In a country convulsed with weeks of protests against military rule, people in the war-torn northern half of Myanmar's Rakhine state are standing down — out of fear, ambivalence, and, in some quarters, support for the ouster of the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, local residents told RFA.
The northern townships of Rakhine have been a war zone for two years, with the conflict between Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) having killed 300 civilians, injured more than 700, and, at its peak, displaced roughly 230,000 people to makeshift refugee camps.
On top of enduring widespread atrocities committed by government troops over the past two years, the citizens in the northern half of Rakhine were disenfranchised in the November 2020 elections after Myanmar election authorities cancelled voting due to security concerns, and then ruled out a make-up vote.
The fresh grievances are part of what the predominantly Buddhist Rakhines, a population of some 2.2 million also known as Arakanese, say is a long history of neglecting their interests and rights in what they consider to be their historic homeland on the Bay of Bengal coast next to Bangladesh.
Security is yet another reason that northern Rakhine citizens aren’t taking to the streets, despite a de facto cease-fire in their region since the Nov. 8 election.
“We are already under military rule. If we go out into the streets and protest, it could result in heavy causalities,” said a young resident of Mrauk-U township who declined to give his name.
He recalled a rally in January 2018, when officials banned an annual Buddhist event marking the fall of the ancient Arakan kingdom in Mrauk-U 233 years earlier, sparking protests and the attempted takeover of a government building that was met with police gunfire that killed seven people and injured 13 others.
“We learned our lesson,” the resident said. “We prefer a civilian government without a doubt, but under the given situation in our region, we have to stay quiet to be safe.”
No differences between NLD and junta
In the southern half of Rakhine state, which has a lower percentage of ethnic Rakhines and has been largely free of conflict, activists and civil servants joined the nationwide wave of anti-coup protests that has drawn up to a million people since the military took over the Myanmar government on Feb. 1.
Several northern Rakhine residents said they see little difference between Aung San Suu Kyi’s deposed civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government and the junta and will not protest against the military regime that ended democracy because Rakhines never enjoyed it in the first place.
“We don’t like the dictatorship no matter what, but the interests of Rakhine people have been ignored under the civilian government for the past five years,” said Nyo Aye, chairwoman of activist organization Rakhine Women’s Network.
“This is the widespread sentiment among our people,” she added.
Rakhine-based political analyst Soe Naing Htun said residents largely believe that the previous civilian administration was not any different from the current military regime.
“Under the past five years of the NLD government, there have been successive armed conflicts, combat, and human rights violations,” he said.
“The civilian government didn’t do anything to protect the local citizens.” he said. “They did nothing but aid the persecution, so there is a widespread opinion among the Rakhine public that it won’t make any difference.”
Before the Arakan Army hostilities flared up, northern Rakhine erupted in brutal communal violence pitting Rakhines against Rohingya, culminating in a scorched-earth military crackdown that killed thousands of the ethnic Muslims and driving more than 740,000 others into neighboring Bangladesh.
ANP wants concessions
In another sign of low trust in the civilian government, the Arakan National Party (ANP), whose lawmakers hold the majority of seats in the Rakhine state parliament, have agreed to join the State Administration Council, the formal name of the junta government, in exchange for concessions from the regime.
The ANP wants the AA, a 12-year-old force thought to have 7,000-9,000 fighters, and its political wing, the United League of Arakan, removed from the official list of designated terrorist groups. It also seeks the release of Rakhine political prisoners, including politician Aye Maung and social critic Wai Hin Aung, and civilians arrested and charged for allegedly abetting the AA.
Some local residents told RFA that they supported the arrests of Aung San Suu Kyi, Rakhine state minister Nyi Pu and other leaders, though they did not condone the military coup.
But Tun Lwin, a resident of Kyaukphyu township, said Rakhines should participate in the protests against the military regime without backing the NLD.
“I think we should go out onto the streets and participate in the protests to fight against the 2008 constitution and the military regime,” he said. “The cause should not be to fight for the NLD party.”
Social worker Soe Naing, who lives in the state capital Sittwe, said that Rakhines are confronting a risky choice between local, immediate interests and long-term objectives.
“For the best interest of Rakhine state alone, I welcome and support the ANP’s decision to cooperate with the military,” he said.
“But if you look at it from the perspective of contributing to the military dictatorship, then the ANP will go down in history as a traitor,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.