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A group of Rohingya refugees cross a canal after traveling over the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh.   © Reuters

Rakhine crisis: Still time for a course correction

Amid humanitarian disaster, Myanmar's allies could help resolve Rohingya dilemma

Over the past five years, Myanmar's governments have either asked the international community for patience, rejected criticism or turned down offers of help over handling the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State. Now the state is engulfed in a refugee crisis amid harsh military operations that have targeted both civilians and alleged "terrorists."

The unilateral offer by Rohingya militants of a month-long cease-fire, announced on Saturday, is unlikely to have any impact without the agreement of Myanmar's security forces -- which, judging by the ferocity of their "clearance operations," seems remote. Myanmar is running out of time, and if it wants to prevent a humanitarian disaster and further radicalization of its own western border, it must turn to its friends to help resolve the situation.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader, sensibly created an advisory panel to examine problems in Rakhine State headed by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. But the aftermath of coordinated attacks on about 30 police posts and a military base by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on Aug. 25 has see a fresh crisis take hold, and she has again called for international patience.

With the number of refugees fleeing into Bangladesh exceeding 300,000 since Aug. 25, according to U.N. data on Sept. 8, Suu Kyi has blamed "terrorists" for a "huge iceberg of misinformation" about the violence. In her first public response to the crisis, a statement by her office recounted a telephone call she had with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which she claimed that the government "had already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible."

The attacks coincided with the release of Annan's advisory commission report. Myanmar governments have always been wary of international cooperation, often perceiving it as internal interference. Why then have Myanmar's civilian and military authorities handled the Rakhine State crisis in ways calculated to both invite international censure and expose the country to transnational violence?

No one denies the complexity and historical depth of the problems in Rakhine State, where the Buddhist ethnic Rakhines are the majority and Rohingya make up approximately a third of the population. It is among Myanmar's poorest states, its infrastructure has been neglected for decades, its economy is stagnant, and its western border is plagued by a violent economy of narcotics trade and human trafficking as well as the twin insurgencies of the ARSA and the Rakhine-affiliated Arakan Army.

Seeds of crisis

Over the last five years, the situation of the stateless Rohingya has deteriorated. Sectarian violence in 2012 drove 120,000 to 140,000 mainly Rohingya people into refugee camps, depriving them of employment while starving cities in Rakhine State of their skills and labor. In 2015, the government confiscated identity cards held by approximately 700,000 Rohingya. Identity cards are necessary to go to a clinic, attend school, get married or buy a bus ticket. Attacks by the ARSA in October 2016 precipitated a heavy-handed military crackdown that sent 87,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. Stateless people in a humanitarian crisis are, by definition, a matter of concern to the international community.

Not only are the Rohingya stateless, but they have effectively been confined for decades to a few districts of northern Rakhine State by restrictions on the movement of non-citizens. Many of them have no means of escaping their situation. Bangladesh will not admit them as refugees. It already hosts more than 500,000 Rohingya refugees from earlier expulsions from Myanmar, according to independent estimates, and they survive in squalid camps and makeshift settlements with no legal status and few services.

Attempts by the Rohingya to flee from Myanmar by boat have often ended in shipwrecks, extortion by unscrupulous human trafficking gangs or rejection by neighboring countries. Many ethnic Rakhine communities in the state are as poor as the Rohingya, but enjoy freedom of movement and better access to government services, although they too are constrained by fear of reprisals and by increasingly strict security regulations.

Rohingya refugees carry their child as they wade through water after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar ​border in Teknaf, Bangladesh.   © Reuters

Following the ARSA attacks last October, Rohingya communities have been trapped between the Myanmar army's tough "clearance operations" and a militant insurgency. Dozens of Rohingya, mainly village heads, have been killed in what appears to be the assassination of "collaborators." The group's Aug. 25 attacks were likely aimed as much at intimidating and radicalizing Rohingya as they were at fighting Myanmar's military.

Bangladesh faces opposition from conservative Islamist political parties and terrorist groups. The plight of the Rohingya is a gift to both and the Islamists have made the Rohingya a cause celebre. Violent extremist groups in Bangladesh and India are linked to international terrorism networks.

In a recent report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said: "There is no evidence that ARSA's goals or members support a transnational jihadist agenda, despite indications that the group may have received some training from members of such outfits." Traditionally, Rohingya community leaders have been wise enough to eschew violence in the face of systemic discrimination. Despite previous overtures they have not turned to foreign extremist groups.

There is no reason to think ARSA enjoys popular support. But the risk of a harsh military response could push Rohingya into supporting the ARSA, a situation that transnational extremists can exploit. This could tip country's western border into a multifaceted conflict involving Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar's armed forces must legitimately respond to the ARSA attacks, but they will be best served by a proportional response that protects all civilians and allows them freedom of movement to get of harm's way.

The way forward?

The current situation is very grim and Myanmar's responses have displayed what amounts to a peculiar determination to destabilize its own border. A course correction is possible and will strengthen the whole country. The Rakhine Commission offered a detailed roadmap for addressing the underlying factors that have fed inter-communal violence.

Solutions include greater freedom of movement for all the state's residents, addressing ethnic Rakhine grievances, and providing pathways to citizenship for the Rohingya. More freedom of movement alone could go a long way, reducing the vulnerability and grievances of communities trapped by conflict.

An effective solution also involves international cooperation. This may require reimagining external players as meaningful allies rather than potential threats. Underlying the discrimination against the Rohingya is a myth that Myanmar is vulnerable to mass immigration from the subcontinent through the "Western Gate," as Rakhine State is sometimes described.

In this context, the Rohingya are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite evidence that most have lived in Myanmar for generations. The largest migration occurred between the 1880s and 1920s during British colonial rule. Some Bangladeshis today may wish to migrate, but not to Myanmar, which has a lower gross domestic product per capita and worse services than Bangladesh, and is itself an exporter of labor.

After the Aug. 25 attacks, the Myanmar government initially described the ARSA as "Bengali terrorists." "Bengali" is the government's preferred term for the Rohingya since their ancestors originated in the Bengal region of what is now Bangladesh and India. But its use implies that Bangladesh, the country Myanmar needs most to help suppress the ARSA, was involved in the attacks. Myanmar changed the term following a protest from Bangladesh.

A ​burnt car sits amid the ruins of a village that was razed during military "clearance operations" in ​the northern Rakhine region of ​Maungdaw, Myanmar on Aug. 31.   © Reuters

Myanmar has not followed through on repeated offers from Bangladesh since 2012 about security cooperation. The Myanmar government needs to make clear to its citizens not only that its neighbors are not the sources of the problem, and that Bangladesh, India and Indonesia are important allies who stand ready to help.

Myanmar's troubled dealings with the international community on the Rohingya crisis reflects a lack of substantive experience with international cooperation, whether in diplomacy, humanitarian response or defense, a legacy of the country's isolation under previous authoritarian governments.

Suu Kyi's office and the Myanmar military have stated that supplies or even staff from international non-governmental organizations supported the attacks. Reminiscent of Myanmar's former military governments, the claims are the product of a system in which the default reaction is to assign blame to "external elements." These irresponsible accusations render hollow the government's repeated requests for patience.

Myanmar cannot have it both ways. It cannot create what amounts to an international problem, tacitly blaming its neighbors and international organizations, and simultaneously ask for patience. Associating the attacks with Bangladesh and international agencies may play well at home but does nothing to address the problem and, in fact, makes it worse.

In 2012, Myanmar, against all expectations, committed itself to a path of openness and democratization. It has come a very long way. Rakhine State is at the crossroads of Myanmar's impoverished, authoritarian past and a more prosperous future. The state is home to some of the country's biggest tourist assets, including the Mrauk U temple ruins and Ngapali beach. It also hosts a gas pipeline to China and has a fledgling special economic zone.

Allowing parts of Rakhine State and western border to continue to degenerate into violence will inevitably remove whatever economic promise the state holds and prolong the poverty of its residents. Although it will be difficult, Myanmar can secure a better future for Rakhine State and the rest of the country by ending aggressive military actions that would further destabilize the western border. Instead, it should renew its commitment to cooperation with the international community.

Mark Blackwell is a Yangon-based academic researcher specializing in Myanmar and the surrounding region.

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