NEW YORK (IINA) – A top United Nations official is warning that the ongoing violence in Myanmar’s west is in danger of “getting out of hand,” and is asking the country’s leaders to be more assertive in resolving historic problems faced by the area’s Muslim and Buddhist communities.
Earlier this week, the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Myanmar Vijay Nambiar told Anadolu Agency that deadly October 9 attacks on police stations in Rakhine State were condemnable, but laid bare “a deep-seated malaise in the place itself.”
He outlined a rising desperation felt by Rohingya Muslims in the area, saying that the government had not done enough to address the “anxiety and insecurity” they felt.
“For almost three years, there hasn’t been any major outbreak of violence in Rakhine, even though the 2012 events were a pointer,” Nambiar said, referring to inter-communal violence in Rakhine in which more than 100 people — mostly Muslims — died and over 100,000 were displaced. “We had been bringing this to the notice of the government and telling them that unless some action was taken to address some of the root causes, it was likely that this would erupt once again.”
Since October 9, Myanmar has said that at least 94 people — 17 police and soldiers and 77 alleged “attackers” (including six who reportedly died during interrogation) — have been killed and some 600 suspects have been detained for alleged involvement in attacks on police stations and during a subsequent military crackdown.
The government said Monday that the arrests were continuing, and a further “Muslim man” had been shot dead “as he attacked police.”
Rohingya advocacy groups, however, claim around 400 Rohingya — described by the UN as among the most persecuted groups worldwide — were killed in the military operations in an area which has been closed to aid agencies and independent journalists.
Nambiar said that the operations had seen houses burnt, villages kept under lockdown, while at least 21,000 Rohingya are reported to have fled across the border into neighboring Bangladesh.
The security apparatus has been “defensive rather than proactive,” he underlined.
On Monday, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi thanked Myanmar’s neighbors at a regional meeting for their offers of help in resolving the “complex and long-standing” issues at the heart of disturbances in Rakhine.
Myanmar has highlighted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s non-interference principle in its response to countries accusing it of human rights atrocities in its treatment of Rohingya, stressing fellow member Indonesia’s “positive and constructive” approach while criticizing Malaysia, whose prime minister has referred to Myanmar’s treatment of the ethnic minority as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.”
On its western border, however, is non-ASEAN member Bangladesh, from where Myanmar originally accused many of the attackers of entering and which has also had to cope with a wave of Rohingya fleeing the military clampdown.
Nambiar told Anadolu Agency that in talks with representatives in Bangladesh, he had learnt that the country had been “very constructive” in its cooperation with the Myanmar government.
“In fact, they even handed over some of the people who they felt were attackers to the Myanmar authorities, and they also asked that the situation be addressed very seriously so that the threat of a large exodus of population from northern Rakhine to Bangladesh could be averted.”
Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar for decades, with a new wave of migrations occurring since mid-2012 after communal violence broke out in Rakhine between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya.
The violence left more than 100 people dead, over 100,000 (primarily Rohingya) displaced in camps and more than 2,500 houses razed — most of which belonged to Rohingya.
Members of the minority were also not allowed to stand or vote in Myanmar’s 2015 elections, which Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide, as Myanmar does not see them as nationals.
Despite being accused of indifference to the Rohingya and their suffering, Suu Kyi has long said that the situation in Rakhine is economic, not political, as she strives to balance calls for intervention from the international community with anti-Muslim cries from nationalists — many of whom voted for her party — back home.
Talking to Anadolu Agency, Nambiar underlined that he too sees economic development — along with human rights — as a solution to the problems in the region, but primarily the government needed to find ways to convince the community that it would protect them. “An element of reassurance has to come to the local community,” he said.
“For a variety of reasons, the local communities are very, very highly agitated, and see [military operations] as a threat to their existence, so as long as this sense of either you or me, this kind of zero-sum game, continues, it will be very difficult to see that kind of harmony building.”
He stressed, however, that the situation has not been helped by a “somewhat knee-jerk” reaction from the army and local authorities to communal violence.
“Whenever they face this threat, they automatically want to close the entire situation, seal up the situation and deal with the threat and the problem. That in the past has resulted in the problem actually festering.”
Nambiar called on the new government — the country’s first fully democratic body in more than 50 years — to work closely with its old foe, the military.
“[Suu Kyi] has to work with the army and the army has to work with her. She needs to be a little more assertive in taking action to reassure both the local population and international community and I have confidence that she will do that,” he said.
“I do feel and I am convinced that her intentions are to actually solve the larger problems.”
Nambiar said that the initial step is to reassure the communities that they are safe and in good hands, and then the government needs to restore citizenship rights to the presently stateless Rohingya.
Many nationalists refer to Rohingya as “Bengali,” which suggests they are interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh and fuels the notion that they don’t belong in Myanmar.
“During the  census process, the minister for population said that he had no doubt that the overwhelming majority of… what he called the Bengalis… would be entitled to citizenship. He in fact told me this,” Nambiar said.
He underlined that the situation in Rakhine is far more complex than it at first seems, and that everyone involved needed to ignore knee-jerk reactions and see the situation for what it is.
“This is a very complex problem. It is a long-standing problem and the cure for this is to address the substantive issues and the root causes,” he said.
Nambiar spoke of his fears that the situation could now get out of hand.
“But I think the government is aware of it. By and large, they recognize the seriousness of this issue,” he said.
Vijay Nambiar is a seasoned career diplomat from India. A former Ambassador to the United Nations, he held several high-ranking positions in the global body, including Chef de Cabinet and Under-Secretary-General. He has been Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Myanmar since 2010.