Opinion

A time to talk and coexist: An open letter to Arakan Army chief Twan Mrat Naing

Some nations are decidedly multiethnic or multireligious—or, ideally, they could be, writes political scientist Nyi Nyi Kyaw on the future of Arakan

I never thought that I would be forced to write this open letter to you, Ko Twan Mrat Naing. We have never met, but I know much about you, as do millions of my fellow Myanmar people. 

I am a political scientist of Myanmar origin, specialising in the affairs of my homeland. As a specialist on the country of my birth and upbringing, I am not only personally but also professionally affected, for better or worse, by what happens in our shared motherland. For around 14 years, I have been researching how the complicated trajectories of the Rohingya crisis, Rakhine nationalism, your ongoing struggle for recognition and autonomy, as well as the military dictatorship intersect and feed into one another. We both know that the Rohingya crisis and the situation surrounding the military dictatorship in Myanmar are not improving—they are getting worse. 

One of the only sources of light at the end of the tunnel is the Rakhine struggle for recognition and autonomy under your able leadership. I have been particularly fascinated and impressed by the way you and your comrades in the Arakan Army have shed blood, sweat, and (probably) tears in the 15-year journey since its founding. You and your comrades are the embodiment of the past, present, and future of the Arakan or Arakkha nation. 

Having closely followed the re-emergence and growth of Rakhine nationalism, especially since 2012, and the challenges the Arakkha nation has faced in this long struggle, I can confidently say that you are the leader your community has been waiting decades for. 

The mention of the Arakkha nation brings me to my focus for this letter. Nations—including the Arakkha nation that you are trying to rebuild or build—are not created in a vacuum, nor are they easily resurrected and revived, especially when they have long been oppressed and suppressed, as you must now be very well aware. 

What has been happening in Myanmar since before its 1948 independence from Britain is the unfinished story of several nations. These include the Karen, the Kachin and the Arakkha, all struggling to build, rebuild, and revive after being at best neglected and at worst dominated and oppressed by the Bamar. 

There is a tendency to think of nations in exclusively ethnic, religious, or ethno-religious terms, but some nations are decidedly multiethnic or multireligious—or, ideally, they could be. The Arakkha nation would be best conceived as a multiethnic and multireligious entity.

In the struggle of nations, one is usually the oppressor and one is the oppressed. The (relatively) simple solution is for the oppressed nation to fight for freedom from oppression, but complications arise when two nations or peoples are involved in a contentious intercommunal relationship and at the same time face a common oppressor. 

Arakan is such a place, where two peoples, the Rakhine and the Rohingya, often see or are made to see each other in antagonistic terms, but both are oppressed by a common enemy: the Myanmar military.

A Rohingya family pictured in a camp for internally displaced persons in Sittwe, Rakhine State, in 2016 (Thin Lei Win / Myanmar Now)

It is not surprising if the Rakhine or the Rohingya are at times forced to neglect and forget the common enemy and instead fight among themselves; I think this is what has happened in Arakan in recent months, weeks, and even days. What is most important is making prudent decisions about how to deal with this situation. 

We both know that the Myanmar military dictatorship is getting weaker by the day. It is quite reasonable to predict that Arakan will soon fall back into the hands of its rightful owners, the people of the Arakkha nation, including the Rakhine, the Rohingya, and several other ethnic and religious communities. 

The Myanmar military excels at the classic divide-and-rule between different communities, causing each to become fixated on the other and neglect the common enemy. When they realised that they might not be able to dominate and control Arakan for much longer, the Myanmar military started using the old and dirty trick of driving a wedge between the Rakhine and the Rohingya. 

The fact is that the military desperately needs new recruits to use as human shields, porters, and fighters. They simply cannot recruit from the fiercely nationalistic Rakhine, so they turn to the Rohingya. Rohingya youth in particular and some older members of the community simply cannot say no to the military because they are under its absolute control. 

To complicate matters further, Rohingya armed groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation have entered the scene, aggressively recruiting from among Rohingya youth in northern Arakan and in refugee camps in Bangladesh, often with false promises of financial rewards and opportunities to take revenge on the Rakhine for events that may have happened between the two communities in the distant and recent past. 

I understand your frustration regarding how to deal with the new Rohingya recruits, whether they are forced, half-forced, or self-motivated, in the line of fire. But treating them on a par with the regular Myanmar military troops and killing or wounding them en masse in combat could tarnish the Arakan Army’s reputation.

I have been saddened to witness the war of words between you and Rohingya advocates and activists and your respective supporters on social media platforms such as X and Facebook. They accuse you of heavy-handedness while you, in turn, ridicule their rights-based criticism of your conduct. It is natural that words become weapons in times of war, even more so now that social media is the platform on which wars and revolutions are justified and marketed. Misinformation, disinformation and malinformation can also be rampant. Most of the time there are very few, if any, absolute truths; there are only relative truths. 

While people are being killed, forcibly displaced, and dispossessed, it is neither good nor desirable for any side to continue to fight over who is right or wrong. This is the time to stop arguing about whether to use the terms Rohingya or Bengali and shift the blame; this is the time to make (more) peace between the two communities, find common ground, and explore how to coexist in Arakan now and in the future. 

Building and rebuilding nations, including the Arakkha nation, is and can be violent. It is absolutely critical that violence is perpetrated only to the extent that is absolutely necessary: too much is ugly and will spoil the present and the future.

As you and they, as well as I, know, sooner or later the Rohingya and Rakhine will have to live as neighbours again in harmony, or Arakan will not be at peace. We cannot choose our neighbours, can we? The absence of peace, reputation, and development would be detrimental to the Arakkha nation for which you have worked tirelessly for 15 years or more.  

I am in close contact with various Rohingya stakeholders and opinion leaders in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, especially the educated Rohingya youth. They do not necessarily see naming, shaming, and blaming as the only and optimal way to find common ground between the two communities. Most say that they cannot wait to see compromise and negotiation take place before things get uglier. 

Conflict ends and is resolved when the parties involved, willingly or unwillingly, come to the negotiating table and find common ground. This cannot happen online. It has to happen face to face.

Nobody would deny that the Rakhine are more powerful than the Rohingya, thanks to your leadership and perseverance and the unity between you and your people. Because you are in a disproportionately powerful position, you may feel that it is up to them to approach you. But I believe it would be easier and quicker if you were the one to offer the olive branch first. 

To be a strong and successful military leader requires a good head of thought, which you clearly have. Yet to be a magnanimous leader requires a kind and beating heart, which I believe you also possess, but which needs to be shown. I cannot imagine how much good this would do for the Rohingya, the Rakhine, the Arakan Army, the Arakkha nation and the international community at large. 

Many would argue that politics is the art of the possible, following the words of German statesman Otto von Bismarck. I agree, but I would add that politics is also, or should be, the art of the desirable. It is my hope that your own politics will be a combination of both.

Nyi Nyi Kyaw is the International Development Research Centre (Canada) Research Chair on Forced Displacement in Southeast Asia at the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

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