involved in a number of high-profile disputes, from the selection of the chief minister to, most recently, the impeachment of the NLD-appointed municipal minister. In addition to these specific conflicts, the NLD government has failed to effectively engage with the local community. Now, by arresting a popular lawmaker, it has again triggered public outrage, with two serious effects: The arrest has created a legal and political controversy, and also seen the culture of political violence spread, deeply undermining the government’s mandate to uphold the rule of law.

The Rakhine public was already on edge over the arrest on similar charges a couple of months ago of social activist Ann Thar Gyi and a prominent monk. But this time, arresting another writer and lawmaker has far more significance and potential pitfalls. Charging Dr. Aye Maung with crimes against the state and treason is undoubtedly serious and requires careful consideration. Charging him with unlawful association is ironic. If you look carefully at Dr. Aye Maung’s comments, they were as controversial as ever but hardly new. He is well known for his nationalist sentiment and for speaking out. The only question here is why the authorities chose to arrest him at that particular time, coinciding with a major event in Mrauk-U. Government newspapers fanned the flames with strongly opinionated pieces interpreting what constitutes treason and crimes against the state, and how those who commit them should be punished. These were reminiscent of articles published under the old military regime.

During this time of peace building and developing a democratic society, in which freedom of expression and a strong media are very important, the government’s ability to ensure that freedom of expression is not arbitrarily restricted is very much in question. What would be the repercussions for the media environment if pro-establishment outlets gain the upper hand? On the other hand, reining in hate speech and ethnic nationalist sentiment by various groups is an increasingly important task. Not having full authority over security is another factor. But, to be sure, it is not enough to point the finger at individuals. We need to challenge the underlying legal and political imperatives.

Apart from the arrest of Dr. Aye Maung, the way the government handled the situation on the celebration of the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Rakhine Dynasty, blocking permission to hold a lecture and responding violently to the mob in Mrauk-U, deserves denunciation and an independent investigation. As stated above, right after the shootings, authorities had an answer ready. Meanwhile, the people of Rakhine are upset and these emotions are ripe for manipulation. This was clearly seen in the death of the young protesters, who were vulnerable to that sort of mobilization. This should serve as a lesson, which we should not soon forget, for regional politicians who are quick to mobilize their communities with inflammatory rhetoric. This local culture of violence should not be allowed to take root. If you look at the overall picture, it is not difficult to understand the reasons behind the latent anger which finally exploded into violence. There was already serious discontent and a feeling of marginalization and exclusion from the political process. Some nationalists are going to great lengths to exploit this. Practically, it is challenging the mandate of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to uphold the rule of law.

The two events may be linked but this does not necessarily mean the relationship is cause-and-effect. The earlier event was responsible for the ferocity of the later one. But, that should not conceal underlying grievances. Violence on the streets was transformed in the following days into a war of hate speech on social media. The division was clear between the Burman majority, who see an act of betrayal to the Union, and the Rakhine population, who believe they were simply exercising their right to observe a historical event. On that front, the government has been somewhat successful in convincing the majority – who already had an underlying dislike of Dr. Aye Maung – that it is protecting the state. Strangely, this account omits to mention the failure to control the crowd, armed only with its anger, a failure that ultimately led to the loss of seven young lives. If the two cases are not considered separately as both legal-political and violent challenges to the rule of law – not only by an angry crowd but also by security forces – then accountability will be made more difficult to achieve.

There is no space here to consider many other critical questions, including: What are the implications for other conflicts in Rakhine State, let alone for the wider peace process? How will other ethnic groups interpret this incident? Will it lead to increased recruitment for the Arakan Army, which is actively trying to increase its numbers? What are the structural factors that led to the violence? Finding answers to these questions could yield some solutions, in both the short and long terms. But whatever the questions and answers, the central theme, which is fundamental to our society, must be “justice.” The ultimate question – and the one that interests me most – is how the government will find a just resolution to the legal debate over the lawmaker, whatever his background, and see that justice is done for the lives lost. Only justice can make a community feel safe and secure, and drive out irrational fears. Justice must be the key message for the people of Rakhine State.

Ye Min Zaw is a scholar of international development studies focusing on peace processes, transitional issues and Rakhine affairs.