In Rakhine state, longstanding communal tensions and extreme discrimination by the government against the Rohingya Muslim minority has morphed into a major crisis. Following renewed attacks by a militant group on security targets in northern Rakhine in August 2017, a brutal response by the military has driven more than 430,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh. In addition to the human catastrophe, this could undermine the political transition and make Myanmar a target for transnational jihadist groups. The peace process with some 21 ethnic armed groups has lost momentum, and a negotiated settlement remains elusive. Resurgent Buddhist nationalism threatens to divide communities and faiths in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. Through field research and advocacy aimed at the Myanmar government as well as influential regional and international actors, Crisis Group works to help mitigate the crisis in Rakhine state, strengthen the peace process and promote improved intercommunal relations.
Extreme Buddhist nationalist positions including hate speech and violence are on the rise in Myanmar. Rather than ineffective bans on broad-based groups like the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha), the government should address underlying causes and reframe the debate on Buddhism’s place in society and politics.
Following late Aug attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin), violent and disproportionate military response targeting Rohingya villagers in Muslim-majority northern Rakhine state continued, including systematic burnings of villages by security forces and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes, abuses and killings. UN reported over 500,000 Rohingya – over two thirds of area’s Rohingya population – had fled to Bangladesh by late Sept, creating one of fastest-growing refugee crises since Second World War; tens of thousands more internally displaced, Rohingya and members of other groups. Govt continued to deny UN and international NGO humanitarian access to northern Rakhine, refused visas to UN Fact Finding Mission. UN human rights chief 11 Sept condemned “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Addressing open UN Security Council session 28 Sept, UN Secretary-General Guterres called for end to military operation and warned of impact of crisis on regional stability; Myanmar national security advisor denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Govt rejected ARSA’s 10 Sept call for “humanitarian pause” ceasefire; ARSA 14 Sept issued statement denying links with al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS), Lashkar-e-Taiba (Pakistan) “or any transnational terrorist group”, warned against their involvement in Arakan conflict. Aung San Suu Kyi 19 Sept gave speech to foreign diplomats condemning human rights violations and expressing concern for those caught up in conflict; international observers criticised her apparent denial of ethnic cleansing and claims that Muslims in Rakhine state have access to health and education services without discrimination; that 50% of Muslim villages remained untouched; and that military operations had ended 5 Sept. Commander in chief 21 Sept said military had handled situation as best it could, called for displaced “ethnic” (ie non-Muslim) communities to return to villages as soon as possible. Govt found two mass graves in northern Rakhine 24 and 25 Sept containing 45 bodies, said they are Hindu villagers killed by ARSA. Nationalist monk Wirathu gave speech on Rakhine crisis in Kayin state capital 10 Sept attended by nearly 40,000 people, in violation of preaching ban.
Despite important progress at the 24-29 May 2017 round of peace talks, the path toward a negotiated end to Myanmar’s conflicts remains fraught with difficulties. All sides must redouble their engagement to broaden armed groups’ participation in the talks, and improve the implementation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
Recent attacks by an émigré-led force of trained Rohingya fighters mark a dangerous turn. To remove a main root of the violence – Rohingya despair – the government must reverse longstanding discrimination against the Muslim minority, moderate its military tactics, and reach out to Myanmar’s Muslim allies.
After almost 70 years of armed conflict, Myanmar has a rare but fading opportunity to finalise a broad-based, federal settlement. The government must adopt a more flexible approach that allays opposition concerns, and armed groups need to go beyond preliminaries and engage in meaningful discussions.
The first four months of Myanmar’s democratic government have set a positive tone. But de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi needs to find ways to bring peace with ethnic insurgents closer, rebalance relations with China, and overcome deeply ingrained problems in Rakhine State.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide electoral victory was a historic success for Myanmar. To meet the high expectations that resulted, the country’s new leaders will need to balance carefully ties with China with those with the West, credibly lead a fragile peace process and above all handle wisely their relations with a still-powerful army.
The [Myanmar] military and government should be careful not to assume all Rohingya are sympathizers or supporters [of jihadis].
It should be in the government’s power to create the conditions in which to implement some of these recommendations [of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in Myanmar].
Most [political] transitions end badly like the Arab spring. [They] are always bumpy and I think Myanmar is going through a particularly bumpy moment in its transition.
The threat is not because of [Harakah al-Yaqin's] military strength, it's because of what they represent, the potential of [Myanmar] facing a very well organized, violent jihadist movement.
The emergence of this well-organized, apparently well-funded group is a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine state.
There are real risks that if the [Myanmar] government mishandles the situation, it will push more of the Muslim population in that area to support al-Yaqin, entrenching the armed group and a cycle of violence.
The Rohingya insurgent attacks that killed twelve Myanmar soldiers and officials and perhaps 77 of their own number is a serious escalation of a ten-month-old crisis. They make implementation of this week’s recommendations to address Rohingya grievances from Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission both harder and more urgent.
Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review
The emergence of the al-Yaqin armed group in Myanmar's Rakhine State and the heavy-handed response by the government risk imperiling the country's transition to democracy. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group encourages the European Union and its member states to pressure the highest level of the government and military to stop abuses in Rakhine and develop a political strategy to address the underlying causes of armed militancy.
The 29 January assassination of U Ko Ni, a respected Muslim veteran of the pro-democracy struggle, is a great loss to Myanmar and underlines the urgency for unity against all forms of hate speech and possible hate crimes.
Crisis Group’s Myanmar report on 15 December 2016 revealed the emergence of a game-changing Muslim insurgency in the country’s Rakhine state. In this Editorial, the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Page introduced the report to readers as evidence of how Burma’s abuse of the Rohingya Muslims has created violent backlash.