Many Arakanese in Myanmar’s Rakhine State were optimistic in the lead-up to the country's first openly contested elections in a quarter of a century, in 2015. There’s a stark difference five years on, as 8 November polls are clouded by an escalating civil war and voting cancellations across most of the state.
Conflict between the military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army – one of several ethnic armed groups pushing for political autonomy within Myanmar – has displaced roughly 227,000 people since late 2018. Citing insecurity, the government has cancelled voting for approximately 1.2 million, or 73 percent, of the state’s voters.
Frustrated by years of marginalisation, many Arakanese? – also known as Rakhine – say they’ve lost faith in a political process that has failed to address long-held grievances, while the conflict has exacerbated animosity towards the government.
*Arakanese: In 1989, Myanmar’s military government changed the English spelling of Arakan State to Rakhine State. But many among the state’s largest ethnic community self-identify as Arakanese, which is associated with descendants of an Arakan kingdom that dominated the region from 1430 to 1785.
“The actions and decisions of the government haven't improved anything in my life,” said La Pyae Htun, 28, a rice farmer from Kyauktaw, a northern township hit hard by the conflict. “After the war started, I lost my trust in the government.”
There’s a growing belief that the Arakan Army is more likely to deliver change than the electoral system – which many say is stacked in favour of the military and Myanmar’s majority Bamar population.
Conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw is the latest of several insurgencies launched by autonomy-seeking ethnic armed groups in multicultural Myanmar since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.
There’s long-standing bitterness among Arakanese toward domination by Myanmar’s majority Bamar. This traces back to the Burmese empire’s 18th-century conquest of a prosperous Arakan kingdom centred in the city of Mrauk-U, located in present-day northern Rakhine.
Here’s a timeline of how the conflict has evolved over the past decade:
“People think the Arakan Army needs strength in weapons and soldiers, and then it will have equal political opportunities when negotiating with the Tatmadaw and [the] government,” said Khaing Kaung San of the Rakhine State CSO Peace Committee, which includes civil society organisations involved in government-led discussions on ending Myanmar’s conflicts. “People are less interested in electoral politics and increasingly interested in military actions.”
In interviews with The New Humanitarian, Arakanese described feeling disconnected from a wider Myanmar nation and distrustful toward the ruling government, headed by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. They want to resolve the civil war, and believe the first step is for the government to promote dialogue with the Arakan Army and consult the Arakanese people.
For many, however, peace feels increasingly distant after two years of mounting violence and little compromise in a crisis that has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. The Tatmadaw has repeatedly refused calls to extend a nationwide coronavirus ceasefire to Rakhine. The government, in March, designated the Arakan Army a terrorist organisation and, in August, left the group out of peace talks aimed at reconciling Myanmar’s myriad conflicts.
“When we talk about the peace process, we are very far from sustainable peace,” said Arkar Maung, a 21-year-old university student in the state’s central Myebon township.
Optimism turns to distrust
Distrust in elections and the central government, and disappointment in the government-led peace process, have grown as the conflict has spiralled. But the aftermath of the 2015 national vote also helped fuel today’s misgivings.
A celebratory mood swept much of the country when the NLD overwhelmingly won nationally, marking the end of military rule and bringing Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner, to power.
There was optimism among Arakanese as well – but for different reasons. The Arakan National Party (ANP), which promoted self-determination for Arakanese people as well as improving development in the state, one of Myanmar’s poorest, took 22 of 35 seats in the state legislature, compared to eight for the NLD.
Yet hopes were darkened when the NLD-led government appointed its own party member to lead the Rakhine State cabinet.
“Even though the ANP won in 2015, nothing changed for the people,” said La Pyae Htun.
Oo Aung Than, founder of the Thazin Community Development Institute, a peace and development organisation, draws a direct link between the 2015 election’s shortcomings and support for the Arakan Army.
“During the past five years, the people became interested in armed revolution because the authority of members of parliament was very limited,” he said. “The people came to believe that armed revolution would be the best way to get back their rights.”
Bo Murn, 24, a civil society worker in the state’s northern Buthidaung township, supports this view.
“The political process didn’t offer any opportunities. But since the revolutionary process emerged, we have had a small chance to do something,” he said, referring to the Arakan Army’s fight for self-governance.
As the conflict intensifies, so does its humanitarian toll, while aid restrictions and a blockade on high-speed mobile internet have left many civilians feeling stranded.
Rights groups accuse Myanmar’s army of war crimes, including airstrikes, arbitrary detention, torture, and the burning of villages. Arakan Army forces are also accused of endangering civilians, intimidation, and abductions, including the recent kidnapping of three NLD candidates, for which they took responsibility.
Myanmar’s decision to cancel voting across most of Rakhine State means few Arakanese will head to the polls. But another community – the Rohingya – has been excluded from the start.
The Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship and basic rights over decades. Almost all Rohingya were barred from voting or running for office in 2015, although some were able to cast ballots five years earlier. Myanmar’s election commission has again excluded Rohingya voters and candidates this year.
Myanmar’s military is accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya, including the purge of more than 700,000 people to neighbouring Bangladesh starting in August 2017. Roughly 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, according to UN estimates, including 125,000 stuck in barricaded camps in central Rakhine.
The mainly Buddhist Arakanese and mainly Muslim Rohingya communities in Rakhine State have a complicated relationship. Sectarian violence in 2012 displaced more than 100,000 people, mostly Rohingya, and led to state-sponsored segregation that continues today – most visibly in the central Rakhine camps.
Humanitarian groups have had to tread carefully. Arakanese communities have at times accused aid groups of favouring the Rohingya. In the years following the 2012 violence, aggrieved Arakanese attacked aid workers and offices, leading some offices to shut down.
In 2015, some Arakanese politicians, including from the ANP’s leadership, pushed a hard line against recognising Rohingya rights. Today, the ANP’s messaging appears more focused on addressing Arakanese marginalisation.
As Arakanese communities find themselves under attack from Tatmadaw forces – including the same military units behind atrocities against the Rohingya in 2017 – views towards the Rohingya may start to shift, although the extent of this remains to be seen.
In a June interview with Coconuts, a regional media outlet, the Arakan Army’s commander, Maj. Gen. Twan Mrat Naing, promised support “to punish the perpetrators who committed mass atrocities against the Muslims in Rakhine State”. The best solution, he said, is “to help each other”. Last November, the Arakan Army and two allies issued a statement supporting attempts to prosecute the Tatmadaw for abuses – including those committed against the “Muslim minority” – in international courts.
In September, 29 Rohingya advocacy groups released a statement pledging solidarity with Arakanese victims of Tatmadaw violence. On 31 October, the same groups accused the Tatmadaw of trying to incite violence between Rohingya and Arakanese communities, including through the use of fake Facebook accounts.
Although his village has so far been spared direct attacks, La Pyae Htun’s township, Kyauktaw, has seen some of the worst violence. In September, for example, civilians in two villages were struck by artillery fire and more than 160 houses were burned, causing thousands to flee, according to the Development Media Group (DMG), a local news outlet. Villagers blamed the Tatmadaw for the violence.
Most people in La Pyae Htun’s village depend on seasonal agriculture to survive, but he doubts he’ll be able to work his rice fields during the November harvest season. “I hear artillery fire on a daily basis,” he said. “Even when I stay at home, I never feel safe.”
Many Arakanese also worry they can be arrested on suspicion of supporting the Arakan Army. DMG has counted at least 40 such arrests since July; some never returned home.
Arkar Maung, the student in Myebon township, told TNH he lives in constant fear. “Even though I haven’t done anything wrong, I never know when, where, and who might come to arrest me by labelling me one way,” he said.
Criticising the military or the government is also risky. Dozens of activists have been prosecuted or arrested in Rakhine State this year for protesting abuses or internet restrictions, rights groups say. The use of a law that criminalises online defamation has also surged under the NLD.
“I don’t fully trust anyone,” Bo Murn said. “Under this government, one word can send you to jail.”
May Thazin, a civil society worker, said she doesn’t feel secure even in the state capital, Sittwe. “If I see soldiers stationed as security forces, I feel uncomfortable,” she said. “They can confiscate our phones anywhere, anytime.”
Chief among grievances, however, are internet restrictions beginning in June 2019. The government said the restrictions – initially a total blackout across eight townships affecting more than one million people – were aimed at preventing terrorism. It restored 2G services in August, but continues to block faster 3G and 4G connections.
Arakanese say they depend on the internet for potentially life-saving information about military clashes and the coronavirus, as well as online cash transfers and vital business and education opportunities.
“Access to information is dark,” said Arkar Maung. “When someone shares some news, I don’t know if it’s true or not.”
Breaking the deadlock
Gaining a foothold in national politics is an uphill battle for the many parties representing Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.
The military still plays an outsized role in politics: One quarter of seats in Myanmar’s national and state legislatures are reserved for military appointees. Suu Kyi’s NLD is widely expected to win the most votes of any party nationwide, though several ethnic parties have floated the idea of forming a coalition to increase their influence.
But the October decision to cancel elections in select townships disproportionately affects ethnic minorities. In addition to nine of Rakhine’s 17 townships, voting has also been scrapped in parts of Kachin, Chin, Karen, Mon, and Shan states, which are home to other minority communities. The International Crisis Group has warned that the cancellations – and the election results themselves – are likely to add to minority grievances with electoral politics, worsening ongoing conflicts.
The Arakanese who spoke to TNH won’t be able to vote. Those who had planned on voting said they supported Arakanese parties, hoping for a broader coalition or local representation. Others had already given up on the electoral process.
After seeing little change since the 2015 elections, La Pyae Htun said he’s no longer interested in politics. “I don’t expect anything to change here if Arakanese parties win,” he told TNH in an interview before the cancellations were announced. “It will again be meaningless for us.”
Oo Aung Than, the civil society worker, planned to run for office under the ANP banner, but had to end his campaign when voting was cancelled in his constituency, leaving the seat empty. “The NLD, which was once fighting against dictatorship, is hoarding power like a precious stone,” he said. “Only the people [in power] changed, but the system stayed the same.”
In order to break the deadlock, many Arakanese say it’s crucial for the government to include the Arakan Army in the peace process.
“By focusing on eliminating the Arakan Army and increasing Myanmar troops in Rakhine… there will not be positive change, but military operations will expand and the political framework will narrow,” said Khaing Kaung San of the Rakhine State CSO Peace Committee.
Htoot May, a prominent Arakanese politician, said the government should remove the Arakan Army’s terrorist designation, release political prisoners, and “listen carefully to the voices of ethnic people”.
“Without recognising ethnic armed organisations, if the Tatmadaw keeps doing counter-insurgencies, neither short- nor long-term peace will be achieved,” she said.
As the conflict smoulders, many Arakanese see a widening gap between themselves and their country.
“When we talk about a Myanmar nation, I feel one group of people is in control,” said Arkar Maung.
“Myanmar history is Bamar history; Myanmar language is Burmese language,” he added, recalling an education not inclusive of his native Arakanese culture.
“I’m living as a Myanmar citizen,” said La Pyae Htun. “But I don’t feel like one.”
Arkar Maung, Bo Murn, La Pyae Htun, and May Thazin are pseudonyms for interviewees who asked that their real names not be used due to fear of reprisal.
Illustrations by Thu Ra Kyaw, a watercolour and acrylic artist from Rakhine State living in Yangon. Illustrated quotes by Ayumi Bennett.