Ceasefire in Myanmar’s Rakhine conflict: Prospects for peace or false dawn?

Photo: Go-Myanmar.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army appear on the verge of establishing a ceasefire after over two years of intense fighting. For supporters of Myanmar’s peace process, it’s worth examining how and why the two sides have moved towards dialogue.

Editorial

After over two years of fighting and at-times intense clashes, a tentative resolution may be in sight for Myanmar’s high-profile civil war in Rakhine State.

On December 9, representatives of the Myanmar military and Arakan Army (AA) met in person to discuss the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire. Since November 2018, fighting in northern Rakhine State and neighboring Paletwa Township in Chin State has displaced over 236,000 people.

The area has now seen no clashes in over a month, after the AA called on the Myanmar military to allow elections in areas of Rakhine State where voting for the country’s recent general election had been canceled.

Map showing areas of conflict in Myanmar since 1995. Credit: CentreLeftRight, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar’s general elections on November 8 saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party retain power in a landslide victory. In much of Rakhine State, however, as well as parts of Shan, Kachin, Karen and Mon states and Bago Region, election authorities canceled voting, citing security reasons. The move effectively disenfranchised around 1.2 million people in Rakhine, or 73% of voters in the state, but it is not without precedent—many of the constituencies affected also saw voting canceled ahead of the country’s last election in 2015.

In a November 12 letter, the AA offered to cease hostilities and help coordinate the additional voting before December 31 and the Myanmar military and government welcomed the move. 

“The situation can get worse if there is no space for politics and democracy,” said AA spokesperson Khaing Thuka. “To avoid fiercer clashes, dialogue is the best solution. Only political dialogue will solve political problems.”

The Myanmar military continues its conflicts with many ethnic armed groups elsewhere in the country and the dialogue with the AA—whether it succeeds or not—may offer important signals as to the military’s current stance on peace negotiations. As recently as December 7, two ethnic armed groups in Shan State—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS)—fought over territory in Namtu Township. The RCSS is a signatory of Myanmar’s 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement; the TNLA is not.

Tentative dialogue begins between AA and Myanmar military

The two sides then met virtually on November 25, when representatives discussed how to get food and medical supplies to civilians in conflict areas as well as the issue of holding elections. 

Any polls will face the challenge of Myanmar’s ongoing “second wave” of COVID-19, as Rakhine State remains one of the hardest-hit areas in the country after Yangon. Efforts to contain the outbreak and support those affected have been severely hampered by the conflict in Rakhine, according to reports by the Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Committee.

Despite the possibility of a ceasefire, the Myanmar military has treated the AA conflict differently from other conflicts with ethnic armed groups in the country and this remains a barrier to peace negotiations. On December 1, the Myanmar military extended a unilateral ceasefire which has been in place for months. The ceasefire applies to all areas of the country except for Rakhine State and southern Chin State; the Myanmar government and military declared the AA to be a terrorist group in March and the military’s ceasefire excludes areas controlled by terrorist groups.

“Political conflicts are the cause of the fighting in Rakhine State,” Ann Thar Gyi, a resident of Minbya township who works with displaced people, told The Irrawaddy. “I want to see political issues solved at the table and not by military means.”

U Tun Aung Kyaw, a representative of the Arakan National Party’s Central Executive Committee, voiced support for the talks.

“The fact that the two sides have held talks on a ceasefire in consideration of public interests is good for Rakhine State,” U Tun Aung Kyaw told The Irrawaddy. “I hope they will be able to meet around a table and successfully solve the problems through political means.”

Talks begin over Rakhine conflict despite stalled peace process elsewhere

For supporters of Myanmar’s peace process, the emerging dialogue between the AA and the military may offer lessons on how to put a hold on hostilities in light of shared goals. The country’s beleaguered peace process has been a key focus of criticism of the NLD.

As independent Myanmar analyst David Scott Mathieson said recently, “The peace process has been one of the most glaring disasters of the NLD, failing to be all-inclusive of groups outside the now-discredited Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement…with international donors pitchforking lavish funding into a non-performing process.”

As in the past, third parties appear to be key to opening up new possibilities for dialogue. Japan’s special envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa, is playing a role in the developing negotiations and has worked closely with military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who reportedly asked him for help. Ethnic leaders have also welcomed Japan’s involvement, according to recent reports. Notably, Japan has expressed support for Myanmar during the ongoing genocide proceedings at the International Court of Justice.

Maungdaw, Myanmar. Photo: mohigan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though there have been no clashes between the AA and the military, a landmine blast in Maungdaw on November 17 killed three civilians and injured six. The military claimed that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was behind the explosion but the group denied involvement. 

In August 2017, the Myanmar military responded to a series of ARSA attacks by launching genocidal “clearance operations” in Rakhine that pushed over 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. Despite the bombing, Rakhine’s conflict areas now appear to be more stable than any time in the past two years.

As far as measures to support those impacted by the AA conflict, the Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Team has suggested cash transfers for displaced families as well as channeling financial support through local community organizations who can purchase supplies for those in need.

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