Rakhine engagement must be based on facts

Rakhine engagement must be based on facts

A Bangladeshi man helps Rohingya Muslim refugees to disembark from a boat on the Bangladeshi shoreline of the Naf River in Teknaf in 2017. (AFP photo)
A Bangladeshi man helps Rohingya Muslim refugees to disembark from a boat on the Bangladeshi shoreline of the Naf River in Teknaf in 2017. (AFP photo)

The Asean special summit on Myanmar's crisis in Jakarta on April 24 led to a five-point consensus that has received considerable international attention. But another important paragraph in the summit statement has largely been overlooked.

It deals with the situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state, and with the return of the Rohingya refugees who were forced to flee to Bangladesh when Myanmar's military conducted brutally violent campaigns against the civilian population in 2016 and 2017.

In the Jakarta statement, Asean "underscores the importance of Myanmar's continued efforts in addressing the situation in Rakhine state, including commencing the repatriation process" of the Rohingya.

Asean's decision begs the question of whether it was well-informed about the current situation in Rakhine state, and about the situation of the Rohingya in particular.

Since the February coup, the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military regime is called, has been trying to present itself as committed to the return of the Rohingya from Bangladesh, possibly to deflect attention from the calls to hold it accountable for crimes against humanity, including genocide.

Whatever the Tatmadaw's reasons may be, for the Rohingya the direct implication of the coup is that their fate is now in the hands of the same military that has been their brutal oppressor for decades. It is important that Asean considers carefully what the current situation means for Rakhine state's ethnically diverse population, including the Rohingya.

Rakhine is in flux. After close to two years of the most bitter and prolonged fighting Myanmar has seen for decades, the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA) agreed to a temporary truce in November 2020. Since then, the state has been relatively peaceful, but the lull in fighting is deceptive. The fragile peace might soon be disrupted.

In the months following the November election, the interests of both the AA and the Arakan National Party (ANP), the state's largest political party, converged with those of the Tatmadaw.

Immediately after the coup, the ANP -- a political party in Myanmar representing the interests of the Rakhine people in Rakhine state and Yangon region, announced its support for the regime in Nay Pyi Taw. The decision of the ANP was unpopular among many who had barely recovered from the violent conflict that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.

The relative calm in Rakhine came about as a result of a temporary convergence of convenience. It gave the Tatmadaw space to open fronts elsewhere in Myanmar while giving the ANP and the AA time to plan their next steps.

The AA, in particular, has made effective use of this opportunity. It has made considerable strides with the formalisation of civilian governance functions across Rakhine state, with a focus on rural areas. It has strengthened local administration, judiciary and security functions as well as tax collection, mobilisation and communication. These efforts to put down roots serve the AA's ultimate goal: an autonomous Rakhine state. They also show that the military regime is unable to assert its authority, particularly in rural areas.

Even though the AA committed itself to a truce in Rakhine state, several weeks after the coup it joined other ethnic armed organisations along Myanmar's eastern border in their fight against the Tatmadaw. Although this may come across as a contradiction, it made sense for the AA. In Rakhine, it had secured the lull in fighting it needed, while it has now also signalled its continued solidarity with other ethnic armed organisations.

By early May, the ANP started to waiver, nevertheless. Its support for the military regime had not delivered the benefits it had expected, and it suspended its cooperation. While this suspension has not yet been turned into a formal termination, this decision is a blow to the regime. With the ANP on its side, it enjoyed at least some legitimacy.

With the convergence of interests of the Tatmadaw and the AA and ANP ending, Rakhine state must now prepare for the return of instability and violent conflict. Asean should have seen this coming.

The Tatmadaw has, reportedly, started to revitalise Rakhine militia groups, particularly in southern Rakhine state. Similar groups played a significant role during the violent campaign that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017. The remobilisation of such groups in 2021 confirms that the Tatmadaw sees its truce with the AA as finite.

The high risk of a return to violence in Rakhine state raises questions about Asean's desire to expedite the return of the Rohingya. Approximately one million are in Bangladesh, while half a million have remained in Rakhine.

Little has changed for the latter group. Since 2017, neither the civilian government nor the military has addressed the dire situation of the Rohingya. Enforced ethnic segregation, or apartheid -- a crime against humanity -- remains in place and freedom of movement is highly restricted. It is clear that the conditions for the return of the Rohingya in Bangladesh remain highly precarious, while the prospects for safe and sustainable voluntary returns have actually declined since the coup.

In short, Asean should realise that given this appalling situation, at this point returns from Bangladesh cannot be a serious option. It would perpetuate the "revolving-door" practice witnessed since the late 1970s, with the Rohingya driven out of Rakhine, being returned from Bangladesh to Rakhine against their will, only to be forced to flee again several years later.

In Bangladesh, the conditions for the refugees continue to deteriorate. According to Fortify Rights, 86 fires broke out in the camps between January and April of this year, threatening the already vulnerable and traumatised population. The high death toll, particularly among children and elderly persons, is attributed, in part, to the barbed-wire fencing erected by Bangladesh. It has severely restricted the Rohingya's freedom of movement.

The immediate future looks bleak, but a promising development is the gradually changing, inspired by Myanmar's civil disobedience movement, that supports a narrative of inclusive ethnicity and identity. Younger generations are speaking out against the discrimination of minorities. Such debates should be championed across Myanmar, particularly also by the National Unity Government (NUG).

Even before the February coup, in Rakhine state an ethnically diverse group of Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities issued a "Declaration by the Diverse and United Communities of Arakan", intended to guide them in their joint efforts to achieve peace, stability, development and equal rights for all in Rakhine state. They recognise that the earlier fear of "others" was the deliberate outcome of the Tatmadaw's divide-and-rule policies, and they chart a constructive way forward.

The NUG should use such efforts to develop a policy framework for positive diversity. It should also announce the composition of the National Unity Consultative Council, a platform representing other democratic forces in Myanmar, with whom it should discuss and shape its strategies going forward. The much-delayed appointment announcement will hopefully include a representative of the Rohingya. As the ethnic group that has suffered more than any other, and as the world's largest stateless group, their voice deserves to be heard.

Asean should take the current developments into account as it charts a way forward for Rakhine state. It should also realise that for the successful involvement of its Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response, its mandate should be broadened beyond humanitarian assistance, and its human and other resources dramatically increased.

The situation in Rakhine is defined by its political and human rights crisis. Not recognising that would go against the "do no harm" principle.

Laetitia van den Assum is a former Dutch ambassador and also a former member of the Rakhine Advisory Commission. Kobsak Chutikul is a retired ambassador of Thailand and a former elected member of parliament.

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