Persecution and Politics: Interview with a Rakhine Law Student in Myanmar

The military coup in Myanmar has destabilized most of the country, but many in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, one of its poorest, see little difference between the old democratic regime and the military dictatorship.

The Rakhine, or the Arakanese, have suffered through British and Japanese colonialism, poverty, exploitation, and human rights violations. An 18 month-long internet blackout, political disenfranchisement, violent military crackdowns, a lack of proper humanitarian aid, and poverty have contributed to the apathy felt by many ethnic Rakhines with respect to the new military dictatorship’s destruction of democratic traditions and institutions.

Under the pretense of eradicating a local military group known as the Arakan Army which fights for Rakhine self-determination, the Burmese military has devastated the region while the democratic government turned a blind eye.

JURIST has interviewed an ethnic Rakhine law student in order to better understand the persecution of ethnic Rhakines in Myanmar and their quest for independence. This interviewee will not be publicly identified due to ongoing security concerns. For more information on the latest developments, please follow our Myanmar coverage

1) Tell us about the Rakhine people and your traditional home in the Rakhine State. 

The Rakhine State is a coastal territory in Southeast Asia. It is a mountainous area, bound on the west by Bangladesh. Legend holds hat the history of Rakhine dates back to 6,000 BC during the course of which has included rich cultural and literary traditions, and strong military protection. But the glory came to an end in 1785, after the invasion of the Burmese king. At present, there is a population of more than three million in Rakhine, from seven different ethnic groups, which combined make up the Arakanese, or the people of the Arakan Land. Most of the Rakhines live in Rakhine State, though there are also people of Arakanese descent in various other parts of Myanmar and India.

2) Being Rakhine in Myanmar, have you ever experienced discrimination or improper treatment because of your ethnicity? 

Historically, we Rakhines sought unity with other ethnic groups within the union of Myanmar. This attitude was reflected by the fact that the Rakhines banded together with other tribes of Myanmar in the anti-colonial fights against the British and Japanese. But ultimately our efforts seemed only to lead to broken promises and exploitation. Over time, we felt strongly that we were not being treated as equals by other parts of Myanmar. This seems to be related to the desire of others to exploit the abundance of natural resources in Rakhine State; geographically speaking, our land has all that it needs to become an economically important region; but most people who aren’t farmers in the region are jobless, and have to go abroad in search for work.

Despite its wealth of natural resources, the Rakhine State has, over time, become one of the poorest states in the country, and all of our key sectors, from education, to health, to the economy, are in decline. There is no industry zone and most of the locals are jobless. They have to go elsewhere in the country or abroad in search of jobs. Poverty and illiteracy are proliferating, causing conditions to continue to fall. While the country amasses wealth from our natural gas, many parts of the Rakhine State are lacking in such basic essentials as electricity. The Rakhines feel like they don’t belong in their own country.

In recent years, there has also been violence and enormous casualties and other problems in the Rakhine State. In particular, there was an internet blackout in the region, starting in June 2019, that set records because it lasted two whole years. During that time, there were many human rights violations by the military, a lack of information amid the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as most of the country went online for their studies during the health crisis, young Rakhine people lost access to their education because it was impossible to take classes online during that time. The locals felt like they were in a different world compared to the other states of Myanmar.

3) How would you describe the relationship between the Burmese government and the Rakhine people in Arakan State in the two or three years before the military coup?

Much of the current trouble started in 2015, when the National League for Democracy (NLD; [ed: Myanmar’s then-ruling party]) Government appointed one of their party delegates, Nyi Pu, as chief minister of the Rakhine State despite what appeared to be a landslide win in local elections for a representative of the Arakan National Party (ANP). In the aftermath, there were many battles between the Arakan Army and the federal military in Rakhine, and the locals had to flee for safety. The Parliament rejected proposals to provide much-needed resources for Rakhine refugees. The NLD Government claimed to be practicing democracy in Myanmar, but from our perspectives, they seemed to be misusing their authority. There were even allegedly personal threats made against government representatives who sought aid for the Rakhine people. These tensions continued into 2017 and 2018, at which point violence escalated and atrocities proliferated.

On the 21st of June 2019, internet access was shut down in the  Rakhine State, prompting many university students to protest, a lot of whom ultimately faced charges and imprisonment. Between military violence, arrests, and refugee status, so many civilians of the Rakhine State suffered, with no help from the government. In fact, it was worse than that; the NLD Government not only failed to lend a helping hand effectively but also restricted donations and supplies from the organizations saying that they needed to ask for permissions from the authorities first.

Another worrying trend included the interrogations and arrests of many young boys who the Burmese military accused of having had connections with the Arakan Army. Reports of torture and even deaths abounded. For instance, a local carpenter, Zaw Win Hlaing, was arrested, and then was beaten so harshly that he developed a kidney condition that killed him. To make matters even worse, many such cases weren’t even reported because of the internet blackout.

In July 2019, during a visit to a Rakhine township, [then-State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi] delivered a speech in which she said it was inconsiderate and cowardly to seek change with the use of weapons. While she didn’t mention the Arakan Army by name, it was obvious to the Rakhine People who she was referring to. The speech caused an uproar, locally. The local people felt that as a leader, she should have understood that oppression was the root cause of all of these issues, and she should have properly addressed the underlying problems, not just attempted to cast blame. It later emerged that the [then-] State Counsellor’s administration had ordered the military to “crush” the local Rakhine fighters. Against this backdrop, she praised federal military forces for their efforts in the Rakhine State, while as far as I know she never said a word of sympathy toward the Rakhine refugees. When social media caught wind of all of the troubles in the Rakhine State, our compatriots blamed the Rakhines and the Arakan Army. Since then, there has been a broad feeling of bitterness toward the government and the people of mainland Myanmar. So I think it can be said that the NLD Government was partially to blame for our lacking sense of belonging in our country.

4) How did Rakhine people react to the 2020 elections and the NLD victory?

On a whole, the Rakhine people felt the 2020 elections were unfair. Only the residents of four of the 17 towns in the Rakhine State were allowed to vote. While this policy was blamed on armed conflict, things were relatively calm in some of the towns where people were deprived of this right. Furthermore, there was relatively low voter interest in the region compared to the 2015 elections, probably due in part to the sluggish information flow caused by the internet shutdown, and campaign limitations caused by the pandemic. Not to mention the the 2015 elections did not instill confidence that our votes would matter.

All that said, I wouldn’t say there was a particularly strong local reaction to the NLD’s 2020 victory in large part because of compromised access to information; between the internet blackout and limited access to news, many people in the Rakhine State didn’t even know so many towns were unable to vote.

5) How do the Rakhine people feel about the military coup? 

Generally speaking, for the Rakhine People, the military coup doesn’t represent significant change, because the oppression we faced under the NLD Government and the Military were effectively one and the same. To us, it feels like we’re under the same dictatorship, but that’s now being led by a different figure head.

6) Would you support the return to power of Aung San Su Kyi?

To be honest, most Rakhines have no interest in the return to power of Aung San Su Kyi due to bitterness over her decision to side with the military during our conflict. In recent years, she has ignored oppression and injustice in our region, opting instead to work with the military. We do hope eventually that Myanmar will end up with a government that prioritizes fairness and equality for people of all ethnicities.

7) What is Arakan Army doing now? Has the regional conflict subsided? 

The Arakan Army has not faced combat in several months. From what I understand, our regional military leadership has become the de facto authority of the Rakhine State, and is focused for the time being on state-building exercises, related to everything from public health and combating drug abuse, to technology initiatives and so on.

8) What do you hope the future will hold for the Rakhine people? 

We don’t know what might happen in the future or how long this period of unrest will endure in Myanmar. The Burmese government in exile (National Unity Government; NUG) lacks both the de facto and de jure power to improve matters in the country. We all hope this will be the very last dictatorship our country will endure, and that ultimately, members of all ethnicities will one day be able to celebrate our achievements together. If the revolution is a success and a federalist government is formed, I am optimistic that matters will improve. Furthermore, I have faith that we will continue to seek our independence.

9) Do you think that Rakhine will declare independence? 

Locals believe that the independence of Arakan fully depends on the Arakan Army, which, as mentioned before, has gained de facto power in some parts of Rakhine, and is thus in control of local administrations, the judiciary and more. And they are acting quickly; in some provinces, they have already implemented their new policies. Of course we believe that if the army gains more and more power, they may consider a declaration of independence, building an independent nation. We hope that if this happens, this secession will take place under good terms with Myanmar.

10) How do you think Rakhine Independence would affect the Rakhine people, Myanmar and Southeast Asia as a whole? 

Of course there will be growing pains any time a territory secedes from a country it has been a part of for a long time. Of course we may suffer some difficulties because of how intertwined our systems of education, economics and more are with those of mainland Myanmar. But we believe these difficulties will be worth it. Furthermore, we have a lot to offer the the region; we have excellent industrial potential, and a wealth of natural resources, including natural gas, which will help us from an international commerce perspective.