Almost a year before the ARSA incident, three police posts in northern Rakhine were attacked on 9 October 2016 which left nine police officers dead and four injured. No one claimed responsibility for the attack. Media quoted Police General Tin Maung Swe saying the insurgent group Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) carried out the attack. RSO was a Rohingya insurgent group in the 1980s. It was not heard of since1990s. The incident followed military operations which killed eight attackers. After the incident of 9 October 2016 military and Rakhine Buddhists community did not plunder Rohingya villages which they did a year later.
The media mentioned, “…compared with the country’s civil war-ravaged eastern, northeastern and northern border states, Rakhine has not boasted a significant rebel military presence.Despite their plight, the Rohingya do not have a known armed faction fighting for them.” Rakhine State’s main difficulty is the communal discord between Rohingya minority and Buddhist majority population. On 1 September 2017, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander in Chief(C-in-C) of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Force)referring to the Alethankyaw (a village in Maung Taw) riot between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas in 1942 commented that the Rakhine problem was the “The Bengali problem” and “a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of the previous [military] governments to solve it and vowed not to repeat the history. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.”
To find a solution to the communal problem, the Myanmar government established the Rakhine Advisory Commission (RAC) on 5 September 2016. The objective of forming the commission was to find pathways to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine state. The commission’s mandate was to “develop recommendation within five thematic areas: conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, reconciliation, institution building and development.” The commission considered “humanitarian issues, living conditions, access to health, the question of citizenship and freedom of movement and the assurance of basic rights” to make recommendations. Because of the sensitivity of the term, the commission did not use the word “Bengali” or “Rohingya”. They were referred to as “Muslims” or “the Muslim Community in Rakhine”.
The RAC submitted its final report on 24 August 2017. The Myanmar government formed a 15-member implementation committee in September 2017 to execute recommendations. The President’s Office announced that the committee is responsible for accelerating the national verification process and ensuring “equal access to education and access to health services regardless of religion, race, citizenship or gender.” But the C-in-C expressed a different view about the affair when Kofi Anan called on him on 24 August 2017.
The C-in-C told Kofi Anan that “the commission report has already been read and found some factual flaws and deficiencies in the report” and advisedto re-examine the report for “factual errors and unfair attitudes.” He suggested that they “take into cognizance the attitudes of the government, the Tatmadaw and the local people.” He opined that the “acceptance of local Rakhine ethnics over the commission’s report is important.” He expected the Commission not to “compile the report with bias” but “do it fairly.” Kofi Annan told the C-in-C, “the commission amended some suggestions given by the Tatmadaw before releasing thereport. As the report of the commission has been released, it is difficult to address all suggestions and advices of the Tatmadaw.”
The commission made eighty eight recommendations covering seventeen problem areas. One of the recommendations (No. 33) under ‘Education’ is mentioned here as an example to understand the possible cause of Tatmadaw disagreeing with the report and understand military’s perception of the Rakhine problem surrounding Rohingya issues. The recommendation was, “The Union Government and the Rakhine Government should ensure – and publicly state -that all communities in Rakhine have equal access to education, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, race, gender or citizenship status. The Government should remove movement restrictions that reduce access to education, and reverse discriminatory practices that inhibit students without citizenship from higher education.”
Before the final report, the Commission issued a set of interim recommendations on 16 March 2017. Government took initial steps to implement recommendations which the Commission welcomed. The military might have viewed the progress of the proceedings as ‘the beginning to place Rohingyas into the main stream of the population.”
It was military regimes that put Rohingyas outside the main stream of the population stripping of their citizenship in 1982 and introduced harsher policies to persecute including eviction, restricting movement, stopping access to health care facilities, education, jobs, etc. It seemed to have had become ‘now or never’ like situation for the military to stop implementation of the commission’s recommendations.
A plan to stall the report most likely began in March 2017 after the submission of the interim report and government’s steps to implement recommendations. The likely plan was to create a condition in the Rohingya dominated areas which will allow the military to intervene and drive out Rohingyas permanently and also put Kofi Annan Commission report in jeopardy.
In July 2017 Rakhine State’s Chief Minister urged the C-in-C to deploy military forces for the security of Rakhine population.Myanmar media reported force build-up beginning on 11 August 2017. Al Jazeera online 11 August 2017 also reported “News that an army battalion was flown into Rakhine… to boost security met criticism from UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee, who warned it was cause for major concern." The UN raised the alarm bell at reports of military build-up in northern Rakhine. Developing stories preceding ‘the Day’ culminated in ‘coordinated attacks’ on 25 August 2017 followed by genocidal crimes to evict Rohingyas from their homes.
Myanmar government daily the Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM) on line of 18 January 2018, 19 January 2018 and 20 January 2018 published “Photos and Information of ARSA Terrorists who involved in Maung Taw counter attacks on 25 August 2017.” GNLM printed photos of 765 Rohingya men and 205 women. GNLM did not clarify if Rohingya men and women were arrested after the incident or before the incident. Poor quality photos and ambiguous identity do not suggest that arrests were made after the incident. If such large number of ‘insurgents’ were arrested before the so called attack, then police and military should have had prevented the incident.
The ARSA story was also presented in the International Court of Justice in Hague.Myanmar’s State Counsellor told the court, “several thousand ARSA fighters attacking more than 30 police posts and villages, and an army base in northern Rakhine was to seize Maungdaw township”, responsible for the situation.
The story of “several thousand ARSA fighters” is not convincing by any assessment. If “several thousand ARSA fighters” had taken part in the attack then its actual force strength should have been far more and it should have been a well-organized and strong insurgent group like those on Myanmar’s eastern and northeastern borders. And such a large insurgent group would not ‘bob up and disappear’ overnight. What he could not tell the court in fear of ‘guns smoking at home’ that the ARSA drama was an enactment of the Tatmadaw to prevent communal reconciliation in Rakhine.
* Mohammad Abdur Razzak is a security analyst and retired Commodore of Bangladesh Navy. He can be reached at [email protected]