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Opinion

Myanmar's Rakhine problem is a domestic and international challenge

National leaders must end toxic rivalry to sustain cease-fire with Arakan Army

| Myanmar
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing salutes during an military exercise at Ayeyarwaddy in February 2018: the commander in chief will need to make concessions to show he is sincere about the cease-fire,   © Reuters

Thomas Kean is a consultant on Myanmar for International Crisis Group and editor-in-chief of Frontier Myanmar, a Yangon-based media organization.

Much about Myanmar's Nov. 8 general election was predictable: A landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy; allegations of fraud from the military-aligned opposition; and disappointing results for most ethnic minority parties.

But no one expected the poll to trigger an opportunity to end the fighting in the country's most sustained and vicious conflict in decades.

Over the last two years, clashes between the military and the Buddhist-dominated Arakan Army, an insurgent group based in the country's west, have left thousands of combatants and civilians dead, and hundreds of thousands displaced in Rakhine and Chin states.

The government's decision last March to designate the AA a terrorist organization made prospects for peace in the area ever more remote, and a decision by Myanmar's Election Commission to cancel voting across much of the Rakhine State had been expected to drive further conflict.

Yet, just days after the vote, the AA and Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw, issued coordinated statements calling for elections in areas where voting had been canceled. More significantly, the guns have since fallen silent in a fragile but significant cease-fire. This informal truce has now held for more than two months, allowing tens of thousands of displaced civilians to return home. Meanwhile, the warring parties have met three times for discussions on potential elections and further steps to end the conflict.

An important factor in this uneasy peace was the involvement of Japan -- or more specifically, Tokyo's special envoy to Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa. The willingness of Myanmar's commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to work with him on such a sensitive issue reflects not only personal trust, but also a political choice.

China would have been a more logical mediator given its influence over many of Myanmar's ethnic insurgencies, but the army chief is known to be frustrated with Beijing -- not least at the frequency with which Chinese-made weapons end up in the hands of armed groups. The participation of Japan in Myanmar's peace process will be unsettling for Beijing.

Beijing is yet to say anything publicly about Japan's role in the AA talks. The issue was almost certainly raised during the recent visit to Myanmar by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, although official statements made only vague references to the peace process.

Despite the unexpected consensus between the military and the AA, time has run out to organize fresh elections in Rakhine before a new parliament convenes on Feb. 1. But that should not prevent both sides from working toward a more important objective: building on the breakthrough of the past two months to formalize their cease-fire.

The present detente offers the best opportunity in two years. Both sides have dropped inflammatory rhetoric and started making concessions. On Jan. 1, the AA released three NLD candidates it had abducted in October, along with three soldiers it captured earlier. For its part, the Tatmadaw sent a strong signal by meeting with the insurgent group despite its terrorist designation.

Kyaw Han, general secretary of Arakan Army, attends a meeting between government peace negotiation group, military and ethnic armed organizations in Naypyitaw in March 2019: the present detente offers the best opportunity in two years.   © AP

At stake are not just the lives and livelihoods of the people of Rakhine, but also any chance for progress in the country's broader peace process. The exclusion of the AA and its allies from these negotiations has divided the country's armed groups, with many abstaining from the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement -- a pact signed in 2015 by less than half the country's 20 or so ethnic armed organizations -- as a result. A formal cease-fire with the AA could revive momentum, given that Suu Kyi has promised to revitalize the talks during her second term.

There is a risk, though, that this opening will be squandered by the toxic political rivalry between the NLD leader and the commander in chief. Despite leading the country's two key political institutions, the pair have barely exchanged words in years, and tensions are likely to increase. The Tatmadaw leader is due to retire in June and his future is unclear. He has alluded to political ambitions, but the NLD's crushing electoral victory has eliminated his likely preferred option of ascending to the country's presidency.

Regardless of his future role, the army chief has remained politically active since the election -- stoking electoral fraud allegations, restructuring the military's peace negotiating team and meeting ethnic and religious minority leaders.

Against this backdrop, NLD leaders view the truce in Rakhine, and the sudden dialogue between the Tatmadaw and the AA, with deep suspicion. They perceive it as an attempt by Min Aung Hlaing to position himself as a peacemaker with the country's minorities, in the process portraying the NLD as an obstacle to peace. However, the NLD has everything to gain from a sustained cease-fire in Rakhine.

To move forward, the government should start by reciprocating the AA's release of its captured election candidates -- options include removing the organization's terrorist designation, lifting the mobile internet ban imposed on Rakhine, and releasing political prisoners. The NLD is unlikely to act as long as it sees the talks as a political game, so Min Aung Hlaing will need to make concessions to show he is sincere about the cease-fire, and not just trying to secure his political future. Dropping a dubious military investigation into electoral fraud would be a good place to start.

The truce in Rakhine shows that Myanmar's worst fighting in years can end with the right political will. The question is whether Myanmar's political leaders can put aside personal rivalries to make it happen.

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