Guest Column

Rakhine State Crisis Hinders Myanmar’s Peace Process

By Joe Kumbun 22 September 2017

Myanmar, plagued by prolonged civil war for a half century, has now been forced into a tailspin. Recent violence in Rakhine State threatens to impede an already fragile nationwide peace process.

After the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched attacks on police outposts on Aug. 25, 2017, the government denounced and branded the group as extremist terrorists, and Myanmar Army security clearance operations in Rakhine State followed.

Due to the clearance operations, hundreds of thousands of civilians fled to Bangladesh and other areas. The crisis has been widely debated in domestic and international communities.

While the country has been grappling with continuing civil conflict in the north, the festering crisis in the Rakhine State has become a hindrance to the peace process.

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) initially planned to meet with the government’s Peace Commission this month but postponed to next month. The UNFC expressed that the Rakhine State conflict would stall the ongoing peace process in which the ethnic bloc has long participated to seek peace in the country.

Many ethnic leaders, particularly the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), have voiced concern that the recent violence in Rakhine would impede the peace process.

A prominent official from the KIO pointed to three incidents – Rakhine in June 2012, Meiktila in March 2013 and Rakhine in August 2017 – in which he believes the Myanmar Army used these other conflicts to draw attention away from the ongoing clashes in Kachin State.

In May 2012, former US Secretary of State Clinton expressed the Obama administration’s concerns about the Kachin conflict when she met Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin in Washington. Clinton, who became the first US secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years, urged the country to end ethnic conflicts.

International attention on the civil war seemed to peak when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon underlined the conflicts in Kachin State during his three-day visit to Myanmar from April 29, 2012. With both domestic and international attention focused on Myanmar Army offensives in Kachin State, inter-communal violence erupted in Rakhine State in June 2012.

Former President Thein Sein declared a State of Emergency in Rakhine State on June 10, 2012. The Myanmar Army, who then controlled the administration, targeted the Muslim minority (the self-identifying Rohingya) in the region through mass arrests and arbitrary violence.

Another intertwined incident erupted in 2013. The Myanmar Army attacked the KIO with combined ground forces, artillery fire, and air strikes, and the KIO lost most of their strategic outposts in early 2013.

When domestic and international concern was at its peak, violence again broke out between Buddhists and Muslims, leaving more than 40 people dead and entire neighborhoods razed in Meiktila in March 2013. Then President Thein Sein soon announced a state of emergency, which allowed the military to take control in the area.

Last but not least, the recent attacks in Rakhine State erupted after attention had been brought to army clearance operations against the KIO in the resource-rich area of Tanai. On June 5, Myanmar Army helicopters dropped leaflets over parts of Tanai ordering residents to leave by June 15 or risk being “considered as cooperating with the terrorist group KIA [Kachin Independence Army].”

The Myanmar Army soon launched offensives against the KIO in the amber and gold-rich area. Due to clearance operations, thousands of local and domestic migrants who had been working there for years were forced to flee. Many of the displaced are now staying in temporary shelters provided by churches in Tanai town.

On Aug. 14, 2017, the Myanmar Army representatives assigned to Parliament reiterated that the “clearance operations’ against the KIO were in line with the military-drafted 2008 Constitution and did not need government approval.

With the eruption of violence in Rakhine State, both domestic and international attention again veered away from Kachin and toward Rakhine State.

The ongoing fighting in Kachin and northern Shan states needs to cease, and attention needs to be put there, alongside the crisis in Rakhine State.

The conflict in Rakhine not only impedes the country’s peace process but also threatens to erode democracy with the declaration of a state of emergency and increased military control.

ARSA’s attacks have bolstered the Myanmar Army. The goverment took on its rhetoric in labelling the group a terrorist organization, which allowed for clearance operations. The army has also garnered support from virulent nationalists, some political parties, and some ethnic Arakanese from its actions in the region.

This support legitimizes the army, and enables them to conduct clearance operations in other ethnic areas, furthering threatening the peace process.

On Sept. 1 2017, the Myanmar Army declared that it would wipe out the Arakan Army (AA) from Rakhine State, where both sides clashed in late August 2017. This is a vow to conduct similar military operations against the AA as were done to the KIO in August 2017.

It is going to take the government, the Myanmar Army and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to work together to build a peaceful country, and this is the time to do it. Any additional Myanmar Army offensives will only stall the peace process even further.

Gen Yawd Serk, chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South, has said that the situation in the country will worsen if the peace process is stalled.

The government has attempted to resolve both the civil war and the issues in Rakhine State but these cannot be solved by the government or the army alone. The international community, intellectuals, political parties and civil society are vitally important and must be allowed to participate in these processes.

The success of Myanmar’s peace process and the outcome of the Rakhine State crisis hinges on how the government, military, and ethnic armed organizations address the root causes of conflict collectively. Absent of such cooperation, the peace process will be stalled and violence in Rakhine State will not be resolved.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.