Myanmar's Rakhine state teetering towards war
Rakhine state is descending into growing turmoil. Globally long associated primarily with the brutal oppression of the Rohingya, the much wider dimensions of Rakhine's troubles are now visible, including their international implications. Given their complexity, a broader perspective is badly needed to help bring about stability, development and prosperity for all Rakhine's people.
Governments around the world, but especially in the region, have a legitimate role to play in helping to find solutions. Rakhine lies at the crossroads of Asia and its stability, ethnic harmony and economic promise are important for both South Asia and Southeast Asia. As a matter of course, that includes Asean.
Moreover, its membership reflects a diversity similar to that of Rakhine state. It is to be hoped that in-depth discussions on this issue will be held at the Asean foreign ministers retreat in Vietnam this week.
Thus far, Asean's engagement has mostly focused on humanitarian aspects of refugee returns. Under the present circumstances, that is no longer sufficient. Humanitarian measures alone will not solve the complex conflict in Rakhine. And they risk entrenching it. Moreover, two and a half years of Chinese engagement have not yielded tangible results. Wider regional engagement is needed.
In 2019 the growing violent conflict between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw (the military) competed for a place in news largely dominated by the terrible plight of the Rohingya.
The AA, a military organisation of ethnic Rakhines founded in 2009, has had an active presence in the state since around 2014 but only started to manifest itself more prominently from late 2018 onwards. Now, just over one year later, much of Rakhine state resembles a war zone. The violent conflict has reached four out its five districts, including Kyaukphyu, the location China eyes for massive investment in a deep-sea port and a special economic zone, as part of the Belt and Road network initiated by President Xi Jinping who is visiting Myanmar this week, the first state visit of a Chinese president in almost 20 years.
The new violent conflict arrived in Rakhine as both domestic forces and geopolitical interests vied for what it has to offer: a strategic location at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, offshore wealth, land corridors to both India and China and access to the Andaman sea with its gradual build-up of competing naval capacity.
But as the violence spread and Rakhine state turned into a war zone, discussions about the safe and voluntary return from Bangladesh of hundreds of thousands Rohingya refugees continued as if nothing was happening, even though returning refugees to a war zone is not an option. With large swaths of northern and central Rakhine inaccessible to the media and independent observers, the heavy impact of prolonged fighting remained hidden for quite some time. Now, however, that can no longer be used as an excuse. It is clear that both the Tatmadaw and the AA are using the dry season to advance their positions.
The violence did not come from nowhere. Rakhine has long been neglected and poorly governed. Successive governments remained deaf to long-standing grievances about land issues and lack of revenue-sharing from major investments; Rakhine is now Myanmar's poorest state.
All major political decisions are taken in Nay Pyi Taw, not in Rakhine's capital Sittwe, and the military plays a dominant role on the ground. On Jan 4, Independence Day, the commander-in-chief accused ethnic armed group leaders of being selfish and added the naked threat that military solutions are unavoidable.
But 70 years of violent conflict have shown that there are no military solutions for Myanmar's problems. In 2017 this understanding lead the Rakhine Advisory Commission, chaired by the late Kofi Annan, to make recommendations for non-violent solutions to deal with the grievances and suffering of Rakhine state's diverse ethnic communities. Their central objective is the establishment of conditions in Rakhine state that will lead to a peaceful, fair, harmonious and prosperous future for all who call Rakhine state home.
Under the current circumstances this includes ensuring that conditions are in place for the safe, dignified and sustainable voluntary return of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. But discussions between Myanmar, Bangladesh and China appear to ignore that the situation on the ground has changed dramatically since 2018. It is no longer possible to discuss returns unless peace and stability return.
Asean's stated commitment from the Bangkok Summit in November is "the need to find a comprehensive and durable solution to address the root causes of the conflict and to create a conducive environment so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives".
What would it take to work towards this goal Asean has set for itself, in addition to the humanitarian efforts it already makes?
First, it should recognise that Rakhine state has three major crises and that the Rohingya refugee crisis is a product of all three: a security crisis, a development crisis and a human rights crisis. These should be addressed simultaneously. While Asean has focused on the humanitarian side, China has often said that "development will lift all boats". Others have tip-toed around the security crisis. All should acknowledge that unless all three are addressed, the problems will be entrenched even more deeply.
Secondly, institutions from Asean countries could assist with the development of approaches to overcome the persistent instability that prevents a return to the normalcy necessary to rebuild a harmonious and prosperous society. Asean has shown before that its own experience with ethnic and religious diversity can be put at the service of others.
Rakhine state has now been in crisis management mode for years, with almost all important decisions taken by the central government. Assisting Myanmar with the development of a comprehensive plan that brings together the interests of all stakeholders -- and particularly the state's people -- could be a major contribution. The widely accepted Annan recommendations could form the core of such a plan.
Thirdly, Asean, together with other major donors, should engage Bangladesh about the 1.1 million refugees on its territory. Several Asean members share Dhaka's experience of hosting Rohingya. The world owes all of them a debt of gratitude. But given the situation in Rakhine state they cannot yet return. Dialogue about additional support for the refugees and local communities is urgently needed. Medium to longer-term refugee populations require support that goes beyond emergency assistance.
Bangladesh, particularly as a a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), should be able to count on international support until safe and voluntary returns can take place. At the same time, however, Bangladesh itself should allow formal education for the more than 400,000 young Rohingya at risk of becoming a lost generation. It should also reconsider its internet blackout in the camps. In today's interconnected world a prolonged blackout is not a justifiable security measure; it is punishment that an already traumatised population does not deserve.
Laetitia van den Assum is a former Dutch ambassador and was a member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission (2016-2017). Kobsak Chutikul is a retired ambassador of Thailand and a former elected member of parliament.