Plagued by terror: why clashes in Rakhine require urgent action

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikimedia Commons

Clashes in Rakhine State again underline the need to tackle the situation of ethnic groups in Myanmar before the lure of bloody retaliation grows too appealing. 

By Tan Zhi Xin

On the quiet morning of 9 October, 300 armed assailants attacked three posts along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. By 13 October, a total of 43 people had been killed, including 30 attackers and 13 security personnel.

According to the government press release on the incident, the attacks in Maungdaw Township were carried out by Aqa Mul Mujahidin – an organisation affiliated with the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). The attacks were described as systematically planned over a long period of time.

The Rakhine state of Myanmar is home to more than 80% of the country’s Muslim ethnic, or Rohingya group. And while the area has been prone to spontaneous bouts of violence such as in 2012; in general, these people have managed periods of coexisting with the Buddhist ethnic Rakhine. But as this attack shows; the nature of the conflict has changed.

Ethno-religious conflict 

The recent attack is a radical departure from the previous violent incidents staged, some say, by a minority that says it is fighting for its rights. But U Zaw Htay, deputy director general of the President’s Office and former spokesperson for President U Thein Sein, referred to the militants as “terrorists” – even before the authorities could confirm the organisation responsible.

“According to the findings of the interrogations, the attacks in Maungdaw were intended to promote extremist violent ideology among the majority Muslim population in the area,” the statement said. The ringleader, Havistoohar, is depicted as a social extremist that has trained with the Taliban in Pakistan.

In August, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi invited former United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, to head a commission on Rakhine state. This group is responsible for investigating “decades of discrimination against minorities in Rakhine state, ensure accountability, recommend reparations, and lead efforts at reconciliation”, according to Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.

Yet, while the commission appears to be the most significant effort by the Myanmar government to address human rights violations in history, in reality, it will remain very much a toothless tiger. “We are not here to do a human rights investigation or to write a human rights report … I hope our recommendations will be helpful as we intend to reduce tension and support development,” confirmed Annan.

To make matters worse, access to the area is heavily restricted. Even the Rakhine parliament has passed a resolution condemning the group’s work. As such, it adds little to no value in improving the situation in Rakhine.

In fact, even when Aung San Suu Kyi held the 21st century Panglong conference this August in an attempt to build nationwide peace, it was clearly stated that the conference would not address the issues of the so-called Rohingya because they are not legally recognised as an ethnic group in Myanmar.

Need for urgency?

But legally recognised or not, it is clear that just six months into her tenure, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government are facing their greatest challenge in responding to the “most persecuted ethnic group.” As Djamin said, a commission is not what is needed to restore rights and dignity, but lifting restrictions is. That means the first step to restore peace in the country is to address oppression.

“Myanmar is a new democracy, its institutions aren’t that strong, it has a number of other ethnic battles up on its north-eastern border and elsewhere, and this will make life a lot more complicated for the government. And one thing that we do really worry about is that it will provoke a backlash against Muslims, not just in Rakhine State, but across Myanmar.”

Although the Rohingya claim that they do not accept terrorism as a legitimate action,  their continued oppression – coupled with the grim reality they are already facing – can only make radical measures more appealing. This is especially pressing considering the global trend of terrorism and the relative simplicity of radicalising grieving populations along religious lines.

There is an urgent need for the government to address the oppression of the Rohingya group, regardless of their origins. And not even for them but the good of the entire country. Failure to do so is likely to provoke more violence and instability.