Reshaping Engagement: Perspectives on Conflict Sensitivity in Rakhine State


Executive summary


This report is intended to serve as a platform: first to build common understanding across stakeholder groups on the current conflict sensitivity1 issues shaping Rakhine state, and second to provide a basis for joint action, where possible, to address the issues identified.

The information presented is a consolidation of perspectives from local and international actors in Sittwe, shared largely between September 2015 and March 2016. Interviewees were asked to describe and recommend ways forward to address the conflict sensitivity issues they deemed as most critical in the current Rakhine state context. The issues emerging as most impactful on local tensions were:

  1. Targeting in international humanitarian assistance

  2. Information sharing, communication and transparency

  3. Collaboration between local and international agencies

  4. Funding structures and approaches

  5. International media and advocacy narratives

  6. "Political play" and the role of government

  7. Relocation and returns of displaced populations

  8. Culture, attitude and behavior differentials

Perspectives on each topic are detailed in the main report. The summary observations below are based on analysis across all views presented.

Summary of findings

The factors shaping the conflict sensitivity landscape in Rakhine are highly interconnected. Actions and approaches taken in the context are therefore likely to have both observable, immediate impacts on local tensions and less apparent, but equally significant derivative effects. It will be critical for actors engaging in Rakhine state to analyze and meaningfully account for these multiple levels of impact.

The current situation presents opportunities, as well as challenges to address the conflict sensitivity issues identified in this report. Nearly all local actors consulted noted a recent reduction in tensions, both in terms of intercommunal and international/ethnic Rakhine dynamics, creating space for improved engagements.3

It will not be possible to capitalize upon present opportunities without deeper understanding and more sensitive practice at the policy level. Narratives failing to address the complexities of the conflict in an even-handed manner have played a substantial role in exacerbating existing grievances, intensifying resentment and competition and in fact increasing the intercommunal nature of the conflict. Influential national and international voices must tangibly and publically recognize the political, economic and demographic fears and grievances at the root of the conflict, and must acknowledge the challenges facing both ethnic Rakhine and Muslim groups.

Any overarching détente in Rakhine state will be improbable without prerequisite steps to lessen ethnic Rakhine grievances. Efforts pushing for significant changes to the status quo in the short term are likely to entrench current positions, obstructing possibilities for progress on intermediate measures to improve conditions for all groups. According to some local actors, for example, it may be possible to undertake discussions on increased access to services and livelihoods for the Muslim population over time, alongside provision of equal support to isolated ethnic Rakhine communities. However, until genuine steps are taken to alleviate present fears and grievances, space to explore such conversations will likely remain constricted.

Competing agendas, mandates and other relational issues between international agencies have high potential to impede timely, appropriate and effective engagement with local communities moving forward. Existing coordination mechanisms have been unable to remedy these problems, and require revisions to fit the changing environment. Interagency initiatives to improve conflict sensitivity and to engage with local populations must be undertaken collaboratively and with clear, depoliticized management arrangements.

Government and international actors have failed to sufficiently explain to local actors that the presence and extent of humanitarian programming to support internally displaced persons (IDPs) is a consequence of central Government decision-making. The Government-mandated model for displacement currently limits access of the Muslim IDP population to livelihoods and services. Further, local government departments and service providers have been allocated inadequate resources to support the IDP caseload independently. While this situation persists, the Government will continue to engage international agencies to provide support to the IDP population, and redirection of available international funding to development programming can only be partial. International actors must better communicate, and local actors must further consider the role of Government policies and of the current displacement model in shaping the allocation of international support in the state.

It is also important for local actors to recognize that the international community abroad, at Yangon level, and based in Rakhine state do not have one unified voice, approach, or position. Perceptions of international agencies operating in the Rakhine context should thus be determined on the basis of each agency’s specific approaches alone. Taking a differentiated view will open the space for more positive and effective engagement with those international actors who are willing to do so in a conflict sensitive manner.

In a context characterized by breakdowns in communication and trust, discourse itself has emerged as a conflict driver – both through individual narratives that promote tensions, and divergences between narratives that impede mutual understanding. In this light, there is high value in building awareness of these perspectives between stakeholder groups. It is important to note that in practical terms, the origin of – or agendas behind – popular narratives, and whether they are grounded in truth or misconception, is less important than the fact that they exist, are widely accepted, and will continue to the govern attitudes and behaviors of those engrained in the context. iii

Practical options for addressing conflict sensitivity issues identified

The following recommendations are based on the views presented in this report, and have been validated with international and local actors through feedback workshops held in Sittwe in March 2016. The practical measures outlined below are indicative and are offered as a starting point for discussion and planning.

For local and international agencies operating in central Rakhine state

  1. Build on ongoing collaboration between international and local agencies for disaster preparedness, agreeing institutional partnerships and delivery mechanisms in advance of predicted risks, such as critical water and food shortages, flooding, cyclone etc.

  2. Conduct consultation workshop(s) including local and international agencies for the purpose of informing future programming in ethnic Rakhine communities. Workshop objectives could include jointly identifying priority sectors and geographic areas for assistance, and exploring possible ways to collaborate on assessments, taking into account the comparative advantages and limitations of international and local agencies.

  3. Organize meetings between interested international and local agencies to discuss possibilities for an interagency capacity building initiative. This could include, for example, establishing partnerships between particular local and international agencies with similar program objectives, and identifying administrative and/or technical staff persons within the local partner organization who might spend a portion of time imbedded within finance, administration, or sectoral teams at international agencies.
    Experienced local staff from international agencies might also be seconded to local agencies for a period of time.

  4. Explore avenues for resourcing and implementing a Rakhine context orientation and training initiative. This could include, for example:

A curriculum and training program for all international agency staff new to the Rakhine context, including expatriates and local staff from other areas of Myanmar. The curriculum could provide an overview of local history, conflict dynamics, conflict sensitivity considerations and related topics. The training could be run quarterly, for example, with interested agencies signing on to send incoming staff upon their arrival. The curriculum could be designed in consultation with local agencies and/or other representatives from both ethnic Rakhine and Muslim communities.

A curriculum and training program for local agency staff, local staff from international agencies, and other target groups from the ethnic Rakhine community, providing an overview of international principles, methodologies, legal frameworks, and/or other topics. The topics could be determined jointly with local agencies.

  1. Agree and outline principles and recommendations for conflict sensitive donor engagement in Rakhine state, through facilitated dialogue between local and international agencies. Identify focal persons to explore possibilities for a follow-up consultation between donor representatives and field-level representatives (local and international) on the issues outlined. iv

> For international agencies operating in Rakhine state

  1. Draft simple communications materials in local languages, explaining organizational mandate, background and activities. Work closely with local staff to ensure appropriate language, tone, and dissemination plans.

  2. Arrange qualified interpretation at cluster meetings and other coordination forums, to enable inclusion of local staff in strategic discussions.

  3. Conduct a conflict sensitivity analysis of IDP returns and relocations, to link into ongoing end of displacement assessments.

For donors, including governmental, multilateral and private agencies

  1. Consider mechanisms for more rapid release of funds in case of disaster, complemented by increased funds and flexibility for prepositioning of disaster relief items into new and existing grants. Possibilities could include to agree in advance partnership with prequalified international and local agencies in Rakhine state for predicted disaster risks.

  2. Conduct field-level consultation with local and international actors on calls for proposals and funding priorities, e.g. through workshops to present plans and solicit feedback on potential conflict sensitivity considerations. Such efforts could link to broader consultations on implications of the shifting aid and development landscape in Rakhine.

  3. Explore possibilities for funding a standalone partnership program to facilitate ongoing collaboration between local and international agencies, beyond a sub-grant/project implementation basis. Such a program could, for example, provide resources for dedicated partnership management personnel within local and international agencies, include flexible funds for cooperation on small projects jointly determined by the local and international partners, and/or support local-international coordination and capacity building initiatives such as those described in the preceding set of options.

  4. In new calls for proposals, reframe social cohesion objectives for central Rakhine to prioritize activities which build attitudes and skills for rumor management, media literacy and dispute resolution within each communal group.

  5. Consider avenues to support advocacy and policy initiatives pursuing reform of central Government natural resource management. To complement this, explore possibilities for funding activities related to conflict sensitive business practice in Rakhine state.

  6. Allocate additional funds and time in projected work plans for capacity building of local staff, across both humanitarian and development grants.

  7. Support internally- and externally-generated strategies for aid and development assistance in Rakhine state that (a) recommend approaches that complement, rather than contradict, other key strategies being pursued for Rakhine state, and (b) are based on local consultation, tailored to fit the particular needs and dynamics of different geographic areas and populations.

  8. Incorporate into grant mechanisms more robust requirements for comprehensive conflict sensitivity mainstreaming throughout partner agency programming in Rakhine state.