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"The Downward Spiral of Violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar" by Su-Ann Oh

2017/53, 31 August 2017

Tensions in western Rakhine State, Myanmar have escalated to a potential tipping point. This past weekend, 30 police posts and an army base were attacked by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), resulting in the death of more than 100 people, mostly militants. This comes on the heels of a spate of militant-initiated killings and attacks that began in October 2016, against a backdrop pf decades of state and military suppression of separatism and communal violence.

Since then, the pattern of violence has been as follows.

First, the rate of targeted killings of mostly Muslim civilians perceived as collaborating with the security services or local government has risen. It is estimated that over 50 people have either been murdered or abducted between October 2016 and the end of July 2017.

Second, although the killings originally targeted Muslims, the number of non-Muslims being attacked has increased. For example, in August, six Buddhist farmers were killed, two others were abducted, and six members of a Hindu family were shot dead in Maungdaw.

Third, these incidents began in Maungdaw township in late 2016 but have now spread to adjacent townships of Rakhine State such as Buthidaung and Rathedaung.

These assaults have provoked fear in the general populace. Many have fled to township centres while others have devised their own security measures, such as blockading Muslims. Some have sought reprisals by attacking Muslims living in their vicinity. In summary, the militant violence has provoked further inter-communal violence. After this weekend’s incident, 90 000 Muslim Rohingya, or Bengali as referred to by the local population, were reported to have fled to Bangladesh although many were refused entry. At least 4000 non-Muslims have been evacuated from northwest Rakhine State by the government.

This hornet’s nest will be difficult to resolve because of divergent views and the history of secessionism and communal violence in Rakhine State. Rakhine locals and their leaders, Myanmar citizens, and the military perceive this as an issue of citizenship: some groups of Muslims in Rakhine State are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh whose legal status should be verified according to the 1982 Citizenship Law. In addition, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government have identified poverty and underdevelopment as one of the main structural causes of inter-communal violence. This is evidenced by the establishment of the Kofi Annan Rakhine Advisory Commission to “consider humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of the people of Rakhine” in August 2016. Last Thursday, the commission recommended that the government end the enforced segregation of Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims and the restrictions on freedom of movement, deal with Rohingya statelessness and revisit the 1982 Citizenship Law, and hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, among other recommendations.

At present, stopping the spiral of violence is the priority. The NLD government has agreed to implement the commission’s recommendations but faces opposition from the army and the general populace. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing questioned the commission’s accuracy and impartiality and has been pushing for the militarization of Rakhine State, including the declaration of a state of emergency. Military intervention may halt the bloodshed in the short term but ensuring the long-term peace of Rakhine State will require a multi-pronged approach and dedicated solutions.

Dr Su-Ann Oh is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission