- Myanmar in 2019:Rakhine Issue, Constitutional Reform and Election Fever
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Since it came to power in March 2016 after winning in a 2015 election landslide, 2019 has perhaps been the most problematic year thus far for Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD) government. The long-standing Rakhine issue, the initiation of a parliamentary constitutional reform process, and early election fever are some of the key developments to have dominated Myanmar's political attention in 2019. These high-level political events, mainly involving the executive and legislative branches, were accompanied by growing public distrust in the judiciary and the police. All these factors posed challenges for Myanmar in 2019, with considerable implications on the country's domestic and international fronts. Economically, Myanmar was working quite well, though some challenges remain.
The Rakhine Problem: Domestic and International Aspects The Dual Rakhine Problem
Until early 2019, the "Rakhine problem", both within and outside Myanmar, was almost exclusively Rohingya-centric. Before the eruption of inter-communal violence in Rakhine State in 2012, the problem had not been envisaged as a Rakhine problem. The issue was merely referred to as the "Rohingya problem", "conundrum" or "crisis". After the 1990s, the Rohingya problem was framed internationally as an insurmountable crisis of forced migration and statelessness. Following the first and second Rohingya mass exoduses in 1978 and 1991–92, [End Page 235] the Rohingya problem was respectively constructed by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) government (1974–88) and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) government (1988–97) as a colossal problem of (illegal) colonial migration, armed insurgency, and secession.
The dominant issue among Rakhine affairs remained the Rohingya problem, even after the outbreak of inter-communal violent and non-violent conflicts between Rohingya/non-Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists from 2012 onwards, the emergence of a Rohingya "insurgency" led by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) from 2016 onwards, and the third Rohingya mass exodus from August 2017 onwards. These new problems have added two more layers to the Rohingya problem. First is the internal displacement of more than 100,000 Muslims in camps in Rakhine state. Second is a new protracted refugee situation that saw 909,000 Rohingyas being stranded in camps in Bangladesh as of March 2019, after about 745,000 Rohingyas fled following the Myanmar military's "clearance operation" in response to the ARSA attacks in August 2017.1
However, in January 2019 the Rakhine problem became more complex after the Rakhine ethnonationalist Arakan Army (AA) launched attacks on 4 January—the date on which Myanmar's Independence Day fell. The Rakhine problem now concerns two main parties: Rohingyas and Rakhines. Undeniably, the Rakhine people began to be embroiled with the Rakhine problem from 2012 onwards after Rakhines criticized the international community for the Rohingya-centric worldview and advocacy for Rohingyas' rights. However, the Rakhines were treated more as a nationalist, anti-Rohingya "troublemaker" than as an important actor or decision-maker, not just by the government and people of Myanmar but by the larger international community. The AA insurgency changed that, with the Rakhines now constituting a serious player on the political chessboard that must be satisfied.
Rohingyas and Rakhines have experienced inter-communal tensions and episodic violence with each other before, but since 2012 their relations have grown more inter-communal, riotous and identitarian. More importantly, their respective relations with the military and state of Myanmar have gradually become increasingly armed, violent and rebellious, leading to domestic and international repercussions.
The Rohingya Problem: Domestic and International Repercussions
The situation of the Rohingyas considerably deteriorated following the spate of inter-communal violence in 2012, as Myanmar underwent its transition from military [End Page 236] dictatorship (1988–2011) to electoral democracy. The situation further deteriorated after the ARSA carried out attacks on police outposts in 2016 and 2017 that sparked the clearance operation by the Myanmar military and the consequent third Rohingya exodus. In a repeat of the aftermaths of the first two exoduses, Myanmar initially issued a blanket denial of wrongdoing and repression, but later acceded to repatriation because of pressure from Bangladesh and the...