Rakhine State has lurched into another crisis over the last few weeks, as attacks by the Arakan Army (AA) on border guard police posts, reveal the deep, structural problems and resentment that many ethnic Rakhine people have towards the Bamar-centric statebuilding project of government and the Myanmar military. The coming weeks will reveal the extent of the military retaliation, and many can only hope that it will not be to the same scale as the violence inflicted on Rohingya communities in late 2017, as a similar attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Border Guard Posts provoked a wave of violence that a UN Fact-Finding Mission determined was genocide. As ever, it is civilians who are suffering, with reports of the Myanmar military using local villagers as human shields, as they seek to respond to the latest dent on peace process that is clearly failing.
Attacks launched on Myanmar Independence Day, 4 January, 2019 by the AA on four Police Guard Posts in Buthidaung Township resulted in 13 policemen killed and a further nine injured. The attack came as conflict between the AA and the Myanmar military had steadily increased throughout December 2018, with thousands displaced as a result. The AA has justified the targeting of police outposts because of the assistance that the local police force had been giving the military during their operation, such as using police bases to launch attacks.
The response of the Government included a clumsy attempt to link the AA with the ARSA, which many ethnic Rakhine have a deep seated resentment for. An emergency meeting was convened the same afternoon of the attacks, attended by the Myanmar military Commander-in -chief, Min Aung Hlaing, President Win Myint and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in which the military were instructed to increase operations and to “crush the terrorists” according to the President’s spokesperson, Zaw Htay.
Rakhine State has been convulsed by tension in the lead-up to the dramatic events on Independence Day. Attempted political assassinations, armed conflict, threats, and human rights abuses inflicted upon the local population were the backdrop to the latest violence. As ever, it is civilians who have suffered the most. A statement by the UN’s humanitarian agency on 7 January, 2019 stated that 4,500 people remained displaced, hiding “in monasteries and other communal spaces” as troop movements continued. In December, reports of the Myanmar military seeking out AA soldiers caused the entire village of Yae Gaung Chaung to leave and seek shelter in a monastery. Furthermore, the military and police forced people from a nearby village to lead them to Yae Gaung Chaung, with two villagers made to stay close to each of the five higher ranking officers, effectively as human shields. The AA also claims to have evidence of the Myanmar military breaching the Geneva Conventions, including the aforementioned use of human shields, as well as firing into civilian areas and the arbitrary arrests.
The whole situation blows massive holes in the peace process which is currently stalled already extremely fractured. The announcement of a four month halt in military operations in northern Myanmar in December, while lauded for its potential effects in Kachin and Shan States which have seen the worst of the fighting in recent years, does not bode well for Rakhine State. The Myanmar military has a history of divide and rule, making ceasefires with some ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) while launching military attacks on other EAOs. There is a definite possibility that the motivations for the suspension of operations in the north is to prepare for a massive military operation to attempt to wipe out the AA, which is gaining legitimacy and territory throughout Rakhine State.
The near future is therefore extremely worrying. Rakhine State has already been ravaged by military clearance operations, with the Rohingya communities bearing the brunt of what has been labelled ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The Rakhine must be fearing the worst. Furthermore, while debates about the legitimacy of the violence employed by the AA may continue, one thing is clear. Ethnic grievances, such as that of the Rakhine and other minorities in Rakhine State, are very real. The Myanmar military must compromise on its unfeasible 6-point peace agenda that includes adherence to the deeply flawed and undemocratic 2008 Constitution, while also declaring a unilateral nationwide ceasefire that includes Rakhine State. Meanwhile, the government must engage in an inclusive peace process that reviews and amends the current approach which has the flawed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement as its foundation.
The peace process has faltered and unless genuine moves forward to achieve political settlement that will guarantee ethnic equality, federal democracy and self-determination are made, a deep trust deficit will remain, leading to further divides and hostilities, rendering peace a distant dream.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 23 Rohingya organizations and Fortify Rights
By Amnesty International
By Article 19
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Human Rights Watch
By Human Rights Now
By Southeast Asian Press Alliance
By Salween Peace Park
By Salween Peace Park
By Free Burma Rangers
By Karen Peace Support Network and Saferworld
By Public International Law and Policy Group
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”