Guest Column

The Rakhine War: A Failure of Democracy?

By Ye Min Zaw 25 November 2019

Last year, I pointed out that the actions (and inaction) of the government were stoking the embers of fear among Arakanese people. Now, it is obvious that the embers have set Rakhine State on fire. Fear turned to anger, and Rakhine has drifted away from being a prosperous and peaceful state.

The situation in Rakhine is going downhill. The toll of deaths, abductions and arbitrary detentions (or hostage taking) of civilians suspected of supporting or belonging to the opposing groups is growing. Both sides have seemingly violated the laws of war. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) has arrested civilians, claiming that they are AA soldiers in disguise. The AA’s recent abduction of a member of Parliament, U Whei Tin, suggests the conflict has been taken to a new level.

As the two armies—the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA)—fight on the ground, the two leading political parties have also been debating in Parliament. A dispute between two parties is not a strange thing, but this time the implications are different. I would argue that both the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s ruling party, and the Arakan National Party (ANP), the most represented party in the region, are failing on the Rakhine issue. The situation reflects the failure of Myanmar’s democratic transition under what has often been dubbed the country’s first elected civilian government in five decades. It is interesting to unpack the conditions facing the two political parties, which gained their current positions through a democratic election.

The common argument from the Rakhine community, led by the ANP is that the NLD keeps quiet whenever civilians are arrested, tortured and killed as a result of the conflict. Many believe the Tatmadaw has received a green light from the NLD government to fight the AA under the name of a counterinsurgency campaign. The NLD was also complicit in the arrest and trial of populist Arakanese politician Dr. Aye Maung. The NLD shouts loudly only when its members are victimized.

Can we equate the arrest of Dr. Aye Maung and the abduction of U Whei Tin? Legally, they are not exactly the same. Dr. Aye Maung received due process and a public hearing, while U Whei Tin is a hostage held in an unknown location in the absence of formal legal proceedings. But politically they are equivalent, at least in the perception of the Arakanese people. If politicians are imprisoned for expressing what they believe, no one will dare to take part in the political sphere—in which debating and arguing are very important democratic norms. The state is pushing the Arakanese community one step closer to the perception that their voices are not heard or respected.

Daw Htu May made a good point during her discussion in Parliament when she said that the Arakanese representatives are raising their concerns in both formal and informal ways. They have submitted proposals calling for an end to the war and assistance for displaced persons at both the state and Union levels. Their proposals for justice and the rights of civilians have fallen on deaf ears and received an inadequate response. One proposal was passed in the Rakhine State Hluttaw (parliament) but another was rejected at the Union level. At the same time, it is easy to see that many representatives from Rakhine sympathize with the AA in terms of their cause, although they are not allowed to work with them legally. They have a tendency to speak out about how the community suffers from the indiscriminate actions of the Tatmadaw but do not mention cases involving the AA.

It is ridiculous to say that because the NLD is not physically waging the war, it is therefore not responsible for what is happening in Rakhine State. As the ruling party, it bears responsibility, at least in cases where unarmed civilians are harmed. At the same time, it is totally unfair to blame to government alone. The NLD, which took office in 2016, made a good move by appointing the Annan commission and tasking it with finding a durable solution. But the commission had barely finalized its report when the situation on the ground erupted into violence. Two attacks on police outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army were followed by an exodus of Muslims to Bangladesh, triggering an international diplomatic war against Myanmar. As a result, the NLD’s international support fell to the lowest level in its history. More and more, the situation has spiraled out of its control. But what the NLD failed to do was to secure proper public support within Rakhine State, to communicate with the people who are suffering from the war, and to strengthen its internal alliances. It failed to include the ANP in the process as representatives of the Arakanese community. Amid this exclusion, the NLD made the pragmatic decision to side with the military against both the Rohingya and the AA.

These actions are possibly rooted in two philosophies of the NLD: one is its accommodative approach to reconciliation with the Tatmadaw, and the other is its obsession with the rule of law.

The NLD has focused on not angering the military regarding its actions in Rakhine. But the result has been the opposite of what it wanted, at least in the short term.

The latter of the two philosophies is directly related to the Dr. Aye Maung case and of course to the fight against the AA as well. The NLD could argue that he received a fair trial and due process, and that it is important to uphold the rule of law. That may be true, but again, the party apparently failed to calculate the political implications. When armed men have no consideration for the rule of law, NLD can afford nothing.

Unfortunately, both political parties inhabit a shrinking political space given the increasing support among local Arakanese for a militarized approach. The AA and its young leaders have won the hearts of the Arakanese, leaving older Arakanese politicians beholden to them with no means of mitigating to keep public support ahead of the upcoming 2020 election. Similarly, the NLD is increasingly unable to cooperate successfully with the military, and this is costing the party credibility. Its ability to act in Rakhine State has been reduced to leading only the international diplomatic effort. In this sense, the NLD and ANP are facing similar challenges and are just two sides of the same coin. If the elected parties are helpless to influence events, how can the millions of people who voted for them be expected to have any faith in democracy?

In her famous essay “Freedom From Fear”, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wrote, “Where there is no justice there can be no secure peace. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that, ‘If man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression’, human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” The ANP is talking about rights and justice while the NLD is talking about the rule of law. They may need to go hand in hand. So far, all they can do is voice regret as the people suffer at the hands of armed forces.

As I said before, the end result is that Rakhine continues to move away from being a prosperous and peaceful state. The same is true of Myanmar’s democratic transition. It is common sense that violence breeds violence—except to those absurd people who think that peace can be built through hostile and violent means without taking account of Myanmar’s seven-decade-long civil war. Right now, the fate of the war in Rakhine and its victims is not in the hands of civilian political parties; it is in the hands of armed men who want to show their might. We can only hope that one day they will show their might at the negotiating table.

Ye Min Zaw studies international development with a focus on peace processes, transitional issues and Rakhine affairs.