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Understanding & Responding to Conflict in Rakhine State
By Dr Anthony Ware, Dr Vicki-Ann Ware, Dr Costas Laoutides — Deakin University, Australia, (updated) 1 June 2018.
Rakhine State presents a picture of huge untapped potential, largely unexplored because of tragic, long-running conflict that has resulted in deep multidimensional poverty. While rich in natural resources, the people struggle for daily survival in the midst of some of the deepest poverty in Myanmar, caused by a combination of decades of government marginalisation and neglect, and by intractable conflict with horrific episodic violence.
Conflict has simmered in Rakhine State for decades, if not centuries. Reignited in 2012 as communal violence, the effects have been amplified by episodes involving the Burmese military (Tatmadaw), the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Arakan Army (AA) since 2016. This conflict is a three-way struggle between the Muslims, ethnic Rakhine and Burmans for control of land, resources and political power, with all sides acting out of major grievances and deep existential fears.
Conflict violence and military operations in 2017 resulted in a massive refugee crisis, with 671,500 Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh in a matter of months, taking the total number of Muslims displaced from Rakhine to Bangladesh to almost 1.1 million. Tens of thousands of non-Muslims have also fled east and south. Notably though, an estimated 500,000 – 600,000 Muslims remain in Rakhine, some 200,000+ in villages in Northern Rakhine State, and another 200,000+ in villages in northern Central Rakhine State. GraceWorks Myanmar (GWM)’s flagship development program, Community Development Education (CDE), operates in almost 60 ethnic Rakhine villages in northern Central Rakhine State, in areas in which Muslims remain, with potential to expand across the region. This places GWM in a strategic position to implement programs to bring both development and conflict transformation in areas where Muslims remain, as well as work to lay a foundation for a more prosperous and harmonious shared future should many of the Muslims return shortly from Bangladesh. Some 97% of the Muslims displaced from Rakhine to Bangladesh have expressed a desire to return to Myanmar when certain conditions are met, meaning there is likely to be a return of some scale or another in the years to come.
This is the target of this strategic advice—the areas inside Rakhine State where GWM operates, where Muslims and Rakhine still do live beside one another, or may again in the future, and need a peaceful and prosperous way forward. However, any consideration of effective and sustainable development in these areas will need to take serious account of the conflict, and must start with a detailed conflict analysis. This report therefore offers a detailed analysis of the causes and drivers of this conflict, followed by strategic programme advice, to provide context and make sense of the strategic advice we offer.
Firstly, we note that this conflict is deeply historical, an ‘intractable conflict’ with a long history and many unresolved grievances, driven largely by competing historical narratives. Most outsiders tend to largely ignore historical narratives, wanting to focus on the contemporary problems driving the conflict. However, the competing historical narratives are the way elite on all sides express the dominant grievances, fears and claims at the heart of the contemporary conflict, making conflict over history and narratives a fundamental driver of the contemporary conflict. We thus conclude that attempts to build lasting peace cannot ignore these contemporary expressions of history.
The most contentious and difficult historical issue, right at the heart of the conflict, is when the Muslims arrived in Rakhine State, hence whether they can be rightly seen as an ‘ethnic national race’. Are they indigenous, with a centuries- or millennia-long history in Rakhine, or migrants from the colonial era or later? The importance of this question cannot be overstated. This conflict is primarily about the extent of political inclusion or exclusion of both the ethnic Rakhine and, particularly, the Muslims. For the Muslims in particular, being recognised as an ‘ethnic national race’ would grant both automatic citizenship and rights to seek semi-autonomous rule of northern Rakhine. Under the 2008 Constitution, any indigenous national races who constitute a majority in two or more adjacent townships may seek autonomous rule of those areas, an issue at the heart of the conflict. Otherwise, the Muslims must be considered migrants, who at most could only apply for citizenship as individuals, without the same rights.
This conflict is primarily an ‘identity conflict’, in which people are mobilised by simplistically categorising everyone into unidimensional ethnic identities. Everyone is told to see themselves as foremost a ‘Rakhine Buddhist’, or ‘Rohingya Muslim’, or ‘Burman Buddhist’. This is expected to be the defining attribute of their identity, without room to acknowledge the multi-dimensional nature of human social identities. The conflict is fuelled by a combination of chauvinism by the ‘Burmans’ and a fear of loss of sovereignty, the real loss of rights by the Muslims including being locked out of potential governance of territory, and Rakhine fears of loss of territory to the Muslims and assimilation by the Burmans. The Muslim are the most vulnerable and threatened minority. Despite this, the ethnic Rakhine likewise feel vulnerable and existentially threatened, by a Muslim population growing faster than they are, by the huge population of Muslims in Bangladesh to the west, as well as by the forces of Burman assimilation threatening to rob them of their identity and culture. ##