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Rakhine crisis poses greater threat

Bangkok Post
By Professor  

In the latest vicious cycle of violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, Muslim militants orchestrated a coordinated attack on 30 police posts and an army base on Friday, resulting in more than 100 fatalities and the evacuation of at least 4,000 non-Muslim villagers.

The violence also forced thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee across the border to Bangladesh on Sunday. A day earlier, the Bangladesh government summoned a Myanmar envoy in Dhaka, Aung Myint, to express serious concern over the fresh influx of Rohingya people.

The attack, the second of its kind, is similar to an offensive in Rakhine in October last year which then forced the Myanmar security forces to launch a counter-offensive called a "clearance operation". Such a counter-attack resulted in several deaths and some 87,000 Rohingya people fleeing the country for neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which was responsible for the October attack, claimed responsibility for the Friday early morning offensive. The latest attack was carried out with a greater force than the previous one.

The ARSA is believed to have been initially started by the Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia after a series of violent attacks in Rakhine state in 2012 which killed more than a hundred people, mostly Rohingya Muslims. Ata Ullah, leader of the ARSA, has claimed that hundreds of young Rohingya men have joined the group to defend the rights of the Rohinya population from the atrocities of the Myanmar security forces. The group claims that more attacks are in the offing.

The larger question is: What could this heightened violence trigger when the country has already faced several other challenges, including the peace process?

In the aftermath of this latest violence, the situation in Rakhine state, particularly in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in the remote northern part of the state where the Rohingya population is largely concentrated, is likely to witness weeks and months of simmering tensions. We can also expect deep suspicion among and within the communities, the possible use of excessive force by the security forces, and even the possibility of communal violence.

Given the volatile situation, what should the Myanmar civilian government, the security forces, community leaders, and the international community, or even the ARSA militants do at this critical juncture? All concerned stakeholders need to restrain from further escalating the situation. Both short- and long-term measures are needed.

Short-term measures should primarily focus on the cessation of violence and hostilities from within both the ARSA and the Myanmar security forces. Law and order needs to be restored, and all innocent civilians must be given full protection and necessary provisions before the simmering tensions subside. Any communal tension or violence needs to be prevented from spreading to other parts of the country.

The implementation and success of short-term measures primarily lies with the Myanmar military and the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy. The ARSA insurgents should also desist from further attacks.

The Aug 25 attack happened hours after the nine-member advisory commission led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan released its official report advising the Myanmar government on long-term solutions for the violence-riven Rakhine state.

So, long-term measures should pay greater emphasis on proper and effective implementation of the Annan commission's recommendations, with regards to both Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya.

Among others, the commission's recommendations include that the government take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, to allow unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine, to address the statelessness of the Rohingya, to hold accountable those who violate human rights, and to end restrictions on the free movement of the Rohingya community.

The report also advises the government to address other issues, such as socio-economic development in the impoverished state, the rule of law, humanitarian aid, bilateral relations with neighbouring Bangladesh, drug trafficking, and cooperation among local communities, Rakhine state, and the central government.

Moreover, the commission proposes a ministerial-level appointment to coordinate and ensure the implementation of its recommendations.

The commission's findings are based on recommendations gathered from more than 150 consultations and meetings it held with communities in Rakhine state, political and religious leaders, civil society groups, central government ministers, Rakhine state officials, and nongovernmental organisations.

Though some in Myanmar think it is difficult to accept the Rohingya, many have lived in the country for generations. It is important for the people of Myanmar to understand that without addressing the fundamental issues of the Rohingyas, such as identity or citizenship, Myanmar will continue to face the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

The Rohingya issue could also continue to pose security and territorial threats and hamper the nation's peace and development.

Regardless of the commission's recommendations, reconciliation will have a chance to succeed only when Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists are willing to compromise on their differences by respecting each other's identity and culture.

More importantly, the Myanmar government and the general public must be ready to embrace the Rohingya if any genuine reconciliation is to be achieved.

The underlining argument is that violence begets violence and it is not a solution for the Rohingya conundrum. Restraint from all parties, dialogue and the implementation of short-and long-term measures are necessary to build trust and bring normalcy to the state.

While the international community, including the United Nations, should condemn the attacks on the police posts by the militants, it should also continue to help and support Myanmar to be able to bring a long-lasting solution to the precarious situation in Rakhine state.

If either the short-or long-term measures are not implemented effectively, the Rakhine crisis will not only pose problems to Myanmar's internal peace and stability but will also have the potential to spill over beyond borders and across the region.

Nehginpao Kipgen is an Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University.