The Irrawaddy discusses the recent military deployment to northern Rakhine State, seemingly at the request of the Arakan National Party.
By The Irrawaddy 26 August 2017
Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! On Aug. 8, The Arakan National Party (ANP) called for tightened security measures in Rakhine State. Promptly, the military dispatched troops to Rakhine. There are criticisms that the government and the parliament have not been responsive enough to the ANP’s request. We will discuss if there are political tricks behind the military’s move and the state of stability and rule of law in Rakhine State. Ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe, who recently visited Rakhine State’s Mayu mountain range, and journalist Ko Thiha will join me to discuss this issue. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
The ANP called for heightened security measures in Rakhine State on Aug. 8, and the Tatmadaw [Myanmar Army] sent troops on Aug 9. That same day, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi summoned a cabinet meeting on the issue. The Tatmadaw took immediate action and dispatched troops. U Maung Maung Soe, you recently visited the area. How is the administration operating on the ground and did you see weaknesses in security?
U Maung Maung Soe: The [Rakhine State] problem originated in 2012. Many [Rohingya Muslims] were placed into internally displaced persons [IDP] camps after renewed conflict between Rakhine people and Bengalis.
[Editor’s Note: The Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine is referred to by many, including the government, as “Bengali” to suggest they are interlopers from Bangladesh.]
Then, Bengalis had their white cards [temporary identity documents] seized and their movement was restricted. This situation has continued for five years. U Thein Sein’s government had about four years to solve the issue, but could not find an answer. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still trying to solve the problem more than one year after she took office. The situation has actually got worse. In Maungdaw Township, there are around 500,000 Bengalis while the population of indigenous people [ethnic Rakhine Buddhists] is only around 30,000.
KZM: Indigenous ethnic Rakhine people?
MMS: Yes, indigenous people belonging to the Rakhine ethnic group. In Buthidaung Township, the Bengali population is around 250,000, and the population of indigenous peoples is around 45,000. There are only these two townships in Maungdaw District. While the total Bengali population is 750,000 there, the population of indigenous people is just around 75,000—only one in ten.
As the Rakhine problem continued unsolved, a militant attack occurred in 2016. There were attacks on police border posts. Since early 2017, the authority of the General Administration Department [GAD] and the police force over Bengali villages has gradually declined. Bengali village administrators who worked under the township GAD were killed, and ethnic Rakhine villagers, who went into forests to collect firewood, hunt and fish, were also killed. This problem has intensified.
Before the killing of eight ethnic Mro villagers in Kai Gyee village [earlier this month], a villager from Zedipyin went missing, and was not recovered. About three suspected militant hideouts were discovered on Mayu Mountain. On Aug. 3, eight ethnic Mro villagers from Kai Gyee were killed. On Aug. 4, villagers surrounded around 40 policemen who came and arrested six suspects in Outt Nan Yar village. Around 400 to 500 villagers grabbed the suspects and two suspects got away. Police had to fire warning shots and flee. This shows that [government] administration collapsed in those villages. The following day, ethnic Rakhine in small nearby villages fled to villages, which had police stations. Around 600 ethnic Rakhine villagers fled. ANP lawmakers raised this issue in the Lower House but the debate is pending. It is only recently that the Upper House has started discussing this issue. One month ago, Buthidaung Township lawmakers raised this issue at the Rakhine State Parliament, but the Rakhine State government said security was good and there was nothing to worry about. In the meantime, these killings happened.
KZM: The situation has become worse.
MMS: Yes, it has. The ANP requested a meeting with the army commander-in-chief on Aug. 8. They met on Aug. 9 and military troops were dispatched on August 10. The main cause of the problem is that we were not able to solve the Bengali issue—which originated in 2012—correctly in line with the law over the past five years. The second is an outbreak of militant attacks, and the third one is the collapse of administrative mechanisms in Bengali villages in Maungdaw Township.
KZM: Politically, the ANP has raised this issue in parliament, but the National League for Democracy (NLD)-dominated parliament only paid scant attention and didn’t treat it seriously. The ANP took steps to directly meet the army commander-in-chief, and they did meet him. Ko Thiha, why do you think the NLD-dominated parliament is less responsive? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did hold a cabinet meeting on this issue on Aug. 9, but there are criticisms that the government is slow in its response. Some say that the military has got political gain by making an immediate response. What is your assessment?
Thiha: The government needs to frankly admit that it is not doing enough. The reason is because it is still in the process of implementing the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State [from its interim report]. Kofi Annan has given a lot of recommendations to ease tensions in the area.
As the government is working on the idea of easing tensions, it seems it has underestimated the possibility of conflict and militant attacks. Their approach is not to attack, but to ease the tensions in the area. In fact, we should treat the militancy with extra attention so as to make a prompt response. But their approach solely focuses on easing tensions, and therefore did not put some factors into consideration. Maybe it is because of the lack of cooperation with the military or that they have no information about the situation on the ground. This coincides with parliament’s negligence and the Rakhine State government’s failure to cooperate with locals and strong parties in the state. As a result, things have developed into today’s situation, I think.
KZM: We can conclude that the ANP had to approach to the military because it could not approach the government and the NLD-dominated parliament. U Maung Muang Soe, according to what you have discussed, do you think a dispatch of military troops was necessary?
MMS: While an armed insurgency of Bengali militants has risen in the area, and while locals are in a state of panic, and while there are reports about Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s operations with around 400 to 500 troops, military [intervention] is required, I think, because the Mayu mountains are important for security in this region. To the north, the Mayu mountain range stretches hundreds of miles from mile post No. 50 on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border to Agnumaw. There are dense forests and herds of elephants in its north. The Mayu mountains end in Angumaw and the Mayu River drains into the Bay of Bengal. Maungdaw lies in the west of Mayu River, and Buthidaung lies in the east. Rathedaung lies downstream of Mayu River. So, the mountain range is important for security of those three townships. Besides this, on the opposite bank of the Mayu River to Agnumaw is Yay Chan Byin Jetty—just a 40-minute boat ride to Sittwe Island. Access to the Mayu mountains is a military threat to Sittwe Island, and Sittwe Township. So, it is important that there is military control of Mayu to avoid militancy.
Taking a look at the activities of the military, troops entered Maungdaw on Aug. 10, but there was no [apparent] clashes or clearance operations. I think the military is preparing to build military outposts in the Mayu mountain range rather than conducting clearance operations in villages. Between 1950 and 1960 under the government of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, there was the Mujahideen insurgency. They were also based in the Mayu mountain range.
There is a big Bengali village called Maung Hnama upstream of Kyee Kan Pyin village where the border police force is headquartered. There is a mountain to the east of the village. Locals call it ‘Kasim’ after a Mujahideen leader. Locals know that there are caves on Mt. Kasim because it has been the hideout of Mujahideen insurgents in the past. So, I think the military will establish outposts and build roads on the Mayu mountains to keep the area under surveillance.
KZM: Rakhine State has witnessed troubles since 2012, but, at the same time, there are clashes in Kachin State and other places. There were also clashes in Karen and Mon states. In the case of Rakhine State, if local parties or organizations approach directly to the army commander-in-chief out of concerns for security of their region… they can also approach the government such as the defense minister and home affairs minister. So, Ko Thiha, this procedure is…?
Thiha: I’d set aside the other things, the only thing I’d like to point out is that the Tatmadaw is allowed to take actions freely to operate its troops and take security measures under the constitution. It only needs to report to the president in real time. Will the military go there only when it is called? I mean, Maungdaw is a territory of our country.
It is the 24-hour duty of the Tatmadaw to protect the borders of the entire country and monitor and take actions as necessary without delay. There is the risk of troops of other countries trespassing into our territory. There are lots of problems. The Tatmadaw is fundamentally responsible for all of these, not only when it is requested to take responsibility. If the Tatmadaw thinks it is necessary… the government is a civilian government and it is just one year and a half in office. If it is not good at handling such an issue, the military has to give advice to them, and urge them to take their advice. This is something they have to do internally.
The ANP is a political party based in the city. Yes, it has members in the villages. Their information may be good. But there is the professional force of the Tatmadaw, and the government, which has power and responsibility. They can coordinate internally. I think [the ANP’s request to meet the commander-in-chief] was politically motivated.
KZM: What do you think, U Maung Maung Soe?
MMS: I think the ANP did what it could do because ethnic Rakhine people had already fled out of fear while there was no progress in parliament. But, the ANP met the army commander-in-chief on Aug. 9, and he sent the troops immediately the following day. So, I think the military had already prepared for [operations in Maungdaw], not only after the ANP requested it. The military conducted clearance operations last year, but has almost ceased operations because of allegations of human rights abuses. So, the ANP—which has a mandate from the majority of local people—gave the military reason to continue operations for the time being. The military sent troops under these circumstances.
KZM: The State Counselor’s Office has released a statement about the issue, saying it has plans for the security and development of the region. Plans include easing of tensions with the help of Kofi Annan’s commission. This is more like a long-term plan. What do you think are the [government’s] short-term plans, Ko Thiha?
Thiha: I’m particularly concerned about the collapse of civil administration. I’ve been watching this with deep anxiety. In the attacks on police outposts and in some small clashes, civilian villagers attacked with sticks and knives. This is a bad sign. I don’t like it because it could be developing into a public movement. If an attack is conspired by a militant group, it is not a problem. But it is very difficult to solve problems when the local people are involved, and it also paves the way for intervention from the international community. I don’t want these things to happen.
It is a matter of life and death for the ANP, the government, and the military to join hands to ensure civil administration. If it collapsed and every person and household killed others nearby with any weapon available such as sticks and knives, the state would be plunged into chaos. Even if the military could take control of it, we will find it hard to claim it as our territory if there is no civil administration. It is a real cause for concern.
KZM: These problems originated a long time ago, most recently in 2012. But these issues existed before that. One of the causes of these problems is that the State Peace and Development Council government issued a lot of white cards [temporary identity documents] to Rohingya. Those cards served as a living permit, but also allowed voting. This contradicted international norms. The military issued white cards to around 500,000 people. Under such circumstances, will it be easy to retrieve civil administration or rule of law?
MMS: In fact, the NLD government and the military have to cooperate with ethnic Rakhine people. For the time being, the ANP has the mandate of the majority of ethnic Rakhine people, and we have to cooperate with the ANP. Whether individual [party members] of the ANP have weakness or not, we have to cooperate with the ANP because the majority of ethnic Rakhine people have given it a mandate. And at the same time, Bengali representatives must be involved. The problem now is that we don’t know who their representatives are. We have to work together with those representatives. This is a basic problem that calls for cooperation.
The second problem is about citizenship—how we can solve the citizenship problem in line with existing laws and retrieve the administration. Without administrative mechanisms, the military approach can only alleviate the problem in the short-term, but will not solve the problem. To solve the problem in the long-term, I think it is important that representatives from all sides cooperate, and implement civil administration and solve citizenship problem in line with law.
Kofi Annan’s Commission focused on granting [Rohingya] free movement and providing access to health and education. But it doesn’t provide input for the citizenship problem [in its interim report]. In any country, you need ID to show you are a citizen. For example, if I go to the United States and I have no document, they won’t give me citizenship. Likewise, you need citizenship documents in European countries no matter how much they pay heed to human rights. In Myanmar, whether Bamar or Kachin or Shan you need documents to apply for citizenship. Only when there is a definite answer for this, will this problem be solved, I think.
KZM: This problem is still burning. As you two have said, this problem calls for cooperation among the central and state governments, as well as elected parties and representatives of both communities in Rakhine State and security forces. We should, however, look forward with optimism. Thank you for your contribution.
Topics: Dateline, Rakhine State, Rohingya
SOURCE: The Irrawaddy