from Asia Unbound

Instability Rising Again in Western Myanmar

October 20, 2016

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Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, has been rocked by violence over the past five years. As the Myanmar government transitioned from a military junta to a quasi-civilian regime and, now, to a government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), gangs and paramilitaries have repeatedly attacked Rohingya communities. Over 140,000 Rohingya have been driven from their homes in Rakhine State, with many winding up in camps that are little more than barren internment centers. Their homes have been taken over, making it unlikely they could ever return. The violence has been part of a broader rise in anti-Muslim sentiment that has swept through Myanmar since the early 2010s. This violence has included firebombings and other attacks on Muslim-owned stores, mosques, and other sites throughout the country.

In my article for the Washington Monthly earlier this year, I outlined the vast devastation wreaked upon western Myanmar. Earlier this year, there was some hope that the NLD-led government, which had mostly ignored the violence in western Myanmar during its campaign in 2015, was starting to take proactive steps to foster reconciliation in the west and find some lasting solution that would address the disenfranchisement and brutality against Rohingya. On the campaign trail last year, Aung San Suu Kyi regularly dismissed concerns about the unrest and abuses in Rakhine State. Then, this past summer, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government appointed a commission, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to assess the situation in Rakhine State. The commission could possibly write recommendations for fostering reconciliation, the restoration of human rights, and development in western Myanmar. The establishment of the commission was widely praised by international rights groups and organizations working with the Rohingya.

But now, the situation in western Myanmar appears to be further deteriorating, in what is surely Rohingya advocates’ worst nightmare. On October 9, someone launched assaults on border police posts in Rakhine State, and since then the security forces have reportedly waged a fierce campaign in Rakhine State, although it remains unclear who they are fighting. Still, the government Monday told Myanmar reporters that at least thirty people had been killed in fighting in Rakhine State since October 9, and some Rohingya organizations claim that security forces and other actors in Rakhine State also have started forcing Rohingya from their homes, detaining groups of Rohingya, and burning down houses. These claims---both the number killed since October 9 and the reports of detentions---remain unverified

Still, some Myanmar government officials and foreign observers are speculating that groups of Rohingya, furious at their mistreatment over the past five years, are now going to take up arms against local police, security forces, and other officials---and that the October 9 attacks were the first blow in the battle. Yet Rohingya militant groups that have been mentioned by the Myanmar authorities as linked to the October 9 attacks have no prior track record, and several Myanmar experts who focus on Rakhine State had never heard of these organizations. In reality, every Myanmar official I spoke with admitted that they had little information about these supposed organizations---and that they were unsure if these organizations existed at all. Some apparent groups of Rohingya have posted videos on social media in the past two weeks, celebrating the October 9 attacks and calling for a battle in Rakhine State, but it remains unclear who these posters are or whether they really have any connection to the past two weeks’ worth of violence.

Nonetheless, violent attacks by Rohingya in western Myanmar would not only undermine the Rohingyas’ international standing but also possibly undermine the work of the Annan commission. A spate of violent attacks by Rohingya militants could give the government and local security forces the pretext to attack back, using further tactics like burning homes and forcing Rohingya into internment camps. Moreover, a deteriorating security situation, particularly in northern Myanmar, has made it harder and harder for aid workers to get food and other essentials to civilians on the ground there. According to a new article in the New York Times, the UN World Food Program and other aid agencies are unable to move food to some parts of northern Rakhine due to the closure of some roads after October 9 and the temporary bans on movement to several areas. The World Food Program has had deliveries into parts of Rakhine State. The situation in western Myanmar once again looks very grim.