Watch List 2019; Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation

The Rohingya crisis continues to take a heavy toll on the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, and Myanmar’s international reputation, and remains a significant barrier to peace. No durable solution is on the horizon for the refugees, most of whom are in crowded camps exposed to health and natural disaster risks. Muslims remaining in Rakhine State suffer increasingly entrenched conditions of apartheid, with limited access to essential services and livelihoods. The human catastrophe on both sides of the border represents a major threat to peace and security. The ethnic Rakhine are also on a collision course with Naypyitaw, particularly over the detention and potential high treason conviction of a key Rakhine leader. This has undermined the Rakhine population’s confidence in politics and is driving broad support for the Arakan Army insurgency, which has sharply escalated attacks and threatens to tip the state into prolonged armed conflict. Elsewhere, in the north east, armed conflict has eased due to the unexpected declaration by the military on 21 December of a unilateral ceasefire in Shan and Kachin States. However, clashes between ethnic armed groups continue, the peace process remains moribund, and insecurity is exacerbated by increasingly lucrative opportunities for armed groups in drug production, human trafficking, and a range of other illicit activities.

The EU and its member states can help to address this complex set of challenges by:

Deadlock in the Peace Process and a New Escalation in Rakhine State

While international condemnation helped avert Bangladesh’s planned forcible repatriation of some Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar in November 2018, the risk remains that Dhaka could revive the process or force refugees to relocate to a remote island. Uncertainty about their future is feeding fear and desperation among the refugees, creating fertile ground for potential militancy. No long-term solution is in sight. Safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation is a distant prospect, third-country resettlement is extremely unlikely for all but a tiny proportion of refugees (and currently blocked even for small numbers), and the Bangladeshi government continues to resist local integration.

In Rakhine State, living conditions for the Rohingya that were already dire are worsening. Myanmar’s government is making no concerted effort to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State – it has taken some steps on health, education and development, but made no progress on guaranteeing freedom of movement, citizenship and other fundamental rights. Nor has it made progress on holding accountable those responsible for crimes committed during the Myanmar army’s expulsion of the Rohingya following militant attacks in October 2016 and August 2017, which a UN report has said merits investigation for genocide. The government is moving forward tentatively with closing camps for displaced Muslims but without granting the freedom of movement necessary to access services and livelihood opportunities, thereby reinforcing a situation of apartheid and leaving the population indefinitely reliant on humanitarian assistance. Repression and poverty are fuelling a new wave of dangerous boat journeys from Rakhine State across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia and Indonesia; desperation in the Bangladesh camps is prompting Rohingya refugees to attempt the same route.

At the same time, deadly coordinated attacks by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, on four police posts in northern Rakhine on 4 January – Myanmar’s Independence Day – will have a major impact in Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Beyond the immediate escalation in clashes this will bring, and the added complications for addressing the plight of the Rohingya, the attacks portend something significant and dangerous for the longer term: a shift in Rakhine popular sentiment away from politics toward armed insurgency as the means of addressing their grievances. This shift threatens to plunge the state into serious and sustained armed conflict for the first time in decades. The popular perception that politics has failed comes in part from the fact that, although a Rakhine political party won a large majority of elected seats in 2015, Naypyitaw imposed a minority National League for Democracy government; subsequently the top Rakhine political leader was arrested for high treason and remains on trial facing a possible death sentence.

In the restive north of the country, even with the military’s unilateral ceasefire, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government will likely struggle to reinvigorate the moribund peace process for ending Myanmar’s multiple internal ethnic armed conflicts. This is due to a loss of trust on all sides, resistance from the military and government to meaningful concessions on minority rights and greater devolution of power, and the fact that political dynamics ahead of the 2020 elections further narrow the administration’s room for manoeuvre. Armed conflict in Shan State has eased as a result of the unilateral ceasefire, although clashes between competing Shan factions continue; this will enable the military to focus more attention and firepower on the escalating conflict in Rakhine State.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy. Revenues from illegal businesses (including drug production, gem and wildlife smuggling, gambling, money laundering and racketeering) now contribute to funding and sustaining the civil war. A toxic political economy based on organised crime and corruption fosters local resentment and enormous disincentives against ending conflicts.

Moving Beyond the Status Quo

The EU should take steps in three areas. First, it should re-evaluate its approach to the Rohingya crisis. More than six years on from the initial segregation of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, the government has shown no sign of reintegrating them – rather, it has opted for an ever more entrenched system of segregation. The EU and others providing humanitarian assistance in such a context are an important lifeline for these communities, but must ensure that they take a principled approach and keep the parameters of assistance under close review to ensure they are not inadvertently reinforcing the government’s discriminatory practices. For example, the Rohingya camps in central Rakhine are not classic internally displaced persons camps but, rather, internment camps, and policy approaches must start from a recognition of this. This dynamic presents a dilemma to which there is no easy answer: withdrawing humanitarian support from this population would negatively impact on vulnerable people; continuing support as camps transition to semi-permanent confinement sites could amount to complicity in longer-term ghettoisation. The only way forward for the EU and other humanitarian actors is to continuously assess their approach and the evolving context to ensure they are minimising harm.

The EU should continue its vital support to the camps in Bangladesh while also continuing to push for accountability for those responsible for violence against the Rohingya. Domestic processes such as the government-appointed Commission of Enquiry are not credible; this leaves international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court, and the UN-established body charged with preparing case files for future criminal proceedings, as the most likely route through which perpetrators could be held to account.

Second, the EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme. Such a move would have a catastrophic impact on many workers, particularly girls in the garment industry, without doing anything to punish the perpetrators of crimes in Rakhine State and elsewhere, who should be the focus of the EU’s actions in this regard. Hurting vulnerable workers would damage the EU’s reputation in Myanmar and beyond, and hamper its ability to engage with the government and other actors for no positive gain.

Last, the EU has a leading role on Myanmar’s peace process, having been a key donor since its inception. While the EU should continue to support the stalled negotiations, it should also make a realistic assessment of prospects for success, particularly as the country heads to elections in 2020. Redirecting EU funds to local initiatives could have a greater impact than support to the formal process at national level. Recognising that no imminent end to the armed conflicts is in sight, funds should go toward de-escalation efforts, peacebuilding and protecting civilians. The EU should also extend support to the Anti-Corruption Commission and related initiatives. Such support could strengthen government efforts toward combating organised crime, including drug production and human trafficking, which are rampant in conflict-affected areas and help fuel those conflicts.