Guest Column

Thoughts on Rakhine State 

By Aung Ko Ko 11 September 2017

Today it is extremely hard, almost impossible, to obtain credible information on the situation in Rakhine State. There are no impartial witnesses in the field. Reliable journalists have difficulty knowing the truth, as they are escorted by Myanmar security forces to selected locations, their interlocuters unable to speak freely. Disinformation reigns.

For the time being, I have not yet found a single article or TV report that has satisfied me. The context lends itself to extreme, emotional, passionate, irrational attitudes, that make it impossible to understand the reality on the ground.

Having said this, in brief, an attack by the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) on some 30 security force outposts has recently triggered a new cycle of violence. The attack occurred just after a Kofi Annan-led advisory commission delivered its final recommendations to improve the situation in Rakhine State.

The reaction of government security forces was immediate. Disproportionate or not, their clearance operations led some 300,000 members of the local Muslim community to flee their homes and seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Ethnic Rakhine, Hindus and other groups fled to the south, fearing ARSA. The situation isn’t black and white. There have been reprehensible acts on both sides. But widespread accusations of Muslim villagers burning their own villages before fleeing them are hardly plausibly. Those displaced to Bangladesh are not warmly welcomed and they do not seem to be willing to remain there long-term.

But in this context, it is advisable at this time not to qualify the situation as genocide or ethnic cleansing against the Muslim community – which the government does not recognize as an ethnic nationality but as a group of interlopers from Bangladesh. It is important to try to diffuse the tension and anger in the region, and use language that will not rile either side.

The international community should accept the fact that this Muslim community [that identifies as Rohingya] is not recognized as an ethnic nationality of Myanmar. Having said that, those who have lived in the country for generations should have the right to quickly become permanent residents and then citizens. If there are doubts regarding residency or the desire to integrate into Myanmar society, there should be a probation period established.

In the prevailing context, it is absolutely necessary for all of the victims, residents, the Myanmar government and the international community that the conflict zone is accessible to an international and credible organization whose mandate matches the needs of the current situation.

Today, only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with support from the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) is in a position to fulfill this task. It is extremely urgent that the government and other concerned parties give the green light to the Geneva Institution for relief and protective actions for all civilians who are victims of the conflict in Rakhine State.

Aung Ko Ko is a pseudonym – he is a seasoned Myanmar observer with extensive knowledge of ethnic issues and conflict in the country, who has lived in Myanmar and the surrounding region for 24 years.