For the present, approaches by the ULA towards the Rohingya issue need to be analyzed based upon two key issues: its policy stand on the question of a repatriation process, and its governance policy toward the Rohingya community inside Arakan.
On 19 September 2022, for the first time since the 2017 ‘regional clearance’ operations by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya population in north Arakan, the ULA/AA spokesperson stated the movement’s position on refugee repatriation from Bangladesh:
"Some people consider the ULA has a responsibility for the resolution of the Rohingya crisis. If it is to be so, there shall be two things. First, the international community and Bangladesh should recognize the ULA/AA as the main stakeholder in the resolution of this crisis. Secondly, Bangladesh and other Great Powers, including the United Nations, should give full support and stand together with us."
To date, there have been few visible responses from the Rohingya population or international community on the ULA’s position. But this policy statement can be seen as a more active move by the ULA leadership regarding refugee repatriation and resolution of the Rohingya crisis as a whole. In a highly difficult landscape, ULA leaders have always regarded the issue as a political suicide that could bring them into the ‘enemy’s trap’ – a reference to the political ‘divide-and-rule’ games played by the Myanmar military.
Indeed, after the ULA statement, there were rumours of political plots in Rakhine State by the SAC involved from behind. These included the secret distribution during the night of pamphlets in markets and houses in urban areas of Mrauk-U and Sittwe asking: "Why are there Bengali people in the AA if they march in line with the “Way of Rakhita?" and ‘Do you know that the AA is supported by the OIC and Muslim countries?’ At the same time, some pro-SAC media also started to raise provocative questions like ‘Why did the AA say to receive back Bengali refugees if they are really fighting for the Rakhine people?’
As history has shown, there are no easy answers for those seeking to accelerate the finding of just solutions. The Rohingya crisis has become a complex admixture of various components, including the protection of human rights, the rights to citizenship, international investigations by the ICJ and International Criminal Court, grievances over communal violence, competing historical narratives, and perceived threats of political extremism. The outcome is a highly polarized environment and different opinions among the various actors, including between the majority Rakhine population and the Western international community, which has empathetically stood on the side of the Rohingya community regarding the rights to citizenship and human rights issues for most of the time.
Despite these difficulties, it seems that the ULA leadership have decided they have to consider their stand on the two issues of repatriation and governance policy toward the Rohingya population as a matter of necessity rather than of choice. They cannot afford to disappoint the different sides if their key political destinations are to be achieved with tangible results. Currently, the ULA leadership appears to believe that building better relations with the remaining Rohingya population inside Arakan is fundamental and more pragmatic in showing their political will in inter-community relations not just to international observers but also to the rest of the Rohingya population outside of the state.
Promoting reconciliation among the members of various communities in Arakan, as well as inclusion of Rohingya communities within local administration, are clearly essential. In this regard, the ULA authorities have been conducting two critical ‘missions’ to support the involvement of the Rohingya community in the state.
The first mission is mainly implemented through the participation of various community members in the celebration of events like football matches, traditional wrestling ‘Krin’ festivals and music ‘live-show performances’ on culturally-important days in ULA-controlled rural areas. Rohingya community, religious, and youth leaders have been invited by ULA officials and media agencies allowed to publicize these gatherings with news and photos. Following a football event in January 2022 in Kyauktaw township, a Rohingya community leader said:
"I believe that the essence of the football match held by the ULA is to achieve social cohesion and community reconciliation among the diverse groups, and we were also allowed to discuss and participate in it from the beginning."
Through these activities, it is safe to argue that social interaction between Rohingya and Rakhine communities in ULA-controlled rural areas is comparatively higher than that in SAC-controlled urban and suburban areas.
In the second mission to promote inter-community understanding, ULA governing bodies have included the local Rohingya population in various departments, including the military, police, administration, taxation and judiciary. In a well-publicized example, the ULA released a video in May 2020 in which a Rohingya soldier serving in the AA questioned some Rohingya locals in Buthidaung township regarding a criminal case in their own language. Similar confirmation can be found in the administrative sector in an interview with the Chairman of Minbya township Muslim Council who said:
"The local ULA officers recognize and respect our organization. When they make a decision, they first consult and negotiate with the village administrators, including us, and there is very little corruption. As the ULA governance came to exist in my area, there are fewer crimes like theft, murder, and criminal gang activities."
Despite these developments, there are still open questions over the extent to which the ULA leadership tolerates inclusion of the Rohingya community in decision-making processes and political representation in the longer-term. In addition, there have been accusations against AA soldiers over human rights violations during the recent clashes with the Myanmar military in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships. In some cases, the ULA authorities investigated the cases and imprisoned the perpetrators with what were considered to be appropriate punishments. But challenges remain, and different perceptions continue.
The ULA leadership and Rakhine community, for example, believe that conflict negatively impacts not only on the Rohingya but also Rakhine and other nationalities who are struggling for the sake of a better future for all people of Arakan. In contrast, a large segment of the Rohingya community might still consider their situation as between a rock and a hard place where they are still uncertain of gaining tangible benefits as political instability continues in the country.
For community understandings to develop in Arakan, it is thus necessary that this difference in views over the reasons and consequences for armed struggle are reconciled with the formation of shared communication platforms in the different layers of society. Despite the current ceasefire, there are no roadmaps to peace in the territory today.