The organizers of this Seminar, held on 16 July 2020, initiated the first ever webcast discussion on the sensitive subject of reconciliation and cooperation between the two largest ethnic communities of Rakhine – Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The discussion took place against the backdrop of the intensifying  armed revolt against the central government in Naypyidaw by the region’s Buddhist Rakhine  and the genocide case against Myanmar at the world’s highest court – the International Court of Justice.

The seminar  triggered  a considerable interest internationally, attracting  researchers, NGO experts, human rights activists from Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, S. Africa, and N. America. Within hours, the Facebook LIVE webiner received more than 10,000 views.

Chaired by Dr Michael W. Charney, a leading scholar on Rakhine and professor of international security studies and Asian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London,  the seminar brought together a group of well-known activists and international scholars. This included two leading Rohingya campaigners from Germany and USA, a young Rakhine leader and scholar from Myanmar, an international law scholar and atrocity prevention expert from the USA, a renowned Bangladeshi scholar of refugees and migratory movements, and a UK-based leading Burmese genocide scholar-activist.

Opening the seminar

In his opening remark, Professor Charney highlighted the regressive evolution of Arakan (Rakhine’s historical name), which has been under Burmese rule since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. Charney said pointedly, “Arakanese who had always enjoyed a good relationship between people of different religions and cultures were turned against each other and these ethnic and religious differences were politicised. Arakan went from a place of inclusivity and wealth to a place of exclusivity and poverty.”

Aung Thein Twan, a Rakine panelist who joined the discussion from Sittwe, Myanmar, echoed SOAS expert’s view. Twan called attention to the fact that  a new generation of Rakhine activists have embarked on a movement aimed at reclaiming the historic and inclusive and cosmopolitan identity – namely Arakanese. The term Arakanese transcends differences in faith and disparate and ethnic identities of all inhabitants of the formerly independent kingdom, which was first colonized by the neighbouring Burmese in 1785 and subsequently annexed to British India in 1824.

From the perspective of Rakhines, Mhyanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948 was merely the release from the clutch of the White Man’s colonial rule into that of the pre-British colonizers next door, namely Myanmarese or Burmese, also predominantly Buddhist.

US-based Rohingya panelist, Sharifah Shakirah, who founded and led the Rohingya Women Development Network in Malaysia, where she grew up as a refugee from Myanmar, reminded the audience that both Muslim Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists had lived together peacefully for several centuries before successive colonial regimes who have played these two largest ethnic blocs of Rakine of Arakan against each other.

The co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition who has been pushing for Rakhine-Rohingya reconciliation based on mutual respect for the rights of each ground, including the right to self-identify as Rohingya, concurred with other two panelists. Lwin said, “Arakan belongs to all, but Myanmar genocidally purged hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from Arakan.”  He also offered his endorsement for the Rakhine people’s quest for self-determination.

Arakan Army (AA), representing and predominantly made up of Buddhist Rakhine, has been engaged in fierce battles in Rakhine and adjacent Chin state in Myanmar since AA launched daring military raids on Burmese military targets and outpost on Myanmar’s Independence Day,  January 4 – last year (2019).

Dr C. R. Abrar, Executive Director of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, offered a view from Bangladesh which prioritises the repatriation of the 1 million Rohingya refugees on its soil since 1990’s. He stressed that in light of Myanmar’s lack of coooperation or will to receive the survivors of its genocide, Bangladesh policy makers must appreciate the need for reconciliation between the two largest resident communities in Rakhine and “create pressure on the global community for reconciliation.”  He noted that there can be “no repatriation without reconciliation.”

Most poignant moment

Perhaps the most poignant moment was when Rakhine panelist Aung Thein Twan publicly acknowledged that his fellow Rakhines had joined the Burmese troops in previous waves of  genocidal crimes against Rohingya people in 2012 and 2016, and said Rakhines had bought into the relentless propaganda that Muslims are going to take over the predominantly Buddhist region of Rakhine or Arakan.

Dr Katherine Southwick who worked as a clerk in the Yugoslavia Tribunal and on the promotion of the rule of law in Southeast Asian countries provided an overview of justice mechanisms, and their potential positive impact and limitations while encouraging the affected communities in Rakhine to leverage these processes, as well as international community’s attention and resources, toward those ultimate goals of reconciliation.

Concurrently,  a number of global accountability and justice processes within the UN global governance system are moving forward on Myanmar’s international crimes.  Among them are the UN-established International Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar (the evidence-archive and documentation project) in Geneva; the full investigation of Myanmar’s international crimes by the International Criminal Court; the Gambia vs Myanmar genocide case at the International Court of Justice; and the Universal Jurisdiction case filed with an Argentinian court by the Burmese Rohingya Organization, UK, against Myanmar’s perpetrators and leaders.

Dr Maung Zarni, FORSEA co-founder and one of the  seminar organizers, said,

Our seminar today embarked on the long term program of de-imagining and de-colonizing Myanmar as an internally colonial state and re-imagining a new type of genuinely post-colonial society and a cluster of autonomous regions with a set of inclusive national and regional identities based on common good, multiculturalism, and respect for all faiths.

Zarni observed that the problems facing Rakhine region and its communities are the direct outcome of the categorical failures of the majoritarian ethnic Burmese, both military and civilian politicians, who have had 70-years to build the post-independent country into a peaceful and developed multi-ethnic nation. Other non-majoriity ethnic communities such as Chin, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Karen and Karenni also have been subjected to various types of crimes against humanity by the central Burmese state.

In his concluding remarks, Zarni urged the panelists to reclaim the original vision of Myanmar which principally rested on the twin pillars of ethnic group equality and self-determination.

Watch Seminar

“What Future for Rakhine?: End Games for the Arakanese
(Rakhine, Rohingyas and Other Co-habitants)

* Please note: Comments made in this webinar are the responsibility of individual speakers only and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisers of the event.


Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect FORSEA’s editorial stance.

Posted by FORSEA