Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State
Asia Report N°261
22 Oct 2014
This report is also available in Burmese.
The situation in Rakhine State contains a toxic mixture of historical centre-periphery tensions, serious intercommunal and inter-religious conflict with minority Muslim communities, and extreme poverty and under-development. This led to major violence in 2012 and further sporadic outbreaks since then. The political temperature is high, and likely to increase as Myanmar moves closer to national elections at the end of 2015. It represents a significant threat to the overall success of the transition, and has severely damaged the reputation of the government when it most needs international support and investment. Any policy approach must start from the recognition that there will be no easy fixes or quick solutions. The problems faced by Rakhine State are rooted in decades of armed violence, authoritarian rule and state-society conflict. This crisis has affected the whole of the state and all communities within it. It requires a sustained and multi-pronged response, as well as critical humanitarian and protection interventions in the interim.
Failure to deal with the situation can have impacts for the whole country. As Myanmar is redefining itself as a more open society at peace with its minorities and embracing its diversity, introducing the seeds of a narrow and discriminatory nationalism could create huge problems for the future. Political solutions to the decades-long armed conflict, including the building of a federal nation, will be much more difficult.
The largest group in the state are the Rakhine, who are Buddhist, and there is a significant Muslim minority, including the Rohingya – a designation rejected by the government and Rakhine. The Rakhine community as a whole has tended to be cast internationally as violent extremists – ignoring the diversity of opinions that exist, the fact that the Rakhine themselves are a long-oppressed minority, and rarely attempting to understand their perspective and concerns. This is counterproductive: it promotes a siege mentality on the part of the Rakhine, and obscures complex realities that must be understood if a sustainable way forward is to be found.
The grievances of the Rakhine are similar to those of Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities – including longstanding discrimination by the state, a lack of political control over their own affairs, economic marginalisation, human rights abuses and restrictions on language and cultural expression. Decades of Rakhine anger have begun to morph. Since the transition to the new government, many Rakhine have increasingly felt that the most immediate and obvious threat that they face in rebuilding their communities and re-asserting their ethnic identity is one of demographics. There is a fear that they could soon become a minority in their own state – and, valid or not, there is no doubt that it is very strongly felt in Rakhine communities.
Muslim communities, in particular the Rohingya, have over the years been progressively marginalised from social and political life. Many have long been denied full citizenship, with significant consequences for their livelihoods and well-being. There are now efforts underway in the legislature to disenfranchise them, which could be incendiary. The Rohingya see this as their last remaining connection to politics and means of influence. Without this, it would be hard for them to avoid the conclusion that politics had failed them – which could prompt civil disobedience or even organised violence.
Current government initiatives to address the situation are centred on a pilot process to verify the citizenship of undocumented Muslims, and an “action plan” to deal with a broader set of political, security and development issues. Both contain deeply problematic elements. The refusal of the government and Rakhine community to accept the use of the term “Rohingya”, and the equally strong rejection of the term “Bengali” by the Rohingya, have created a deadlock. The verification process is going ahead without resolving this, and it may be boycotted by a majority of Rohingya.
The action plan envisages moving those who are granted citizenship to new settlements, rather than back to their original homes, potentially entrenching segregation. Those who are found to be non-citizens, or who do not cooperate with verification, may have to remain in camps until a solution can be found – which could be a very long time. An additional problem is that many Muslims may be given naturalised citizenship, which is more insecure and does not confer many of the rights of full citizenship.
Citizenship will not by itself automatically promote the rights of the Muslim population. This is made clear by the plight of the Kaman, who are full citizens by birth and a recognised indigenous group, but whose Islamic faith has meant that many are confined to displacement camps with no possibility to move freely or return to their land. Citizenship is thus necessary but not sufficient for improving rights. An end to discriminatory policies, including movement restrictions, and improved security and rule of law are also indispensable.
The government faces a major challenge in that the demands and expectations of the Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim communities may not be possible to reconcile. In such a context, it is essential to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are protected while also finding ways to ease Rakhine fears. Important too are efforts to combat extremism and hate speech. Only by doing so can the current climate of impunity for expressing intolerant views, and acting on them, be addressed. Ringleaders and perpetrators of violence must be brought swiftly to justice, which has rarely been the case. Doing so will help ensure not only that justice is done; it can also contribute to political stability and enhance the prospects for peaceful solutions.
Political solutions may not bear fruit quickly, but this must not lead to complacency. Solutions are critical for the future of Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Pre-empting extremist violence requires starting a credible process now that can demonstrate to the Rakhine and Muslim communities that political avenues exist. More broadly, unless Myanmar is successful in creating a new sense of national identity that embraces the country’s huge cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, peace and stability will remain elusive nationwide. In the meantime, it is essential for the international community to support the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable populations, which are likely to remain for years. It is also vital to address the chronic poverty and underdevelopment of all communities in the state, particularly through equitable and well-targeted village-level community development schemes.
Yangon/Brussels, 22 October 2014