Myanmar: a wider insurgency is born
While much of the media – especially in the Anglophone world – has been focusing on the American election and the implications of Donald Trump’s victory, there’s been a new outbreak of violence in western Myanmar that needs urgent attention before it escalates and undermines the country’s ongoing reform process.
Last month, the authorities in Rakhine state reported an attack on several police posts near the western frontier with Bangladesh in which nine policemen were killed.
The attack was blamed on Muslim insurgents – who have posed little of a threat during the country’s long history of unrest.
Last week saw serious clashes between the army and these insurgents, who have yet to be firmly identified, but do seem to be Rohingya, that has left more than thirty dead, among them at least two soldiers.
Ever since its independence from Britain in 1947, Myanmar – or Burma as it used to be known – has experienced ethnic conflict.
At that time, several of its ethnic minorities rebelled against the central government – dominated by the Burman majority – and have been fighting ever since for greater self- government.
Until recently, Rakhine in the western part of the country had not been a major centre of unrest.
But since 2011, when the country has started to open up to the wider world and the military has gradually stepped back from running the country, Rakhine has seen an upsurge in communal violence.
It began with members of the Buddhist majority attacking and harassing people from the Muslim Rohingya minority who they regard as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
This prejudice was fuelled by the central government, which failed to take action against Buddhist extremists inciting hatred against the country’s Muslim minority.
The government has also refused to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, arguing they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Most historians, on the other hand, argue Muslims have been living in the area for hundreds of years, although in what numbers is unclear.
The argument is more than academic with the Rohingya rendered effectively stateless given they are not Bangladeshi citizens either.
The chaotic violence and international criticism of its failure to protect people forced the central government to intervene and set up camps for Rohingya who’d been driven from their homes by Buddhist violence.
Since then, Rohingya have languished in camps and many others have attempted to flee by sea to neighbouring countries.
This new wave of boat people have not been welcome in the countries where they’ve landed, principally Thailand and Indonesia, which has dimmed the prospect of finding refuge abroad.
Assuming the recent attacks are being carried out by armed Rohingya, it should hardly come as a surprise.
All the roots of a wider insurgency have been gestating for a while.
Attacked by their neighbours, left unprotected by the security forces and with the option of seeking asylum in nearby states limited, it looks like some have decided to fight fire with fire.
By the evidence being gathered by rights groups, the Myanmar military – which has been fighting ethnic insurgent groups for seventy years – is responding in time honoured fashion.
The danger is that an insurgency based among Muslims could attract outside support and end up taking a more radical turn, as it has in other countries, like Nigeria where the Boko Haram group ended up aligning themselves with ISIS.
The fact that the country is now run by a civilian-led government under the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi since historic elections just over a year ago, makes this turn of events even more disturbing.
Ms Suu Kyi has called for calm, but she has ducked supporting Rohingya demands for citizenship – her moral compass seems to have been distorted by electoral considerations with her desire to avoid alienating Buddhist voters overcoming her commitment to human rights.
This refusal to take a tough line in their defence has disappointed many Rohingya and may have contributed to more concluding violence is the only way to defend their community – after all if a leader who has been admired around the world for her commitment to democracy won’t help you, who will?
If this is the judgement against her, it may be a bit harsh.
Under the constitutional deal that led to the end of sixty years of direct military rule and the first competitive elections in decades which catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD into office, the military retain control over key ministries, including defence, and still have considerable freedom of action.
So the civilians don’t seem to be driving the response to the insurgency in Rakhine.
Whatever the politics in Naypyidaw, the latest violence and heavy handed response of the army pose a challenge to the authority of Ms Suu Kyi’s government and threaten to undermine her international reputation even further.
However, Ms Suu Kyi has not shown much inclination to use the clout she possesses from her own personal popularity and her party’s overwhelming electoral victory to restrain the military.
Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had been brought in to try to find a political solution before the recent attacks on the security forces.
His efforts clearly haven’t yielded much so far– it’s time Aung San Suu Kyi put more weight behind the veteran diplomat’s push for a compromise before things get much worse.