“We Have to Help Generate and Create a Shared Vision Around the Future of Rakhine State”
A Conversation with Dr. Emma Leslie, Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies
The massive human rights and humanitarian tragedy in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has gripped global attention since it broke out just over a year ago. As UN humanitarian agencies continue to assist Rohingya refugees and displaced persons with basic needs, efforts at the political level aim at helping them go back home. And if their return is to be sustainable, it is recognized that there must be accountability for the crimes that drove them from their homes. All these elements – humanitarian, political and human rights – were part of the discussion two weeks ago at the United Nations, with the Security Council holding a special session on Myanmar and the Human Rights Council’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar issuing an eagerly-awaited report. For another perspective on events in Rakhine State, we spoke with Myanmar researcher Dr. Emma Leslie, Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS), during a recent visit to UN headquarters.
According to Leslie, contrary to popular perception, the conflict in Rakhine State is not simply between Rohingya communities and the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw). The Arakanese community (a Buddhist ethnic group) which makes up a majority of the population in Rakhine State, has also experienced violence, discrimination and exclusion by the central state dating back to pre-colonial times, she said.
“The perspectives of Arakanese, as well as other non-Burman ethnic nationality groups living in Rakhine State, must be included in any context analysis or efforts to engage in conflict dynamics. Only then can long-standing root causes of the conflict be addressed,” Leslie added.
According to CPCS, another aspect to consider is that Rakhine State is home to a variety of major infrastructure and economic development projects with significant implications in terms of foreign direct investment, geo-political competition, and militarization. “Myanmar authorities are deeply sensitive to perceived security threats given the billions of dollars at stake through these various projects,” Leslie said. CPCS links the perceived security threats emanating from several armed groups operating in and around Rakhine state to the reported build-up of Tatmadaw troops, bases, and infrastructure over recent years, which further aggravates already tense relations with local Arakanese, Rohingya, and other ethnic communities. Fractions exist not only between ethnic groups but also within the Arakanese movement, which further increases the complexity of the situation.
During state-level elections in 2015, the state parliament’s majority fell to the Arakan National Party (ANP). This makes Rakhine’s state parliament the only one in Myanmar controlled by a party other than the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Divisions and fault-lines between ANP, NLD, and the Tatmadaw in Rakhine’s state parliament are reflected in the competition for control over state-level administrative positions, according to CPCS.
There’s a strong focus within the international community on accountability for the atrocities that have been committed. The Secretary-General called it essential for genuine reconciliation between all ethnic groups and a prerequisite for regional security and stability. Leslie said that in addition to accountability, the dynamics of the upcoming national election in 2020 must also be considered.
“Experience has shown that in Myanmar outside pressure strengthens hardline views and voices,” she said. “It will be important for the international community to avoid actions and statements that further entrench a nationalist perspective in the lead up to the 2020 elections.”
CPCS recommends investment in the future of the Rohingya community by supporting education initiatives that will meet future aspirations, build and empower values-driven Rohingya civil society that could take leadership, carry out conflict analysis and develop pragmatic collaborative political strategies.
There is no quick fix or short-term solution to the conflict dynamics in Rakhine State, she continued. “We have to help generate and create a shared vision around the future of Rakhine State among local stakeholders (Arakanese, Rohingya, Burmese, and others) but also at the level of international actors,” she said. “Ultimately, the international community must seek to build shared ownership of the solution to the conflict amongst state-level actors through constant engagement and long–term accompaniment.”
Title picture: During their trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Members of the Security Council delegation visited the Kutupalong Refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The camp is currently the world’s largest refugee settlement and hosts around 600,000 refugees. 29 April 2018, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. UN Photo/Caroline Gluck
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent positions of the Department of Political Affairs.