Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
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.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

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.

Related Content

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.
Myanmar's State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi looks on during the 9th ASEAN UN Summit in Manila, Philippines, 13 November 2017. REUTERS/Linus Escandor Ii/Pool
Briefing 151 / Asia

Myanmar’s Stalled Transition

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government appears stuck amid international condemnation of the Rohingya's mass displacement and domestic unease about the economy. To nudge Myanmar’s post-junta transition forward, the UN should combine engagement with pressure for accountability for crimes against humanity and eventual refugee return.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

What’s new? Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is halfway through its first term, in what was to be a crucial phase in Myanmar’s transition away from authoritarian military rule. Thus far, however, her government is a disappointment – seemingly inept at governance and complicit in the forced mass flight of Rohingya Muslims.

Why does it matter? On a range of key issues, from the economy to talks with ethnic armed groups, the government appears stuck, unable to formulate and carry out strategy or unwilling to make difficult decisions. Of most immediate concern, the Rohingya crisis has no resolution in sight.

What should be done? The policy challenge is to achieve tangible progress while maintaining a principled stand on crimes against humanity. External pressure can be important but is unlikely by itself to produce results. Robust diplomatic engagement, including by the UN special envoy, will be required to translate such pressure into meaningful change.

I. Overview

At the midpoint of the Aung San Suu Kyi government’s five-year term, Myanmar is at a crossroads. The Suu Kyi administration faces enormous international opprobrium over the Rohingya crisis – the flight of over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh due to a brutal army counter-insurgency campaign – as well as domestic opposition to the concessions needed to address international concerns. Yet the government’s challenge is not only political. Its performance to date on issues from peace talks with Myanmar’s numerous insurgencies to the economy shows that it is not adept at formulating strategy or implementing policy. Even were the government to develop the political will to respond constructively to the Rohingya crisis or other problems, progress is likely to be limited. This means that, in addition to the external pressure that continues to build, principled diplomatic engagement is also vital to translate that pressure into at least some meaningful steps forward.

In 2011, Myanmar embarked on a remarkable and largely unanticipated transition away from 50 years of isolationist and authoritarian military rule. The transition culminated in broadly free and fair elections in 2015, a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, and the peaceful transfer of power to an administration headed de facto by Aung San Suu Kyi – the military regime’s long-time nemesis and an international democracy icon.

The new government has underperformed on the peace process, governance and the economy.

Rarely has the reputation of a leader fallen so far, so fast. The sky-high expectations of what Aung San Suu Kyi could achieve were never justified, given the enormous structural obstacles and the uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement with the military, imposed by the constitution. Even against more realistic benchmarks, however, the new government has underperformed on the peace process, governance and the economy. The military’s brutal maltreatment of the Rohingya – involving crimes against humanity and which a UN report released on 27 August has said merit investigation for genocide – and the Suu Kyi government’s acquiescence therein, became a defining new crisis.

Outside actors should play a role to try to resolve it. Three sets of tools are available. First, there are targeted sanctions, which serve as a means of sending an international signal that actions such as the campaign against the Rohingya are unacceptable and have consequences. Given the history of Myanmar sanctions and current attitudes in the country, these are unlikely to alter the thinking of the military or the government, but they would represent a broader message to others who might be considering similar action. Second, there is continued international scrutiny, notably from the UN Security Council, as well as moves toward international accountability – for example, the establishment of an independent mechanism by the UN General Assembly. These would probably get the authorities’ attention and thus could have an effect. On their own, however, they will not suffice to produce meaningful change.

High-level engagement, through both bilateral and UN channels, is therefore a critical third component of the policy mix. Beyond conveying concerns, the goal should be to help identify, and offer support for, practical steps the government could take to achieve progress on accountability for crimes against humanity and the substantial improvement of conditions in Rakhine State, so as to be conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees.

II. The NLD Government’s Performance

A. A Faltering Start

Following the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2015 elections, party chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi took over as Myanmar’s de facto leader in March 2016.[fn]For Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar since the 2015 elections, see Asia Reports N°296, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 16 May 2018; N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; N°290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017; N°287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; N°283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; and N°282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; and Asia Briefings N°149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; and N°147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015.Hide Footnote Although the military-drafted constitution prevented her from becoming president, she was able to use the NLD’s legislative majority to pass a law installing her in a newly created position of “state counsellor”, fulfilling her pre-election pledge that she would be “above the president” and “make all the political decisions”. A close confidant, Htin Kyaw, served as a ceremonial president, passing the position’s considerable executive authority to Suu Kyi.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The military expressed their displeasure at this arrangement, which they considered unconstitutional, but they did not challenge it in the Constitutional Tribunal – which, given the party’s landslide, consisted entirely of NLD appointees – or make any concerted effort to subvert it.[fn]“Military MPs slam bill to create ‘state counsellor’ role”, Myanmar Times, 1 April 2016; “NLD to ram through state counsellor law”, Myanmar Times, 4 April 2016.Hide Footnote Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing did, however, make a point of sending all formal communications to the office of the president rather than that of the state counsellor, and he very visibly accorded the president the full protocol of head of state.[fn]The commander-in-chief sees the president off at the airport when he leaves on foreign trips; and when he introduced a new air force chief, it was to the president, with Suu Kyi having to travel to the president’s office for the meeting. Crisis Group interview, Myanmar military analyst, Yangon, February 2018. “General Maung Maung Kyaw appointed as commander-in-chief (air)”, Eleven News, 3 January 2018.Hide Footnote

The cabinet selected by Suu Kyi was underwhelming for a leader of unparalleled popularity who had the whole country’s talents to draw upon. Both key economic ministers – finance and commerce – were revealed shortly after their appointments to have fake PhDs; they retained their posts in any case.[fn]“Broken promises, daunting challenges”, Frontier Myanmar, 27 March 2016; “NLD leadership challenged over cabinet choices”, Myanmar Times, 28 March 2016.Hide Footnote The rest of the cabinet was a mixture of uninspiring party loyalists, two members of the regime-established Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and retired diplomats from the military regime years who were brought into key ministerial positions. It was clear that, in selecting candidates, priority had been given to trust over capacity, reflecting at least in part deep-seated fears that the military and old elite would attempt to undermine the NLD-led government, as well as the shallow bench within NLD circles. Some of the non-NLD ministers are close to former General Shwe Mann, the former junta number three, now an ally of Suu Kyi – which was a reassurance of their loyalty. A senior NLD member acknowledged publicly at the time that the lin-eup was not optimal, but that it would improve over time. It was the first of many suggestions or rumours of a reshuffle that has not materialised to date; so far, only a few individual changes have been made, and a few new deputy ministers appointed.[fn]“NLD defends ‘experimental’ cabinet as pressure builds”, Myanmar Times, 22 April 2016.Hide Footnote

In the absence of strong political direction the government often projects a tone reminiscent of the authoritarian past.

The reliance on former military-era diplomats in the cabinet, including the inner circle – state counsellor’s office minister and cabinet office minister – was particularly unexpected. It appears to stem from the fact that these individuals intimately understand the country’s opaque administrative systems, as well as its often more important informal power relations, and have thus been indispensable in asserting the state counsellor’s authority over the bureaucracy – inherited in toto, up to permanent secretary level, from the previous government. Yet it has left some party stalwarts privately disgruntled and, in the absence of strong political direction, has meant that the government often projects a tone reminiscent of the authoritarian past. Increasingly, government policies are following suit, particularly as regards civil liberties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and diplomats, April 2016-July 2018. On the decline in civil liberties, see “Report of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar”, A/HRC/37/70, UN Human Rights Council, 9 March 2018, sec. II.B.Hide Footnote

From the outset, decision making has been highly centralised in Suu Kyi’s hands. In addition to the state counsellor’s job, she holds the portfolios of foreign affairs and president’s office minister (and initially also two others, energy and education); she also chairs numerous inter-ministerial committees. She has had to carry the load of her subordinates’ and fellow citizens’ huge expectations with no experience of government or management, a problem exacerbated by consolidating so much authority on her shoulders. The result has been muddy decision making, focused on minutiae of procedure rather than the articulation of any clear vision or political direction.

The state counsellor herself often appears aloof and isolated. During the military dictatorship, she gave inspiring speeches to the country – over her compound gate when she was under house arrest in the 1990s or on her travels during brief periods of freedom. Since taking office she has gone largely silent, discontinuing President Thein Sein’s practice of monthly radio addresses to the nation, giving almost no media interviews and rarely travelling within the country. She has always found travel draining. While, at first, she seemed comfortable making frequent official trips and being fêted abroad, the world has become a less friendly place since the Rohingya crisis erupted. She now increasingly avoids international travel.[fn]She sent the second vice president to represent Myanmar at the UN General Assembly in September 2017, and the president to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Singapore in April 2018, both meetings she had previously attended as de facto head of state.Hide Footnote She gave a rare international policy speech in Singapore on 21 August, but it was clearly pitched at a regional audience and will do little to assuage international concerns.[fn]Aung San Suu Kyi, The 43rd Singapo­­re­ lecture, 21 August 2018, available at Footnote

Her most important domestic relationship is with the commander-in-chief, who has significant constitutional powers and autonomy, and heads by far the most powerful institution in the country. Suu Kyi is often portrayed as careful not to upset the military, but she has regularly taken decisions that do exactly that – for example, in establishing the state counsellor position; appointing a civilian national security adviser (who, among other things, represents Myanmar at international security meetings such as the Shangri-La Dialogue); and declining to convene the National Defence and Security Council, the top security body under the constitution, despite repeated military calls to assemble it. She took all these decisions without consulting the commander-in-chief or informing him in advance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials, diplomats and analysts, April 2016-July 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Lost in Transition

The government’s relative incapacity and inexperience meant that it was unable to make progress on key issues. From early in her term, the state counsellor declared peace with Myanmar’s many ethnic insurgencies to be her top priority, yet she has achieved little.[fn]She initially stated that her top priority was “national reconciliation” – implying healing multiple divisions within Myanmar society – later specifying the peace process.Hide Footnote This outcome is perhaps not surprising, given that she inherited a process that was already stagnating. Yet the manner of the failure highlights the government’s broader weaknesses. On taking power, Suu Kyi disbanded the previous government’s peace centre, which despite its problems was staffed with many capable and experienced people. She established a new, far smaller structure and appointed her personal physician, Dr Tin Myo Win, as lead peace negotiator – a role he has performed part-time and never seemed to relish. The state counsellor and her senior minister have regularly undercut him in meetings with ethnic armed groups.

The peace process itself has become formalistic, with none of the dozens of unofficial, trust-building interactions that the previous government pursued alongside the set-piece meetings. But the biggest weakness has not been capacity, but rather lack of leadership from the top. Despite continued discussions among the parties, including the third Union Peace Conference in July 2018, a negotiated end to the country’s interlocking conflicts remains out of sight.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar and Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, op. cit.Hide Footnote Indeed, the first half of 2018 has seen a major escalation in fighting in northern Myanmar, particularly northern Shan and Kachin states.[fn]“UN concerned about heavy fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin state”, Reuters, 2 February 2018; “‘Sharp escalation’ in fighting across Myanmar’s Kachin state, warns rights expert”, UN News, 1 May 2018.Hide Footnote

The stagnation of the peace process reflects a broader stasis of government, with decisions made in an obscure and apparently ad hoc manner.

The stagnation of the peace process reflects a broader stasis of government, with decisions made in an obscure and apparently ad hoc manner. The NLD administration has been particularly criticised at home for its handling of the economy. When in opposition, the NLD paid scant attention to economic issues, an attitude that carried over to the current government term – the belief apparently being that with sanctions lifted, and Aung San Suu Kyi in power, the economy and foreign investment would take care of themselves. The state counsellor has also often said that peace is a prere­quisite for development. As the peace process stalled and the economy sputtered, local businessmen and the urban middle class came to feel considerable grievance that the government was failing to meet the people’s aspirations for a better life.

There have been some steps forward, such as a new companies law and reinvigoration of the Myanmar Investment Commission with the appointment of a more dynamic new chair. But while top-line GDP growth remained solid, if significantly below potential, at 6.5 per cent in 2017, business leaders’ and public sentiment is decidedly negative – reflecting a lack of confidence in the government’s economic policies, and substantial sectoral variation and inequitable distribution that the growth figure masks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Myanmar and international businesspeople, economists and market research company conducting perceptions surveys, January-July 2018. See also “Growth amidst Uncertainty, Myanmar Economic Monitor”, World Bank, May 2018; “Investors dissatisfied with government’s lack of direction on economy”, The Irrawaddy, 29 June 2018.Hide Footnote

At the same time, the NLD has disappointed the hope and expectation of many voters that it would expand civil liberties. Certainly, many citizens sense and are pleased that the country is now governed by politicians who are neither deeply corrupt nor dismissive of public concerns and well-being. But the government has clearly undermined civil liberties and taken an authoritarian turn in both word and deed. A far greater number of journalists and social media users have been prosecuted for criminal defamation in the Suu Kyi administration’s half-term than in the whole term of the previous government. A former child soldier has also been imprisoned for giving a media interview on his experiences, and two Reuters journalists are being pro­secuted under the Official Secrets Act for investigating killings of Rohingya, after being arrested in what many observers believe to be a police entrapment operation.[fn]See report of the special rapporteur, op. cit.; “Burma: Repeal Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law”, joint statement by 61 human rights organisations, 29 June 2017 (available at; “Myanmar: Former child soldier jailed after media interview: Aung Ko Htwe”, Amnesty International, 18 July 2018; “Myanmar to try Reuters reporters on state secrecy charges in move seen as blow to press freedom”, Radio Free Asia, 9 July 2018.Hide Footnote The court will hand down its verdict on 3 September.

While the civilian government lacks full control of such cases, since the police are under a military-appointed home affairs minister, the attorney general is a civilian appointee and the president has broad powers to drop charges and issue pardons. The president ordered the release of 199 people in pre-trial detention, at Suu Kyi’s direction, when the government first took power in April 2016.[fn]“POC’s [prisoners of conscience] walk free”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 9 April 2016Hide Footnote More recently, the government has seemed comfortable with the large number of new freedom of expression cases before the courts, in many of which it greenlighted charges.[fn]Under the 2013 Telecommunications Law, the transport and communications minister must approve any criminal defamation charges.Hide Footnote In the case of the Reuters journalists, Aung San Suu Kyi herself has taken a strident stance – clashing with a former adviser, U.S. politician Bill Richardson, when he raised the case, and stating in a recent interview that the journalists had broken the law, potentially prejudicing the court.[fn]“U.S. adviser rebukes Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘I don’t want to be part of a whitewash’”, The New York Times, 24 January 2018; “Exclusive: Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi”, NHK, 8 June 2018.Hide Footnote These developments have taken place in spite of the fact that numerous NLD legislators are themselves former political prisoners, many charged with the same offences in the past or for whom the treatment of the Reuters journalists was highly reminiscent of their own experiences.

The government’s other key stated priority is constitutional reform. In particular, it wants to remove the restriction on Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president and reduce the role of the armed forces in politics. Given the military’s veto on constitutional changes, such amendments would require the top brass to cooperate in relinquishing its prerogatives under the national charter, which is very unlikely to happen in the next several years.

C. The Rakhine State Crisis

The government inherited a toxic political situation in Rakhine State, following outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence there in 2012 and 2013. Aung San Suu Kyi sought to buy time, announcing in August 2016 the establishment of an advisory commission headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with a twelve-month mandate to examine the crisis and recommend steps to address the underlying issues, including the plight of Rohingya Muslims. The advisory commission was perhaps an expedient option at the time. There was no political consensus on a way forward, and steps on citizenship, basic rights and desegregation that were obviously needed were hugely controversial among the Rakhine State’s Buddhist majority and in Myanmar as a whole. Socio-economic relations on the ground in Rakhine, including between ethno-religious groups, appeared to be gradually improving after the 2012-2013 violence, suggesting that the passage of time might give the government greater room for manoeuvre.[fn]See Richard Horsey, “Has Myanmar’s Rakhine State reached a turning point?”, Nikkei Asian Review, 9 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Instead, while the government was coming to grips with the basic tasks of gover­ning the country, as well as grappling with the realities of cohabitation with the military, the Rakhine State tension boiled over, with the first attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on border police bases in October 2016. It then erupted into full-blown crisis following the second round of ARSA attacks in August 2017, with the military, border guard police and Rakhine vigilantes committing grave human rights abuses against the Rohingya population that are widely considered crimes against humanity.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, A New Muslim Insurgency and Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, op. cit. See also “‘We will destroy everything’: Military responsibility for crimes against humanity in Rakhine State, Myanmar”, Amnesty International, June 2018; “‘Acts of genocide’ suspected against Rohingya in Myanmar: U.N.”, Reuters, 7 March.Hide Footnote

Myanmar has gone from a global good news story of political transition under a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a cautionary tale of failed hopes.

It is perhaps not surprising that the floundering government was unable to craft a credible response to the crisis, particularly given Myanmar’s staunchly anti-Rohingya public opinion and the military’s belligerent stance. But these failings, when set against the brutality of attacks on Rohingya villagers and the enormous scale of the displacement, suggest a lack of political will and have caused irreparable damage to Myanmar’s reputation and that of its government and Aung San Suu Kyi personally. In less than twelve months, Myanmar has gone from a global good news story of political transition under a Nobel Peace Prize winner to a cautionary tale of failed hopes. A series of high-profile former international supporters have denounced Suu Kyi, who has lost several of her honours and awards.[fn]“Bob Geldof calls Aung San Suu Kyi ‘handmaiden to genocide’”, Reuters, 13 November 2017; “Bono, a former Aung San Suu Kyi campaigner, says she should quit”, AFP, 29 December 2017; “Oxford strips Aung San Suu Kyi of Freedom of the City”, The Independent, 27 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Isolated in its Naypyitaw bubble, the government initially failed to comprehend the gravity of the Rakhine abuses and the international reaction thereto. Its responses, both diplomatic and policy, were either seen as complicit, or as too little, too late. And when foreign leaders and diplomats began to express their outrage bluntly, the government’s initial reaction was intransigence. It appeared to believe that it just needed to wait out the storm of international criticism. As it has become clear that the storm would not pass, and if anything is intensifying as time goes on, the government has attempted to shift its stance to damage control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and diplomats, August 2017-July 2018.Hide Footnote

III. A New President and an Attempted Reset

The second anniversary of the NLD taking power, which fell just ahead of Myanmar’s annual New Year holiday in April 2018 – traditionally a time of taking stock and making resolutions for the year ahead – gave the government an opportunity to reflect. Domestically, it has not been damaged by its response to the Rohingya crisis; on the contrary, the nation has rallied around Aung San Suu Kyi in the face of international condemnation. But there is a growing sense, particularly among the urban middle class and business elite, that the government has mishandled the economy. Despite solid growth figures, there are strong perceptions of economic malaise in the country and government failure to deliver on people’s basic needs – including jobs and electricity and other services. While most refrain from criticising the state counsellor personally, her government and cabinet come in for sharp reproach.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Myanmar and international businesspeople, economists and market research company conducting perceptions surveys, January-July 2018.Hide Footnote

Facing increasing censure of her government at home, and an ever more hostile international environment, by early 2018 the state counsellor had begun signalling privately that she intended to cut back on her responsibilities and overseas travel. There was also persistent talk of a major cabinet reshuffle to inject new energy and competence into government.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and analysts, Yangon, January-July 2018.Hide Footnote

The key element of these plans was a change in president, with the resignation of Htin Kyaw announced on 21 March. While the stated reason for his departure was “to take a rest”, his wife subsequently revealed that he had only expected to be president for a few months, the NLD having believed that within that time it would be able to amend the constitution, allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to become president.[fn]Myanmar president office announcement 1/2018, 21 March 2018; “U Htin Kyaw resignation ‘planned in advance’, wife says”, Frontier Myanmar, 23 March 2018.Hide Footnote Upon entering government, it would appear, NLD leaders were buoyant – to the point of naïveté – about the prospects for constitutional change.

The new president, Win Myint, was sworn in on 30 March. The same day, the NLD announced that he had also been appointed first vice chairman of the party – the first time it had designated a successor to Suu Kyi.[fn]“NLD party revamp elevates U Win Myint to no. 2 spot”, The Irrawaddy, 30 March 2018.Hide Footnote Win Myint is a lawyer and longstanding NLD member who until being appointed president served as lower house speaker. In that role, he was known as authoritative, determined and shrewd – quite different in character from Htin Kyaw and a very unlikely candidate for ceremonial president. For this reason, many interpreted his selection as a move by Suu Kyi to hand over some of her responsibilities.

In April, a small but discernible shift occurred in Myanmar’s international engagement on the Rohingya crisis.

Win Myint reinforced this view with his inaugural and Myanmar New Year speeches, in which he set out a clear, broadly populist agenda focused on access to justice, land reform and anti-corruption efforts.[fn]“‘I promise that you will see with your own eyes the changes that you have yearned for as I walk along this path together with you’: President U Win Myint”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 31 March 2018; “Myanmar New Year greetings of President U Win Myint”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 18 April.Hide Footnote He immediately set about meeting each of the top-level executive bodies, starting with the anti-corruption commission. Government insiders indicated that while there was no formal division of labour between the new president and the state counsellor, it was expected that he would focus on domestic matters, particularly issues of concern to ordinary people, while the state counsellor would continue to lead on the peace process, the Rakhine State crisis and international relations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials, diplomats, Yangon, Naypyitaw, April-May 2018.Hide Footnote

Five months on, however, the impact of the changes is limited. The main development has been the empowerment of the anti-corruption commission. In his 10 April meeting with the commission, the president urged the chair – a reform-minded former general, Aung Kyi, who acted as the old regime’s liaison with Aung San Suu Kyi – to have the courage to follow evidence wherever it led and to alert him if the commission faced interference. The next week, the commission filed charges against the director of Myanmar’s food and drug administration for allegedly demanding money in connection with a tender award. And in May, the finance minister resigned in the middle of a high-profile investigation, although the commission ultimately said it did not have grounds to pursue charges.[fn]See “President U Win Myint meets with anti-corruption commission”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 12 April 2018; “Following the money”, Frontier Myanmar, 8 May 2018; “Myanmar’s finance minister resigns: President”, Reuters, 25 May 2018; “No grounds to act against ex-planning and finance minister, anti-corruption commission says”, The Irrawaddy, 9 June 2018.Hide Footnote

In other areas, the president has made little concrete progress in implementing his agenda or establishing an institutional base to enable him to do so. Part of the reason is structural: the president’s office consists of a small number of officials reporting to Aung San Suu Kyi in her capacity as minister of the president’s office; the president himself has no political advisers or other senior staff. Part of the reason is also political: however much she may wish to relinquish some responsibilities, the state counsellor and her office remain the government’s centre of gravity, with officials and ministers reluctant to take decisions unless they have been referred to her office.

The long-telegraphed reshuffle has also not materialised. The only major change has been the appointment of a new finance minister, Soe Win. He is respected and competent, but as an octogenarian has reinforced the sense of the cabinet as an all-male gerontocracy (the only woman being Suu Kyi herself). The optics do not sit well with the NLD’s election promise of bringing “change” to a country long led by ageing generals, particularly as Myanmar has one of the youngest populations in the region.[fn]The 2014 census found a median age of 27 and about 55 per cent under the age of 30.Hide Footnote

Around the New Year in April, a small but discernible shift occurred in Myanmar’s international engagement on the Rohingya crisis. Scrutiny of the situation had reached a new intensity with the unprecedented visit of the UN Security Council to Myanmar and Bangladesh at the end of April. The visit did not go well for Myanmar, with representatives of all fifteen council members personally shocked by the scale and gravity of what they had seen in the Bangladesh camps, contrasted with the grossly inadequate response and defensive attitude in Naypyitaw. On 1 May, when the council concluded its trip, the state counsellor’s office attempted damage control, issuing a statement promising “an important turning point” in relations with the UN. Afterward, diplomats and visiting senior UN officials noted more openness and engagement from Myanmar leaders and officials on the subject of Rakhine.[fn]Crisis Group discussions, Security Council members, UN officials, diplomats, Yangon and Naypyitaw, April-July 2018; press release, Office of the State Counsellor, 1 May 2018.Hide Footnote

UN staff are still unable to get travel authorisations to northern Rakhine.

Substantive developments ensued. On 31 May, Myanmar announced that an Independent Commission of Enquiry – the members of which would include an “international personality”, assisted by a staff of national and international legal and technical experts – would be established to investigate alleged human rights violations in northern Rakhine; previous domestic investigations, one headed by the first vice president and others conducted by the military and police, had found essentially no wrongdoing. Also on 31 May, and after long negotiations, the government agreed upon a memorandum of understanding with the UN’s refugee agency and development program on assisting the government to create conditions conducive to the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh.[fn]“Government to help Rohingya seek justice for rights abuses”, The Irrawaddy, 17 May 2018; “Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar will establish an Independent Commission of Enquiry”, Office of the President, announcement 3/2018, 31 May 2018; “Government of Myanmar and United Nations Agencies initial MoU on assistance for the repatriation process of displaced persons from Rakhine State”, Office of the State Counsellor, press release, 31 May 2018. The memorandum of understanding was formally signed on 6 June.Hide Footnote

There has been little progress in implementing these announcements, however. The Commission of Enquiry was constituted on 30 July, with two relatively low-profile international members from the region, and two national members; technical and legal staff will no longer be appointed, but such expertise will be “called on if required”. In an inaugural press briefing, the commission chair stated that “there will be no blaming of anybody, no finger-pointing of anybody, because we don’t achieve anything by that procedure” and that seeking accountability was equivalent to “quarrelling”.[fn]“Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar establishes the Independent Commission of Enquiry”, Office of the President, press release 8/2018, 30 July 2018; press briefing by the commission, Naypyitaw, 16 August 2018 (video available at The chair is former Philippines Foreign Minister Rosario Manalo; the other international member is former Japanese diplomat and UN official Kenzo Oshima. The national members are former member of the Constitutional Tribunal Mya Thein and the head of Suu Kyi’s Union Enterprise for Rakhine, Aung Tun Thet. Thus, a total of four members were appointed, not three as initially announced in May.Hide Footnote

To add to the malaise, the secretary of the Rakhine Advisory Board – a body appointed by the government to advise it on carrying out the Annan commission recommendations – announced his resignation out of concern that the body “had achieved little” and risked giving “a false impression that things are being done”.[fn]“Citing lack of progress, secretary to Myanmar’s Rohingya panel quits”, Reuters, 21 July 2018.Hide Footnote Bill Richardson had already resigned from the board in January in a high-profile falling-out with the state counsellor. The chair, former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, issued a statement insisting the board was effective and the government had acted on its advice. But the damage was done; the board discreetly wound up its business on 16 August.[fn]“Myanmar’s Rohingya panel head refutes criticism by outgoing secretary”, Reuters, 22 July 2018; “A year after the assault on the Rohingya, Myanmar’s generals are unapologetic”, Washington Post, 21 August 2018.Hide Footnote

The text of the memorandum with the UN was not made public, apparently at the government’s insistence, but a near-final version leaked in late June. There was considerable international criticism of aspects of the deal, particularly the failure to use the word “Rohingya”, include guarantees on citizenship, or consult or inform refugees about the content prior to finalising it.[fn]See “Secret U.N.-Myanmar deal on Rohingya offers no guarantees on citizenship”, Reuters, 30 June 2018; “Oral update by Ms. Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar at the 38th session of the Human Rights Council”, UN Human Rights Council, 27 June 2018. The refusal of the government to use the word “Rohingya” or allow it into official documents is seen by that community as an attempt to deny their identity. Hence, it has become controversial for other organisations to avoid the usage.Hide Footnote Since then, there has been no real progress on implementation, with UN staff still unable to get travel authorisations to northern Rakhine, other than to a few villages chosen by the government, and with visits accompanied by the government.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Yangon, August 2018; “U.N. says it is still denied ‘effective access’ to Myanmar’s Rakhine”, Reuters, 21 August 2018.Hide Footnote

This rather negative sequence of events had already set the stage for a difficult UN General Assembly session for Myanmar. The findings of an independent international fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council, presented at a press conference on 27 August, add to pressure on the Myanmar government and military. The mission’s report concluded that the “crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts” and recommended that the commander-in-chief and other military leaders be investigated and prosecuted for genocide; it also found that “through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes”.[fn]“Report of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar”, UN Human Rights Council doc. A/HRC/39/64, 24 August 2018 (released publicly on 27 August).Hide Footnote The U.S. State Department is expected to release its own detailed investigation of abuses against the Rohingya shortly. On 28 August, the UN Security Council will meet in open session on Myanmar and be briefed by the secretary-general.

The UN secretary-general appointed a special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, in April. She has had initial positive engagement with the state counsellor and the commander-in-chief, as well as other domestic stakeholders; the diplomatic corps in Myanmar is welcoming; and the Security Council has expressed its support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Yangon, April-July 2018; media stakeout, Security Council president and special envoy, UN, New York, 23 July 2018, at Footnote While expectations should be moderated, Burgener can play an impor­tant role in raising difficult issues with the government, helping to choreograph inter­national responses, and acting as an interface with the UN and the international community.

IV. The Road Ahead

A good sense has emerged of the Aung San Suu Kyi administration and its weaknesses. The administration has attempted to respond to public and international concerns on the Rohingya crisis, shifting its approach somewhat and announcing some new initiatives. Yet changes have mostly been unconvincing – limited in scope or peripheral in nature. The appointment of Win Myint as president, which many had hoped could infuse new momentum into government, and perhaps set the stage for a more coherent response to the Rohingya crisis, has not so far had a major impact.

In June, the NLD held a party congress, only its second ever, confirming the top leadership and policy platform ahead of by-elections in November 2018 and general elections in 2020. It appears very unlikely at this stage that the administration will fundamentally change the way it operates or significantly increase its capacity in the remainder of its term. These are the immediate constraints upon an improved response to the situation in Rakhine State, and to greater reform more generally – even while constitutional limitations and poor government-military relations remain important underlying factors. This reality will shape how Myanmar is able to address the many crises it faces.

The coming general elections mean that the window for making unpopular decisions is also shrinking. Two years out, national politics is already starting to shift into election mode, and the government beginning to consider what successes it will be able to present to the electorate in 2020; it is pushing for major infrastructure projects and other initiatives to be completed by this date.[fn]For example, it is pushing to complete four major liquefied natural gas power projects or the peace process with ethnic armed groups. “Myanmar bets on huge LNG projects to meet power needs”, Frontier Myanmar, 31 January 2018; “Peace process to complete before 2020 as participants ready for federalism: UPDJC”, Eleven News, 13 July 2018.Hide Footnote The political opposition is also beginning to object more vocally to government decisions, and the military is similarly unlikely to want to hand political victories to the government going forward. These circumstances will make it much more difficult for the government to achieve crucial objectives, particularly vis-à-vis the Rohingya crisis, which is the most politically charged issue at home.

The November 2018 by-elections will not be particularly hard-fought. Only thirteen seats (out of 1,156) are up for grabs, so the balance of power will not change. Nevertheless, the NLD is concerned that the results will be – or will be interpreted as – a referendum on the government’s performance, entailing political risks, particularly as the NLD currently holds eleven of the thirteen seats, several of which are potential swing seats in ethnic minority areas.

The challenge is to find ways to achieve tangible progress while maintaining a principled stand on crimes against humanity and other key concerns.

The NLD is also likely to retain its legislative majority in the 2020 general elections, even if the government is unable to improve on its current performance. Aung San Suu Kyi remains personally popular in the Burman-majority heartland, despite her government’s perceived weaknesses. There is no effective opposition – and unlikely to be one in time for the elections. It will probably be 2025 before Myanmar sees a major political shift, unless the Aung San Suu Kyi era ends before then. Policy adjustments may be possible but hopes for major progress on accountability for crimes against humanity, substantially improved conditions in Rakhine State, and the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees should be modest. Significant progress on the peace process, political reform and economic vision in the next few years also seems unlikely.

International policy on Myanmar thus faces steep challenges. China has a pivotal role. It has positioned itself as Myanmar’s key diplomatic ally, including at the UN Security Council, and as indispensable to continued progress in the peace process. It is using its considerable leverage to push for agreement, possibly as soon as September 2018, on a “China-Myanmar Economic Corridor” – a multi-billion (possibly tens of billions) dollar Belt and Road Initiative that could include road and high-speed rail infrastructure, connected to a port and special economic zone at the Indian Ocean seaboard town of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

This project is likely to have a huge impact on Myanmar’s economy and geostrategy, in ways that are only just beginning to come into view. It would deepen political and economic relations between the two countries, solidifying China’s support for Myanmar’s position on Rakhine State, and making China potentially more helpful to Myanmar in restraining the armed groups active along the two countries’ border. But it would also make Naypyitaw more reliant on Beijing, something it has long sought to avoid. The Myanmar military also worries that in the future China may move to securitise the rail and road corridors and the port.

For the West, the challenge is to find ways to achieve tangible progress while maintaining a principled stand on crimes against humanity and other key concerns. Targeted sanctions can serve as an important signal of principle – to Myanmar and others around the globe – but, given the history of Myanmar sanctions and current attitudes, are very unlikely to change the thinking of the military or the government. Other actions, such as Security Council scrutiny and moves toward international accountability are of greater concern to the authorities, but will not be sufficient in and of themselves, since the problem is not merely one of political will, but also govern­­ment capacity and the inherent intractability of the issues.

Engagement through high-level bilateral channels and the UN therefore remains a critical part of the policy mix, not only as a channel for conveying concerns, but also as a means of identifying and supporting concrete steps that the government can take to achieve meaningful – albeit probably limited – progress in implementing the Annan commission recommendations, pursuing accountability and creating conditions conducive to Rohingya refugee return. Other grave violations of human rights in the ethnic armed conflicts, progress on the peace process and threats to civil liberties should not be overlooked.

The special envoy provides a mechanism by which scrutiny and pressure can be translated into meaningful action on the ground.

The new UN special envoy could play an important role in this regard. Burgener has access to the key stakeholders, including the state counsellor and commander-in-chief, and broad diplomatic support, including from the Security Council. She has made clear that she sees her role as a bridge-builder, but that she will discuss all the difficult issues with the Myanmar authorities behind closed doors, rather than via public diplomacy. It is vital that there be strategic coordination between Burgener and other parts of the UN system, in particular the Security Council and the General Assembly, to ensure that they are mutually reinforcing rather than contradictory.

In particular, the special envoy provides a mechanism by which scrutiny and pressure from these bodies can be translated into meaningful action on the ground, even if that is likely to be limited – without this, pressure alone will likely achieve little other than pushing Myanmar back into isolation and reliance on its regional allies. Burgener will also need a focused approach to her mandate, which is extremely broad and covers the multitude of issues set out in the 2017 General Assembly resolution.[fn]“Situation of human rights in Myanmar”, General Assembly doc. A/C.3/72/L.48, 31 October 2017.Hide Footnote While she should prioritise the situation in Rakhine State and the Rohingya crisis, it is important that she also give attention to the peace process and the broader democratic transition.

On the question of accountability and preservation of evidence, there are no perfect options. While the Security Council has the authority to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, the politics of the council mean that such a move is presently inconceivable. The court could soon rule that it has jurisdiction over the specific crime of deportation of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, without the need for a referral, but such a ruling would not be a route to accountability for other international crimes – whether in Rakhine State or elsewhere.

For this reason, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has proposed the establishment of an independent accountability mechanism, possibly by the General Assembly; although it could take considerable time to become operational, such a body would appear to be the best option currently on the table.[fn]This body could be similar to the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria or the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.Hide Footnote In the meantime, every effort should be made to ensure that Myanmar’s own Commission of Enquiry conducts as credible and transparent an investigation as possible – in the short term, it is the only means by which perpetrators could be held to account.

V. Conclusion

Halfway through the Aung San Suu Kyi-led administration’s five-year term, the Myanmar government is facing enormous challenges in the peace process, gover­nance, the economy and, by far the most serious, a defining new crisis in Rakhine. The civilian government is widely seen as complicit, or at least acquiescent, in the forced mass flight of the Rohingya. This has had a major impact on Myanmar’s international reputation and on that of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi personally, and has brought international condemnation and diplomatic pressure.

In considering what progress may be possible, it is important to be aware that the Rakhine crisis is occurring in a wider context of lack of vision and ineffectiveness of government, something that is unlikely to change in the near future. Public sentiment in Myanmar also remains firmly behind the government. Robust diplomatic engagement, including by the UN special envoy, will be required to translate international scrutiny and pressure into meaningful steps to improve the situation on the ground. On the specific question of accountability for international crimes, an independent mechanism under UN auspices seems to be the most feasible approach, given the improbability of any Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court.

Brussels, 28 August 2018


Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

International Crisis Group