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Politics & Security

Achieving Peace in Myanmar, a Quest In Need of More International Support

Author Yohei Sasakawa, with long years of experience in Myanmar, explains the situation and seeks international support to build a lasting peace for the region.

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A residential area was developed on Bhasan Char Island, Bangladesh, where some Rohingya refugees have been relocated. (Courtesy of Yohei Sasakawa's blog)

Myanmar has been mired in a civil war between multiple armed ethnic groups and the national army for more than 70 years, ever since that nation achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948. Then in February 2021, the military undertook a coup d'etat. Since that time, civilian groups seeking democratization have joined the fray. As a result, Myanmar has fallen into even deeper chaos.

An aquaculture farm on Bhasan Char Island, Bangladesh. (Courtesy of Yohei Sasakawa's blog)

A Model for Refugee Relief

Since 2013 I have served as a special envoy of the Japanese government for national reconciliation in Myanmar. In that position, I have been working to achieve conciliation among the various parties. However, differences in ethnicity, culture, sometimes religion, and language, as well as the intentions of surrounding countries, have become intertwined in complex ways. As a result, every day I acutely feel how difficult it will be to achieve peace. 

Amidst these conditions, on April 6 I made my first visit to the remote island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal. Here the government of Bangladesh has moved forward with a resettlement plan to deal with the "Rohingya refugee issue," one of the thorniest problems related to the Myanmar situation. 

Young men are being taught new skills as mechanics on Bhasan Char Island, Bangladesh. (Courtesy of Yohei Sasakawa's blog)

There, I witnessed advanced initiatives aimed at encouraging self-reliance among the Rohingya. They gave me a strong feeling that this might serve as a model for future refugee relief efforts. 

Update on the Refugee Crisis

My efforts have been going on for more than a decade. Admittedly, they have been marked by bitter experiences and repeated failures. With that in mind, I have tried as much as possible to control what I say and maintain a posture of "silent diplomacy." 

Now for the first time, however, I would like to report on some of my activities to help readers comprehend just how difficult realizing peace will be. I will focus on my individual experiences in Rakhine State in Myanmar. 

In addition to the Bamar (Burmans), who make up roughly 70 percent of the population, Myanmar is home to more than 135 ethnic minorities. There are also now more than 21 major armed groups opposing the government. 

Altogether, I have visited Myanmar 157 times, including occasions before I became a representative of the Japanese government. As a result, in 2018 I played a role in negotiating and signing of a ceasefire agreement between 10 of these armed groups and the national army (Tatmadaw).

How a Humanitarian Ceasefire Collapsed in a Single Night

In what is now Rakhine State, there used to be a long-lasting Buddhist monarchy known as the Kingdom of Arakan. Also known as the Kingdom of Mrauk-U, it was destroyed by the Burmese kingdom in the latter half of the 18th century.

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The enmity between the two sides has continued ever since. And in recent years an armed group known as the Arakan Army (AA) has continuously engaged in fierce fighting with the Tatmadaw. 

After reaching out to both sides, in November 2022 we were able to come to an agreement on a humanitarian ceasefire. Our aim was to use the ceasefire period to provide humanitarian aid and allow local residents to experience the "fruits of peace."

That peace held for a year, with not a single shot fired. We even considered staging a commemorative ceremony to help this trend to take root.

Just at that point, while on a visit to Bangkok, Thailand, I received an emergency call on November 12, 2023. The caller informed me that large numbers of "national army and AA troops were facing off at close range, separated by only about 200 meters." Negotiating by phone until late at night, I was able to persuade the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief and the AA leader to agree to a mutual "troop withdrawal." 

Nevertheless, fighting resumed early the next morning when AA fighters launched attacks on two police posts in remote locations. I was deeply saddened since we had hoped this mutual ceasefire could serve as "one model for peace in Myanmar."

Elderly Rohingya refugees use hand fans to cool themselves in a heatwave. At Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on May 2, 2024. (@REUTERS by Ro Yassin Abdumonab)

A History of Friction

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have lived in Rakhine State for many years. There have been many cases of friction between them and the Rakhine people, who are Buddhist. Similarly, there has been friction with the Bamar. In 2017 the Tatmadaw swept through the areas where they lived. They forced around 700,000 Rohingyas to flee to the Cox's Bazar district in neighboring Bangladesh. Later, they built refugee camps for them there.

Nearly seven years have passed since then. Meanwhile, with the international community unable to come up with an effective solution, the population of the camps has swollen. 

In line with a decision by Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, in May 2020 a plan was put into effect to relocate some refugees to the island of Bhasan Char. Around 36,000 refugees have already been transferred there. 

The town is lively with rickshaws running around. On Bhasan Char Island, Bangladesh. (Courtesy of Yohei Sasakawa's blog)

Located approximately 60 kilometers off the mainland of Bangladesh, Bhasan Char is an island formed through the accumulation of earth and sand. It has a total area of roughly 50 square kilometers. 

In addition to residential areas surrounded by a 2.5-meter-high embankment, it has a hospital, a clinic, and a mosque. There is also a handicrafts center employing around 2,000 refugee women. Meanwhile, around 1,400 refugee fishermen have also found employment doing work such as hand-net fishing and aquaculture.

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Women are receiving embroidery instruction on Bhasan Char Island, Bangladesh. (Courtesy of Yohei Sasakawa's blog)

Supporting Relief Efforts

Unless a lasting ceasefire between the AA and Tatmadaw can be worked out, it will be difficult for the refugees to return home safely to a Rakhine State at peace. Even so, there is a strong sentiment that the island is merely a temporary abode until they can return home. But if the refugees return home, it will be essential to promote mutual understanding with other local residents while ensuring they have a stable base to support their daily lives.

Meanwhile, the ranks of refugees are increasing at various locations around the world. In that context, the Bhasan Char effort can be characterized as an advanced attempt at refugee relief. 

The Nippon Foundation has to date contributed a total of $7 million USD (roughly ¥1.05 billion JPY) in aid. It has gone to the development of educational facilities at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, the world's largest refugee camp, and lifestyle support projects on Bhasan Char. New housing that can accommodate 40,000 people has also been completed on the island, and we plan to provide another $2 million (~¥12,800) to support the relocation of refugees from their home region to the island. 

At this time, however, assistance for the Rohingya refugees from international organizations drying up due to competing demands of the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts. Therefore, I would like to appeal to the international community and Japan to further expand their support. 

Giving aid would help deepen our friendship with Bangladesh, which is already pro-Japan. Furthermore, it would foster trust in Japan among other Islamic nations.

Rohingya refugees cross a bamboo-made bridge during an ongoing heatwave in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, May 2, 2024. (@REUTERS by Ro Yassin Abdumonab)

A Never-Give-Up Spirit Is Needed

Meanwhile, let us turn our attention back to Myanmar itself where the civil war is intensifying. The collapse of the humanitarian ceasefire in Rakhine mentioned earlier shows how unstable and fragile any gains remain. That is all the more reason to try even harder.

Solutions must always be found at the site of the problem. With a never-give-up spirit, we are renewing our determination to discover a path for building peace in Myanmar. 

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(Read the Sankei Seiron column in Japanese.)

Author: Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman, Nippon Foundation
Follow this issue with the author on his blog.

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