Transforming the Cycle of Violence in Rakhine State: Toward Inter-Communal Peace in Myanmar


Tatsushi Arai, PhD – TRANSCEND Media Service

The inter-communal violence we have seen in Myanmar’s Rakhine State since 2012 is a manifestation of the deep-rooted structural inequity and unhealed traumas that have continuously grown in scope and intensity over generations. Historical roots of the inequity and traumas include the colonial invasions and control of the region (in 1824-1948 by the British and in 1942-45 by the Japanese) and Myanmar’s own internal challenge in inter-racial, inter-ethnic relations and inclusive governance since its independence in 1948. Regardless of the historical grievances that motivate each of the communities involved in the Rakhine conflict to advocate its own voice of identity and justice, they must also confront a painful, inconvenient truth they share: a further escalation of this crisis would unleash a much larger scope of inter-communal violence, possibly destabilizing the whole of Myanmar and its regional context and causing all parties greater suffering. However difficult and unthinkable it may be at this point, all parties involved must adopt a decisive departure from their familiar modes of advocacy. Instead they will need to ask a different question: What would a viable and sustainable future of Rakhine State look like and what concrete steps can we take together to make this vision a reality?

In August 2013, I asked this question to diverse opinion leaders on the opposing sides of the conflict during my visit to Rakhine, Yangon, Mandalay, and other parts of Myanmar. These opinion leaders included political party members, government representatives of Myanmar and other countries, religious and civil society leaders (including women and youth), media professionals, educators, and Rakhine citizens engaged in fishing and agriculture. A set of concrete measures described in this article are inspired by dozens of such interviews, focus-group sessions, and capacity-building workshops. These measures are divided in three parts – (1) short-term steps for transitional security, (2) middle to long-term plans for settling the citizenship dispute, and (3) middle to long-term visions of inclusive development and reconciliation. While these visions are suggestive only and never definitive, they nevertheless present an alternative starting point of public and policy discussion on the future of Rakhine State and on Myanmar’s search for inter-communal coexistence.

Short-term measures on security:

1- Temporary arrangements of physical separation between Muslim communities, mostly in the camps set up in Pauktaw, Meyebon, and parts of Sittwe (in the Chaung area), and the majority Rakhine population elsewhere in Rakhine State are needed, for both sides fear imminent attacks on one another. Construction of physical separation barriers must be avoided by all means, however, in order to keep potential opportunities for inter-communal contact open. A systematic plan must be put in place to gradually adjust these temporary arrangements, either for their removal or reinforcement, based on ongoing assessment.

Middle to long-term measures on citizenship:

2-The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), or one or more of its member states such as Indonesia, will need to actively support a Myanmar-led multi-year peace process on the Rakhine conflict. In addition to providing a forum of sustained dialogue and conciliation, ASEAN, under Myanmar’s chairmanship in 2014, will find it useful to launch a broad-based international platform on which Bangladesh, China, Korea, Japan, the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and other relevant stakeholders with whom Myanmar chooses to partner can work together to support the proposed peace process. The platform’s primary purpose is to work side by side with Myanmar’s central government and the Rakhine State government within a well-defined mandate and timeframe to provide technical and economic support for addressing the root causes and far-reaching consequences of the ongoing crisis. (This vision corresponds in principle to Naypyitaw’s willingness to accept a limited scope of international support for the resolution of the challenge it faces in conducting a one-site survey of Muslim population in the Rakhine camps. See below.) It must be stated explicitly that the proposed international platform will serve as neither an authoritative arbiter nor a self-standing mediator in the political resolution of the Rakhine conflict, unless the government of Myanmar requests it to act as one.

3- In partnership with the proposed platform, a collaborative effort must be established between Myanmar’s central government and Rakhine State to identify, apply, and monitor a set of internationally recognizable standards by which to determine the eligibility of the Muslim community members currently in Rakhine State to become legal Myanmar citizens. While the 1982 Citizenship Act, which distinguishes between full, associate, and naturalized citizens, provides a working framework, its application to the present circumstances must reflect Myanmar’s unprecedented commitment to a political transition and to its vision of ethnically inclusive, democratic nation-building. Respected Rakhine-based Muslim community leaders’ input in the interpretation and application of the standards for citizenship acquisition would be useful as a way of enhancing their acceptability and sustainability in the long run. In this political process, Naypyitaw will benefit greatly from enabling the Rakhine State government to work as a rightful partner with necessary authority and resources, for the latter will need to face the long-term consequences of the proposed political process.

4- Learning from such international precedents as Burundian war refugees’ repatriation from Tanzania in 2002-09 in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a definitive timeframe must be established for deciding the eligibility of Muslim community members’ citizenship, with an exact number of years for the timeframe to be determined. During the period in which a population census for the Rakhine-based Muslim communities is conducted, the illegal crossing of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border has to be prevented. The Myanmar government may choose to seek the technical support of ASEAN and/or the international platform to accomplish this task.

5- The proposed period of census and special border control may be used to train qualified existing border security personnel, discharge unqualified staff, and recruit new staff on a competitive basis. Upgrading their salaries, equipment, skills, morale, and possibly attire (uniform) is essential to mark a fresh start. Members of the international platform can work with the central and Rakhine governments to provide staff training by appeal to the best practices in other parts of the world.

6- The ongoing challenge that the central government’s immigration officers face in conducting a census of the Rakhine-based Muslim community members, currently confined to restricted areas, may be mitigated by inviting well-established Bangladesh organizations – and/or organizations from other Muslim-majority countries in the region – with close religious and cultural affiliations with the Muslim community in Rakhine State. Muslim-majority ASEAN member states such as Indonesia and Malaysia can join forces with appropriate members of the international platform (Japan and Korea as two possible candidates) to play a supportive role in ensuring the credibility of these invited foreign professionals to the Muslim community in Rakhine State.

7- Once the eligibility of Muslim community members’ citizenship is established, the central and Rakhine State governments must ensure that these Muslim citizens are entitled to full political, economic, and civil rights under Myanmar’s law. These rights include their access to education, employment, freedom of speech and religion, and participation in elections. Those who have failed to gain Myanmar citizenship through this proposed time-bound process should be given thorough community-based briefings that clearly lay out future options for them, such as formal applications by foreigners for Myanmar citizenship and resettlement in a third country with one-time financial support.

Middle to long-term measures on inclusive development and reconciliation:

8- While these steps are taken for the determination of citizenship eligibility, a well-planned and coordinated process of urban and rural development, with emphasis on uplifting the lowest-income households in the conflict-affected areas, must be put in place as a joint effort of the central and Rakhine State governments and the international platform. Areas of priority include agriculture, fishing, small businesses, primary education, health and hygiene, and basic infrastructure (including frequently used roads and ports essential for livelihood development). A gradual grassroots-based organization of cooperatives and microfinance (tentatively termed a “livelihood development initiative,” intended to distinguish itself from the formerly implemented top-down initiative for state-led socialism) might be useful. Income-generating activities that enable divided communities to initiate practical economic exchange and facilitate human contact may be considered, while fully respecting the communities’ voluntary will to participate.

9- With the technical and moral support of the international consortium, religious and civil society leaders trusted by either side or both sides of the divided communities in Rakhine State will need to find a way to communicate with the leadership of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and both South Asia-based and the Middle East-based networks of Islamic groups, on the one hand, and influential monks and Buddhist-inspired secular leaders committed to forcefully defending the Buddhist-majority character of the Burmese nation, on the other. These supportive groups on all sides must re-channel their political, economic, and moral support by refocusing their resources and public discourses on the common cause of mitigating the economic misery and social inequity that have kept low-income households in Rakhine State vulnerable to political incitement and violence.

10- In partnership with the international consortium, a joint effort of the central government and Rakhine State will need to support the resettlement of internally displaced persons and refugees on all sides. The resettlement process must include active assistance in the initial phase of holistic livelihood-building, and the settlement of land and property disputes that are bound to arise.

11- Well-facilitated informal gatherings of ordinary citizens will be needed to create a safe, comforting, and welcoming social space in which people in each community can reflect on their traumas, process their suppressed fear and anxiety, and share concrete experiences of healing. Currently there appears to be neither a systematic mechanism nor well-educated awareness of much-needed psychosocial and emotional support for a large number of ordinary citizens suffering from nightmares and extreme anxiety. Experienced local religious and community leaders, including women and youth, can play an important role in convening and facilitating such low-key informal gatherings, following very simple guidelines of mutual care and emotional support that do not require learned expertise in psychosocial healing. With the passage of time and a gradual reduction of tension, inter-communal and inter-faith dialogues, led jointly by respected community leaders on both sides, may become more feasible and appropriate as a way of enabling community members to voluntarily explore paths to mutual recognition, healing, and reconciliation. Precedents of grassroots initiatives in such contexts as East Timor, Rwanda, and South Africa will provide a useful basis for exploring what will work best in Myanmar’s unique historical, cultural, and religious context.

While details of each of the measures outlined above will need to be negotiated rigorously and revised continuously, the basic vision of a firm, constructive engagement that this proposal illustrates must be taken seriously and shared widely as the divided communities urgently need a concrete political solution. The ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR), established in ASEAN’s summit meeting in November 2012, can play an essential role in examining and enhancing these measures to generate policy impact.


Tatsushi Arai, PhD: Associate prof. of peacebuilding and conflict transformation, School for International Training (SIT) Graduate Institute & fellow, Center for Peacemaking Practice, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, USA. He is a Japanese citizen, an independent social scientist, and a peacebuilding practitioner with extensive practical experience in diverse conflict-affected societies. Email:


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Dec 2013.

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