Reality bites for Aung San Suu Kyi amid surging violence
On Oct. 9, as many as 500 to 800 people armed with knives, slingshots and a small collection of firearms launched three separate, coordinated attacks on border police bases in northern Rakhine State, near Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. Nine police officers and eight attackers were killed, and at least 50 weapons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition were looted. There have been several deadly clashes since, as the security forces attempt to capture the attackers and retrieve the arms cache, with at least 22 further casualties on both sides.
More than 90% of the population in this area is from the long-oppressed minority Muslim Rohingya group. It now seems almost certain that the attackers were mostly local people, probably with some form of assistance from across the border in Bangladesh -- where many Rohingya have sought refuge -- or possibly further afield.
How they were organized, and whether this represents the emergence of a new mujahedeen armed group, or a local uprising with no institutional structure, remain unclear. But the large number of attackers and their sophisticated tactics showed an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that up to now has seen little sign of organized violent resistance from the Rohingya.
The broader concern is that a new threshold of violence has been passed, and that the years of oppression, resentment and hopelessness among the Rohingya have morphed into a violent response. The idea of organized resistance has been discussed as a theoretical option by some in the Rohingya community since at least 2012. But the practical difficulties, a majority view that violence would be counterproductive, and slivers of hope of a better future under a new government militated against violence.
Over the last year, there has been a creeping sense that nothing is going to change, and the escape valve of illegal migration by boat to Malaysia has largely been closed following crackdowns there and in Thailand. Faced with a grim reality today, and no sense of hope for tomorrow, it is little wonder that radical solutions may have become more appealing to some Rohingya.
The majority of this community and its religious leaders continue to eschew violence. But the latest attacks, which appear to have been several months in the preparation, threaten to draw the entire population into a downward spiral of deadly confrontations, violent crackdowns by the security forces and toxic relations between local communities and the authorities.
There will be no winners, and ordinary Muslim villagers will almost certainly be the biggest losers. The security forces do not have the community relations in this area that would help them effectively distinguish friend from foe. This means that all adult Muslim men will be regarded with suspicion, and potentially suffer violations of their dignity and rights, further polarizing the situation.
At a national level, the space for even incremental progress on Rakhine has likely all but closed, and Suu Kyi's efforts to steer the country in a more moderate, tolerant direction have been dealt a serious setback. The recent attacks, whether found to be linked to regional or global jihadi movements or not, will amplify the existing angst over an Islamic extremist threat to the country, and a pervasive distrust of Muslims among the Buddhist majority. Radical Buddhist nationalist groups -- who have been on the back foot since the elections -- will be emboldened and are already using the incident for fearmongering. It will now be much harder for moderate voices to be heard.
At the same time, and unconnected with the situation in Rakhine, armed conflict is escalating again in Myanmar's northeast, imperilling the peace process. Suu Kyi's peace initiative got off to a fairly good start after her administration took office earlier this year. Her "Panglong-21" peace conference in early September was important for its broad inclusion of armed groups, something the previous government had not been able to achieve.
Yet, the challenges are enormous. Many groups attended not out of support for the process, but because they considered they had no alternative given Suu Kyi's wide domestic and international support and legitimacy. Many felt they were treated poorly and the conference was badly organized. The largest opposition armed group, the United Wa State Party, sent only a junior delegation that walked out on the second day.
The escalation of fighting in northern Kachin and Shan states in recent weeks, including use of air power and long-range artillery by the Myanmar military, has further eroded trust -- particularly as civilian targets have been hit. Photos of a dead child, and others being treated for gruesome injuries in a hospital across the border in China, have been widely shared and prompted great anger in minority communities.
From here, the peace process gets much more difficult. The announced scheduling of further Panglong-21 conferences every six months (the next in February 2017) imposes a rigid timeframe that limits the flexibility required to overcome obstacles, and provides an easy target for spoilers. It will take difficult negotiations to convince most armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, a necessary condition for participation in future peace conferences and related political dialogs that has been clearly articulated by both the government and military. So far, only eight out of 18 groups have signed.
The importance of making progress should be compelling for all sides. The current government's five-year term may be the best chance for a negotiated political settlement to almost 70 years of armed conflict that has devastated the lives of minority communities and held back Myanmar as a whole. Suu Kyi has expressed firm support for a federal solution and has unparalleled political authority to deliver it, particularly with the Burman majority.
Now is the time to seize the opportunity and start discussing the contours of that deal. But the lack of trust is stifling progress and the complexities of a peace process with at least 18 armed actors, pursuing diverse agendas, is overwhelming. Optimism for substantial progress over the next few months is starting to recede.
For Rakhine State and the peace process, relations between the civilian and military branches of government are critical. Earlier concerns that there might be confrontational relations between the two, or that the military might actively seek to undermine Aung San Suu Kyi, have receded. It is now clear that there is reasonably constructive cooperation between her and the commander-in-chief. Rather, the concern is that the implicit basis for those constructive relations is that neither side interferes in the other's domain. Some armed groups have stated that the upswing in clashes is an attempt by the military to use its might to pressure them to sign the ceasefire agreement. The reality is likely more worrying: that the close, strategic civil-military coordination required under such a scenario does not yet exist.
Rather, the military feels relatively unconstrained in pursuing its security agenda -- which would mean that if its actions start to undermine any prospects of progress in the peace process, as they probably already are doing, there is no one to pull it back. The bottom line is that only with very close, day-to-day coordination between Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief -- or, even better, civilian control of the military -- would it be possible to calibrate a good cop/bad cop approach. Without it, the current escalation in fighting represents a grave threat to the process.
In Rakhine, the actions of the security forces over the coming days and weeks will be critical in whether a downward spiral of confrontation and violence develops. Here too, Suu Kyi has given the right messages, but lacks the ability to directly calibrate the security response to ensure it is consistent with her political objectives.
The attacks in Rakhine and difficulties of the peace process are a reminder that the biggest challenges facing Myanmar are not easily fixed by a new government armed with good intentions and better policies. They are deep structural problems that have bedeviled the country since independence. This harsh reality is now coming to the fore. The new government's honeymoon period is over.
Richard Horsey is an independent political analyst based in Yangon.