Since armed conflict began to escalate and spread in late 2018, displacement, collateral damage, detentions and civilian casualties have become the new normal for an increasing number of Arakanese.

By Aung Kyaw | DMG

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, nations and communities around the world are being forced to adapt key aspects of life to unprecedented change and disruption, or what is popularly termed “the new normal”. The people of Arakan State have not escaped this reality, especially during a second wave of the virus that hit in mid-August and continues to affect people across the state, with devastating socioeconomic consequences. However, Arakan State has also been caught up in a different kind of new normal, which predates COVID-19 and, in all likelihood, will outlive the pandemic by many years.

A History of Conflict 

Decades of authoritarian rule left Arakan State and much of Myanmar in poverty, with Arakan winning the unenviable title of the “second poorest” state in the country. Then consider the traumas unique to Arakan State: an outbreak of communal violence in 2012, and the mass exodus of Muslim residents into neighbouring Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017, which was triggered by the “clearance operations” of the Myanmar military aka Tatmadaw. These events and their knock-on effects have made it difficult for Arakan State’s people to enjoy the trickle-down benefits of the beginnings of economic prosperity, which the Burman heartland has seen over the past decade. Add to this the emergence of the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group at war with the Tatmadaw in recent years, and the region has become a veritable conflict hotspot globally, with almost daily, tragic consequences for the local populations, not to mention long-term ramifications that will be felt for years to come.

The Arakan Army, like its many counterparts in other parts of the country, is a product of the failure to find a federal and democratic solution to long-standing political problems. Regrettably, the current civilian government under the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which came to power advocating both democracy and federalism, still fails to live up to these professed principles, not least by refusing to deal with minority ethnic groups as political equals. 

More than eight years since the communal violence of 2012, the central government has little to show when it comes to resolving the displacement crises, with those who fled to Bangladesh in more recent years continuing to languish in dilapidated camps there. And almost two years since fighting between the Tatmadw and the Arakan Army began to intensify, the conflict shows no sign of abating, while the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) continues to rise, as do arbitrary arrests and cases of extrajudicial killings. For Arakan State’s civilian population, these worries have become part of their new normal — and unlike the coronavirus, there seems to be no end in sight.

Crisis-Induced ‘New Normal’ Is Nothing New in Arakan

Since armed conflict began to escalate and spread in late 2018, displacement, collateral damage, detentions and civilian casualties have become the new normal for an increasing number of Arakanese. During this period, almost 300 civilians, many of them women and children, were killed and more than 600 others have been injured. According to local news sources and eyewitness accounts, many of these fatalities have been the result of indiscriminate Tatmadaw attacks using both small arms and heavy weapons. Thomas Andrews, the new special rapporteur on human rights situation in Myanmar, recently condemned a “mounting death toll of children” in Arakan State. An attack in Myebon Township in which two 5-year-old children were killed when their village was hit by Tatmadaw artillery shells last month is just one of many such incidents. 

Rounding up villagers in conflict zones and arbitrarily detaining civilians have been routine parts of military operations in Arakan State, with more than 1,000 such arrests recorded so far. It is difficult to ascertain how many remain in detention and how many have been released. Even more alarmingly, it has also seemingly become routine for Tatmadaw soldiers to abuse and torture those in detention. The Tatmadaw has been consistent in denying any wrongdoing on the part of its soldiers, until undeniable evidence comes to surface, as it often does (like when a video of soldiers grossly mistreating five detainees went viral on social media). 

It is indeed disheartening to see the rule of law being upended in Arakan and elsewhere on the watch of the ruling government, whose mantra from Day 1 in office has been to uphold the rule of law. As this news outlet reported, 13 people were arrested in May of this year under the draconian Counter-Terrorism Law, which could impose substantial prison sentences on the defendents if convicted. As of this writing, a total of 52 activists are facing charges for having protested an internet ban affecting several townships in Arakan State, which the government has put in place as part of its strategy to “crush” the Arakan Army. Perhaps the latest report card from Freedom House, which monitors and reports on political rights and civil liberties around the world, on Myanmar is indicative of where the country is headed in this regard. The country has slipped from “partly free” to “not free” due to “worsening conflicts between the military and ethnic minority rebel groups.”

Last but not least is the growing problem of people internally displaced by armed conflict. The Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC), an Arakan-based civil society organisation, puts the latest IDP population at more than 226,000. REC is one of the few local organisations providing desperately needed assistance to these IDPs in the face of inadequate action from the state and central governments. Because schools have been closed down and it is difficult for children to access education in the IDP camps, there is talk of a “lost generation” that will grow up without having acquired the necessary life skills. The plight of these child IDPs is exacerbated by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in the best of times, IDPs in Arakan State and elsewhere have hardly received adequate care and attention from the government. So what can be expected from here, when a crisis like COVID-19 requires so much focus and energy?

These are just some aspects of the increasingly familiar new normal that the people of Arakan State have been grappling with long before we were hit by COVID-19.

Moving Forward

At the end of the day, ongoing war in Arakan State and other Myanmar “peripheries” does and will have much broader ramifications, and constitutes a major (if not the biggest) obstacle on the country’s path to development. Unless these wars are brought to an end — which is highly unlikely to come about without meeting the federal and democratic aspirations of minority ethnic groups — the country will not be able to normalise and prepare to tackle the multitude of 21st century challenges it faces.

We might begin to hope for a more promising future if only State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw would heed and act on these words of wisdom, which she uttered back in 1994: “Well, my vision of Myanmar is of a country where we can all sort out our problems by trying to understand each other and by talking to each other and be working together.” 

With the need for dialogue having never been more urgent, why not make talking the first step and fighting a last resort?

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