Rakhine State Conflict Analysis August 2012

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Rakhine State Conflict Analysis August 2012
James Fennell MBE  — University of Birmingham, School of Government and Society, Emeritus, London, U.K. 

Between independence in 1948 and the coup d’état of 1962 there was a significant Muslim insurgency in Rakhine state, while most Muslims failed to achieve citizenship. During military rule force was used to contain the ethnopolitical genie in Rakhine in an ill-fitting bottle – at least partially – but in 2010 the bottle was uncorked once more in Rakhine state, and may be Burma more widely, with the onset of elections. It was the issuing of voter registration cards to Muslims which may well have created expectations that Muslims would be given full citizenship in due course, a process that alarmed “Rakhine” people and emboldened Muslims. These heightened tensions were probably the real trigger for violence in 2012.

And the issuing of these cards may have been part of a broader government strategy to ensure that “Rakhine” ethnic secessionists did not gain a majority in a state with important oil and gas resources. Whatever the causes, conflict in Rakhine in state has not been checked, and unless the ethnic foundations of Myanmar/Burma politics are diluted, Rakhine may yet become a harbinger of future racially motivated conflict across the country if the greater expectations of economic and political representation that all ethnicities will demand from the reform process are not met equitably.

The key conflict implications of these rules of the game for Myanmar/Burmaare:

  • Ethnopolitics is concerned with a spatial hierarchy of controlled access, to limit theterritorial expansion of rival peoples – especially to urban areas and areas which have access to resources;
  • Focuses political concerns on controlling demographic expansion; and
  • Thus controlled access, ruralisation, expulsions, denial of citizenship, expulsions and ultimately pogroms or even genocide become useful options for political action.

This analysis suggests that the creation of a political platform around promoting the idea of a universal de-ethicized set of citizenship rights and freedoms is urgently required. Bringing together the myriad separate peace processes under this banner could be an excellent start point, and one which the international community and programmes such as Pyoe Pin could help catalyze. A single overarching peace ‘umbrella’ under which the same rights and freedoms form the basis for each individual peace process could help both build longer term stability between ethnicities, and more importantly, create a broader Myanmar/Burma citizenship platform that can eventually take the place of the current patchwork of fragmented ethnic groups, and form the context in which parliamentary democracy might prove a more effective system for embracing political choice and competition.

Yet even in the context of concerted government, opposition and international will to bring about change, escaping its ethnopolitical past will be a difficult task for Burma/Myanmar. Ultimately government policy will need to place new emphasis on providing access to the universal benefits of the state. A focus on universal citizen benefits such as social insurance provision – perhaps learning from models elsewhere in Southeast Asia – and equality before the law may be good places to begin.

Finally, the political, economic and social dimensions of ethnic segregation in Myanmar/Burma and Rakhine state pose specific challenges to the DFID and British Council’s Pyoe Pin’s approach. In particular:

  1. On the face of it, the formation of community-based ‘user groups’ – a central tenet of the programme – has the potential to shift attention from a mobilised ethnic identity to shared economic or social identities as fellow citizens; and in so doing reduce the importance of ethnic distinctions by bringing diverse ethnic groups together around an issue of mutual concern. However, this is only likely to work in communities of mixed ethnicity, which were, until the 2012 forced expulsions, largely an urban phenomenon in Northern Rakhine state.
  2. Yet economic and social segregation has often been a component of the mobilisation of ethnic identity. In these situations user-groups may aggregate either side of pre-existing ethnically defined occupational or social boundaries, reinforcing separation and ethnically defined hierarchies.
  3. In the case of Muslims in Rakhine state, this may be further compounded by their absence of rights to citizenship. This means that de jure, much of Muslim economic activity and social participation is illegitimate, and recognition of these people’s economic activity or social welfare and protection requirements will require an initial acceptance of their right to full participation in the state – i.e. a resolution of the core short-term driver of conflict, which seems an impossible pre-condition for engagement at this point in time.
  4. As such, it is entirely possible that Muslim people may become “invisible” to the programme (as they are to all other forms of “legitimate” social and economic participation) – reinforcing an outcome that the denial of citizenship is designed to achieve throughout the mainstream social and economic milieu.
  5. Recent expulsions from urban areas is also having the effect of denying Muslims access to the limited informal livelihood opportunities and access to social services they have enjoyed up until 2012. Thus further exclusion from potential user groups may have been de facto achieved by spatially excluding Muslims from access to these value chains and services.
  6. Spatial segregation between Muslims in the border areas and the Rakhine population at large – exacerbated by recent expulsions – further ensures that user groups are likely to be defined along ethnic lines. Although there was some intermixing in urban areas before the recent clashes, villages in Northern Rakhine state are generally either Muslim or Rakhine – not both. Muslim districts in urban areas have been largely emptied during recent violence, and their populations displaced into rural ghettos.
  7. Finally, the programme relies upon building consent for reform in an increasingly permissive environment for economic and social liberalisation. Yet, recent conflict in Rakhine state has polarised opinion and further marginalised the Muslim community. In Rakhine state the environment for defusing ethnic distinctions is not permissive, and the door to ethnic liberalisation is not opening, but has been shut more firmly than before.

However, opportunities exist that can address these issues. These will most often not be community or village based, but working with user-groups that are not defined by residential areas, but based around meeting points – workplaces or market places – where Muslim and Rakhine people find economic co-dependence. A good example is the in the fisheries and mangrove sectors. Synergies between the Bangladeshi and Rakhine shrimp industry may be a good starting point where wider incentives for co-existence could be formed on the back of better terms of trade for elites. Similarly, concerns about the radicalisation of Islamic education may provide an entry point for Pyoe Pin’s informal education programme to address both monastic and Islamic schools in the state. Work with education could also help build a foundation upon which negotiations for a return of urban Muslim populations to their places of residence could begin in the future.

APPROACH AND METHODOLOGY  —   Conflict analysis and approaches to understanding fragility are not identical or  interchangeable. This analysis takes a political economy approach closely informed by historical and poststructuralist research into the origins and underpinnings of ethnonationalism. In particular the analysis examined a range of historical primary and secondary sources, and through interviews in London, Northern Rakhine and in Yangon triangulated these insights with first-hand accounts from international, Arakanese (both Muslim and Buddhist) and Burmese politicians, religious leaders, journalists, academics, aid workers, policemen, traders, fishing folk and farmers. Visits were made to both Muslim and Rakhine settlements in Northern Rakhine in the immediate aftermath of the first outbreak of violence in 2012. In particular the analysis investigates the perceptions and narrative descriptions of the participants and onlookers to violence, and how they understand the background to and events that led to crisis in2012.

Identifying the drivers of conflict therefore has to be accompanied with work to identify the drivers of consensus building. The analysis examines how Pyoe Pin can encourage the drivers of peace, though recognizing that donor programmes and Pyoe Pin’s vision will not fundamentally change the course of history. History is made by local and regional actors and is probably unpredictable. Yet outsiders can help most by being principled, flexible, open to changing realities and ready to support localized solutions. The analysis proceeds by:

  1. Establishing immutable structural factors that determine the particular context (“terrain”) in which conflict takes place
  2. Understanding “the rules of the game” as they relate to the political economy of conflict in northern Rakhine state, and where they are contested;
  3. Understanding the political events that led directly to conflict in 2012 – and gauging the effects of the actions of influential political actors; and,
  4. Identifying recommendations for both Pyoe Pin and the wider international community to build incentives for peaceful political evolution in Rakhine and Myanmar/Burma more broadly.

TERMS OF REFERENCE — The Terms of Reference sets out four objectives for the assessment :

  1. An analysis of the conflict, describing what happened, and providing both immediate and longer-term (including structural) explanations, and an assessment of current tensions and immediate and longer-term prospects for resolution;
  2. On the basis of this, an assessment provided of each of Pyoe Pin’s current and proposed IBP interventions – each assessment will provide both a risk analysis of the project in the environment of the conflict, as well as the prospects for it to lead to conflict resolving results;
  3. Proposals for how each existing project (or shortly to commence project) might be modified in order to reduce risks and to enhance the prospects for contributing to conflict resolution/management – the option to put each project on hold until such time as the risks have reduced should be considered;
  • In particular with respect to the recently approved Fisheries Project– intended in collaboration with LIFT – how might the criteria for selection of villages be modified, and is appropriate village selection likely to derail the project or actually raise its potential to help reduce conflict – what should be the way forward;

Proposals for additional issues, together with justifications, which might offer positive conflict resolution/management opportunities, through which Pyoe Pin could provide assistance.

A NOTE ON LANGUAGE AND TERMINOLOGY — Language is a key issue in the ethnopolitical worldview. The words used to describe different peoples and territories in particular are themselves politicized. Each ethnic claimant uses or creates their own language to enhance that claim. The fact that the analyst is required to choose whether to call this country either Burma or Myanmar – where each term suggests a political perspective – tells the informed researcher that this country is a  contested ethnopolitical space. Similarly, the use of the terms Magh, Arakanese or Rakhine for the Buddhist population, Rohingya, Bengali or Arakanese Muslim for the state’s Muslims and Arakan or Rakhine for the state itself are all political signposts to different viewpoints in the world of ethnic politics. The analyst is literally made speechless if they attempt to take another worldview.

PRE-COLONIAL PERCEPTIONS : Present-day Burmese scholar Aye Chan believes that the Muslims in the Arakan State can be divided into four different groups, namely “Chittagonians on the Mayu Frontier; the descendants of the Muslim Community of Arakan in the Mrauk-U period (1430-1784), presently living in the Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships; the descendants of Muslim mercenaries in Ramree Island known to the Arakanese as Kaman; and the Muslims from the Myedu area of Central Burma, left behind by the Burmese invaders in Sandoway District after the conquest of Arakan in 1784”4.

Of these groups the greatest historical confusion is over the origins the Muslims of the border areas. It is well known that British colonists brought labour from Bengal to the Akyab peninsula (now Sittwe area), to develop a rice production industry from the late 19th century.

It is much less clear whether the Muslim population of the Maungdaw (Nef valley) and Buthidaung (Mayu valley) areas were all brought to these valleys as migrant labour by the British, or represent a wider Muslim community which sought refuge in this region from other parts of Myanmar/Burma and Arakan during the Japanese occupation, or are recent migrants from Bengal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh (as government and “Rakhine” nationalists have claimed) or were indigenous to the border areas in pre-colonial times. The following section will attempt to understand the pre-colonial and colonial structures that forged the peoples of modern day Rakhine state.

The View from Arakan — We know from scholarship and historical records that there were strong south Asian influenced Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms in the Arakan from ancient times – and that the border between Arakan and Bengal shifted with the tides of war. We also know that Muslim Bengali and Buddhist Arakanese dynasties collaborated in the face of rising Burman and Mon power in southern Myanmar/Burma. This led to cultural exchange and peoples from both Buddhist and Muslim traditions’ settling in each other’s heartlands. For example, Aye Chan states that “King Min Saw Mon, the founder of Mrauk-U Dynasty (1430-1784) regained the throne with the military assistance of the Sultan of Bengal, after twenty-four years of exile in Bengal, his Bengali retinues were allowed to settle down in the outskirts of Mrauk-U, where they built the well-known Santikan mosque”5. Indeed, the Mrauk-U kings adopted some Muslim fashions, such as minting coins that bore their Muslim titles in Persian (the language of the Moghul Dynasties), and even adopting Muslim dress6. “Collaboration” with Portuguese pirates (more likely the Arakanese Kings had no option) also brought Muslim slaves to the Arakan.

In 1662-3 the Persian historian Shiahabuddin Talish noted that the Arakanese employed all of their Muslim prisoners in agriculture and other kinds of services. Talish also noted of neighbouring Assam that “Muslims who were taken prisoner in former times and have chosen to marry here … have nothing of Islam except name, their hearts are inclined more to mingling with the Assamese than towards association with Muslims7, and one can expect, and indeed see from the shared physical features and language, that the Myanmar border populations – whether Buddhist or Muslim – are historically and biologically intertwined, and share the same language and many customs to this day.

Furthermore, during the four decades of Burmese rule in Arakan (1784-1824), many Arakanese fled to British occupied Bengal. According to the records of the British East India Company, about 35,000 Arakanese fled to Chittagong District to seek protection in 1799. 8 Many of these Arakanese took up permanent residence in Bengal.

Perhaps more importantly, Burmese actions and world views seem to imply a more assimilated and supportive relationship between faith communities in the border areas at that time – with conflict confined to elite dynasties and not among the “peoples” of Bengal and Arakan, who had learned to co-exist and often relied upon one another in times of strife.

Since ethnopolitics ensures that the current conflict is primarily contested on evidence of the absolute boundaries of legitimate occupation by Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim peoples, historical texts that describe territorial occupation are important. Maps are key texts in illuminating how people understand their spatial world, or that of others. Figure 1 illustrates how the people of Myanmar viewed their universe in the period immediately prior to British colonization in the 19th century. It’s a pre-modern world vision, not dissimilar to the German world map of 1581 (Figure 2) included for comparison, in that it locates the place of God on earth (Mount Meru for Buddhists and Jerusalem for Christians) at the centre of the universe, and arranges the remainder of creation not in measurable absolute alignment, but in terms of its relative spiritual symmetry. What is clear is that the Burmese map makers thought that the ethnic, linguistic, territorial and political dimensions of the universe where much less important than the spiritual terrain through which life is experienced. In premodern times conflicts were about control of souls and spiritual spaces much more than “peoples” or the territory they occupied (in European terms the Crusades, Thirty Years War and English Civil Wars are good examples).

Pre-Colonial European Interpretations —   As a modernizing science and philosophy took root in the west, European maps began to become more concerned with absolute navigable space, people and territories, and it is these texts that provide the earliest spatial indications of the location of different dynasties and ethnic groups in Myanmar/Burma. Yet these sources are themselves unreliable as they are based on limited and often ill-informed experience of the cultures they map. What is clear from the European maps from 16th to 18th Centuries is that they regarded the border between Arakan and Bengal as either blurred or beginning somewhere close to the Akyab peninsula – south of the Nef and Mayu valleys (Figures 3, 4, 6).

By the 16th century the economic, scientific and philosophical drivers that would ignite the European enlightenment were beginning to be put in place. Map making was central to maritime navigation and overseas trade, which was becoming the lynchpin of the Western European economy. Yet ideas of biology as more important than spirituality in defining the human condition had yet to take hold. Nevertheless, Figures 3, 4 and 6 demonstrate that European cartographers had begun using ethno-geographical names for the region where Myanmar/Burma and India intersect.

 In 1561 they seemed not to be able to distinguish any different peoples between Bengal and the “Brama” (Burman) and Pegu peoples. By 1729, the renowned Dutch cartographer Herman Moll continues to use the term Bengal for the Moghul controlled region to the north of present day Sittwe and beyond that only recognizes the Ava Kingdom – for what looks to be present day Rakhine State, and relocates the Brama (Burman) and Pegu peoples towards the delta. By 1764 a clear region called Arakan has been defined between Bengal and Ava, although the Arakanese border with Bengal appears to overlap considerably. Indeed, as late as 1970 US army cartographers failed to recognize either Arakanese or Muslims as separate ethnic groups within Myanmar/Burma (Figure 9).

What is clear from both pre-colonial indigenous sources and European and Moghul maps and commentaries, is that there was little political or economic concern about the absolute extension of Muslim or Buddhist “peoples”, rather more a concern for which ruling elite – Arakan, Moghul, Ava or Burman – held sway over those populations. As in Europe, prenationalist Asian states were defined by the extent of elite rule, rather than the ethnolinguistic make up of their subject peoples. There is also strong evidence of a degree of cultural intermixing in the borders areas, at both the general population and elite levels, and

if anything, the Arakan Kingdom was more reliant upon political support and economic ties with Bengal to the north – for military support to hold off Burman expansion and as a refuge – than in conflict with Bengal over territorial or spiritual hegemony.

CONCLUSIONS —  Census data shows that while labour migration into Arakan from India was significant in the late 19th century, most was seasonal. By the 1871 census permanent Indian migrants made up around 19% of the total population of Akyab district (present day Northern Rakhine), the highest percentage of any region in Burma. Yet census data also makes clear that as an overall proportion of the population the relative importance of Indian migrants as compared to other ethnic groups in Arakan barely increased between 1881 and 1931 (Indian migrants made up 21% of the overall population of Akyab in 1931), and migration to Burma from India stabilised during the First World War when immigration controls were introduced after 1910.

Ethnic violence against Muslims and Indians during the colonial period – in particular the 1926 and 1938 communal rioting against the south Asian population – did not originate in Arakan. Indeed both Muslim and Buddhist communities appear to have coexisted peacefully up until 1942.

Validation by the colonial administration of ethnic categorisation through the census, and ethnic prejudices through the use of ethnographic, medical and scientific texts, created the context in which violence between ethnic groups was possible.

There is also good evidence that the Muslim population had been given a subaltern10 status vis-à-vis “Rakhine” Buddhists in Arakan, attested to by significantly lower educational attainment than “Rakhine” or “Burmese” population groups (Osada 2011) – suggesting a lower placement in the racial hierarchy, a perception that is sustained in Rakhine to this day.

By 1941 ethnicity had been politically mobilised to such an extent that it had successfully segmented society into racial groups that despite sharing the same territorial space had little co-dependence beyond their legal and economic obligations, and little social or cultural interaction with one another. Ethnicity also defined the boundaries of economic opportunity and educational attainment. Political competition in Myanmar/Burma was about to be defined as a struggle between these disaggregated groups for power and privilege. ##

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