Myanmar: The other Rakhine state problem

Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/CC BY 2.0

While the wider world has focused on the issue of the displaced Rohingya people – a term which the majority Buddhist-Burmese population of Myanmar do not recognie – another recurring conflict in the Rakhine state of Myanmar has been brewing trouble for the new National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Likewise, it is proving to be a test for the credibility and mettle of the new government. And two issues are in fact linked.

Since the beginning of the year, Rakhine state – otherwise also known as Arakan state – has witnessed armed hostilities between the army of Myanmar and an armed ethnic group which calls itself the Arakan Army. The conflict has been estimated displaced thousands in the northern townships of Rakhine state.

National parliamentarians from the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the Buddhist Arakanese majority population in Rakhine state, have called for the Arakan Army to be included in the multilateral peace negotiations between the government, the army of Myanmar and other ethnic armed groups.

However, the generals of Myanmar – the erstwhile rivals of Aung San Suu Kyi – are still resolved to defeat them militarily.

Rakhine state is a strip of land lying along the Bay of Bengal, in the west of Myanmar. It is one of the most conflict prone regions of Myanmar, besides the conflict involving the state’s majority Buddhist-Arakanese people and the Rohingyas – which most Buddhist-Burmese regard as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The backdrop to this is the shift in national politics in Myanmar – ironically the democratisation of the country and the coming to power of Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD.

Relations between the Arakan National Party and the now-ruling NLD of Ms Suu Kyi deteriorated, after the NLD said it would choose an NLD politician to be chief minister of Rakhine state.

This announced decision was taken despite the Arakan National Party having won most seats in the Rakhine state legislature. The communal conflict in Rakhine state presents a lot of vulnerability for the NLD government, especially given the nationalist rhetoric and perception that the NLD are too sympathetic to Muslim Rohingyas.

More recently in early June, it was announced that Ms Suu Kyi would chair a newly established high-level committee on Rakhine state, representing a change in line for NLD government and MS Suu Kyi. Until then, they were perceived largely to be playing down the magnitude of the Rakhine state conflict, despite pressure from the international community.

Although the exact mandate and mission of the Central Committee for Arakan State Peace, Stability and Development – as the committee is known – has yet to be clarified, it is believed that it would look at issues of resettling internally displaced persons along with social development. It would also coordinate the activities of United Nations agencies and other such international nongovernmental organizations which are working in Rakhine state.

The national army of Myanmar and the Arakan Army had fought earlier this month too, near Rathedaung Township’s Kharu Chaung and Rakaung Chaung villages in Arakan State. No casualties were reported though.

Wai Hun Aung, of the Wunlark Development Foundation, said that it took upward of an hour for the fighting to fully cease but that it was less serious as previous incidents of conflict.

He said that the residents of the village had already fled because of previous skirmishes between the national army of Myanmar and the Arakan Army.

The Rakhine state government and local civil society organisations recently collaborated to secure emergency response and humanitarian assistance for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Rathedaung Township’s villages, having built 17 temporary tents in Rakaung Chaung, 30 in Pae Thadu, 64 in Rayso Chaung and 20 in Kyauktan.

More than 2,000 villagers are housed in temporary camps in Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung and Mrauk-U townships in Rakhine state.

AA Col Nyo Twan Awng confirmed the fighting on Sunday, noting that this particular area is especially prone to conflict since both sides operate in the vicinity. Recently, fighting broke out unexpectedly when the two armed groups were discovered to be patrolling the same territory.

Myanmar President Htin Kyaw’s appointed chief peace negotiator for the conflict, Tin Myo Win, convened a delegation to restart the negotiations with armed groups that did not sign – nor were invited to – the nationwide ceasefire agreement of 2015. This reportedly include the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

The three armed ethnic groups are working with the new NLD government to arrange for talks. Colonel Nyo Twan Aung referred to a “greeting” that would be taking place soon between the two sides.

“A greeting is better than no meeting—it’s like something is better than nothing,” the Arakan Army colonel told the media.

“Peace was at the top of the agenda, and it was a very popular goal in Burma. But despite several government attempts, peace was never realized, because their [government officials’] dishonesty prevented them from reaching this goal,” he added.