Guest Column

Losing Sight of Solutions in Rakhine

By Mon Mon Myat 31 August 2017

Rakhine State took a distinct turn away from a possible peaceful future the day after the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State released its final report.

Friday saw the second wave of attacks claimed by a Rohingya militant group who refer to themselves as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

This week, they aired pre-recorded video messages on social media in the style of many international terror groups—including infamous Islamic State. ARSA, in their videos, claimed “Arakan [Rakhine] belongs to the Rohingya,” and warned the Myanmar Army to withdraw its troops immediately.

The same group claimed previous violent attacks on border guard police in northern Rakhine State in October 2016—just one month after the Annan commission was established.

Although it is not a comfortable truth for the country, Myanmar is likely facing “cross-border terrorism,” that the commission labeled a “potential threat.”

The question is: Is the Myanmar government prepared to face this reality? The answer is, probably not.

Violence invites more violence—the Myanmar government promptly declared ARSA a terrorist group on Friday and immediately responded with anti-terrorism security operations. Conflict in northern Rakhine has so far claimed dozens of civilians’ lives and displaced thousands.

As violence sweeps through northern Rakhine, former UN general secretary Kofi Annan’s recommendations to alleviate the state’s suffering have been forgotten.

Rakhine’s Complex History

Since its beginning, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State was widely rejected by both ethnic Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya.

Although the mandate of the commission was to find “lasting solutions to the complex and delicate issues in Rakhine state,” many, including Arakanese politicians and Rohingya militant groups, immediately turned a blind eye to the commission appointed to find solutions.

The first thing the Commission tackled in its report was nomenclature—opting to use neither the term “Bengali” nor “Rohingya” to refer to the Rohingya population but instead use “Muslims” or “the Muslim community in Rakhine” on the advice of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Rohingya—the ethnic group living along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border—are referred to as “Bengali” by many in Myanmar, including the government, to infer they originated from Bangladesh and don’t belong in Myanmar.

Neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar recognizes them as citizens though the Myanmar government in the past registered some 700,000 Rohingya with temporary identify cards popularly known as “white cards.”

Myanmar has been practicing different categories of citizenship for a long time and does not guarantee equal rights to all its citizens.

The Commission finds “the linkage between citizenship and ethnicity,” has caused problems in Rakhine, it recommends to “re-examine” it.

Different categories of citizenship create social injustices between majority ethnic Bamar and minority ethnic groups.

Thus, the Commission recommends “the abolition of distinctions between different types of citizens” in Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law to align with “international standards and treaties.”

The final report says: “The law should be reviewed to ensure the equitable treatment of all citizens.”

With that recommendation, the commission kills two birds with one stone: Issues of citizenship and issues of ethnic identity.

If everyone in Myanmar came under one category of citizenship, there should be fewer arguments over ethnic identity. It requires, however, the government to review the 1982 Citizenship Law.

This recommendation might not sit well with both sides.

Ethnic Arakanese have expressed concern over providing equal citizenship status to Rohingya in Rakhine State.

Various protests against the government’s citizenship verification process for the Rohingya community have been organized in Rakhine State.

The protesters’ fear was that if the Muslim community living along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border was gaining in population, they might occupy Rakhine territory in the future.

The ARSA’s claim that “Rakhine belongs to Rohingya,” taps into this great fear of ethnic Arakanese people.

On the other hand, the Rohingya Muslim community is reluctant to go through the citizenship verification process in Rakhine State as they lack trust in the government and can’t envisage any tangible benefits—as mentioned in the final report.

Practicing Basic Human Rights

International media have long highlighted the plight of the oppressed Rohingya population in Rakhine State, who are denied basic human rights such as freedom of movement and access to health services and education.

Violence in Rakhine State in 2012 which resulted in 120,000 internally displaced people (IDPs)—the vast majority Rohingya and many still living in camps—made headlines around the world.

Rohingya IDPs are “almost entirely deprived of freedom of movement,” the report highlights. Travel of non-IDP Rohingya is restricted by a lack of citizenship status.

“Both communities face self-imposed restrictions emanating from the fear of neighboring communities, limiting access to farmland, fishing areas and markets,” the report adds.

The Commission highly recommends the government to ensure “freedom of movement and equal access to health and education” for all people in Rakhine State, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or citizenship status.

Myanmar was among the first 48 nations to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by United Nations which recognizes human rights and fundamental freedoms—human rights should not be limited to one particular group, race, or religion.

Rakhine’s Delicate Reality

The Commission finds “a sense of lawlessness along the border with Bangladesh.”

The Bangladesh-Myanmar border area has seen illegal trafficking in humans and drugs for many years.

Uneducated and jobless young men, unprotected children and young girls living in refugee camps along the border become prey of human traffickers.

In a graphic by the BBC, Bangladeshi and Rohingya trafficking routes are shown to originate in Cox’s Bazar—home to Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladesh side of the border.

A report released by UN High Commission for Refugees in 2015 showed about 25,000 people, including women and children, were trafficked in the three months from January to March 2015—double the number in the same period in 2014.

A US Department of State’s 2017 report said transnational drug trafficking organizations operate within Bangladesh with underground operations stretching from Myanmar to India.

Recently, there have been numerous reports in local media of vast hauls of illegal narcotics in Rakhine State.

The Commission’s final report highlights “drug smuggling is reportedly funding the activities of non-state armed groups, such as the Arakan Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).”

The illegal drug trade is the delicate reality of Rakhine and has remained unsolved for decades.

The Annan commission recommends Myanmar government to establish a joint commission with Bangladesh to discuss bilateral relations including “combating human trafficking and drug smuggling, and security cooperation to combat violent extremism.”

ARSA is using terror to claim Rakhine territory and using the lives of several hundred civilians as shields or weapons.

“ARSA’s violent actions inevitably will harm, not help it, despite its claims to be fighting the Myanmar state—and not Rakhine civilians—for the Rohingya cause,” International Crisis Group pointed out in its recent report.

If the real intention of ARSA is to save its own people—the Rohingya—and fight for their rights, it should not be using terrorist tactics.

Rather than taking note of the commission’s recommendations, ARSA is rushing to claim territory in Rakhine State and encroach on Myanmar’s sovereignty.

The question is whether ARSA really represents the Rohingya in Rakhine State. If it does, thousands of civilian lives are in danger.

Speaking about the Aug. 25 attacks, Kofi Annan showed grave concern over the perilous situation in Rakhine State:

“After years of insecurity and instability, it should be clear that violence is not the solution to the challenges facing Rakhine State,” he said in a statement released on his website.

If all parties involved turn a blind eye to the commission’s recommendations, there will only be more violence.

Mon Mon Myat is an independent journalist and graduate student at the Department of Peace Studies in Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.