Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the East Asia Summit in Singapore last week and was reported to have offered New Zealand assistance in helping to resolve the immediate Rohingya crisis and the longer term ethnic and religious tensions affecting Rakhine State, home to the bulk of the Rohingya population in Myanmar.

This will be a complex challenge for New Zealand diplomacy.

I was assigned by the UN to Myanmar in August 2015. The first democratic election was due to be held in November of that year. It seemed to me, arriving from Kabul, that Yangon was electric with campaign fever and there was a real sense that positive political change was in the air.


The election was held and Aung Sung Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won an overwhelming mandate. After some skilful political wrangling, Aung San Suu Kyi become State Counsellor, in effect de facto leader of the country.

The world applauded and all seemed to be going well.

Fast forward to 2018 and things have not gone so well for Myanmar's democracy or for Aung San Suu Kyi's democratic and human rights reputation. Rakhine and the Rohingya crisis have been largely responsible for this.

After arriving in Rakhine State, my home for the next three years, meetings with the Chief Minister, Security Minister, police chief, community leaders, monks, Muslim clerics and ordinary citizens gave me a growing understanding of the complexity of the deep religious and ethnic divisions present in the local community.

These tensions in Rakhine were not a simple Muslim Rohingya versus ethnic Buddhist Rakhine division but a three way conflict involving the ethnic Rakhine majority, the ethnic Burmese who still dominate the government and the military in Myanmar and the Muslim Rohingya.

The Rakhine have a proud sense of their own separate identity from the rest of the 135 diverse ethnic groups who make up modern Myanmar. Rakhine harbour a deep historic sense of grievance against the Burmese and see them as dominating Myanmar's military and central government.

Rakhine State, rich in oil, gas, other natural resources and tourism potential, receives little direct benefit from its rich resources. This is deeply resented by Rakhine nationalists. For many Rakhine, Aung Sung Suu Kyi is seen more as a Burmese nationalist than as Daw (Honourable Mother) Aung Sung Suu Kyi.

Many Rakhine still talk about the Burmese king who conquered the separate Rakhine kingdom in 1785 and destroyed their ancient capital of Mrauk U - an event as important and as real today for many Rakhine as it was over 200 years ago.


Burmese on the other hand have a view of the Rakhine as militant and dangerous. There is a well repeated Burmese proverb that states "if you are unlucky enough to meet a Rakhine and a cobra on a mountain trail kill the Rakhine first".

A Rakhine ethnic insurgent group, the Arakan Army (the AA), has been fighting with some success against the Myanmar military for years. Having ethnic Rakhine attention focused on hostility toward the vulnerable Rohingya minority certainly has political and military advantages for the central authorities, particularly the military.

Both the Rakhine and the Burmese are primarily Buddhist and Buddhist religious identity is strong in both communities. The Rakhine and the Burmese see the Rohingya as a legacy of British colonial rule and alien to Buddhist identity.

It was under British rule (1826-1948) that Rakhine State's rich potential for rice production was commercially developed and migrant labour was brought from Bengal to join the small Muslim community that had been present in Rakhine State for many centuries.

By 2017 Rohingya represented around 37 per cent of Rakhine State's population. Little intermarriage has occurred. Religious, cultural and linguistic differences have helped keep the two groups separate.

In World War II Rakhine fighters supported the Japanese and Rohingya fought on the side of the British. Serious ethnic cleansing and violence lives on in the folk memories of both communities.

These intersecting historic and ethnic tensions are compounded by a deep economic and employment crisis affecting Rakhine State.

Rakhine is one of the poorest states in Myanmar with little transport or roading infrastructure, inadequate health and education services and few jobs for a growing population. An estimated 43.2 per cent of the population live below the poverty line of US$1.25 a day.

Local politicians and communities are desperate for the new government to start to address these acute needs. So far there has been little real progress.

Simple and quick solutions to solve the crisis are unrealistic. Only longer-term development support, reconciliation initiatives that bring different groups together, support to strengthen the rule of law and measures that address the real needs and fears of the whole population will make a genuine difference.

Many will be very pleased to see our Prime Minister offer New Zealand assistance to help address the complex needs in Rakhine State. New Zealand did make a real difference in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands in similar (but less complex) ethnic crises.

We did this by focusing on community engagement at the grass roots level, by providing security initiatives that helped make people and communities feel safer and by focusing on local sustainable development initiatives.

We have the experience to help with these sorts of initiatives in Rakhine State.

• Chris Carter was a minister in the previous Labour-led Government and is a former UN Senior Adviser for Rakhine State.