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Smouldering debris of burned houses is seen in Warpait village, a Muslim village in Maungdaw located in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 14 October, 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Report 283 / Asia

Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

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.

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Executive Summary

The deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) bases in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State on 9 October 2016 and the days following, and a serious escalation on 12 November when a senior army officer was killed, signify the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency there. The current violence is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades, seriously threatens the prospects of stability and development in the state and has serious implications for Myanmar as a whole. The government faces a huge challenge in calibrating and integrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are kept under control. It requires also taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.

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Failure to get this right would carry enormous risks. While the government has a clear duty to maintain security and take action against the attackers, it needs, if its response is to be effective, to make more judicious use of force and focus on a political and policy approach that addresses the sense of hopelessness and despair underlying the anger of many Muslims in Rakhine State. Complicating this is that Aung San Suu Kyi has some influence, but under the constitution no direct control over the military.

The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this well-organised, apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine State, which include longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, denial of rights and lack of citizenship. The current use of disproportionate military force in response to the attacks, which fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, together with denial of humanitarian assistance to an extremely vulnerable population and the lack of an overarching political strategy that would offer them some hope for the future, is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence and potential mass displacement.

HaY would not have been able to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local leaders and communities. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population, and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years rather than any sort of inevitability.

A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive.

It is important for the government’s response to start from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some Muslims in Rakhine State has emerged. The population has seen its rights progressively eroded, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. This has become particularly acute since the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. Disenfranchisement prior to the 2015 elections severed the last link with politics and means of influence. At the same time, the disruption of maritime migration routes to Malaysia closed a vital escape valve, particularly for young men whose only tangible hope for the future was dashed. An increasing sense of despair has driven more people to consider a violent response, but it is not too late for the government to reverse the trend.

It requires recognising first that these people have lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so. Ways must be found to give them a place in the nation’s life. A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive. It will likely create further despair and animosity, increasing support for HaY and further entrenching violence. International experience strongly suggests that an aggressive military response, particularly if not embedded in a broader policy framework, will be ineffective against the armed group and has the potential to considerably aggravate matters.

So far, though there are indications of some training and solidarity, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. But there are risks that if the government mishandles the situation, including by continued use of disproportionate force that has driven tens of thousands from their homes or across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for further radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit to pursue their own agendas in the country. To avoid that requires subordinating the security response and integrating it into a well-crafted, overarching political strategy – building stronger, more positive relations between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

I. Introduction

This report examines the emergence of a new form of organised violent resistance in the Muslim-majority northern parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.[fn]For recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Asia Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote It follows up Crisis Group’s detailed examination in 2014 of Rakhine politics, which should be referred to for a broader analysis of the dynamics in the state as a whole. It is important to know and acknowledge the perspectives of Rakhine Buddhists and their strongly-felt grievances.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote The current violence, however, is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades and has fundamental implications for the situation in the troubled state and potentially for Myanmar’s transition as a whole.

The report looks at the establishment of a new armed group, its objectives and international links; the response of the government and security forces; and the implications for the people of Rakhine State and the country. It is based on extensive research and interviews in Yangon; interviews with several members of the armed group in northern Rakhine State and villagers and key sources in the area; interviews with other sources connected to the group living outside Myanmar; interviews with members of the Rohingya diaspora, including in the Middle East; interviews with recent arrivals in Bangladesh who have fled Rakhine; and analysis of conversations on messaging applications such as WhatsApp over the last six months. Much research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the local dialect spoken by Muslims in northern Rakhine State. In cases of particularly sensitive information and to protect the identities of interviewees and researchers, details of locations and dates have been withheld, replaced by a general description of the sourcing for a paragraph or section.

The term “Rohingya” is highly contested within Myanmar, because it is perceived as a claim of indigenous ethnic status by a community most Rakhine Buddhists, indeed most people in Myanmar, regard as immigrants from Bangladesh, and whom they therefore prefer to refer to as “Bengali”.[fn]Ibid, Section V.C, including for more detailed discussion of the term’s sensitivity.Hide Footnote The government has asked its officials and the international community to refrain from either term. “Rohingya” is used in this report not to imply endorsement of any particular historical narrative or political claim but because it is the term that community overwhelmingly refers to itself by, and because other terms such as “Muslims from Rakhine State” are less precise: several Muslim communities in the state do not identify as “Rohingya”, including (but not only) the Kaman, a recognised indigenous Muslim group. It is Muslims in the northern parts of Rakhine State that most strongly identify as “Rohingya”; those in the diaspora who so identify are overwhelmingly from this area, rather than central or southern parts of the state.[fn]For detailed discussion of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, see ibid.Hide Footnote

II. Previous Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

During the Second World War, Rakhine was the front line between the Japanese invaders and allied forces. Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were on opposing sides; most of the former remained pro-British, while the latter supported the Japanese until a last-minute switch enabled the eventual allied reoccupation of Rakhine. Both communities formed armed units and attacked the other, with accounts of massacres on both sides in 1942-1943. Muslims fled to the north, where they were the majority, and Rakhine Buddhists moved south.[fn]Mary Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma (Ithaca, 2003), chapter 2; Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group (Wiesbaden, 1972).Hide Footnote

A mujahidin rebellion erupted in April 1948, a few months after independence. The rebels initially explored the possibility of annexing northern Rakhine State to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), but Pakistan rejected this. They then sought the right of the population to live as full citizens in an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the state and an end to what they saw as discrimination by the Rakhine Buddhist officials who replaced the colonial administrators. The immigration authorities placed restrictions on the movement of Muslims from northern Rakhine to Sittwe, the state capital. Some 13,000 Muslims who fled during the war and were living in refugee camps in India and East Pakistan were not permitted to return; those who did were considered illegal immigrants.[fn]Yegar, op. cit. On the eve of independence some Rakhine intellectuals led by barrister Hla Tun Pru were demanding an independent “Arakanistan” for the Rakhine people. See Aye Chan, “The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar)”, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, vol. 3, no. 2 (2005), p. 410.Hide Footnote

The rebels targeted Rakhine Buddhist interests as well as the government, quickly seizing control of large parts of the north and expelling many Buddhist villagers. Law and order almost completely broke down, with two communist insurgencies (Red Flag and White Flag) in addition to the mujahidin, as well as Rakhine nationalist groups, including the (Marxist) Arakan People’s Liberation Party, in the south of the state.[fn]Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (London, 1999), p. 28.Hide Footnote An embattled Burmese army, facing ethnic insurgencies across the country, controlled little of Rakhine other than Sittwe. In the violence and chaos, relations between Buddhist and Muslim communities deteriorated further. Many moderate Rakhine Muslim leaders rejected the mujahidin insurgency, even vainly asking the government for arms to fight back.

It was not until 1954 that the army launched a massive offensive, Operation Monsoon, that captured most of the mujahidin mountain strongholds on the East Pakistan border. The rebellion was eventually ended through ceasefires in 1961 and defeat of remaining groups, leaving only small-scale armed resistance and banditry. Partly in response to mujahidin demands, partly for electoral reasons, in 1961 the government established a Mayu Frontier Administration in northern Rakhine, administered by army officers rather than Rakhine officials.[fn]Martin Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, unpublished article, 1995. Yegar, op. cit.Hide Footnote But the 1962 military coup led to a more hardline stance toward minorities, and the Mayu Frontier Administration was dissolved. This prompted attempts to re-form the mujahidin movement that failed to gain significant local support.

In 1974, inspired by the rise of pan-Islamist movements in the world, the Rohingya Patriotic Front armed group was formed from remnants of earlier failures. It split into several factions, one of the more radical of which became the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) armed group in 1982. The RSO split in 1986, giving rise to the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) splinter; in 1998, the two groups formed a loose alliance, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the RSO had small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the Myanmar border but was not thought to have any inside Myanmar. In its highest-profile attack, in April 1994, several dozen fighters entered Maungdaw from Bangladesh, including a group landed by boat in Myin Hlut village-tract, south Maungdaw. On 28 April, bombs they planted in Maungdaw town caused damage and several civilian injuries, and fighters followed up with attacks on the town’s outskirts. The group did not receive strong local support, and security forces, alerted by informants, quickly defeated them.[fn]Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Regional security analysts viewed the RSO as essentially defunct as an armed group by the end of the 1990s, though it kept an organisational structure in Bangladesh and did training and occasional small attacks on Myanmar security forces into the early 2000s. A Myanmar military intelligence report, cited in a U.S. diplomatic cable in 2002, made the “generally plausible” claim that 90 RSO/ARIF members attended a guerrilla war course, and thirteen also participated in explosives and heavy weapons courses in Libya and Afghanistan in August 2001. Also in the early 2000s, the RSO had an active weapons and explosives training exchange with the militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, regional security analysts, Dhaka, July-August 2014, November 2016. “Arakan Rohingya National Organization contacts with Al Qaeda and with Burmese insurgent groups on the Thai border”, U.S. embassy Rangoon cable, 10 October 2002, as made public by WikiLeaks. Crisis Group Asia Report N°187, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, 1 March 2010.Hide Footnote

More recently, the authorities have continued to blame the RSO for occasional attacks on security forces in northern Rakhine State, for example deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) patrols in northern Maungdaw in February and May 2014, including one on 17 May that killed four officers.[fn]Internal UN security management team note, Bangladesh, June 2014. See also, “All not quiet on the Burmese front”, Probe Weekly, 6 June 2014.Hide Footnote However, there is no evidence that it retained operational capability after the early-2000s, and armed criminal gangs operate on the border, smuggling drugs and other contraband. The RSO has also become something of a Rohingya militant brand that anyone can use, regardless of connections to the original organisation.

III. Deepening Despair

The anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine State in June and October 2012, though it did not primarily affect the north of the state, seriously strained intercommunal relations.[fn]For analysis, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 238, Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, 12 November 2012; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013.Hide Footnote It generated feelings of insecurity in Buddhist and Muslim communities but had the biggest impact on the latter. It also hardened anti-Muslim sentiment and led to increases in Buddhist nationalist hate speech. There were multiple cases of serious anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar the following year, as well as nationalist lobbying for a package of “protection of race and religion” laws widely seen as targeting Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Dark Side of Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote

These were in addition to longstanding restrictions on access to citizenship for most Muslims in Rakhine State. This has led to serious discrimination against these communities, particularly the Rohingya. Permission to marry must be obtained from the authorities, and there are also severe restrictions on freedom of movement outside the village-tract or between townships, limiting work opportunities and access to government services.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In the lead-up to the 2015 elections, the Muslim population in Rakhine State without citizenship cards – nearly all other than some Kaman – was disenfranchised, severing its last connection to politics and peaceful influence. Even those without citizenship cards had voted in previous elections. Crisis Group warned in advance that this risked organised violence.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Compounding the sense among many Rohingya that politics had failed them was that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) did not take a strong stand on minority religious rights in general or the Rohingya’s specific plight in the campaign. After coming to power, she did make it a top government priority, chairing a committee on Rakhine State and appointing former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head an advisory commission, but some Rohingya had already concluded there was little hope the new administration would address their demands.[fn]Myanmar election: Aung San Suu Kyi campaigns in contentious Rakhine state”, The Guardian, 16 October 2015; “Burma elections: Aung San Suu Kyi steers clear of ‘stateless’ minority the Rohingya”, The Independent, 17 October 2015; “After Myanmar election, few signs of a better life for Muslims”, The New York Times, 18 November 2015; “Aung San Suu Kyi aide: Rohingya are not our priority”, The Telegraph, 19 November 2015. Crisis Group interviews, analysts specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November-December 2015.Hide Footnote

In May 2015, a maritime migration crisis escalated in the Andaman Sea, after a Thai crackdown disrupted people smuggling networks, causing smugglers and crew to abandon boats laden with migrants from Myanmar (mostly Rohingya) and Bangladesh; hundreds were feared to have died. This shut down smuggling routes to Malaysia. When these routes had not reopened by the start of the post-monsoon sailing season in September, it meant a critical escape valve for Rohingya had closed and caused despair among young men who saw migration as their only chance of a better future.[fn]“Mixed maritime movements, April-June 2015”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Office for South-East Asia. Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Yangon, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Emergence of a New Organised Violent Resistance

A. The 9 October Attacks

In the early hours of 9 October, several hundred local Muslim men, armed mostly with knives and slingshots and about 30 firearms, launched simultaneous attacks on three BGP posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships near the north-western border with Bangladesh. According to the authorities, nine police were killed; and the attackers, eight of whom were killed and two captured, made off with 62 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition.[fn]Government press conference, Naypyitaw, 9 October, reported in Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), 10 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote

One of the targets was BGP headquarters, a major installation in Kyee Kan Pyin (just north of Maungdaw town) that was overrun in a multi-phase attack, and from where the majority of weapons were looted. In another indication of the preparation level, the group planted an improvised explosive device (IED) and set an ambush on the approach road to the headquarters, delaying reinforcements and damaging vehicles. The two other targets were a BGP sector headquarters at Nga Khu Ya in north Maungdaw and a BGP outpost at Koe Dan Kauk in Rathedaung, just south of Maungdaw township. The government estimated the total attackers at 400.[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016. See also “Operation Backdoor”, Yehtun Blog, 20 October 2010.Hide Footnote Several further clashes occurred 10-12 October, including one on 11 October in which four soldiers were killed.[fn]Troops fight back violent armed attackers, kill four”, GNLM, 11 October 2016, p. 1; “Tatmadaw attacked by 300 armed men, four soldiers killed”, GNLM, 12 October 2016, p. 1; “Troops kill 10 violent armed attackers in area clearance operation in Maungdaw tsp” and “Armed men violently attack Kyikanpyin border outpost, set fire to 25 houses in Warpaik Village”, GNLM, 13 October 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote Two attacks on 3 November that state media reported as linked to the attackers are more uncertain.[fn]As reported in GNLM, 5 November 2016, p. 2, the incidents occurred in south rather than north Maungdaw where the other attacks and subsequent clashes took place. One was the burning down of a disused BGP post, the other allegedly on a BGP base. There are competing narratives about the latter incident: village sources said it was a shooting between two police officers, not an attack. Crisis Group interviews, November 2016, and information from a non-government source with contacts in the area.Hide Footnote

The attacks marked a major escalation of violence in Rakhine and reflected an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that had seen little organised violent resistance from the Muslim population. They caused widespread fear in both communities, particularly among Buddhist Rakhine villagers, who are the minority in the northern part of the state; some 3,000 of them fled to towns.[fn]Myanmar - New displacement in Rakhine State”, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, Daily Flash, 21 October 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Response from Government and Security Forces

The military and BGP launched a major operation aimed at recovering the looted weapons, capturing those involved and arresting their helpers. Its intensity likely reflected both the exigencies of the security situation and that the initial attacks and subsequent deadly clashes were seen as a major affront to security forces’ dignity. The BGP commander, Police Brigadier-General Maung Maung Khaing, was removed for “poor performance”, probably due to both intelligence failures (see Section IV.C) and losing his headquarters and its armoury during the attacks; his replacement is a brigadier-general transferred from the regular police.[fn]Government press conference, 17 October, reported in GNLM, 18 October 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote

The Myanmar authorities have consistently referred to “joint operations”, usually indicating that the military is supporting BGP operations. This language began to be used in particular following a “special meeting on national defence and security” on 14 October that brought together the president, Aung San Suu Kyi, the commander-in-chief and others. The normal constitutional mechanism for activating military involvement in such a situation would be declaration of a state of emergency by the president, with National Defence and Security Council approval, as happened three times under the Thein Sein administration. However, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to regard the Council as politically illegitimate, and it has not met under her government, so no state of emergency can be declared.[fn]Ibid; see also “Special meeting on national defence and security”, GNLM, 15 October 2016, p. 1. Under Section 413(a) of the constitution, a state of emergency in a state/region empowers local civilian authorities and civil service bodies to obtain military help in carrying out their duties. The reason for Suu Kyi’s view is that the military has the majority of the Council’s eleven seats (five uniformed officers plus the military-nominated vice president, a retired senior officer), so can outvote civilian government representatives. She may also have protocol concerns: it is chaired by the president; her membership is as foreign minister, not state counsellor.Hide Footnote In practice, though joint BGP-army patrols take place, the army has authority over the security response, under its western commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the response, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The military has indicated it is conducting “area clearance operations” across a section of northern Maungdaw township, which it has sealed off. On the basis of reports from the authorities and non-government sources, it appears to be using something akin to its standard counter-insurgency “four cuts” strategy developed in the 1960s to cut off rebel forces from their four main support sources (food, funds, intelligence, recruits) and largely unchanged since. It involves cordoning off territory for concentrated operations, a “calculated policy of terror” to force populations to move, destruction of villages in sensitive areas and confiscation or destruction of food stocks that could support insurgents.[fn]For details, see Smith, Insurgency, op. cit. p. 288 ff.; Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces (Norwalk, 2001), pp. 91-91; and Maung Aung Myoe, “Military Doctrine and Strategy in Myanmar” Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, working paper 339, 1999, p. 10.Hide Footnote

 

Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers … as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security.

Operations in the sealed-off area bear many hallmarks of that strategy. After the 9 October attacks, there were multiple reports of suspects shot on sight, burning of many houses, looting of property and seizure or destruction of food stocks – as well as of women and girls raped.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, villagers and community leaders in the operations area, October 2016. Also, Arakan Project, internal notes nos. 1 and 2, October and November 2016.Hide Footnote Humanitarian agencies have been denied access to some 30,000 people in the sealed-off area, displaced as a result of the attacks and their aftermath, as well as 130,000 previously receiving life-saving aid, with the exception of a one-time food delivery to four villages (6,500 people) on 6 November and the following days by the World Food Programme (WFP); and a food delivery by the government on 18 November to an IDP camp that had formed spontaneously in Thu U Lar village-tract.[fn]Situation in northern Rakhine State”, WFP, Situation Report no. 3, November 2016; “Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 12 December 2016; Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, December 2016; “Food provided to residents of Maungtaw”, GNLM, 21 November 2016, p. 3. Government permission for WFP to deliver a two-week supply of rations was granted following a government-led visit to the affected area by the UN Resident Coordinator and nine ambassadors on 2-3 November.Hide Footnote

Another common element of counter-insurgency operations in other parts of Myanmar is army establishment of local militias. Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers, particularly since the 2012 violence, as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security. This is particularly serious in the current context, because arming Buddhist villagers could lead the Muslim armed group, which has avoided attacking Buddhist civilians, to view them as combatant targets.

That would be a major escalation. Worryingly, the security forces have been contemplating the initiative. They have recruited some 120 local non-Muslims in what was initially presented to the Rakhine community and so likely interpreted by local Muslims as raising a BGP militia. The government has clarified that it is an accelerated BGP training program with loosened admission criteria, and trainees will be deployed as regular BGP.[fn]Militia call a shot in the arm for Rakhine armies”, Myanmar Times, 12 May 2014. “Myanmar police to arm and train non-Muslims in conflict-torn Rakhine region”, Reuters, 3 November 2016. “Myanmar's training for non-Muslim police stokes fear in Rakhine”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote But a significant risk remains of blurring lines between civilian villagers and security personnel, even if only in perception. One Rakhine armed group, the Arakan Liberation Army, has been attempting to increase its armed strength in the area to counter a perceived Muslim threat.[fn]Authorities seize cache of weapons and ammunition in Hpa-an bust”, The Irrawaddy, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The government denies allegations of human rights violations.[fn]See, for example, “False allegations on violating human rights exposed to the world”, GNLM, 3 November 2016, p. 1; “Local residents’ accounts differ from fabricated media stories”, GNLM, 7 November 2016, p. 1; “Military’s information team refutes fabrication about massive destruction in Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 November 2016, p. 3; “Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2o16, p. 1; “Reports of hundreds fleeing Myanmar being pushed back by Bangladesh said to be false” and “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote Lack of media and other independent access makes verification hard, but blanket denials, even of factual claims based on satellite imagery or international media reports from the ground of flight to Bangladesh, are not plausible and undermine the credibility of its other claims.[fn]Credible evidence that has been denied includes: “Satellite-based damage assessment of affected villages in Maungdaw District”, Human Rights Watch, 10 November 2016; an updated damage assessment, 18 November 2016; and “Hundreds of Rohingya flee Myanmar army crackdown to Bangladesh – sources”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote Some counter-narratives clash with satellite data, for example that local Muslim villagers are torching their own homes to get international sympathy or that it is the armed group’s arson. Analysis of that data shows destruction of at least 1,500 buildings.[fn]Burma: Military burned villages in Rakhine State”, Human Rights Watch, 13 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Some villages were systematically destroyed over days, rather than isolated, geographically dispersed events as would be expected from individuals or small-group hit-and-run attacks. Moreover, much arson took place during military operations when many troops were present – not only at the time of attacks, but also over subsequent days. Troops also have security motivation (denial of access to villages in insecure areas is a standard counter-insurgency tactic, often achieved in the past in other parts of Myanmar by burning villages), while the armed group is reliant on at least some local civilian support.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Human Rights Watch staffer, November 2016. Selth, op. cit., p. 163.Hide Footnote

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working ‘hand in glove’ with the attackers.

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working “hand in glove” with the attackers. The government reportedly interceded with the Myanmar Times when one of its experienced foreign journalists reported on allegations of rapes by military personnel. She was fired shortly thereafter, and the paper’s owner put a moratorium on reporting on the Rakhine State conflict. An opinion piece in state media called the reporting “an act of gross unethical journalism” but added that “credit should be given to the media group for … immediately firing that journalist”.[fn]Fourth estate must abide by ‘code of ethics’: minister for information”, Myanmar Times, 9 November 2016. “Myanmar journalist says she was fired over story on military rape allegations”, The Guardian, 4 November 2016; “Reporter’s sacking followed MoI [Ministry of Information] phone call, sparking press freedom fears”, Frontier Myanmar, 4 November 2016. “Myanmar press under pressure as paper bans Rakhine reports”, Agence France-Presse, 8 November 2016. Khin Maung Myint, “Morality and ethics”, GNLM, 24 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote Such intimidation has a chilling effect on reporting by other journalists and publications. For example, a reporter from a prominent local English-language publication interviewed a member of the BGP who admitted burning down Muslim homes in the operations area but self-censored the account.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual with direct knowledge of the incident, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Potentially even more serious is that the repeated blanket government denials, widely disseminated via the state media in English and Burmese, reinforce a climate of impunity for troops that is particularly dangerous in a context of widespread negative sentiments toward the Muslim population at all levels of the military and in society as a whole. The state media has published disturbing opinion pieces, for example one that referred to the Rakhine State situation as caused by “detestable human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench”.[fn]A flea cannot make a whirl of dust, but …”, GNLM, 27 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote

C. A Spiral of Violence

A further serious escalation on 12 November made clear that the attacks on security forces were not one-off and that the armed group was still operational despite a month of intensive military operations.

Government accounts and Crisis Group interviews with villagers, other local sources and members of the armed group paint a broadly consistent picture.[fn]A government account is given in “One officer, one soldier dead, several injured [as] fighting continuously erupts in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote At 6:45am, an army column clashed with some 60 members of the armed group in a valley near Pwint Hpyu Chaung village; one soldier died and several were wounded; six attackers were reportedly killed. There were several other skirmishes as the attackers retreated to Gwa Son village. When troops approached the village, the armed group shot at them. Several hundred villagers, armed with whatever they had to hand (knives and farming implements), supported the attackers, seemingly spontaneously. A lieutenant-colonel was shot dead, and the troops retreated, calling in air support from two attack helicopters with mounted machine guns.[fn]Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p.1.Hide Footnote The helicopters allegedly fired indiscriminately, including at villagers fleeing across paddy fields; videos taken by villagers show several bodies in fields, including women and children.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The same day, there were at least two IED attacks on government forces in the area. A BGP convoy was struck as it crossed a bridge, then came under attack by armed combatants; the authorities report the attackers were repelled and that there were no casualties. In the second incident, an army column was struck by an IED, reportedly damaging a vehicle but without casualties.[fn]Violent armed attackers ambush convoy of border guards and government staffs, explode a bridge in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1. “Government troops attacked with improvised mines in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 14 November 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote The authorities have reported several other IED incidents and said that explosives/IEDs were also used tactically in the initial attack on the BGP headquarters.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November 2016; also, for example, “IED discovered on village road in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote

Following the 12 November clashes, the military considerably stepped up its operations. In addition to using attack helicopters in areas with many civilian non-combatants, ground troops became much more aggressive. Troops entered Gwa Son and surrounding villages on 13 November, shooting at villagers who fled. Videos taken by villagers show several charred bodies discovered the next day in the remains of a house, in circumstances that remain unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote Many villages were also partially or completely destroyed by arson.

The impact of a “four cuts” operation on civilians is far greater in Maungdaw than in the mountains of the eastern border, where it has been used in the past. Those areas are sparsely populated, communities often have decades of conflict experience, well-developed coping mechanisms and generally better food security. Even there, the toll is heavy. But Maungdaw is densely populated predominantly lowland, communities have almost no experience of armed conflict, and there is pre-existing malnutrition and food insecurity well above critical emergency thresholds.[fn]According to UN 2015 data, the global acute malnutrition rate (measured in children under five) in Maungdaw is 19 per cent, by far the worst in Myanmar and well above the World Health Organisation’s emergency critical threshold of 15 per cent. See also “Myanmar aid curbs hit children in Muslim-majority region: U.N.”, Reuters, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote The population was already living on the edge; fear of conflict and abuses combined with a serious livelihoods shock – humanitarian support is almost completely blocked, and food imports from Bangladesh have been disrupted – have led many to flee across the border. At least 27,000 are known to have done so in recent weeks; it would not take much for this to become a mass exodus like 1978 (200,000) or 1991 (250,000).[fn]Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UNOCHA, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Violence and abuses are likely to boost support for the armed group. People pushed to desperation and anger, with no hope for the future, are more likely to embrace extremist responses, however counterproductive. With an armed militant group in place and ready to capitalise, the current security response is likely to drive a dangerous spiral of attacks, military responses and increased popular radicalisation. This would also seriously impact the Rakhine and Burman Buddhist communities’ security and livelihoods in northern Rakhine State, where they have long felt themselves an embattled and fearful minority.

V. The Armed Group and its Motivations

A. The Group and its Objectives

Crisis Group has interviewed six persons linked to the armed group: four members in northern Maungdaw and two outside Myanmar. Separate discussions with them, as well as others involved in chat groups on secure messaging applications and analysis of videos released by the group have revealed a partial picture of its origins, structure and objectives.

The group refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY, “Faith Movement” in Arabic). The government calls it Aqa Mul Mujahidin, a generic Arabic phrase meaning “communities of fighters” that it gleaned from interrogations of suspects. Prior to the attacks, even members and supporters at village level were not aware of the real name and referred to it by this generic phrase (and perhaps also “RSO”, which may be why the government claimed that old group’s involvement). After the 9 October attacks, Rohingya communities in Saudi Arabia, other Middle Eastern countries and Malaysia began to ask who carried them out. According to HaY, people associated with the RSO began to falsely claim responsibility and to collect donations on this basis from the Rohingya diaspora and large private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. This, they say, was what prompted the group to reveal its name, show some of its faces on camera and prove that it was on the ground.

The first video, circulated to Rohingya networks on 11 October and leaked on YouTube the next day, has the name Harakah al-Yaqin overlaid in Arabic script. In the second, uploaded to YouTube on 14 October, the group used this name and warned donors not to trust other groups claiming to be behind the attacks, saying that “some people tried to sell our movement and our community”, a reference to the RSO. Further videos were subsequently released, showing their continued actions in north Maungdaw and stating their demands.[fn]The first video is James MMT. “Islamic terrorist asked Rohingya to join them for jihad to Myanmar Burma Rakhine Arakan”. 12 October 2016. YouTube: Harlz Erdogan. “Rohginya mujahideen call for weapons”. 14 October 2016. YouTube. There have been nine so far, the latest filmed after the 12 November escalation and uploaded to YouTube 20 November.Hide Footnote

HaY was established and is overseen by a committee of some twenty senior leaders headquartered in Mecca, with at least one member based in Medina. All are Rohingya émigrés or have Rohingya heritage. They are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and possibly India. Some or all have visited Bangladesh and northern Rakhine State at different times in the last two years.

… the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise.

The main speaker in the videos is Ata Ullah (alias Ameer Abu Amar, and, within the armed group, Abu Amar Jununi, the name mentioned in a number of the videos); the government identifies him as Hafiz Tohar, presumably another alias. His father, a Muslim from northern Rakhine State, went to Karachi, where Ata Ullah was born. The family then moved to Saudi Arabia, and he grew up in Mecca, receiving a Madrassa education. This is consistent with the fact that on the videos he shows fluent command of both the Bengali dialect spoken in northern Rakhine State and Peninsular Arabic. He disappeared from Saudi Arabia in 2012 shortly after violence erupted in Rakhine State. Though not confirmed, there are indications he went to Pakistan and possibly elsewhere, and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare.[fn]In Arabic, Abu Amar Jununi means “mad father of Amar”, perhaps an indication his eldest son is named Amar. The government spells Hafiz Tohar as Havistoohar. It said he attended a six-month Taliban training course in Pakistan (government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3); In Crisis Group interviews, HaY members suggested he went from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and from there to other countries (possibly including Libya) for training, but no further details or confirmation were obtained.Hide Footnote Some twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia (separate from the leadership committee), including Ata Ullah, are leading operations on the ground. Like him, they are thought to have experience from other conflicts, possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Rohingya returned from the camps (official and informal) in Bangladesh before 9 October to join the group. A registered refugee from Nayapara camp in Bangladesh stood beside Ata Ullah in the first video; he disappeared from the camp the night of a 13 May attack on its guard post in which a commander was killed and eleven weapons stolen.[fn]Attackers kill guard at Bangladesh Rohingya refugee camp”, Agence France-Presse, 13 May 2016.Hide Footnote Since 9 October, several hundred young Rohingya men from Bangladesh have joined the fight. However, the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise. These are mostly led by young Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) from those villages.

Though it does not appear to have religious motivations, HaY has sought religious legitimacy for its attacks. At its prompting, senior Rohingya clerics and several foreign clerics have ruled that, given the persecution Muslim communities face in Rakhine State, the campaign against the security forces is legal in Islam, and anyone opposing it is in opposition to Islam. Fatwas (religious rulings) to this effect were apparently obtained shortly after 9 October in several countries with a significant Rohingya diaspora, including Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. These have significantly influenced many Muslim religious leaders in northern Rakhine State to endorse HaY despite earlier feeling violence to be  counterproductive. The group also has a senior Islamic scholar with it in Maungdaw, a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, Mufti Ziabur Rahman, who brings religious legitimacy to operations and has authority to issue fatwas.[fn]The foreign clerics are from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other places. The mufti is the main speaker in the third video and identifies himself: “Islamic terrorist Rohingya act like villagers”. 12 October 2016. YouTube.Hide Footnote

Information from members and analysis of its methods indicate that its approach and objective are not transnational jihadist terrorism.[fn]This report uses “international jihadist” to refer to groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and their affiliates. The Arabic root of “jihad” refers to striving in God’s service. Many Muslims find its use in the political violence context imprecise and offensive, reducing a complex religious concept, which over centuries has had many, often peaceful forms, to war-making. Even when used in the organised violence context, it can refer to insurgency and guerrilla war, not only terrorism. For the vast majority of Muslims, today’s “jihadists” pervert Islam’s tenets. But it is hard to escape the term. Groups such as al-Qaeda and IS self-identify as “jihadist”; and while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent “jihadist” ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that could constrain fighting tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: fighting to return society to a purer Islam; violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them; and belief in duty to use violence if Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. This report’s use of “jihadist” is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. It uses “terrorism” and “terrorist” only to describe non-state actors’ attempt to use violence or intimidation, especially of civilians, to achieve political goals by manipulating fear. See Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote It has only attacked security forces (and perceived threats in its own community), not religious targets, Buddhist villagers or civilians and family members at the BGP bases it hit on 9 October. It has called for jihad in some videos, but there are no indications this means terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Unlike all previous such insurgent groups (see above) and for unclear reasons, it does not include “Rohingya” in its name. Its stated aim is not to impose Sharia (Islamic law), but rather to stop persecution of Rohingya and secure their rights and greater autonomy as Myanmar citizens, notwithstanding that its approach is likely to harden attitudes in the country and seriously set back those goals. It is possible, however, that its objectives could evolve, given its appeals to religious legitimacy and links to international jihadist groups, so it is essential that government efforts do not focus only or primarily on military approaches, but also address underlying community grievances and suffering.

HaY’s modus operandi is similar to the now-defunct RSO as well as many ethnic armed groups in Myanmar – but it faces much greater hurdles than the latter given rejection of Rohingya identity by the government and most of the country. Though the government has claimed close links with RSO, it is a distinct group that is more a reaction to perceived RSO failures than an evolution of that group (see Section IV.C below) – hence Ata Ullah’s RSO criticism in the second video. As the RSO has become something of a brand associated with Rohingya militancy by both Muslims and the authorities, it is not surprising that the government has identified the attackers as linked to it.[fn]Government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote But institutional ties do not appear to exist, though there are some efforts to recruit around 200 Rohingya in Bangladesh trained since 2012 by an ex-RSO military commander, but never deployed due to lack of an organisational structure that HaY may potentially now offer.[fn]There is also information that some former RSO members acting on their own have been providing very basic training to Rohingya refugees interested in joining HaY. This started only after the first attacks. All indications are it is not linked institutionally to either the RSO or HaY. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh), November 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Communications and Social Media Environment

Much of HaY’s communications and planning was over encrypted messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Viber, as well as WeChat (which does not have end-to-end encryption).[fn]Crisis Group observation of Rohingya WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. On Viber use, see “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, pp. 1, 3. A Myanmar Muslim has been warning members of the diplomatic and aid communities about the use of WeChat to promote extremism in the country since the 9 October attacks. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Use of these has become widespread across Myanmar over the last few years, as mobile voice and data connectivity have been rolled out along with $20 smartphones (people close to the border have had access to these opportunities for much longer, by connecting to Bangladeshi networks). Myanmar is one of the only countries where Viber is the dominant messaging app: the company claims 25 million unique users as of October 2016, out of a 51.5 million population. Such tools have significantly lowered communication and organisation barriers for communities in northern Rakhine State, something that the draconian movement restrictions in place for decades can no longer prevent.[fn]Buddhist nationalists also use messaging applications to organise and disseminate views; Viber has long been their preferred application, but recently WhatsApp has been gaining popularity. Crisis Group interview, technology industry source, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The preferred messaging app among Rohingya is WhatsApp. This is probably due to its much greater popularity internationally and the fact that Rohingya use these apps to keep in touch with family overseas and the diaspora more generally. Crisis Group identified more than 50 WhatsApp groups in use in northern Rakhine State, each with as many as 250 members, and including diaspora Rohingya around the world. These are mainly used for social interaction and information sharing, not nefarious purposes. Some individuals are members of ten to twenty WhatsApp groups and can also easily share information from group chats with their individual contacts. In the wake of the 9 October attacks, these have been used to quickly disseminate information about security threats and other urgent issues. They are likely also an important source of HaY operational intelligence.

Since the Rohingya dialect of Bengali does not have a written form, much of the communication over these applications uses audio files or voice messages.

C. Planning and Operational Strategy for the Attacks

Crisis Group interviews with HaY members and other well-informed sources in Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Middle East, cross-referenced with additional information, including Myanmar government reports based on interrogations of captured HaY and from regional diplomats and security analysts, have revealed a fairly detailed picture of the planning and operational strategy behind the attacks.

HaY’s formation and planning for operations were initiated in the wake of the 2012 violence. Active recruitment of local leaders began in 2013, then training of hundreds of villagers they recruited, mainly from Maungdaw township, since 2014, initially in Bangladesh and then more intensively in northern Rakhine State. Training was in small batches to avoid attention, a village at a time, so members would not know the identities of other trainees, and primarily in the hills of the Mayu range along the border of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, as well as possibly in the compounds of some large houses in villages. It included weapons use, guerrilla tactics and, HaY members and trainees report, a particular focus on explosives and IEDs. It was given by Rohingya veterans and Pakistanis or Afghans with experience of recent operations in those countries and possibly elsewhere and took more than two years to complete.[fn]For a map with village tracts in Maungdaw township, see “Village Tracts of Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State”, Myanmar Information Management Unit, 22 November 2011. Some RSO veterans have explosives expertise, from training by Bangladeshi militants in the early 2000s in an exchange program. Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

During this period, the group apparently killed several informers among the Muslim villages of north and south Maungdaw and others they feared might reveal their plans. It also paid significant hush money to potential informers. Following the training, two Saudi-based senior leaders spent a month in northern Rakhine State, around August 2016, selecting targets and determining how and when the attacks would take place.[fn]A different source claims that only one of the men was a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, and the other was a foreigner.Hide Footnote Once they left, the intention was to obtain weapons and ammunition for the hundreds of trainees. Plans were also made to deploy at least four experienced doctors with medicines and supplies and to train locals as medics to assist them. From roughly late August, there was an increase in the killing of known informers within the Rohingya community.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights monitor, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The claimed objective of the operation was to take complete control of Maungdaw township, cut off communications with Buthidaung to the east and establish military posts on the ridges of the Mayu range between Maungdaw and Buthidaung, creating a defendable liberated area in the same manner as the larger ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s eastern borderlands. After this, the intent was to attack the northern part of Buthidaung – a very ambitious plan that would give complete control of the Bangladesh border – as well as parts of Rathedaung.

Now that it [HaY] has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints.

This plan had to be changed. In early September, after the two senior leaders left, two informers in U Shey Kya village-tract, close to Nga Khu Ya where one of the 9 October attacks occurred, revealed the identities of eight local HaY members to the BGP, which arrested them on 12 September. They were interrogated and allegedly tortured (including electric shocks and denailing). HaY arranged a bribe to the BGP of 3 million kyat (about $2,300), and five were released on 16 September. The remaining three were freed on 28 September, after a bribe of more than 40 million kyat (over $30,000).[fn]This is the highest known bribe ever paid to the BGP to release a detainee. Crisis Group interviews, local researcher, well-informed locals, Maungdaw, September-November 2016.Hide Footnote On 30 September, HaY reportedly killed the two informants, leading to BGP night raids and arrests in the area that prompted several families to flee to Bangladesh. The authorities subsequently began large payments to informers in north Maungdaw to draw up lists of villagers in their area engaged in illegal activity, some of whom fled.

Additionally, local people say, an IED that accidentally exploded in Ngar Sar Kyu village-tract around 7 October while it was being prepared drew the attention of the security forces. According to members of the group, HaY saw that the net was closing and decided that though its preparations were not yet complete, it had to make an emergency plan and launch its operation on 9 October, ahead of schedule.

Though done hastily, the attacks showed some sophistication, including diversionary tactics; blocking reinforcements with a complex attack (IEDs plus armed assault) on a convoy some distance away; and felling of trees across roads to halt military vehicles. It is unclear where the explosives came from, but a foreign expert described the IEDs as crude but not completely amateurish.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the matter, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The group was able to organise widely, pay numerous potential informers in northern Rakhine State prior to the attacks to keep them quiet and large bribes to the security forces to free detained militants. Now that it has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints. It seems to be receiving funds from the Rohingya diaspora and major private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the group and sources in the Rohingya diaspora, October-November 2016.Hide Footnote It may also attract the attention of international groups interested in more than funding (see Section IV.E below).

D. Level of Local Support

It would not have been possible for HaY to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local, particularly religious leaders and local communities in northern Rakhine State. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population; that some now embrace violence reflects deep policy failures over many years.

The community follows a conservative Islam, but not in general a radicalised one, and even as people saw their rights, livelihoods and hopes eroded, the vast majority of religious leaders and the population as a whole continued to eschew violence, which they considered likely to prompt further discrimination and undermine the objective of achieving recognition and rights within Myanmar. But in the wake of the 2012 violence, a segment of the population began more active consideration of organised violent responses. While a minority view, it was driven by influential individuals, including some of the younger generation of religious leaders in northern Rakhine State, who began to break with the views of community elders and older clerics. It was these people and their followers who started the organisational and training activities on the ground that were well under way by mid-2014.[fn]See Crisis Group report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A.Hide Footnote

With the 9 October attacks, views began to shift. Initially, there were intense debates within the community, which played out on WhatsApp group chats. Some felt they were “dying slowly day by day”, and that after years of desperation and hopelessness, someone was standing up for them.[fn]The group chats were monitored by Crisis Group researchers since mid-2016. Crisis Group interview, villager in Maungdaw, October 2016.Hide Footnote But there was considerable criticism of the group in WhatsApp for not consulting or warning the community before the attacks and not considering the very serious consequences. It appears to have been the issuance of fatwas shortly after the attacks that was decisive in convincing many throughout Maungdaw to support HaY’s approach.

Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

HaY leaders also seem to have been effective in this regard. The local commanders, about twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia including Ata Ullah, had been working on the ground with the trainees and local leaders for a long time, living with local people unlike the leaders of Rohingya armed groups in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers in several villages in north and south Maungdaw, recent arrivals in Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh) and observation of discussions on WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. These are not the same twenty as the approximately twenty-member leadership committee based in Mecca, mentioned in Section IV.A above.Hide Footnote Several village leaders who have observed the activities of HaY’s leaders say they were impressed by their dedication, sincerity and strong commitment to their cause; as a result, they gained increasing trust and support from villagers. Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

An important part of HaY’s success, local community members say, is that these twenty or so leaders had good, secure lives in Saudi Arabia, the dream of many Rohingya, but were seen to have sacrificed comfort and prosperity to live beside impoverished villagers, without wearing shoes or good clothes and eating the same meagre food. That persons with so many other options were willing to take such risks convinced many locals the group was sincere and committed. This overcame doubts about joining or supporting an armed insurgency. Now, after two rounds of attacks and a brutal security response, it appears that a sizeable proportion of the area’s Muslim population and the diaspora support or are sympathetic to HaY, even if the ferocity of the military’s response causes some to flee.

At the same time, HaY also relied on threats and intimidation to ensure its survival. It has killed some suspected informers and drawn up a hit list of others. In addition to the killings in the lead up to the 9 October attacks, a Muslim man who used to work as a BGP cook was abducted by fellow villagers in Laungdon village-tract and found in a paddy field on 31 October with his throat cut; on 3 November, a former U Shey Kya village administrator was similarly found dead, as was a 100-household leader in south Maungdaw on 17 November.[fn]Arakan Project, internal note no. 2, op. cit.; “54-year old man found dead in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 6 November 2016, p. 2; and “Elder village leader murdered in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote These killings were done in the same gruesome way, presumably to inspire fear, while there have been no attacks on Buddhist civilians.

E. Links with International Jihadist Groups

There is some limited information on links between HaY and international jihadist groups. It is not surprising that such links exist, given the recruitment over several decades of vulnerable and marginalised Rohingya refugees and migrants by militant groups, initially mostly in Bangladesh, for deployment there and elsewhere.[fn]For example, it is known that Muslims from Myanmar were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, 1999-2001, Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A; that Rohingya fighters have been operating, and one was killed, in Indian Kashmir, “Killing of Burmese militant ups ante of intelligence agencies”, The Tribune, 13 November 2015; and that there is information ISIS has been recruiting among the Rohingya diaspora for Iraq and Syria, “ISIS look to recruit Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar”, Newsweek, 6 February 2015.Hide Footnote However, HaY’s public statements and modus operandi, as well as interviews with its members, all point to this being an insurgent group targeting Myanmar security forces and aiming – albeit in a way likely to be counterproductive – to obtain rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar, along the lines of previous mujahidin groups in Myanmar (see Section II above).

With that important caveat, the information on connections with international groups is as follows. First, members of HaY say Ata Ullah and the non-local fighters with him are well trained and experienced in guerrilla warfare; their tactics and operational success appear to confirm this, particularly their use of asymmetric methods and weapons such as IEDs, albeit crude ones. Such training and experience imply at least some links with international extremist groups. HaY members confirm that their leaders are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, India; the Myanmar government says its interrogations reveal that training was provided in Bangladesh and Pakistan. HaY recruits have also been instructed in Rakhine State by both Rohingya and Pakistani or Afghan trainers, according to members of the group and local people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and Myanmar government press release, 14 October 2016, op. cit. There are unconfirmed indications that the group may have a leader in Syria. Based on the profiles of other leaders and their connections, if this is true it might be a Rohingya fighter with a jihadist group rather than implying non-Rohingya leadership. Others have noted the raised index finger gesture, commonly associated with IS, displayed by Ata Ullah and some other fighters in several videos; however, this is a common gesture in South Asia and does not in itself imply any such links. See Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Conflict: Foreign Jihadi Brewing”, RSIS Commentary no. 259, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Secondly, the Rohingya cause has been used propagandistically by international jihadist groups for several years. Examples include threats against Myanmar by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (2012); calls by an Indonesian extremist leader for Muslims to wage jihad in Myanmar (2013); threats by the IS leader to take revenge on Myanmar and several other countries for abuses against their Muslims; promises to rescue Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere from “injustice and oppression” in the formation announcement of “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”; frequent citations in speeches as recently as 2015 by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, to the “atrocities on Rohingya Muslims” and calls for revenge; offers of resources and training facilities by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in June 2015 to help Myanmar Muslims “take up the sword”; and a call in the April 2016 issue of IS’s Dabiq magazine by Bangladeshi militant Abu Ibrahim to help oppressed Muslims in Myanmar in every possible way, but stating that it was not a current operational focus.[fn]Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan threaten Myanmar over Rohingya”, Agence France-Presse, 26 July 2012; a 23 April 2013 call by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir from his prison cell in Indonesia, mentioned in Crisis Group interview, security analyst, Jakarta, July 2014; “ISIS leader calls on Muslims to ‘build Islamic state’”, BBC, 1 July 2014; “Pakistani terror group active on Myanmar-Bangladesh border”, Mizzima News, 28 July 2015; “Pakistani Taliban attempts to recruit Rohingyas to kill Myanmar's rulers”, Agence France-Presse, 9 June 2015; and Dabiq Magazine (English edition), issue 14, April 2016, p. 62.Hide Footnote

Beyond these statements of solidarity and calls for support, there has been little evidence that Myanmar is an operational priority for such groups. There appear to be some other forms of cooperation or assistance, including training (discussed above) and funding, as well, potentially, as provision of weapons and explosives, which HaY currently seeks in Bangladesh. According to security analysts, small arms and military-grade explosives are available there, and procuring them should not be too difficult if the group has connections with regional arms traffickers or Bangladeshi or regional militant entities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, HaY members, November 2016; security analysts, Yangon, Dhaka, November 2016. Illegal shipments of small arms are regularly intercepted in Bangladesh; their use in domestic crimes has increased markedly in recent years. “Use of illegal firearms on rise”, Dhaka Tribune, 13 November 2016; and “New JMB planned big attack for Dhaka”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote There are no indications of any significant presence of non-Rohingya fighters.[fn]There is unconfirmed information from a credible source that about a dozen Patani Malays went to Maungdaw before 9 October to fight with HaY, apparently in solidarity and on their own initiative. Crisis Group correspondence, analyst, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Such links appear driven by umma (Islamic community) solidarity and do not imply convergence between HaY and international jihadist groups on ideology, strategy or tactics. HaY’s objectives and tactics and its focus on security targets suggest that it is Rohingya rather than transnationally focused. It is necessary to be careful not to over-interpret the significance of the international links noted above or leave unchallenged efforts by some Myanmar officials, politicians and other leaders to portray HaY as part of the global jihadist movement. Nevertheless, the longer violence continues, the greater the risks become of such links deepening and potentially becoming operational.

Recent minor explosions in Yangon do not appear directly linked to Rakhine State. Crude homemade devices were set off on 17, 20, 24 and 26 November at two shopping centres and two immigration offices, one inside the fairly secure regional government office. There were no casualties, only minor damage. The location of the devices in bins and toilets and the timing of blasts (after work hours or on public holidays) appeared designed to avoid casualties. Police arrested several suspects said to be Muslims on 26 November, but no further details have been released.[fn]Mayangone bomb intended to scare, not hurt, say police”, Frontier Myanmar, 21 November 2016; “Myanmar police arrest Muslims over Yangon bombings”, Agence France-Presse, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote Targeting of immigration offices, which are also responsible for citizenship verification, suggests a possible link to the Rakhine situation. If so, however, it more plausibly was an unsolicited expression of solidarity or anger at the security response than a direct attack, which might be expected to have been more dramatic. However, it does perhaps indicate existence of individuals with an intent and capability to access (semi-)secure locations that potentially could be utilised by those with the technical expertise and materials for a major attack.

VI. How Should the Government Respond?

Emergence of a new Muslim armed group in Rakhine State is a serious threat to prospects for stability and development there. The government faces a big challenge in calibrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are not inflamed. It also requires taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section IV. See also Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments in “Focus on resolving difficulties in Rakhine rather than exaggerating them, says Suu Kyi”, Channel NewsAsia, 2 December 2016. As regards the risk of intercommunal violence, monitors report a significant increase in hate speech posts after 9 October and their spread to pages and networks where that had not previously been observed. Crisis Group interview, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Failure to get this right carries enormous risks, so it is important that any response starts from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some in the Muslim population of Rakhine State has emerged now. For many years, this population has seen its rights eroded and its progressive marginalisation from social and political life. This became particularly acute at the time of the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. In the wake of that violence, and seeing no likelihood of improvement, some Rohingya in northern Rakhine State and the diaspora began contemplating taking up arms and made initial preparations to launch a new insurgency (see Section IV.C above). A leader of this initiative with whom Crisis Group met in Bangladesh in 2014 described the group’s plans and made clear the objective was for the community to live as Myanmar citizens with rights respected by the state, and was not separatist, anti-Buddhist or transnational jihadist.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A. At the time, he described the group as a “new RSO”, with a generation of younger leaders based in Rakhine State. It is now clear that he was describing HaY.Hide Footnote

Three key developments in 2015 are likely to have cemented the group’s resolve to launch an insurgency and created a much more fertile recruiting ground for it: disenfranchisement of Muslim voters, lack of hope of a political solution and the shutting down of migration routes to Malaysia (see Section III above). The authorities have a responsibility to respond to the deadly attacks on BGP bases. At the same time, an effective security response must be set within an overarching policy that addresses the sense of hopelessness of Muslims in Rakhine State. This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. While increasing despair has driven more to consider violence, it is not too late for the government to reverse this if it recognises that the population has lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so and resolves to give them a place in the nation’s life.

This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive.

All indications are that HaY is preparing further attacks on security forces and retains the capability to do so. Heavy-handed security measures would directly contradict the above objectives, likely creating more despair and animosity among local Muslims, increasing support for HaY and provoking a deepening cycle of violence. There is likewise a very real prospect of even larger population displacements to Bangladesh. In this respect, it is also vital to open up the conflict-affected part of north Maungdaw for aid workers and independent media.

Experience from other countries strongly suggests an aggressive military response not embedded in a broader policy framework would also be ineffective against the armed group and risk greater attention from international jihadist groups.[fn]For experiences elsewhere, see, for example, Crisis Group Europe & Central Asia Briefing N°77, A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks, 17 December 2015; Middle East & North Africa Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009; and Special Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., Section V.A.Hide Footnote The presence of a well-organised, effective, internationally connected insurgency in Rakhine State could then provide channels that did not previously exist for terrorism. This does not appear to be the HaY’s objective, but the situation could give international jihadists opportunities to insert their own agendas, for example by recruiting Rohingya (particularly in Bangladesh) to carry out such actions on Myanmar soil, or attracting foreign fighters, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent who could blend in easily, to do so.

It is also possible that the spotlight on the Rohingya’s plight might prompt foreign groups unconnected with HaY to conduct a terrorist attack; there has been a foiled attempt to bomb Myanmar’s Jakarta embassy, and the individual who carried out the recent attack at Ohio State University in the U.S. claimed to have been inspired at least in part by oppression of the Rohingya.[fn]See “Indonesia foil plan to attack embassy”, Agence France-Presse, 27 November 2016; “‘I can’t take it anymore’: Ohio State attacker said abuses of Burma’s Muslims led to ‘boiling point’”, The Washington Post, 29 November 2016.Hide Footnote To mitigate these risks requires political, not military responses: building stronger, more positive ties between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and improving cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Such cooperation is essential to ensure security and effectively address potential transnational jihadist threats. On the western border in particular, arms, narcotics and human smuggling networks are intertwined and could be used by insurgent and jihadist groups to transport weapons, materiel and personnel. The current security operation has strained relations with countries that have large Muslim populations and with which there are practical needs for close ties. There have been big protest demonstrations in Bangladesh (including by Islamist parties) as well as in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and Indonesia. Deep concerns have been expressed by the Bangladeshi and Malaysian governments. Western countries are also alarmed at the Rakhine State situation and the lacklustre government response.[fn]Malaysia to summon Burmese ambassador as protests mount over treatment of Rohingya”, Reuters, 25 November 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis stirs regional protests”, Nikkei Asian Review, 26 November 2016; “Malaysia says Myanmar violence against Muslim Rohingya ‘ethnic cleansing’”, Reuters, 2 December 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya issue a ‘humanitarian crisis’: Malaysia”, Channel NewsAsia, 3 December 2016; “Malaysian PM urges intervention to stop ‘genocide’ of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims” Reuters, 4 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Yangon, December 2016. “Regional criticism of Myanmar's Rohingya policy risks ASEAN split”, Nikkei Asian Review, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State.

In the Malaysian case, this became a public spat after Prime Minister Najib Razak indicated he would join a major protest in Kuala Lumpur. Myanmar accused him of violating ASEAN non-interference principles and using the issue for domestic politics; Malaysia retorted that Myanmar was pursuing “ethnic cleansing” and destabilising South East Asia. At the 4 December demonstration, Najib called for international intervention to stop “genocide”, directly criticised Suu Kyi and said “enough is enough”.

While this was seen in many quarters as having a primarily domestic political objective for Najib, the anger against Myanmar in much of the Muslim world is real. ASEAN, in particular Indonesia, has a potentially important role in helping to de-escalate the situation. This would be of great benefit to Myanmar; it would also be in the interests of ASEAN, which has long carried the burden of large numbers of Rohingya refugees and migrants, a flow that will increase if the violence continues and lead to radicalisation risks for the region. There is also fear that the issue could be destabilising for ASEAN as a whole.[fn]Surin Pitsuwan, “Asia’s moral duty to the Rohingya”, The Wall Street Journal, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote In response to regional concerns, Myanmar has called a special retreat for ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon on 19 December, so Aung San Suu Kyi can brief them on the situation.[fn]Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Myanmar to brief ASEAN amid alarm over Rakhine”, Nikkei Asian Review, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote Myanmar should use this opportunity to set out a credible political strategy for addressing the violence.

Suu Kyi’s flagship initiative for addressing the situation, the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission established in August, faces major further challenges after the 9 October attacks.[fn]Press release, Office of the State Counsellor, reproduced in GNLM, 24 August 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State. The commission lacks the composition, expert staff and mandate to address the current crisis. On 1 December, the government announced another (national) commission to investigate the attacks and security forces’ response and consider measures to prevent new incidents. It is chaired by the military’s pick for vice president, Myint Swe, a retired army lieutenant-general and former military intelligence chief, widely regarded as a hardliner. That its membership is mainly serving or retired government officials suggests it is unlikely to challenge or contradict government and military narratives.[fn]Formation of Investigation Commission”, President’s Office, notification 89/2016, 1 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and observers, Yangon, December 2016.Hide Footnote How it will work or liaise with the Annan commission is unclear.

VII. Conclusion

The violent attacks on BGP bases on 9 October 2016, and further clashes in the next days and on 12 November, when a senior army officer was killed, represent the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency in northern Rakhine State. The HaY group is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and commanded on the ground by other Rohingya, who have international training and experience in modern guerrilla tactics, the legitimacy of supportive local and international fatwas and considerable sympathy and backing from the local Muslim population, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this organised, well-funded group is a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address Rakhine State’s complex challenges, including longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, with denial of rights and citizenship status. The government’s response to the attacks – injudicious use of military force that fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, denial of humanitarian aid to an extremely vulnerable population and lack of an overarching political strategy that offers it some hope – is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence.

Though there are indications of some training and support links, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. If the government mishandles the situation, however, including by continued use of disproportionate military force that has driven thousands across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that jihadist groups might exploit for their own agendas. To avoid that risk requires a moderated military response, well-crafted political strategy and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with Myanmar’s neighbours and the ASEAN bloc.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Crisis Group. Based on UN map 4168, rev. 3, June 2012.
Returning officers count the ballots of parliamentary by-elections at a polling station of East Dagon township in Yangon, Myanmar on 1 April 2017. Anadolu Agency / Aung Naing Soe
Briefing 157 / Asia

Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar

Myanmar’s 2020 polls are a chance to consolidate electoral democracy in the country. Yet many ethnic minorities doubt that voting gives them a real say. To preempt possible violence, the government and outside partners should work to enhance the ballot’s inclusiveness and transparency.

What’s new? Myanmar will go to the polls in late 2020. Political positioning has begun in earnest, affecting important governmental decision-making. In ethnic-minority areas, particularly Rakhine State, there is growing disillusionment with electoral democracy that could fuel escalating violence.

Why does it matter? The pre-election period of political contestation will likely exacerbate ethnic tensions and conflict risks, particularly in the country’s periphery. At the same time, balloting will be a crucial opportunity to consolidate gains in electoral democracy – an important if insufficient step toward long-term peace and stability in Myanmar.

What should be done?  To bolster ethnic minorities’ faith in elections, the government should signal its intention to appoint state chief ministers from the winning party in each state, rather than imposing National League for Democracy-led governments everywhere. More transparent decision-making about the likely cancellation of voting in conflict-affected areas would also help.

I. Overview

More than a year ahead of national elections in Myanmar, the key protagonists’ political positioning is already affecting policy on everything from the peace process to the economy. Political actors now see important decisions through an electoral lens. Political contestation during the campaign risks aggravating ethnic tensions and conflict, particularly in the country’s periphery; Rakhine State, where the anti-government Arakan Army continues an insurgent struggle for greater regional autonomy, is a likely flashpoint. The elections could also be a crucial if imperfect next step toward consolidating electoral democracy in Myanmar. The election commission and its international partners should focus on both mitigating conflict risks and enhancing the polls’ credibility.

As Aung San Suu Kyi remains hugely popular with her ethnic-majority Burman base, the election result is not really in doubt. The party she leads, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will handily win a majority of parliamentary seats.

What is in doubt is the salience of elections for those other than her core supporters. More and more, minorities feel excluded from or ill served by the electoral system. The alienation is clearest in Rakhine State, where most of the Rohingya remaining after the expulsion of more than 700,000 of them in 2017 have no prospect of gaining the vote. The ethnic Rakhine population – another minority – also feel that politics has failed them. The landslide victory of the main Rakhine party in 2015 was followed by the presidential imposition of an NLD government and a lack of subsequent national government engagement with Rakhine leaders. Angered, many ethnic Rakhine now support the Arakan Army insurgency.

As other ethnic minorities also chafe at the perception of a Burman nationalist NLD leadership, the elections could be a pivotal moment. On the one hand, they could help defuse tension by showing a peaceful method for these communities to gain a greater voice in their own governance. On the other, they could cement the impression that the NLD has a hammerlock on power at all levels and lead to dangerous scepticism of electoral democracy.

The main power-holders are jockeying for position ahead of the polls.

The government should take steps now to lay the groundwork for elections that instil greater confidence in the democratic process within these minority communities. One important measure would be for it to commit to appointing chief ministers (the top executives for each state) from the party that wins the most seats in state legislatures. Such appointments would go a long way toward giving minorities a say in their own governance and in official decisions affecting their lives – and would almost certainly build greater support for the electoral process.

A more transparent and inclusive electoral process in conflict-affected areas would also help mitigate the erosion of confidence in democracy. In places where the election commission will cancel voting for security reasons, it should be more transparent about the basis on which such decisions are made. The election commission and its international partners should also take advantage of the coming year to enhance the polls’ credibility, especially in the priority areas identified by election observation organisations. Improvements should include accurate updating of the voter rolls to ensure the registry of some five million new voters who have turned eighteen since 2015. Promoting greater representation of women, as candidates and on the currently all-male election commission, should also be a priority. Given the risks of conflict and the broader importance of making the elections as credible as possible, international partners should invest in long-term observation of the electoral process, not only election-day monitoring.

II. Electoral Positioning Begins

Though elections are not due to take place until 2020, probably that November, their impact on Myanmar politics is already evident.[fn]Under the 2008 constitution, elections take place on a fixed five-year schedule, ruling out early polls or snap elections.Hide Footnote The main power-holders are jockeying for position ahead of the polls, as seen in several recent developments.[fn]For previous analysis of Myanmar elections, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°266, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; and 174, Myanmar: Toward the Elections, 20 August 2009; and Briefings N°147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 118, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, 7 March 2011; and 105, The Myanmar Elections, 27 May 2010.Hide Footnote

A. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy

Dissatisfied with its showing in November 2018 by-elections (see section III.A below), Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD has concluded that it needs some clear government accomplishments to present to the electorate in 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NLD MPs and party officials, Yangon, November 2018-February 2019; “Myanmar by-election results ‘a lesson’ for Suu Kyi’s party”, Reuters, 4 November 2018.Hide Footnote With near-term progress unlikely on substantive but hugely challenging priorities including job creation, expanded electricity supply, ethnic group rights and the peace process, the search is on for modest or even symbolic achievements.

For example, pre-election politics explains why the party made a surprise move on 29 January to form a parliamentary committee on constitutional change – to the consternation of the legislature’s military representatives, who stood in silent protest.[fn]“Myanmar Suu Kyi’s party clashes with military over proposal to change army-drafted charter”, Reuters, 29 January 2019.Hide Footnote The date was significant, being the two-year anniversary of the assassination of veteran NLD adviser and constitutional expert Ko Ni, who was both one of the country’s most prominent Muslim public figures and a leading proponent of Myanmar’s democratisation.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “Myanmar Assassination Shows Urgent Need for Unity against Hate Crimes”, 29 January 2017. The case is not fully resolved. The gunman and three others have been convicted, but the plot’s alleged mastermind is still on the run. It also remains murky whether some more powerful figure may have been behind the killing. See “Ko Ni murder trial reaches climax”, Frontier Myanmar, 29 January 2019.Hide Footnote The powerful military has a veto on amendments to the national charter and is highly unlikely to agree to alterations. Creating the committee, however, allows the NLD to argue that it is doing something to make the constitution more democratic and thus fulfil a key pledge ahead of the 2015 elections.

The committee has discussed each chapter of the constitution, and on 15 July it submitted its report to parliament – a 353-page tabulation of some 3,700 amendments proposed by the different political parties represented on the committee. The next step would be for parliament to debate the list, and the government may then put a package of charter reforms to a vote, likely forcing a military veto that would portray the institution as frustrating the will of the people for “change”, the 2015 slogan of the NLD. The NLD would no doubt see this as to its electoral advantage.

The government is also reportedly preparing a national referendum – a requirement for amending key constitutional clauses. It has instructed the General Administration Department to update voter lists ahead of the normal schedule.[fn]Crisis Group interview, election experts, Yangon, June 2019.Hide Footnote According to the constitution, such a referendum should be held only after parliament has approved the amendments, meaning only if the military does not exercise its veto power.[fn]2008 Constitution, section 436(a).Hide Footnote But rather than seeking endorsement for the proposed reforms, the NLD may instead be planning to frame the referendum in a way that would put further political pressure on the military not to exercise its veto – for example by asking the electorate whether it supports the idea that constitutional change is needed.[fn]Crisis Group interview, election expert, Yangon, June 2019; also, Constitution, section 436(a).Hide Footnote

The peace process has stalled for more than a year.

Part of the reason why the NLD delayed its push for constitutional change until the pre-election year is that it had previously viewed the peace process as the most effective route to charter reform. The current iteration of the process, which the prior government initiated in 2011, is predicated on reaching a political settlement with ethnic minorities to institute a form of federalism, which would require major changes to the constitution. The NLD hoped to introduce its desired democratic changes at the same time. The peace process has stalled for more than a year, however, in part because ethnic armed groups perceive the government and military as unwilling to stop fighting and make sufficient political concessions. With obstacles in its preferred pathway to constitutional change, the NLD decided to try a more direct route.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, individuals involved in the peace process with knowledge of NLD thinking, Yangon, January-June 2019. See also Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°151, Myanmar’s Stalled Transition, 28 August 2018, section II.B.Hide Footnote

The NLD’s second achievement is the December 2018 announcement transferring the General Administration Department – the backbone of Myanmar’s public administration – from the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs to a civilian government ministry.[fn]“Govt announces transfer of military-controlled dept to civilian ministry”, The Irrawaddy, 21 December 2018.Hide Footnote The department requires long-term reform, and voters are unlikely to see much difference in the way they interact with the bureaucracy at the local level prior to the elections, although it could be a first step toward progress after the election. But the NLD can present the move as a success in achieving greater civilian control of government – another of its key 2015 campaign messages and the main motivation for amending the constitution.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Myanmar governance expert with direct knowledge of the matter, Yangon, January 2019. See also “Govt reveals plan to bring GAD under civilian control”, Frontier Myanmar, 22 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Each of these initiatives has the potential to weaken military authority or embarrass the institution – which especially resents the constitutional reform effort – and thus each could heighten tensions between the top brass and civilian government leaders. But fallout and thus the tension is likely to be limited. The military’s constitutionally provided veto means that no one can force an amendment through against its will. It would be loath to exercise its veto but in the end would do so if it considered this necessary to protect its interests.

Moving the General Administration Department could have been a major point of contention had the NLD made the decision unilaterally, but it did not. The Thein Sein administration, which preceded Aung San Suu Kyi’s, first mooted the idea, and the department conducted its own review, finding no constitutional or other legal or administrative obstacle to the move.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Prior to the December 2018 announcement, the civilian government again consulted the military, which did not object. The military has not revealed its rationale for its acquiescence, but it fits with its broader objective for the political transition, which is to withdraw from administration and governance and focus on security matters, while preserving the constitutional prerogatives that protect its autonomy.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

B. Opposition Parties

Myanmar has a first-past-the-post voting system, whereby the party that obtains the plurality of votes in a given constituency wins the seat. Three fourths of parliament is elected, with the remaining quarter made up of military representatives appointed by the commander-in-chief. At present, that office belongs to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.[fn]For detailed discussion of Myanmar’s electoral system, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, op. cit., section IV.Hide Footnote

In central Myanmar, the main elected opposition is the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a group linked to the junta-era military establishment. It is neither an effective political opposition nor a real threat at the polls, holding 8.5 per cent of elected seats in parliament, compared to the NLD’s almost 80 per cent. Though that disparity is unlikely to narrow, the NLD remains nervous about reductions of its huge popular mandate and the supermajority of elected seats that give it an overall majority in the parliament and hence the capacity to force through legislation. Thus it worries about USDP strongholds, which are few but loyal to the party, as well as the USDP’s national reach and ability to get out the vote.

In an effort to win more seats in 2020, several parties [representing ethnic minorities] have merged along ethnic lines.

Compounding such NLD concerns, Shwe Mann – an ambitious former general, erstwhile USDP head and sometime confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi – announced in February 2019 that he was forming a new party, the Union Betterment Party, with some of his ex-USDP comrades.[fn]“Shwe Mann forms party ahead of 2020 election”, Frontier Myanmar, 5 February 2019. The election commission officially registered the party on 25 April.Hide Footnote Shwe Mann reportedly pitched his party to the NLD as a way to split the old establishment vote, which tends to favour USDP, by running his party’s candidates in USDP strongholds; this could theoretically make it easier for NLD to win a plurality of the votes in these areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political observers and well-informed individuals, Yangon, January-March 2019. Examples of such seats could be Meiktila and Thazi, which are among the very few constituencies in the Burman-majority regions that the NLD did not win.Hide Footnote His initial policy statements, however, presented the party as democratic federalist in its orientation, rather than conservative nationalist, which would seem to put it in competition with the NLD rather than the USDP.[fn]“Ex-General U Shwe Mann registers ‘Union Betterment Party’”, The Irrawaddy, 5 February 2019.Hide Footnote Perhaps partly out of concern about this possibility, later in February, the NLD voted not to extend the term of the powerful parliamentary commission that Shwe Mann chaired.[fn]“Parliament abolishes legal affairs commission”, The Irrawaddy, 28 February 2019.Hide Footnote

The parties representing ethnic minorities constitute NLD’s main opposition other than the USDP. Together these ethnic parties control around 12 per cent of elected seats. In an effort to win more seats in 2020, several of these parties have merged along ethnic lines: among others, three Karen parties united in 2018 to form the Karen National Democratic Party; three Kachin parties amalgamated in June 2019 as the Kachin State People’s Party; and three Chin parties and two Mon parties melded in July 2019 to form the Chin National League for Democracy Party and the Mon Unity Party, respectively.[fn]See “Ethnic political parties merge to seek stronger representation in 2020 election”, The Irrawaddy, 11 September 2018; and Union Election Commission notifications 86/2019, 7 June 2019 and 119, 121/2019, 11 July 2019.Hide Footnote Even if such mergers are successful, they may only slightly improve ethnic parties’ chances. Most of the constituencies that these merged parties aim to win are multi-ethnic; the main obstacle to winning them is vote splitting between, not within, the different ethnic electorates. In 2015, only eight of parliament’s 323 seats would have wound up in different hands if the parties representing the same ethnic group had merged (assuming that all who voted for the individual parties would have voted for the united party).[fn]Crisis Group analysis of voting data, December 2015. See also Crisis Group Report, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, op. cit.Hide Footnote

C. The Military

Though the military has a reserved block of seats in the parliament, it also has a stake in the election outcome. The reason is not, as is widely assumed, that the USDP is the military’s proxy or its unquestioning backer. The military had turbulent relations with the USDP when that party had a parliamentary majority from 2011 to 2015. It has long tended to view civilian politicians of every stripe as self-serving. Moreover, the bonds between the commander-in-chief and today’s crop of USDP leaders are weak. The military’s interest in the elections derives instead from its wish to see the NLD lose its supermajority, use of which it has regularly likened to “democratic bullying”.[fn]See, for example, “Military appointees complain of ‘democratic bullying’ in parliament”, Democratic Voice of Burma, 5 April 2016. The supermajority threshold is two thirds of the elected seats, which is half of the total legislature once military appointees are included; the NLD has almost 80 per cent of elected seats.Hide Footnote Without this advantage, the NLD could no longer push through legislation without consulting others in the chamber, including military representatives.

More important to the military than any concern about the election outcome, however, is its desire to avoid being portrayed in a negative light during the campaign. This appears to have been one consideration underlying its decision to announce a unilateral ceasefire in Shan and Kachin States in December 2018, which was preceded by months in which it mostly refrained from clashes in those areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Myanmar individual close to the military, Yangon, February 2019; data on clashes from Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote Ethnic armed groups have often blamed lack of trust and progress in the peace process on the military’s continued operations against them. The unilateral ceasefire helps neutralise that argument and, as the government feels pressure to show progress in the talks ahead of the elections, makes it more difficult to blame the military for failure to achieve results.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°287, Building Critical Mass for Peace, 29 June 2017.Hide Footnote

Similarly, the military’s agreement to relinquish control of the Department of General Administration ensures that no one can lay delays in administrative reform at its doorstep. One can see the military’s disgruntled reaction to the NLD’s constitutional amendment gambit in the same light: the generals do not want to use their veto, knowing that the NLD would depict them as standing in the way of charter reform, but they will do so if they have to.

III. The Polls’ Significance for Democratic Consolidation

A. Likely Electoral Outcome

The 2020 elections are unlikely to result in a change of government. Support for Aung San Suu Kyi, and hence for the NLD, appears to remain extremely strong in the Burman heartland, which represents a majority of the constituencies. As noted, there is no effective opposition party in these areas. Ethnic parties may make a small dent in the NLD’s haul of seats, but they are unlikely to significantly change the composition of parliament or challenge the NLD’s control over selecting the next president.

The November 2018 by-election results both reaffirmed the NLD’s strength in the centre of the country and pointed to its possible vulnerabilities in other constituencies. The party has tended to worry about the latter rather than take heart in the former.[fn]“Myanmar by-election results ‘a lesson’ for Suu Kyi’s party”, Reuters, 4 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Thirteen seats were up for grabs – one in the upper house, four in the lower house and eight in state/region assemblies. In the two lower house seats in the heartland (Tamwe and Myingyan), the party won by massive margins – 85 and 76 per cent of the vote, respectively. These results were similar to the margins for these seats in 2015, and typical of NLD wins across the centre of the country.[fn]The NLD’s vote tally in Tamwe and Myingyan in 2015 was 87 and 76 per cent respectively. See also Crisis Group Report, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, op. cit.Hide Footnote On the day of voting, the NLD lost one seat (Seikkan) in the Yangon region assembly to the USDP. But in May 2019, the election commission overturned this result after it upheld a complaint of vote-buying by the USDP candidate. It then awarded the seat to the NLD, which polled second.[fn]See “USDP lawmaker removed from seat for cheating in by-election”, Myanmar Now, 30 May 2019. Seikkan is an anomaly as it is one of the most heavily malapportioned constituencies in the country, with only 1,400 registered voters, mostly public servants, compared with an average of 54,000 for the by-election seats. Crisis Group calculations.Hide Footnote

More concerning for the NLD was the result in the upper house constituency of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. Having won the seat in 2015, the NLD came in third in the by-election, behind the USDP and Kachin Democratic Party, though the tally was close.[fn]The USDP won with 35 per cent, compared with the KDP’s 28.1 per cent and the NLD’s 27.9 per cent (the difference between the KDP and NLD being only 113 votes). In 2015, the NLD won with 57 per cent, compared with 4 per cent for the KDP; the USDP did not field a candidate that year.Hide Footnote In 2015, Kachin leaders – including the influential Kachin Independence Organisation armed group – threw their weight behind the NLD. By 2018, Kachin sentiment had shifted sharply against Aung San Suu Kyi due to her perceived failure to address ethnic minority concerns in the peace process. The USDP was better than the NLD at getting out the vote amid low overall turnout; among those it helped turn out were many members of the military – who are more likely to vote USDP (or be instructed to).

Since the 1950s [Myanmar] has had only one broadly credible national election, in 2015.

The Kachin Democratic Party benefited from the new support of community leaders and disaffection with the NLD, as well as no-compete agreements with other Kachin parties that prevented a vote split. But the fact that Myitkyina has an ethnically diverse electorate, with large Shan and Burman populations in addition to the Kachin, hampered the Kachin party.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, election experts, Yangon, December 2018.Hide Footnote

The NLD’s woes in Myitkyina are at least a small red flag for the party, as they reflect a broader shift in sentiment among ethnic minorities across Myanmar away from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Efforts to reduce vote splitting through mergers of ethnic minority parties, or non-compete agreements between them, may increase their share of the vote in 2020. Such steps, however, will not necessarily translate into many more seats for ethnic parties, or significantly dent the NLD’s majority, due to the multi-ethnicity of populations in many constituencies, the first-past-the-post system (which will allow NLD to hold on to seats so long as they can muster a plurality of votes) (see section II.B above), and the fact that, in the lower house, almost two thirds of the constituencies are in the Burman heartland where the NLD won 96 per cent of seats in 2015.[fn]There are 330 elected seats in the lower house, of which 207 are in the seven Burman-majority regions; the NLD won 199 of these in 2015.Hide Footnote

The lower house – which has almost twice as many members (330) as the upper house (168) – is the more important of the two chambers of parliament because of the design of Myanmar’s presidential electoral system. Three candidates are put forward. The elected members of each chamber choose one apiece and the combined military representatives of both chambers choose one together. A single round of voting then takes place in which all representatives – elected and military appointees – cast a ballot for their preferred candidate. The person with the most votes becomes president, and the other two become vice presidents.  The system accordingly gives the lower house, with its superior numbers, a strong advantage in pushing through its candidate.[fn]A party does not necessarily require a majority of lower house elected seats to determine that chamber’s candidate for president; it only needs to form the largest bloc to ensure that its nominee receives the most votes.Hide Footnote

Once elected, the president has executive authority to appoint a government and make many decisions with limited legislative oversight. The president does not require a parliamentary majority or a supportive coalition to govern.[fn]For discussion of the extent of executive power and legislative checks, see Renaud Egreteau, Caretaking Democratization (London, 2016), ch. 3.Hide Footnote A coalition government would therefore not normally arise in Myanmar.

B. Consolidating an Electoral Tradition

Myanmar has only recently emerged from a half-century of authoritarian rule, and is only in the beginning stages of consolidating a tradition of electoral democracy. Since the 1950s it has had only one broadly credible national election, in 2015.[fn]The result of the 1990 election was disregarded; in 2010 the NLD boycotted the polls, which were further undermined by allegations of significant malpractice and fraud. The 2015 poll was marred by the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, but the NLD landslide reflected the will of the electorate and power was peacefully transferred.Hide Footnote The constitution remains fundamentally undemocratic in many respects, including the significant political role and autonomy it grants to the military.[fn]For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: Toward the Elections, op. cit.Hide Footnote And yet, somewhat surprisingly, national political debate centres around the coming elections.

Spoilers have not yet emerged to distract from that focus. Though insurgency continues in the country’s periphery, no significant actor seems to be considering non-electoral means of securing power nationwide. In particular, a military coup appears extremely unlikely because, however unhappy it may be with some decisions by Aung San Suu Kyi, overall the military is satisfied that the system it designed is serving it well.

In a deeply divided country with no strong democratic tradition, the apparent attachment to elections is both striking and crucial. It underpins the political stability at the nation’s centre. And although electoral democracy is not a panacea and will not automatically lead to a more peaceful and tolerant country, it is hard to imagine meaningful and sustainable progress toward those goals if the country moves in a less democratic direction.

The election is also a chance to seek greater representation of women – in party leaderships, as candidates and representatives, and on the election commission itself.

The 2020 electoral cycle presents an opportunity to build further support for the democratic process. Aung San Suu Kyi’s huge popularity across a broad swathe of the country means that no pretender seeks her crown. The absence of competition at the top has unified much of the polity and curtailed political infighting that could have undermined the democratic system’s credibility. This same stability has also created space for Myanmar to develop sound, relatively transparent institutional and regulatory underpinnings for elections – in 2015 these included generally accurate voter lists, fairly large-scale voter education and training, along with measures to guard the vote’s integrity such as indelible ink and tamper-proof seals.

Improvements by 2020 in the priority areas identified by election observation organisations can help make Myanmar’s electoral process more resilient in the face of inevitable future challenges.[fn]See “Observing Myanmar’s 2015 General Elections: Final Report”, Carter Center, August 2016; and “EU EOM Myanmar General Elections 2015: Final Report”, European Union, March 2016.Hide Footnote Particularly important will be instilling confidence in the process in the next generation of voters. By the time of the 2020 polls, an estimated five million young people will have become eligible to vote for the first time.[fn]Crisis Group interview, electoral support expert, Yangon, January 2019.Hide Footnote Their first voting experience will do much to shape their perceptions of electoral democracy. First and foremost, instilling confidence requires effective voter list updating, a major logistical undertaking for the election commission – which is appointed anew by each incoming government and hence does not have the benefit of experience from the previous exercise.

The election is also a chance to seek greater representation of women – in party leaderships, as candidates and representatives, and on the election commission itself. Doing so will be critical for advancing the goal of inclusive governance given the serious disparities that currently exist in male and female representation.[fn]Women are massively under-represented in public life in Myanmar. In 2015, only 800 of 6,038 candidates (13 per cent) were women; of these, 63 were elected as MPs (out of 493), more than double the number in 2010. Only one person in the 24-member cabinet is female (Aung San Suu Kyi herself). None of the election commission’s seventeen commissioners is female, though the body has a gender equality action plan. See “She Leads in Myanmar: Inspiring Women Leaders”, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, March 2019.Hide Footnote The government could narrow the gap by providing incentives and training for women candidates, and by mandating gender quotas for the appointment of election commissioners.[fn]See Carter Center and European Union observer reports, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Consolidating electoral democracy in 2020 would help create precedents and traditions that could serve Myanmar in the future, when it might well face more difficult periods. Once Aung San Suu Kyi – whose stature is unique – departs the political stage, electoral politics will likely become more combative and could well become more corrupt. The more the public becomes accustomed to the idea of free and fair elections, and the stronger that electoral institutions are, the more resilient the system will be.

IV. Elections and Conflict

Much as the 2020 elections are a moment of opportunity for Myanmar’s electoral democracy, they are also a moment of risk. The contestation of the pre-election period could precipitate violence, as could the polls themselves; conversely, existing armed conflicts and social tensions have the potential to hurt the ballot’s integrity.

A. The Arakan Army Conflict

Fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military has escalated sharply in 2019, following the group’s deadly raids on police posts on the country’s Independence Day on 4 January.[fn]For details, see Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote Since then, there have been hundreds of clashes and the military has reportedly suffered heavy casualties, including among officers.[fn]“Tatmadaw says it has clashed with AA nearly 100 times this year”, The Irrawaddy, 25 March 2019; “Senior Myanmar Army officer death toll mount in N. Rakhine”, The Irrawaddy, 4 June 2019.Hide Footnote Despite government and military vows to “crush” the insurgents, the Arakan Army has intensified its attacks and expanded the geographical range of its operations.[fn]See Crisis Group report, A New Dimension of Violence, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The Arakan Army – which says it is fighting for the semi-independence (in its parlance, “confederation”) of Rakhine State – already draws significant popular support from the perceived failure of electoral politics in the state. The main Rakhine political party won a landslide victory in 2015, securing a large majority of the elected seats in the state legislature. The new president, however, used his constitutional powers to appoint an NLD chief minister to run the state. The government subsequently neglected to consult Rakhine political leaders about much of anything. Rather, it ordered the arrest of the most prominent Rakhine leader – Dr Aye Maung – in January 2018 on high treason charges for public comments it saw as supportive of the Arakan Army. On 19 March 2019, a court sentenced him to a twenty-year jail term, which he is trying to appeal.[fn]“Union supreme court to decide Dr Aye Maung’s appeal”, Development Media Group, 24 July 2019.Hide Footnote

In the eyes of many ethnic Rakhine people, the Arakan Army offers an appealing alternative to a failed political process. The group’s “Arakan Dream 2020” slogan encapsulates popular sentiment. For the Arakan Army the slogan’s reference to 2020 is unrelated to the elections; it is the date by which they want to achieve their objective for greater Rakhine sovereignty by force.[fn]The leader of the Arakan Army made this clear in a video the group circulated in late 2017, saying, “our Arakan dream is that we will take back Arakan in 2020. This message is for our people. Everyone needs to have this dream. It is important for our people to follow your duty to fight to take back your land”.Hide Footnote Both the timing and the goal raise serious concerns about the prospects for conducting 2020 elections peacefully, or at all, in Rakhine State.

The Arakan Army is far more popular and influential than any Rakhine party.

The most worrying scenario is that the Arakan Army tries to block voting in Rakhine altogether. This cannot be ruled out, but seems unlikely. It would deny Rakhine parties both the legitimacy of an electoral win and control of the state legislature, which is a symbolically important platform albeit with limited powers.  Moreover, if the Arakan Army were to act in this way, voting would still likely go ahead in the far south of Rakhine State, which is not conflict-affected, and is an NLD stronghold from which the current chief minister hails. The Arakan Army would presumably want to avoid a scenario where it is seen as responsible for preventing voting in Rakhine party strongholds, only for it to go ahead in NLD-dominated areas, leaving Naypyitaw no alternative but to appoint a chief minister from among its own representatives.

A more likely scenario is that continued clashes prevent polling from taking place in some places or generate insecurity that could lead the election commission to cancel voting across large areas of Rakhine State. As the commission’s decisions are often opaque, such a cancellation would inevitably give rise to claims that the government was using insecurity as a means of disenfranchising Rakhine voters or unfairly influencing results. This could fuel escalating anger and violence.

If polls go ahead, another risk is that an ethnic Rakhine party scores an electoral victory but that Naypyitaw nevertheless installs an NLD chief minister as it has in the past. The Arakan Army might also use this as further justification for armed struggle. The Arakan Army is far more popular and influential than any Rakhine party and it is not backing any one in particular. But it would likely react sharply to an appointment that it saw as de facto ethnic Rakhine disenfranchisement and use it to mobilise further support for its violent campaign.

B. The Rohingya Crisis and Systemic Exclusion

A community that Myanmar’s electoral democracy has failed utterly is the Rohingya. They were eligible to vote in all post-independence elections, until 2015. In February that year, responding to nationalist protests, President Thein Sein announced the cancellation of all Temporary Registration Certificates (or “white cards”) – the only type of identity document that most Rohingya held. The Constitutional Tribunal also ruled that white card holders were ineligible to vote.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, op. cit.Hide Footnote Most Rohingya therefore could not vote in the November 2015 elections, and it is virtually inconceivable that they will be able to do so in 2020 – whether they are still in Myanmar or among the majority who fled atrocities in their home country and are now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army may attempt to disrupt voting in northern Rakhine State or use the elections as an occasion for symbolic attacks highlighting the Rohingyas’ plight. But, while it certainly poses a risk, the group appears to have limited operational capabilities and territorial reach. It has staged a few small attacks in Maungdaw township in the last few months, including ambushes of Myanmar border police vehicles on 16 January and 22 April, video of which circulated on social media, though the group did not formally claim responsibility for either attack.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, individuals with knowledge of incident, Bangladesh, January 2019. Footage of the incident is posted online. Video, YouTube, 19 January 2019. See also “Fresh ARSA attack injured six police officers”, The Irrawaddy, 20 January 2019; and “Police officer injured in ARSA ambush in N. Rakhine”, The Irrawaddy, 23 April 2019.Hide Footnote The group has a large footprint in the camps in Bangladesh, but apparently very limited capabilities in Myanmar.

Irrespective of the risk or extent of violence involved, Rohingya disenfranchisement will corrode the elections’ credibility internationally and among the Rohingya community itself. The lack of voting in Rohingya areas will serve as a stark reminder of the violent expulsion of more than 700,000 from the country in late 2017, as well as those expelled in earlier waves of violence, and the continued confinement of those who remain in increasingly entrenched conditions of apartheid.[fn]For analysis of those conditions, including detailed legal considerations, see “‘Caged Without a Roof’: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Amnesty International, November 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Armed Conflict-Related Disenfranchisement

The election commission law allows for cancellation of voting in part or all of a constituency for security reasons.[fn]2012 Union Election Commission Law, section 10(f).Hide Footnote Ahead of the 2010 and 2015 elections, the commission issued notifications a few weeks before the vote listing areas where balloting would not take place.[fn]“Areas where elections will not be held”, five Union Election Commission Notifications, nos. 99-103/2010, 16 September 2010; and 61-65, 67/2015, 12 and 27 October 2015.Hide Footnote Most were insecure or conflict-affected areas in states with predominantly ethnic-minority populations. The decision-making process was not transparent. The military informed the commission where it was to cancel voting, but did not disclose detailed reasoning, raising questions about whether political rather than security considerations may have driven some decisions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual working with election commission, Yangon, February 2015.Hide Footnote Any such cancellations ahead of the 2020 vote are likely again to be controversial. The best way to mitigate that risk is to ensure that the commission acts with greater transparency and has strong justification for its decisions.

Some ethnic armed groups could also use intimidation or violence to achieve electoral objectives. For example, ahead of the 2015 polls, the leader of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party claimed that the rival Shan Nationalities League for Democracy was supported in some areas by the Shan State Army-North armed group, which intimidated his party’s members.[fn]See “‘Five years ago, people were afraid of politics’”, Myanmar Times, 23 March 2015.Hide Footnote Also in 2015, the NLD said it was unable to campaign in the Pao self-administered zone due to Pao National Organisation threats.[fn]For background, see “NLD members threatened at gunpoint to resign in east Burma”, The Irrawaddy, 23 May 2013. The Pao National Organisation is both an armed group with a ceasefire as well as a political party (which the group also registered as).Hide Footnote Given the anger toward the NLD in much of Rakhine State, it may be difficult for the party to campaign there also, and intimidation or threats of violence cannot be ruled out.

D. Buddhist Nationalism and Communal Violence

With elections on the horizon, Myanmar could now be entering a more turbulent period with greater communal violence, as happened in the lead-up to the 2015 elections. Such violence is not inevitable, however, and depends on a number of factors, some of which suggest that the risk is lower than during the last election cycle.[fn]Although Myanmar has seen some horrific violence in recent years, the NLD government’s tenure has seen relatively little communal conflict. (It was mostly the state, rather than other ethno-religious groups, that perpetrated the violence compelling Muslim Rohingya to flee in 2017.) The last significant communal clashes occurred in the lead-up to the 2015 polls. For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013.Hide Footnote In 2015, many Buddhist nationalists feared that an NLD-led government would adopt liberal and pluralistic positions contrary to their inclinations, but it did not. On the Rakhine State crisis – both as regards the violent expulsion of Rohingya and the Arakan Army insurgency – the NLD has adopted a staunchly nationalist position. The NLD has also backed away from criticizing a package of race and religion protection laws sponsored by the Buddhist nationalist MaBaTha group in 2015 (although it objected to them at the time), and has not pushed through new legislation to supersede or amend them.[fn]Ibid., section III.B. These laws restrict interfaith marriage, polygamy, religious conversion and provide a legal framework for measures to control population growth in particular areas – all widely interpreted as targeting Muslims.Hide Footnote In fact the entire political landscape is much more in line with Buddhist nationalist views. No major party fielded a Muslim candidate in 2015, and none is anticipated to do so in 2020.

The first-past-the-post system encourages a winner-take-all political culture that can make it difficult for ethnic and other non-NLD parties to gain seats in parliament.

Still, there are certain developments that could presage a flare-up in communal violence in the run-up to the election. The first would be if the opposition USDP chooses to make the supposed threat posed to Buddhism by other religions a focus of its campaign strategy, as it did before the 2015 elections. At that time, it saw Buddhist nationalism as a club with which to beat the NLD. The party continues to promote a conservative and generally Buddhist nationalist agenda, but it may not perceive the same advantage over its rival that it saw four years ago, given that the NLD has now established its nationalist credentials. Thus, much may depend on the campaign strategy of individual USDP candidates in areas with a history of communal tension or violence.

Whether clashes occur also depends on the extent of provocation by Buddhist nationalist groups such as MaBaTha. They may find it hard to generate the same traction as they had under the sympathetic Thein Sein-led government, given that the NLD views these groups as political enemies, and has repeatedly moved to curtail their activities.[fn]For a detailed examination of the group and its perspectives and motivations, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017.Hide Footnote The NLD could, however, overreach and prompt a nationalist backlash. For example, it is pursuing the firebrand monk Wirathu for lewd personal comments he made about Aung San Suu Kyi in two sermons. A court has issued an arrest warrant but the monk remains at large and is being tried in absentia. His detention or conviction could spark such a backlash.[fn]“Court hears from final witnesses as Wirathu’s trial in absentia nears end”, Myanmar Now, 11 July 2019.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

As Myanmar struggles with a democratic transition that has been marred by violence and injustice, the upcoming 2020 elections could mark a pivotal moment.  If the country is to find its way to a path toward more inclusive governance, where ethnic minorities have a greater voice and lower incentive to resort to violence, the consolidation of electoral democracy will almost surely be an important step along the way.  The upcoming polls – if they go well – can begin cementing traditions and precedents that have a chance of seeing the country through future elections peacefully. This will be especially important once the enormously popular Aung San Suu Kyi has left office and elections almost certainly become more contentious.

The country’s election rules, however, create challenges. The first-past-the-post system encourages a winner-take-all political culture that can make it difficult for ethnic and other non-NLD parties to gain seats and a voice in parliament. Fully changing this culture is a generational process, and changing the system is not on the cards at present. 

Still, there are steps the authorities could take to make the polls more credible and show communities that their votes count. Appointing state chief ministers from the winning party, rather than imposing NLD governments as happened last time in Rakhine and Shan States, would also help. More transparent decision-making about the cancellation of voting in conflict-affected areas would also increase confidence in the electoral process and lessen the risk that conflict actors use cancellations to justify violence.

These measures will not by themselves bring peace and stability to Myanmar but they may encourage its people – especially the very large number of first-time voters – to invest in a system that over time is its best hope for moving in that direction.

Yangon/Brussels, 6 August 2019