Civilian-led peace plan for restive Rakhine takes off

Civilian-led peace plan for restive Rakhine takes off

A woman holds an image of Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi as people hold candles during an interreligious gathering of a 'prayer for peace' ceremony in Yangon on Oct 17. (EPA photo)
A woman holds an image of Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi as people hold candles during an interreligious gathering of a 'prayer for peace' ceremony in Yangon on Oct 17. (EPA photo)

Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian-led initiative for Rakhine state is already up and running. Myanmar's business community has rallied around to back the government's plans, pledging financial support and promising to actively participate in restoring peace and stability to the strife-torn region in western Myanmar.

In the past two months more than half-a-million Muslim Rohingyas -- as they call themselves -- have sought safety across the border in Bangladesh. The UN believes this is the world's worst-ever humanitarian disaster.

In the meantime senior government officials from both Myanmar and Bangladesh are meeting to finalise plans for the return of the refugees. This could start as early as next month, a government official said.

Larry Jagan is a Myanmar specialist and former BBC World Service news editor for the region.

These two moves represent the first steps in the government's comprehensive plan to deliver aid to the refugees, oversee their return and help them resettle, and tackle the underlying causes of communal conflict and mistrust in Rakhine. And in the long-term create the conditions for lasting peace and stability.

The more than half-a-million Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh have accused the Myanmar military of forcing them to leave, razing their homes to the ground and being responsible for hundreds of deaths during recent security operations. Many Muslim women also allege that Myanmar soldiers raped them. The UN has continually raised concerns about the human rights abuses being committed against the Rohingya and labeled them as "ethnic cleansing".

Both the Myanmar government and the military commander have strenuously denied all allegations levelled against the military in Rakhine. The army accuses insurgents and their Rohingya supporters of burning houses and killing Muslim villagers.

Most of the Rohingya in Rakhine are stateless, even though many have lived there for several generations. The government and Myanmar's overwhelming majority ethnic population, the Bamar, reject the term Rohingya and instead call them Bengalis, to denote they are interlopers from Bangladesh.

The immediate crisis erupted some two months ago when Rohingya insurgents -- calling themselves members of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) -- attacked several border security posts killing scores of police. The military immediately launched a counteroffensive, as they tried to track down the attackers.

When Ms Suu Kyi announced the formation of a new national level committee -- to deliver aid to the refugees, oversee their return and help them resettle -- she fully intended it to be a civilian-centred enterprise, government insiders said. She wanted to make sure that the government, rather than the military, play the lead role.

She appealed to the nation to support the initiative. And Myanmar's business community -- including many of the country's infamous tycoons -- has rallied to her side.

Under the umbrella of the independent business association -- the Union of Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry -- the businessmen pledged more than US$13 million (431.9 million baht) for economic projects in violence-prone Rakhine state.

Nine working groups were formed to carry out the government's plans as part of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, announced by the State Counsellor 10 days ago.

These groups will focus on key areas: infrastructure, livestock and fisheries livelihood programmes, implementation of the planned economic zones, information and public relations, the creation of job opportunities, providing vocational training health care, micro loans, and boosting the tourism sector. The businessmen announced their plans last weekend after meeting Ms Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw.

Ms Suu Kyi's strategy hides one of the underlying issues in this crisis: the tussle for control between the civilian government and the military.

Her overriding concern has been to ensure that the government plays the main role is solving the problems in Rakhine, and not the military commander: though the army will provide security.

Ever since the first outbreak of violence in Rakhine last October, when the previously unknown ARSA attacked a number of border posts killing nine policemen, the State Counselor has resisted the military's attempts to militarise the conflict.

The army commander has continued to urge the civilian government to declare a "state of emergency" in the state that would give the military a free hand to deal with security in Rakhine. Ms Suu Kyi has continuously resisted this demand, according to sources close to her.

Last month she cancelled a trip to the UN suddenly because she feared that vice president, Myint Swe -- the military's appointee -- would declare a state of emergency in Rakhine, as he would have been in charge of the government in her absence.

At that time President Htin Kyaw was indisposed because of medical treatment.

At the same time Ms Suu Kyi has resisted attempts by human rights groups, the UN and the international community to condemn the military's actions. This, she has done, in an effort to keep the military on side.

"She feels inflammatory responses would make things worse and could harm the whole peace process and democracy," one of Ms Suu Kyi's close confidants told the Bangkok Post. The UN wants Myanmar to abrogate sovereignty, and has actually delayed the solution, he added.

But this strategy has also been to no avail, as she has increasingly alienated the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

"Mistrust of Aung San Suu Kyi is growing within the military, not just between her and Min Aung Hlaing but the army as a whole" according to a senior retired military officer close to the army commander.

The international community's recent consideration of imposing renewed sanctions -- at least against the military -- because of the Rakhine situation, has exacerbated the situation.

"They [the army] now believe she [Suu Kyi] is a sabotage agent," said the retired army officer. The international criticism of their (military) operations in Rakhine and the growing pressure for sanctions is viewed as a "UK-US conspiracy", orchestrated behind the scenes by Ms Suu Kyi.

There is a growing belief within the army that they are under siege. This is an ominous development, for if they feel that Ms Suu Kyi cannot protect them from international condemnation and sanctions, they may feel they have no other option but to launch an administrative coup, which is possible under the military-written constitution of 2008.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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