The Debate | Opinion

Relief Agencies Should Push for Independent Access to Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Since the February coup, the Arakan Army has reportedly gained effective control of 75 percent of the state’s townships.

Relief Agencies Should Push for Independent Access to Myanmar’s Rakhine State

People pump water at a camp for the internally displaced in Rakhine State, Myanmar, September 2013.

Credit: EU/ECHO/Mathias Eick

Since February, when Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, staged a coup against the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, Rakhine State in the west of the country has stood out. While other states witnessed massive peaceful demonstrations, followed by deeply troubling indiscriminate violence at the hands of the police and the military, Rakhine remained relatively tranquil.

In November 2020, three months before the coup, the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA), a powerful ethnic armed organization, agreed to an informal ceasefire, ending fierce fighting that had wreaked havoc on the people of Rakhine State for close to two years.

During the fighting, more than 230,000 civilians were displaced, while nearly 1,000, including more than 170 children, were seriously injured or killed by artillery shells, gunshots, and landmines.

The two long years of violent conflict were the culmination of the steadily worsening relations between Rakhine State’s politicians and both the Tatmadaw and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government. Even though the NLD was not popular among the state’s voters, it tried to impose its will and chose to divert much of the control over the state to the faraway capital of Naypyidaw.

The AA has since used the informal ceasefire with the military to establish its own civilian governance systems, including in areas populated by Muslim Rohingya communities. It has condemned the military coup but has steered clear of open support of the National Unity Government (NUG), set up in April by former NLD lawmakers and opponents of military rule. Instead, it has stayed in contact with the military regime in order to implement its objective of greater self-rule in Rakhine State.

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Although the AA has been advocating greater autonomy for Rakhine’s people since 2009, it has only become a force to be reckoned with in the past few years. During that time, it has evolved into a motivated and powerful fighting force that has been able to take on the Tatmadaw.  It can now also count on considerable popular support.

In response to the violent conflict that started in late 2018, the NLD government instructed the Tatmadaw to “crush” the AA, while it also imposed the world’s longest internet shutdown on Rakhine State and designated the AA as a terrorist organization.

It also excluded the AA from the national peace dialogue, blocked humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected people, and disenfranchised an estimated 73 percent of Rakhine State’s voters when it denied them the vote, notionally due to security concerns, in the national election of November 2020.

Not surprisingly, these harsh measures have mostly served to increase popular support for the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA). The AA’s commander-in-chief, Maj. Gen. Twan Mrat Naing, has long stated that the ULA/AA wants to establish inclusive governance structures in Rakhine and that there is no place for discrimination based on ethnicity and religion in Arakan, the name that the AA uses for Rakhine.

The NUG has also made overtures to the Rohingya, particularly with a new policy plan that promises an end to their abject discrimination as well as the replacement of the 1982 Citizenship Law. This reflects the ULA/AA’s desire to extend and consolidate its influence in Rakhine.

The ULA/AA is now said to control around 75 percent of Rakhine State’s townships, mostly in rural areas where it has been establishing its own administrative and judicial systems. The group says it wants to include Rohingya in its training for administration and police functions. This is a welcome announcement, although some have pointed to the risk of Rohingya getting caught between the AA and the Tatmadaw as they vie for control of Rakhine state.

The ULA/AA is not alone in pursuing change. Even before the February coup, a group of Rakhine, Rohingya, and other minorities in Rakhine State issued a Declaration by the Diverse and United Communities in Arakan. Adopted in January 2021, the declaration expresses agreement on the importance of peaceful coexistence and the building of a new society based on respect for each other’s identities and the promotion of peace, justice, equality, and human rights. It deserves to be built on.

The military coup has sparked a nationwide trend of transformation that acknowledges that democracy cannot flourish without respecting Myanmar’s long persecuted minorities, including the Rohingya. Younger generations who are a vibrant force in the resistance movement are now openly rejecting the ethnonationalism embraced under decades of military rule.

While these developments are encouraging, the transformation will take a long time. Apart from lifting discriminatory restrictions and legislative measures, changing people’s mindsets is also a major challenge. Successive military regimes have sowed ethnic and religious division as a divide-and-rule tool, stoking fear of various “others.” Fear, once instilled, is difficult to overcome. But the growing rejection of ethnonationalism is a start, and those trying to take inclusive policies forward deserve support.

Without independent access to Rakhine State it is difficult to determine to what extent serious restrictions on the Rohingya are being lifted, but in many parts of the state the apartheid-like situation continues. Rohingya in closed villages and displacement camps report not receiving relief assistance for close to four months. Food insecurity, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is now spreading rapidly, affecting other communities as well.

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Moreover, the Tatmadaw used the month of August to bolster its troop strength in Rakhine, particularly in the northern part of the state and around the capital Sittwe. Given the history of inter-communal tensions in Rakhine State, the Tatmadaw may also see Rohingya communities as an opportunity to disrupt the AA’s expanding presence in the state.

On September 7, local media reported that the Tatmadaw instructed 18 Rohingya village leaders appointed by the junta’s Rakhine State Administration Council in Kyauktaw Township to avoid engagement with the ULA/AA administration, not to attend its police and administrative trainings, and reminded them of the risk of arrest for association with an unlawful group. The Tatmadaw last week also issued instructions to ethnic Rakhine ward administrators in southern Rakhine State’s Kyaukphyu Township to report any ULA/AA activities to the junta.

However, Rohingya sources in Kyauktaw Township continue to report that ULA/AA presence in their villages has been generally welcomed and that communities rely on the ULA/AA more than on the coup government, in part because costs of accessing their justice mechanisms are much lower.

Given the febrile political context and deteriorating humanitarian situation, relief providers such as United Nations agencies, bilateral partners, international NGOs, and civil society groups should step up their efforts to reach affected communities. Much like what is happening along the border areas with Thailand, agencies should be prepared to work with entities that can reach and are trusted by communities on the ground. This includes the ULA/AA, which should play its part by allowing civil society to operate in its areas.

Navigating the complex situation in Rakhine State  will not be easy. It requires a pragmatic and detailed approach that acknowledges the considerable difference in challenges across the state’s 17 townships. A patchwork approach must be pieced together to identify local actors with which to collaborate, even down to district and ward level.

This situation is not new. Civil society groups in Rakhine State have demonstrated capacity and experience. But donors and aid agencies should be called upon to be flexible enough to ensure the success of the relief operations that are necessary to alleviate food insecurity and unnecessary suffering in Rakhine.