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“Rakhine State Politics a Major Barrier to Rohingya Return” by Gerard McCarthy

2018/106, 20 December 2018

More than a year after Myanmar military operations forced over 720,000 Rohingya people to Bangladesh, the prospects of the group returning remain dim. Various reports and analyses have unpacked the immense barriers to their repatriation. These include the Myanmar military’s insistence on a rigid ideology of indigeneity that excludes Rohingya along with the questionable implementation of plans for their genuine social and political integration by the civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Under-examined in discussions about the return of Rohingya refugees is the parlous state of provincial politics in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. Relations between Rakhine elites and national civilian and military decision-makers in Naypyitaw have worsened considerably since the November 2015 elections. Despite a recent breakthrough that has allowed Rakhine armed group the Arakan Army (AA) to participate in Myanmar’s peace process, these relations must be factored into any plans for Rohingya repatriation in the near future.

Rakhine people have long resented the national political dominance of Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority. Yet the current impasse in Rakhine State has its roots in the fallout from the 2015 elections. Despite Rakhine parties winning the bulk of non-military seats in the state and Union parliaments by promising greater autonomy for the state, Aung San Suu Kyi used the power vested by the 2008 Constitution to appoint a member of her own National League for Democracy to the chief ministership of the state.

The Arakan Army has taken full advantage of these and other perceived slights against provincial aspirations. Formed in 2009, AA has expanded significantly since 2012 with the support of the Kachin Independence Army and now boasts more than 3000 soldiers. Though the AA recruited many soldiers from among Rakhine people working on the dangerous slopes of jade and amber mines in Myanmar’s northern regions, the group has found widespread support from among Rakhine youth over the past two years. Despite family ties between Rakhine State Parliamentary Speaker U San Kyaw Hla and AA leader Tun Myat Naing, Rakhine political leaders interviewed in mid-2017 denied any formal links between the Arakan National Party and the insurgent group. However, they emphasised that the ANP and AA “walked together” to advance their common goal of Rakhine autonomy.

Even though the AA is evidently tapping a vein of sub-nationalist grievance, until an agreement reached in mid-December the Tatmadaw spent seven years excluding it from the peace process. AA ambushes on Tatmadaw forces in recent years subsequently claimed the lives of hundreds of Tatmadaw personnel, including senior officers – far more than the comparatively poorly organised raids on border outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that preceded the military’s brutal 2017 ‘clearance operations’ in Rohingya communities.

In early 2018 violence between the AA and the Tatmadaw spilled into the political sphere with the arrest and eventual charging of Arakan National Party leader Aye Maung and another activist on charges of ‘high treason’, a move that only solidified their image as ethnic heroes to many Rakhine people.

The recent agreement permitting the AA to participate in national peace negotiations could offer a chance for fruitful dialogue about Rakhine grievances and political reforms. Yet the virulent anti-Naypyitaw sentiment inflamed in recent years has come to undergird widespread opposition from Arakan elites and the grassroots toward the Union government’s plans to repatriate Rohingya from Bangladesh. While the AA has been careful not to target Rohingya villages, Rakhine political elites often frame the presence and planned return of Rohingya in Arakan as part of an ethnic Bamar strategy to ‘divide and rule’ Rakhine people by encouraging illegal migration from Bangladesh.

The circulation of these factually incorrect but symbolically powerful narratives speaks volumes about the dire constraints that the return and viable reintegration of Rohingya refugees into Rakhine State and Myanmar society at large face. Unless and until national level civilian and military leaders listen to the political grievances of ethnic communities, including Rakhine people, and enact federal reforms accordingly, durable solutions to the regional crisis of Rohingya displacement are likely to remain elusive.

Dr Gerard McCarthy is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak, Singapore, and Associate Director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University (ANU).

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.