CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Ethnic leaders in western Burma’s troubled Arakan State are planning to hold a major conference in April, which will include discussions of the security situation in the state.
At a press conference following a meeting of Arakanese politicians, women’s advocates and civil society groups in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai on Sunday, organizers announced that the conference will be held from April 27 to May 1 in Kyauk Phyu.
Head of the organizing committee, Thar Ban, said the conference would
promote “unity, equality and justice for the Arakan people, and foster a peaceful and developed Arakanese society.”
“[We] will discuss safety and security for the Arakanese and the root cause of the religious and communal strife in Arakan society,” said Thar Ban—who is also the patron of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD).
He said leaders would also discuss demands that the local population benefits from the major development projects underway in Arakan State that could bring large revenue to the government.
“We will also talk about resource sharing for the local residents from the economic development projects such as Kyauk Phyu’s special economic zone and the Shwe gas pipeline,” he said, referring to a major port development and a natural gas project that, along with a parallel oil pipeline, will open up a route for China to import transport fossil fuels directly from the Bay of Bengal.
He said representatives from all seven recognized ethnic sub groups in the state— Arakanese (Rakhine), Kwe Myi, Daingnet, Maramagyi, Mro (Wakim), Thet and Kaman Muslims—would be invited.
Rohingya Muslims, who are not a recognized ethnic group in Burma and are therefore barred from citizenship, will not be represented at the conference, despite making up a large proportion of those killed or displaced by inter-communal violence in the state since mid-2012.
In the most recent reported violence, a police officer went missing during a clash in Maungdaw Township in January. Dozens of Rohingya were killed in a subsequent crackdown, according to accounts cited by rights groups and the United Nations.
In September and October, the Kaman Muslim population in southern Arakan’s Thandwe Township was also hit by violence, when villages were attacked by mobs of Arakanese Buddhists.
Hla Saw, vice chairman of the conference organizing committee and secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said the state’s ethnic conflict had a long history that was often overlooked in the discussion of violence during the past two years.
“We need to discuss how to develop a specific strategy for the future of Arakan State, as we are now facing with great challenges…. [The challenge] of communal conflict is deep rooted,” he said, stressing that the problem could not be solved hastily.
“The international community and some media have been biased as they are not aware of the long history of conflict. Then radical Bengalis outside of the country have taken advantage of the political and media openness.
The two Arakanese political parties, the ALD and RNDP, are set to merge to form the Arakan National Party. The merger is awaiting official approval, but that is expected to come this month.
Hla Saw said the organizing meeting was held in Chiang Mai because some groups, like the Arakan Army, were still armed and could therefore be labeled unlawful associations by the Burma government.
He said he hoped all groups would be able to attend the conference inside Burma.
“We will have to discuss with the Myanmar Peace Center because of the participation of the exiled groups, such as those in Thailand or Bangladesh. We will have to talk with minister U Aung Min about their safety, to ensure legal action will not be taken against them as they have been outside of the country,” he said.
The conference will be the first meeting of all Arakan State’s recognized ethnic groups since a large conference in Myebon Township in 1946, two years before Burma’s independence.
In September last year, about 300 Arakanese from 17 townships across Arakan State attended an Arakan State Public Meeting in Rathaetaung Township, where inter-communal strife in the state was also discussed.