Guest Column

Stoking the Embers of Fear in Rakhine State

By Ye Min Zaw 30 October 2018

The recent arrest of three Arakanese youth activists has come to the fore of Rakhine State’s political scene, a typically unpredictable affair complicated by regional strife.

Theirs was among a series of arrests linked to the death of a military intelligence officer, Phoe Lone, who was shot at point-blank range in the state capital, Sittwe, last month. After mostly silence from authorities, the three have since appeared in court and been charged with murder.

It is but the latest episode to spread fear and anxiety among the local Arakanese community. Two main factors are contributing to their increasing sense of insecurity — a rise in crime, and the growing perception that they are being pushed out of the public debate on anything the powers that be deem politically sensitive. Together, they are hardening the sense of marginalization within a community that already feels squeezed.

Violence in a chaotic state

In Rakhine State, 2018 opened with a deadly riot in the ancient city of Mrauk-U when authorities revoked permission on short notice for the flagship event at an anniversary for the fall of the Arakanese Empire. Seven civilians were killed in the ensuing clash between the crowds and security forces. Another eight people hospitalized with gunshot wounds were arrested and convicted of destroying public property. After serving their eight-month sentences, they were re-arrested and sued in connection with the riot again, drawing widespread public rebuke.

Shortly thereafter, U Aye Maung, a prominent Arakanese politician, was prosecuted for unlawful association and treason for a speech at the same anniversary during which, according to the government, he encouraged the use of armed struggle to achieve sovereignty for Rakhine State. Many locals believe the arrests of the activists and politician are both part of the ethnic Bamar-dominated state’s attempts to oppress minorities.

In the same month of U Aye Maung’s arrest, the Mrauk-U administrator who oversaw the government’s handling of the riot was killed on his way to Sittwe. Though there is no evidence that the riot and murder are linked, much speculation has drifted in that direction.

In February, three bombs went off in Sittwe near government buildings and a local official’s house, injuring a policeman. Authorities soon arrested seven suspects, including a senior leader of the Arakan National Council, the political wing of the Arakan State Army.

Crime on the rise

Beyond politics, the general public is feeling ever more insecure. One reason is the dramatic increased in crime and theft, especially in Sittwe. People suspect the work of an organized criminal gang and say they see little effort from authorities to stop it.

Illicit drugs are also a growing concern. Millions of amphetamine pills have been seized across Rakhine State. Street crime, from assault to daylight robbery, is rising. The trends are eroding the public’s trust in the government and the rule of law.

Growing sense of oppression

According to a report by Athan, a free speech advocacy group, freedom of expression in Myanmar has been declining since the National League for Democracy took power in early 2016. There is increasing use of the Communications Act to sue reporters and anyone else who criticizes the government.

Rakhine State is no exception. The local government deserves credit for tolerating its critics during the first two years of the current administration, though it has lately begun to backslide.

The jailing of two Reuter reporters in Yangon sent a mixed message to the Rakhine community. Some groups, mainly nationalist and the military’s votary, hailed the prosecution of the journalists, who they condemn as traitors. But what these groups have overlooked is the parallel silencing of Rakhine voices. There was the yet-unsolved knife attack on a local Rakhine reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma and the prosecution of an Arakanese writer arrested together with U Aye Maung.

A lawmaker representing Ramree Township is being prosecuted for a Facebook post addressing the education of ethnic Arakanese. A town elder from Sittwe is also on trial for blaming the Rakhine State secretary for the violence in Mrauk-U.

More recently, an activist from Ann Township has been put on trial for sharing news on Facebook about the sudden death of large numbers of sea mussels; authorities accused him of causing public disorder by spreading false information and sued him under the Communications Act. And in the latest case, a group of youth activists was arrested for murder.

A final verdict in most of these cases has yet to be rendered. But they all involve activists or prominent local figures.

Feeling insecure

Muslims stuck in displacement camps see few prospects for a brighter future. At the same time, the Buddhist Arakanese see a rising crime rate and are feeling increasingly oppressed. The trouble in Rakhine can be seen as a three-way struggle in which Muslims, Arakanese and the government are each acting in their own interests.

All have their particular concerns and fears. The government postures itself as the eternal protector of national unity and solidarity; perceived threats to that unity are aggressively quashed. To make it that much easier, the former military regime fostered a fear that Myanmar was ever at risk from outsiders — sometimes from the West, other times from its neighbors — and silenced those who tried to say otherwise.

The practice of state-driven fear appeared to have started dissipating with the start of Myanmar’s democratic transition in 2010. The people’s voices are being heard more than ever. But opportunistic nationalists have since emerged to polarize communities based on race and religion, helping stoke bouts of inter-communal violence across the country, though even their influence has been on the wane since a government crackdown in 2016.

The local Muslim community has faced two big blows, driving about 1 million of them to neighboring Bangladesh in recent years seeking refuge. The Arakanese are discontent and also afraid because they see little hope that conditions in Rakhine State will improve in the foreseeable future. Fear now permeates the social fabric of the state, brining latent prejudices to the fore.

The state needs to realize that it is an actor in the conflict — not a neutral observer — and help solve the communal tensions. Its actions in recent months, however, intended or not, are promoting fear, and that fear may turn to anger at any time.

Although the discontent of the Arakan community is nothing new, the fear lately engendered by the state has renewed a sense of insecurity. The rising violence and mistrust means taking a step away from a prosperous and peaceful Rakhine State.

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