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

Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

Recent attacks by an émigré-led force of trained Rohingya fighters mark a dangerous turn. To remove a main root of the violence – Rohingya despair – the government must reverse longstanding discrimination against the Muslim minority, moderate its military tactics, and reach out to Myanmar’s Muslim allies.

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Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

I. Introduction

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

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

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

II. Previous Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Deepening Despair

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Emergence of a New Organised Violent Resistance

A. The 9 October Attacks

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

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

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

B. Response from Government and Security Forces

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. A Spiral of Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. The Armed Group and its Motivations

A. The Group and its Objectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Communications and Social Media Environment

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

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

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

C. Planning and Operational Strategy for the Attacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D. Level of Local Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E. Links with International Jihadist Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI. How Should the Government Respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VII. Conclusion

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

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

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

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Crisis Group. Based on UN map 4168, rev. 3, June 2012.
Rohingya refugees stand in a queue to collect aid supplies in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 21 January 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Report 296 / Asia

The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis

More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from brutal military operations in Myanmar are stuck in Bangladesh, with returns to Myanmar unlikely soon and Bangladeshi goodwill being tested. In Myanmar, international partners must be allowed access to northern Rakhine State. In Bangladesh, donors must help both refugees and their local hosts.

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What’s new? Since August 2017, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s brutal military operations in Rakhine State to Bangladesh, joining tens of thousands who left earlier in 2017. The two countries have set a framework for repatriation, but returns are unlikely any time soon. Indeed, small numbers of Rohingya continue to flee.

Why does it matter? Failing to develop long-term strategies for the refugees poses the risk that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya will live in limbo or that Bangladeshi sentiment will turn against them. Authorities might attempt to force return to Myanmar or resettlement elsewhere, which could prompt violence on either side of the border.

What should be done?  The Myanmar government must allow the UN and its partners access to northern Rakhine and ease security and other restrictions on the population. In Bangladesh, donors should continue humanitarian aid, while investing in the development of Cox’s Bazar district, which hosts the refugees, to improve prospects for their future integration.

Executive Summary

In the last eight months, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled indiscriminate and brutal operations by Myanmar’s military in northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh, joining tens of thousands who left earlier in 2017, and many more from previous years. The two countries have agreed upon a procedural framework for voluntary repatriation, but no Rohingya have returned and small numbers continue to flee. The burden of the crisis may have shifted to Bangladesh, but the onus of responsibility remains squarely on Myanmar. The world must pursue accountability for crimes committed and press the government to create the conditions for voluntary repatriation. The tragic reality, however, is that the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, however much international opprobrium Myanmar faces. Planning for the refugees should proceed on that assumption, while efforts continue to protect those Rohingya who remain in Myanmar.

Failing to develop long-term plans for the refugees would not only risk that hundreds of thousands of people remain in limbo. It could also lead the status quo to morph in dangerous ways. For now, host communities and political elites in Bangladesh largely sympathise with the refugees, but if the sentiments of either were to shift – after the December elections, for example, or due to prolonged negative impacts on host communities – the Rohingya might face pressure to return against their will or move into more isolated camps in Bangladesh, such as those the Bangladeshi government is building on remote Bhasan island. Such developments could prompt instability or violence on either side of the border – due to organised resistance by refugees to relocation or premature repatriation, communal violence against returning refugees, or renewed ARSA mobilisation in Rakhine State.

The social, political and strategic implications of this crisis for Bangladesh are complex at all levels. The host communities – neglected by Dhaka at the best of times – are already feeling the strain. While there is no disagreement in political and policy circles about the intractability of the crisis, there is widespread reluctance to acknowl­edge it, as it would reflect badly on the Bangladeshi government’s ability to protect its sovereignty and could be interpreted as tacit acceptance of ethnic cleansing. Public sympathy for the Rohingya will not last forever, and the current situation is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways. After the December elections, the next government (likely to be the same as the present one) will have to make some difficult longer-term decisions. This subject will be covered in detail in a forthcoming report.

Hostility toward the Rohingya across Myanmar political elites and in society more broadly remains firmly entrenched.

Myanmar has constructed some of the infrastructure that could support a limited return, in the form of heavily guarded processing and holding camps. But it has done little if anything to create conditions on the ground that would give refugees, who fled abuses that likely constitute crimes against humanity, and who continue to be fearful and traumatised, the confidence to go back. It has bulldozed many burned Rohingya villages, is building new roads, power lines and security infrastructure across northern Rakhine State, and has promoted or allowed the expansion of existing villages and construction of new settlements inhabited by other ethnicities. The refugees’ return to their homes and lands thus is not only increasingly unlikely, but also becoming impossible in practice. Ethnic Rakhine political leaders and local communities are staunchly opposed to repatriation, and the government has done little to mitigate their resistance (indeed, its own relations with ethnic Rakhine have soured). Moreover, hostility toward the Rohingya across Myanmar political elites and in society more broadly remains firmly entrenched.

Most refugees express no intention to go to third countries, and in any case their opportunities to do so are likely to remain scarce. They want to return home. Many refugees hope that the unprecedented international attention their plight has received over the past months could help them achieve that, but they are resigned to staying for an extended period in Bangladesh.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militant group has significant networks of members and supporters in the Bangladesh camps, and appears determined to remain relevant as an insurgent and political force. The extent to which it can do so is uncertain. It launched a small cross-border attack on a Myanmar army convoy on 5 January, but it has conducted no actions since then. Whether it can leverage widespread disaffection and the significant sympathy it still enjoys in the camps into political authority and sustain cross-border attacks remains to be seen. There is no evidence it has established links to transnational groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, viewing the situation in the camps through a counter-terrorism lens would be unhelpful, as the Bangladeshi authorities appear to recognise.

Improving the situation in northern Rakhine State, where 100,000-150,000 Rohingya still live (and on some estimates as many as 250,000), is not primarily a development challenge. It depends on the Myanmar government and security forces changing course. For the Rohingya in northern Rakhine, particularly those in rural areas, life is becoming increasingly untenable. Curfews, checkpoints and movement restrictions mean that they cannot gain access to farms, fishing grounds, markets, day labour opportunities or social services. These people say they do not want to leave, but if the restrictions are not urgently eased, many may decide they have no other choice.

Failing to develop plans for the Rohingya’s prolonged stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their suffering and propelling the crisis in a still more dangerous direction.

To prevent further deterioration, the international community should continue pushing the government to allow unfettered United Nations and aid agency access to northern Rakhine. They should press for accountability for crimes committed by the security forces and others. It is also vital to ensure that the government changes conditions in northern Rakhine, to improve the prospects of an eventual refugee return, and more urgently to stabilise the situation of the Rohingya who remain, so as to prevent a further exodus. The recent appointment of a UN special envoy for Myanmar, combined with continued scrutiny and engagement from the Security Council – which just completed a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar – can hopefully result in some progress on these issues. The recent statement from State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office promising improved relations with the UN, together with the appointment of a new president, may open space for changes in the government’s approach.

Realistically, however, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh appear unlikely to return any time soon. Donors should prepare for the long haul. They should not only fund the humanitarian operation but also invest in the development of Cox’s Bazar district, where the refugees currently reside, to reduce the burden on host communities, minimise risks that local sentiment turns against refugees and create an environment more amenable to their integration. The Bangladeshi government currently resists such an approach, given the domestic political costs of acknowledging that the Rohingya will remain indefinitely. Similarly, many Western governments are understandably loath to acknowledge explicitly that prospects of the refugees’ return are slim. But sustained political discussions on long-term solutions between the government, donors and multilateral institutions are vital. Failing to develop plans for the Rohingya’s prolonged stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their suffering and propelling the crisis in a still more dangerous direction.

I. Introduction

Myanmar’s Rakhine State has long been afflicted by a toxic mixture of centre-periph­ery tensions, communal and religious conflict, and extreme poverty and underdevelopment.[fn]For detailed background on Rakhine State, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013. For other recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; also Asia Reports N°s 290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017; 287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; and 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote In 2014, Crisis Group warned that the state’s turmoil represented “a significant threat to the overall success of the country’s transition” away from military rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., p. i. Rakhine State, in the west of Myanmar, is one of the poorest parts of the country. The extreme poverty is inseparable from anti-Muslim discrimination, both by society and by government, through abusive regulations or bureaucratic procedures and practices. The state’s population of 3.2 million (2014 census) is made up of a majority of Rakhine Buddhists (around 60 per cent) and a significant minority of Muslims (around 35 per cent). In northern parts of the state, prior to the recent exodus there was a large majority of Muslims. There are also a number of smaller minority groups in Rakhine, including Chin, Mro, Khami, Dainet, Maramagyi and Kaman.Hide Footnote Muslims in Rakhine, particularly the Rohingya, have long been subject to state-spon­sored discrimination and denial of rights, considered by Amnesty International to amount to apartheid, a crime against humanity.[fn]“‘Caged without a roof’: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Amnesty International, November 2017.Hide Footnote

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which also refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), emerged in the wake of communal strife in 2012. It launched attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine in October 2016 and August 2017. These attacks provoked an indiscriminate military response that the United Nations, foreign governments and human rights organisations have branded as ethnic cleansing, likely involving crimes against humanity and possibly genocide. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August 2017.[fn]Inter Sector Coordination Group Situation Report: Rohingya Refugee Crisis, Cox’s Bazar, 26 April 2018.Hide Footnote

This report assesses the political and conflict dynamics at play in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and in Rakhine State, looks at how the crisis may evolve, and examines what options the Myanmar government and international community have for addres­sing it. It is based on research in Myanmar and Bangladesh since November 2017, including interviews with diplomats and aid agency representatives; ARSA members; and more than 100 Rohingya refugees – women and men, educated and uneducated – in the Bangladesh camps, conducted by experienced personnel fluent in the Rohingya language. Some interviews were also conducted with Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine; these were carried out remotely due to access restric­tions and the need to minimise risks to interviewees. The report examines the situation in northern Rakhine State, the prospects for refugees’ repatriation and conditions in the Bangladesh camps, including the status of ARSA. A forthcoming report will explore the challenges Bangladesh faces as a result of this sudden, massive influx of refugees, including in relation to the December 2018 Bangladeshi elections.

II. Prospects for Repatriation

The situation in Rakhine State is not conducive to repatriation and no refugee has returned through formal channels.

The Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments have agreed upon a procedural framework for refugee return, which was supposed to have started on 23 January and be completed “preferably within two years”.[fn]The bilateral framework consists of a 23 November 2017 “Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State”; 19 December 2017 terms of reference for a “Joint Working Group”; and a 16 January 2018 “Physical Arrangement for Repatriation”, including a verification form that prospective returnees must fill out in advance.Hide Footnote But the situation in Rakhine State is not conducive to repatriation and no refugee has returned through formal channels. This is unlikely to change in the short or medium term, and indeed Rohingya continue to leave Rakhine for Bangladesh. Nor does forced repatriation appear likely in the coming months, given the Bangladeshi government’s calculation (discussed in section IV.A below) that such a step would be detrimental to its interests in the December elections and in securing donor backing for the huge humanitarian operation that supports the camps. The Awami League government has expressed sympathy for the Rohingya refugees in its campaign materials.

The lack of returns has become the subject of diplomatic manoeuvring by both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar has repeatedly declared that the physical infrastructure required for repatriation is in place, and that it is not responsible for any delay.[fn]For example, “Diplomats, UN officials witness true situation in Rakhine State”, Global New Light of Myanmar [GNLM], 16 February 2018.Hide Footnote But, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi told the UN Security Council on 13 January, “the construction of infrastructure to support the logistics of return should not be confused with the establishment of conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation”.[fn]“Briefing on Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council”, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 13 February 2018; “Union official: the real Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 March 2018.Hide Footnote UNHCR and most other UN agencies have had no access to northern Rakhine State since the start of the latest crisis in August 2017, though the government is holding discussions with UNHCR and the UN Development Program, and has recently signalled following the UN Security Council visit that it is open to closer cooperation with the UN (see section V below).

Bangladesh has reiterated its commitment to voluntary repatriation – that it will not force any Rohingya to return against their will – but has sought to test Myanmar’s willingness to accept returnees. A number of repatriation lists have been announced:

  • In late December, Bangladesh suggested it would send an initial list of 100,000 Rohingya to be verified by Myanmar for repatriation. The list was to be drawn from a biometric database of refugees compiled by the Bangladeshi authorities. This database did not include household information, however, making it impossible to produce family-based lists, and the verification proposal was quietly dropped.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Yangon and Dhaka, January 2018. See also “100,000 Rohingya on first repatriation list”, Dhaka Tribune, 27 December 2017.Hide Footnote
     
  • On 15 January, Myanmar provided Bangladesh with a list of 508 Hindus that it wanted included in the first batch of returnees, as well as 750 Muslims whose residence in Myanmar it had verified. There was no indication that any of these people wished to return to Myanmar, and Bangladesh has not proceeded with their repatriation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Yangon and Dhaka, January 2018. See also “Myanmar says over 1,200 refugees to return from Bangladesh next week”, The Irrawaddy, 16 January 2018.Hide Footnote
     
  • During the 15-17 February visit of the Myanmar home minister to Dhaka, Bangladesh handed over a list of 1,673 Rohingya families (8,032 individuals) “to start the first phase of repatriation”. Myanmar says Bangladesh failed to use the agreed-upon form, and omitted key identifying information – including declarations of willingness to voluntarily return – making it impossible to assess the list. Myanmar nevertheless announced in early April that it had verified 675 from the list as eligible for repatriation, although it is unclear if or when these people will return, and they were not asked if they are willing to do so.[fn]“Union official: the real Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 March 2018; “Myanmar to accept over 600 refugees from Bangladesh”, Mizzima, 5 April 2018.Hide Footnote

The major obstacle to return remains fear. Crisis Group interviews in the last several months with Rohingya in the Bangladesh camps suggest that the vast majority of refugees want to return to their villages in Rakhine State as soon as conditions allow; few expressed a desire to go to third countries or settle permanently in Bangladesh. But the Rohingya are only willing to return if they can do so in safety and with dignity. Many refugees said they had lost everything – homes, land, cattle, businesses and savings, as well as loved ones. They believe now is the time to secure their right to compensation for everything they have lost. They understand it will be difficult to obtain that right, but having no real alternatives, they are resigned to waiting and hoping.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “‘I still don’t feel safe to go home’: Voices of Rohingya refugees”, Oxfam, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Without an acceptance of the past, there can be no meaningful steps to ensure that the abuses will not happen again.

Myanmar has done little to create an environment conducive to return. The inaction begins with the fact that the government and military continue to deny the seriousness of the violence that occurred. Without an acceptance of the past, there can be no meaningful steps to ensure that the abuses will not happen again. The only official acknowledgement of wrongdoing relates to the extrajudicial executions of ten Rohingya men in Inn Din village, though the local Reuters journalists who exposed the case remain in prison facing charges under the Myanmar Official Secrets Act.[fn]“Tatmadaw investigation team issues statement on findings of discovery of unidentified bodies in Inndin Village cemetery in Maungtaw Township”, Naypyitaw, 10 January 2018; “Massacre in Myanmar”, Reuters, 8 February 2018; “Myanmar police witness says searched Reuters reporter’s home ‘for news’”, Reuters, 7 March 2018.Hide Footnote In a 19 March speech, the Myanmar Armed Forces’ commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, reinforced the view that the Rohingya are outsiders, saying they “do not have the characteristics or culture in common with the ethnicities of Myanmar”. The UN secretary-general expressed shock at these comments.[fn]“UN chief hits out at Myanmar army leader over comments”, AFP, 27 March. The commander-in-chief referred to the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, a term widely used in Myanmar to imply that they are foreigners from Bangladesh.Hide Footnote

Rakhine Buddhists and other non-Muslims in the state remain staunchly opposed to any refugee return. Many across Myanmar share such views. A recent legislative debate provides a striking example of the strength of domestic sentiment against repatriation. On 14 March, the lower house debated a motion calling on the government to review its decision to relocate 55 (Muslim) Kaman families from Rakhine State to Yangon. The families are among those who were displaced from towns in southern Rakhine by communal violence in 2012 and have been confined to camps since then. Unlike the Rohingya, the Kaman are a recognised ethnic minority who at least in principle enjoy full citizenship.

Yet during the debate, a representative from the military bloc in the lower house expressed concern that “terrorists can pose as IDPs [internally displaced persons]”.[fn]“MPs to discuss motion on reviewing resettlement of 55 households from IDP camps”, GNLM, 6 March 2018; “Pyithu Hluttaw debates relocation of IDPs to Yangon”, GNLM, 15 March 2018.Hide Footnote When originally proposing the motion on 5 March, a representative from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party compared the relocation to the “spreading of cancer cells”.[fn]“Racist Myanmar MP: ‘Ethnic Kaman Muslims are cancer cells’”, M-Mediagroup.com, 6 March 2018.Hide Footnote The motion was eventually defeated, with a government representative pointing out that the Kaman are citizens and as such are entitled to live wherever they want in Myanmar but that the reason for their move to Yangon is that local officials have obstructed their return to their homes in southern Rakhine. Any return of Rohingya refugees, who face much greater bureaucratic and legal obstacles to establishing their citizenship, will face far fiercer opposition given the animosity toward them from a broad section of Myanmar society, local media and elites across the political spectrum.

III. Situation in the Bangladesh Camps

The lack of any realistic prospect of repatriation means that the Rohingya refugees will remain in the Bangladesh camps for an extended period. The conditions in those camps are dire, and they are likely to remain so despite a huge and costly international humanitarian operation projected at around $1.2 billion per year.

Most refugees in the camps have had little time to consider the future. They have been focused on daily survival.

That operation has succeeded in providing emergency food, shelter, water, sanitation, health and protection services to some 900,000 refugees, while tackling diphtheria and measles outbreaks.[fn]The 900,000 figure includes approximately 700,000 who have arrived since August 2017; several tens of thousands who arrived earlier in 2017; and others who have arrived in recent years.Hide Footnote Yet the reality is that the camps, the largest and most densely populated refugee settlements in the world, were not planned and are not suitable for habitation. Much of the area is rapidly cleared forest land, vulnerable to landslides and at serious risk from cyclones. Makeshift shelters, water supply points and latrines could be flooded or overwhelmed by monsoon rains that will arrive imminently. A large preparation effort is underway, but it faces fundamental constraints of geography.[fn]“UN launches 2018 appeal for Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi host communities”, joint UNHCR/International Organisation for Migration press release, 16 March 2018.Hide Footnote

Most refugees in the camps have had little time to consider the future. They have been focused on daily survival. Now they are preparing for the rains – many arrived at the tail end of the last monsoon season and are aware of the impending challenges, and there have already been some storms. Most count on international concern translating into real improvements in their prospects for return. A major fear remains the possibility of forced repatriation, which occurred following the 1978 and 1991-1992 exoduses, exacerbated by the diplomatic manoeuvring between Bangladesh and Myanmar described above.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. For discussion of repatriation following the 1978 and 1992 exoduses, see Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., section II.C; “The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a cycle of exodus?”, Human Rights Watch, September 1996.Hide Footnote

A. Leadership and Governance in the Camps

Given the chaos of the 2017 exodus, and the difficult conditions on arrival in Bangladesh, leadership and governance structures among refugees have been somewhat ad hoc. Village populations generally did not arrive in the camps together, and therefore are not living together, prompting the emergence of new geographically based leaderships.

There has long been a system of informal leadership in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, known as the majhi (traditional leader) system. This system was established at the time of the last major refugee flight in 1991-1992, but it was bedevilled by corruption and the majhis’ abuse of power. In 2007 the majhis were replaced with elected camp committees with a facilitation rather than decision-making role.[fn]“Rohingya crisis: Situation analysis”, ACAPS, November 2017.Hide Footnote

In the initial stages of the latest exodus, before the aid operation kicked in, the delivery of assistance was disorganised; refugees living close to main roads received goods from well-wishers, whereas those in less accessible areas received little. When the Bangladeshi army took charge of crisis management in mid-September, it instructed refugees to select a majhi for each group of 50-200 households. Those chosen were tasked, among other things, with drawing up family lists that the army used as the basis for food distribution.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

While refugees with whom Crisis Group spoke expressed no serious grievances against the majhis, the potential for abuses of power similar to those that blighted the system in the past is clear.

These majhis are now the lowest level of political organisation in the camps, the primary dispute resolution mechanism (sometimes supported by committees of elders that they arrange), and the interface between refugees and the Bangladeshi authorities and aid agencies. Above them are two further levels: “head majhis” (representing larger “blocks” within the camps) and “chairmen” (representing entire camps, or sections of larger camps). Since it is often not feasible for authorities to deal individually with the hundreds of majhis, many interactions are at the level of head majhis or chairmen.[fn]To give a sense of numbers, in the Balukhali mega-camp which hosts more than half a million refugees, there are over 800 blocks, each represented by a head majhi.Hide Footnote All of these leaders are men. While refugees with whom Crisis Group spoke expressed no serious grievances against the majhis, the potential for abuses of power similar to those that blighted the system in the past is clear.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. Due to the risk that majhis may be unrepresentative or corrupt, some aid agencies have established parallel project structures that do not automatically go through the majhis.Hide Footnote

While the majhis have the greatest day-to-day influence over refugees’ lives, local Bangladeshi power-holders also have significant clout – including current and former local government officials. Some of these individuals were implicated in the early days of the exodus in allegedly taking money from arriving refugees to allow them to put up shelters on government and forest land, though a number of them have denied the charges as politically motivated. These reported scams were mostly shut down by the Bangladeshi army when it stepped in. Nevertheless, these local power-holders are likely to continue controlling some aspects of the political economy related to the refugees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and representatives of humanitarian aid agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Extortion adds to Rohingyas’ woes”, New Age Bangladesh, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The Bangladeshi army and intelligence service have asserted their authority in the camps and environs, through perimeter controls, checkpoints and informants – albeit with a focus on major security threats rather than low-level criminality, which is mostly handled by the majhis. The majhis have also organised a system of volunteer night watchmen or sentries, at the request of the army and local magistrates. Sentries are provided with a torch, jacket and baton, with each sentry responsible for a block; they report through the majhis to the army each morning.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

ARSA is a significant presence in the camps. That ARSA members and supporters are there is unsurprising, given that the militant group had firmly established itself in Rohingya villages across northern Rakhine. Its members were recruited from and lived in those villages – and fled to the Bangladesh camps with the rest of the population. A small number of senior leaders and prominent cadres avoided entering the camps or being biometrically registered by the Bangladeshi authorities. These men stayed out of the camps as a security precaution and to be able to move more freely.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and representatives of humanitarian agencies, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. Refugees are able to move freely within and between camps, but they are restricted from travelling to Cox’s Bazar or Chittagong, except with medical referral. It has up to now been easy for them to travel to the town of Teknaf, but since early March soldiers at checkpoints have started asking about reasons for travel.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s attack on a Myanmar military convoy in northern Rakhine State on 5 January 2018 demonstrated its determination to remain relevant as a fighting force.

What has been less certain is the extent to which ARSA would be able to regroup in the camps, mobilise the population and project its authority. It was able to do so in Rakhine State by leveraging the anger and desperation of a community facing daily oppression, and by building strong networks through prominent local community and religious leaders. It offered hope, or at least a sense of agency, and bolstered its position via a combination of religious legitimacy and fear.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote Mobilising in the Bangladesh camps is a completely different prospect. Village populations are scattered across the camps, new leaders (the majhis) are emerging, and the “common enemies” that ARSA rallied against – the Myanmar security forces – are far away across an international border. When the majority of refugees are struggling to establish basic standards of living in the camps and come to terms with the catastrophe triggered by ARSA’s last major action, the militant group’s raison d’être has undoubtedly been weakened.

ARSA’s attack on a Myanmar military convoy in northern Rakhine State on 5 January 2018 demonstrated its determination to remain relevant as a fighting force.[fn]“Five security personnel injured in ambush attack in Northern Rakhine”, GNLM, 6 January 2018.Hide Footnote Its immediate statement claiming responsibility, and its subsequent statement the same month rejecting repatriation proposals, also made an apparent attempt to position the group as the political voice of the Rohingya.[fn]ARSA press statements, “Turaing ambush against the Burmese terrorist army”, 7 January 2018; and “Burmese terrorist government’s unreasonable repatriation plan for Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh”, 20 January 2018. Available on the group’s Twitter account, @ARSA_Official.Hide Footnote

There is evidence, albeit thus far limited, that ARSA is organising in the Bangladesh camps. First, some acts of violence in the camps can be plausibly linked to ARSA. There have been a small number of killings of majhis and other leaders attributed in the media to criminals or to the fact that the victims were working with the Bangladeshi authorities on potential returns. It seems, however, that in at least a few of these cases, the person killed may have been on an ARSA hit list since before the exodus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and others with knowledge of the situation, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Rohingya leader shot dead in Cox’s Bazar”, Dhaka Tribune, 20 January 2018; “Second camp ‘leader’ killed in Bangladesh refugee camp”, AFP, 23 January 2018; “Bangladesh tightens security in Rohingya camps”, The Irrawaddy, 2 February 2018.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s presence in the camps does not imply that it can sustain an insurgency in Rakhine State, even if that were to remain its main focus.

Second, ARSA members themselves claim to have influence over the majhis. Indeed, it would be surprising if some of the majhis were not linked even more directly to the group given the extent of ARSA’s previous mobilisation and support in Rakhine State ­– and its success in imposing its will through violence. This combination of persuasion and targeted violence is precisely analogous to ARSA’s earlier tactics in Myanmar. Another opportunity for ARSA to exert its influence is through its members or supporters volunteering as night watchmen. Finally, religious leaders – some of whom were key ARSA community mobilisers and leaders in Rakhine State – continue to be important in the camps.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, ARSA members and others with knowledge of the situation, October 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

ARSA’s presence in the camps does not, however, imply that it can sustain an insurgency in Rakhine State, even if that were to remain its main focus, which itself is not certain. The strong presence of Bangladeshi army and intelligence personnel in and around the camps, plus the geography of the area and its high population density, means that ARSA will find it difficult to reorganise in Bangladesh without the authorities knowing. Now that the majority of the Rohingya population is in Bangladesh with little prospect of return, other objectives, notably organising to lobby for improved living conditions and opportunities in Bangladesh, are likely to assume greater importance for refugees – and hence for any group that draws its constituency from them – than mobilising for an insurgency across the border. Much, therefore, depends on how the political situation in Bangladesh evolves.

B. Refugee Views on ARSA and the Use of Violence

Finally, the world has learned how much we have been suffering.

Detailed Crisis Group discussions with refugees indicate that the tragedy that has befallen the Rohingya, sparked by the ARSA attacks, has influenced perceptions of ARSA in different ways. Some refugees adopt the view that, whether or not those attacks had taken place, the Myanmar authorities would have found a way to drive them from their land. Others believe that the Rohingya lost everything as a result of the attacks, while gaining nothing. Many expressed the hope that something positive might come from their plight, as the Rohingya have never before received so much global attention. “Finally, the world has learned how much we have been suffering” was a commonly aired sentiment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees, October 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

Many of those who had supported or engaged in ARSA’s resistance saw violence as a last resort. They believed that ARSA’s rationale was bolstered by fatwas (religious judicial opinions or binding religious edicts) from Rohingya clerics in Rakhine State and in the diaspora declaring armed struggle to be legitimate or even obligatory. On the other hand, other voices among the Rohingya, including leading clerics, had long counselled against violence and continue to do so.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, The Politics of Rakhine State and A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

This question was the subject of a detailed media report in Bangladesh in March 2018.[fn]“Rohingya muftis prohibit jihad and self-defense”, Dhaka Tribune, March 2018.Hide Footnote The article cited the issuance of a fatwa by 47 Rohingya muftis (Islamic scholars who interpret religious law) condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defence, against Myanmar.[fn]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 to war-making. In reference to violence, it can encompass insurgency and guerrilla war as well as 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 ISIS 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 history; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that might constrain combat tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: that fighting to return society to a purer Islam is proper; that violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them is justified; and that, in fact, there is a 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 to detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. For more about Crisis Group’s use of this term, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote It stated that Deobandi madrassas in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan backed the fatwa (Deobandi Islam is a Sunni revivalist movement to which the most influential Rohingya clerics adhere).

There has always been, and continues to be, a strong current of thought among Rohingya that opposes any form of violent resistance. Yet two considerations are relevant to assessing whether the fatwa represents a significant shift in sentiment away from ARSA and militancy among the Rohingya. First, it is not new; it was issued in October 2017, at the height of the exodus, a time when Rohingya leaders felt it was vital to reassure Bangladesh that the refugees did not represent a security threat. Second, the fatwa did not categorically reject the idea of violent resistance; it did, however, caution against it at the time of issuance. That is, it was not a rejection of ARSA as such, but rather of particular tactics the signatories viewed as premature or misguided.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, muftis who signed the fatwa, Bangladesh, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Many observers have expressed concern about the risk of transnational jihadist groups – that is, groups such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the Islamic State or their Bangladeshi affiliates – exploiting the Rohingya crisis to mobilise or recruit in the camps. While this concern is legitimate, given the security landscape in Bangladesh, there is no evidence that such exploitation is happening, nor that a counterterrorism lens is useful for understanding the evolving situation in the camps. ARSA has always distanced itself from transnational jihadism, and the group, its members and refugees interviewed continue to do so.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The Bangladeshi authorities share this assessment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladesh intelligence official, Dhaka, April 2018; Bangladesh security officials, Cox’s Bazar, January 2018. This assessment will be examined in greater detail in a forthcoming Crisis Group report on the challenges the Rohingya crisis poses for Bangladesh.Hide Footnote

IV. What Next for the Crisis?

A. In Bangladesh

There is little prospect that the situation in Rakhine State will improve sufficiently in the near future for voluntary repatriation to be conceivable. The future of the refugees is thus very much dependent on developments in Bangladesh.

Sympathy for the Rohingya among the Bangladeshi populace remains widespread, and the government calculates that pressure on the refugees to return would be ill advised in an election year.

Little suggests Bangladeshi authorities are inclined to force refugees back to Myanmar. Sympathy for the Rohingya among the Bangladeshi populace remains widespread, and the government calculates that pressure on the refugees to return would be ill advised in an election year.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opinion polling professional, Dhaka, April 2018. This assessment will be examined in a forthcoming Crisis Group report on the challenges the Rohingya crisis poses for Bangladesh.Hide Footnote It would also damage relations with donor countries that are funding the $1.2 billion per year humanitarian operation. Public opinion and government calculations could easily shift, however. Two factors will be especially important.

First is the sentiment of the host community in Cox’s Bazar. Currently, relations between refugees and locals are relatively good – better, in fact, than during the 1990s crisis, even though the numbers of refugees now are far higher. But continued positive relations cannot be taken for granted. In the two sub-districts where the refugee camps are located (Ukhia and Teknaf), refugees outnumber the local population two to one. The rapid influx has placed a huge burden on the host community – prices have risen, day labour rates gone down, farmlands been lost, transport times lengthened, and deforestation and environmental degradation worsened. Locals worry about the health and security implications of the camps. Their sympathy could easily dry up as the crisis becomes protracted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of local community and refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Rohingya refugees test Bangladeshi welcome as prices rise and repatriation stalls”, Reuters, 28 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Second is whether sentiment in Bangladesh as a whole and the government’s stance in particular shifts after the elections. This could happen even if the current Awami League government holds onto power, which seems likely. Bangladesh has always insisted that the refugees must return to Myanmar, and it has rejected the idea of local integration. Pressure on refugees to return to Myanmar remains a future possibility, even if the Bangladeshi population and government for now largely welcome them.

At the same time, Bangladesh has made clear that it is making contingency arrangements. It has moved forward with a $280 million plan to resettle 100,000 Rohingya refugees on an isolated and flood-prone island, Bhasan Char, in the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladeshi navy issued a tender on 24 November 2017 for development of the island camp and necessary flood defences; the government says it has no timeline for the development – indeed, no allocation from the budget has reportedly yet been secured[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Bangladeshi civil society who has closely followed the matter, May 2018.Hide Footnote – and that no Rohingya will be moved against their will. The plan has alarmed aid agencies, however, who have concerns about the site’s suitability and the difficulty of access to it. Refugees strongly oppose moving to the island, but they seem to think that the scheme will never get off the ground. If their relocation were to appear imminent, serious resistance could be anticipated.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and aid agency representatives, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018. See also “Floating island: New home for Rohingya refugees emerges in Bay of Bengal”, Reuters, 22 February 2018; “Dhaka bemoans lack of funding for Rohingya refugee island”, Reuters, 27 March 2018.Hide Footnote Demonstrations already took place in January, when refugees believed they might be pressured to repatriate.[fn]“Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh protest repatriation move”, AFP, 20 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Most [refugees] say they want to return to Rakhine State but are resigned to the fact that they may have to wait for an extended period in Bangladesh before that is possible.

In general, refugees have strong communications networks and, despite being mostly illiterate (the Rohingya language has no written form in general usage), have access to considerable information about their predicament and the attendant international debate. Almost all refugee families also have access to a smartphone – like Myanmar as a whole, which has one of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates.[fn]Smartphone penetration in Myanmar is 80 per cent, significantly higher than in its neighbours (Singapore is 78 per cent and Thailand 59 per cent). Realizing Digital Myanmar, Telenor, February 2018.Hide Footnote These devices are now connected to Bangladeshi networks through SIM cards purchased on the black market (refugees are officially prohibited from purchasing a Bangladeshi SIM card). WhatsApp serves as essentially the sole means of communication for Rohingya, mostly via sharing of audio files and video clips. Most refugees are members of multiple WhatsApp groups, giving them access to news and religious teachings, as well as a connection to their families, including those still in Myanmar or in other countries.[fn]Of the many WhatsApp groups, some connect people from a particular village in Rakhine (eg, the Taung Bazar group and the Badanar group); others are content-based, such as the Rohingya Ettafaq (Unity) group, the Rohingya social media group, the Arakan Azad (Freedom) group and the Rohingya National news group.Hide Footnote Some of these WhatsApp groups also could serve as a means of coordination and mobilisation, particularly should the refugees face major challenges, such as forced repatriation or resettlement to the island.

To the extent that refugees have had time to think about their future in any detail, most say they want to return to Rakhine State but are resigned to the fact that they may have to wait for an extended period in Bangladesh before that is possible. Very few express an intention to go to third countries. In any case, possibilities for doing so are limited: the smuggling route by boat across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia remains extremely difficult, the land route via India across Myanmar to Thailand is expensive and fraught with peril, and only a handful of refugees have the resources and connections to leave by air. Informal integration in Bangladesh is also more difficult than in the past. Authorities now restrict marriages between refugees and locals, and because Bangladesh IDs are now biometric, they are more difficult and expensive to obtain on the black market than they were previously. Some refugees have avoided entering the camps and being registered, to make it easier to move around and to leave – but their number appears to be very small (it includes some senior ARSA members, as mentioned above).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and analysts, Bangladesh, November 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote

B. In Northern Rakhine State

Beyond building the physical infrastructure to support limited returns, Myanmar has made no real progress in creating conditions on the ground that would give refugees the confidence to return. In the meantime, among the 100,000-150,000 Rohingya remaining in northern Rakhine, a few thousand per month continue to leave for Bangladesh.

Rohingya in northern Rakhine report that they have no wish to leave unless circumstances compel them to do so. Those that are leaving cite reasons including their inability to obtain food or medical treatment for serious illness or injury; the confiscation of their land; and accusations by the authorities that a family member is an ARSA member.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya villagers in northern Rakhine State and recently arrived refugees in Bangladesh, January-March 2018. See also “Confidential briefing note on the Maung Nu massacre and its aftermath”, Arakan Project, 22 February 2018 (non-public); and “Remaking Rakhine state,” Amnesty International, March 2018.Hide Footnote Recent arrivals from north Rathedaung and south Buthidaung reported fleeing due to food shortages and land confiscation (such as for a new border guard police base in Ah Lel Chaung village-tract). They also relate that while there are no direct threats from police or security forces, continued discrimination and restrictions make it impossible to continue trade and rural livelihoods. The rural economy has virtually collapsed, and poor people say they have to survive on the few day labour opportunities remaining or rely on remittances from family or friends in Yangon or overseas.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Non-Muslim villages are expanding and new migrants arriving, with some new villages being constructed on what were Rohingya villages and lands.

Much of Maungdaw township’s rural areas and other parts of northern Rakhine are now virtually depopulated. These areas will not remain as they are, frozen in time pending eventual repatriation in the months or years to come. Many villages were burned to the ground, and those – as well as some that were not burned – are now being bulldozed and trees and vegetation uprooted. Non-Muslim villages are expanding and new migrants arriving, with some new villages being constructed on what were Rohingya villages and lands. The government, or private companies under their direction, are constructing new roads and extending the electrical grid. The military and Border Guard Police are rolling out additional security infrastructure. The government is pushing for development projects and Myanmar conglomerates have been encouraged to look at business opportunities in the area. Whether these activities reflect a government strategy to remake northern Rakhine as a Buddhist-majority area – as some rights groups and other observers have claimed and as Rakhine nationalists have advocated – is unclear.[fn]For details of the changes that are taking place, see “Remaking Rakhine state”, Amnesty International, March 2018. See also “Burma is pumping millions into rebuilding Rakhine, but is it for the Rohingya?”, Washington Post, 14 March 2018; “With Rohingya gone, Myanmar’s ethnic Rakhine seek Muslim-free ‘buffer zone’”, AFP, 16 March 2018; “‘We have no intention of hiding anything’: Myanmar rebuilding in Maungdaw, Rakhine state”, Channel News Asia, 20 March 2018.Hide Footnote But whatever the motives, the consequence will be that with boundaries and landmarks erased, refugees’ return to their original homes and lands will be near impossible, and the possibility of any return at all greatly reduced.

In the meantime, relations between the (Buddhist) ethnic Rakhine population and the government have deteriorated sharply in 2018. The Rakhine State crisis thus has become three-sided, pitting not only the Rakhine against the Rohingya but Myanmar authorities against both, which further undermines prospects of stability and of addressing the Rohingya’s plight. Two incidents in particular have ignited ethnic Rakhine anger. First was a police crackdown in January on an anti-government demonstration in the ancient Rakhine capital of Mrauk-U that left seven Rakhine participants dead and at least a dozen hospitalised; they had been protesting a government decision to ban events commemorating the 223rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan Kingdom. The shootings were followed two days later by the arrest of the most prominent Rakhine politician, the lower house MP Dr Aye Maung, for comments at a literature festival that the authorities said were seditious and supportive of the Arakan Army. He and a second person were subsequently charged with high treason, which carries a mandatory sentence of death or life imprisonment.[fn]Burma Penal Code section 122, as amended by Burma Act XX, 1950. Death sentences are still handed down, but judicial executions are no longer carried out in Myanmar. For details on the incidents, see “7 people reported dead after police crackdown on protest in Mrauk-U”, The Irrawaddy, 17 January 2018; “MP, author charged with high treason”, The Irrawaddy, 9 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The government now faces the additional problem of deepening Rakhine nationalist disaffection, which could tip into instability or violence.

The perceived lack of a credible government response or accountability for the police shooting, and Dr Aye Maung’s ongoing prosecution in Sittwe court, both continue to inflame local sentiment. On 30 January, the Mrauk-U administrator was stabbed to death, likely because of his perceived role in the crackdown. In the early hours of 24 February, three bombs exploded in Sittwe, at locations that appeared to target the government – near a senior official’s home, a court and a government office, respectively. A policeman was injured. Three other devices were found and deactivated. No group claimed responsibility but there has been widespread speculation that it may have been the Arakan Army, the only group seen as having the motive and capacity. If it is responsible, the murder and bombings would mark a significant escalation for a group that normally only attacks military targets in rural areas. On 17 January, it had issued a statement threatening “serious retaliatory measures” against those responsible for the Mrauk-U shootings.[fn]United League of Arakan/Arakan Army statement, 17 January 2018. See also “Three bombs rock Myanmar’s northwestern city Sittwe, policeman injured”, Reuters, 24 February 2018.Hide Footnote

At a time when it must grapple with unprecedented challenges in Rakhine State, the government now faces the additional problem of deepening Rakhine nationalist disaffection, which could tip into instability or violence. The government would be well advised to ease tensions with the Rakhine community. Of course, this should not include acquiescing to Rakhine demands that are contrary to human rights norms or Myanmar’s international legal obligations; nor should it detract from the obligation to hold Rakhine politicians or anyone else accountable for hate speech or inciting violence. But the government should review its high treason prosecutions against Aye Maung and his co-accused, which may not serve the public interest at this time, and ensure there is accountability for the police shootings in Mrauk-U.

V. Role of the International Community

The Rohingya crisis presents a significant dilemma for the international community. On one hand, it is vital to insist on the right of the Rohingya to return home and Myanmar’s obligation to create conditions conducive to that, as well as to pursue accountability. On the other, no voluntary repatriation is feasible for the foreseeable future, which means concerted efforts are required to ease the burden on Bangladesh and provide alternative options for the refugees.

The harsh reality is that concerted international pressure thus far has not altered Myanmar’s political stance on [the Rohingya] issue.

Until now, many countries have been concerned that explicitly acknowledging that the refugees are unlikely to go home would relieve pressure on Myanmar to accept them back and could be seen as rewarding the architects of ethnic cleansing. But the harsh reality is that concerted international pressure thus far has not altered Myanmar’s political stance on this issue and even such increased efforts as could be plausibly achieved – given that China and Russia remain opposed to any punitive action from the Security Council – are highly unlikely to do so. The risk of failing to develop long-term strategies for the refugees now is not just that hundreds of thousands of people will continue to live in limbo. It is also that the status quo could morph in dangerous ways.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, op. cit.Hide Footnote If host communities or national political sentiment in Bangladesh turns against the refugees, the government may pressure them to return against their will or force them into more isolated camps in Bangladesh, such as those being constructed on Bhasan island. Such developments could prompt instability or violence on either side of the border – in Bangladesh, because the refugees would resist, perhaps even violently, and in Myanmar, because a forced return could lead to communal clashes with hostile non-Muslim communities and could prompt ARSA to mobilise in support of returnees.

In Bangladesh, it is vital that international donors not only support the humanitarian operation by funding the Joint Response Plan,[fn]The Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, launched by UNHCR and IOM in March 2018, is an appeal for $951 million to support the humanitarian operation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for the period March-December 2018 (http://reporting.unhcr.org/node/
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).Hide Footnote
but also that they invest heavily in development support for the affected part of Bangladesh, to reduce the burden on local communities and the government and to create an environment more conducive to any future local integration.

In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the situation needs to be stabilised so that the lives and livelihoods of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities who remain – in all parts of the state – are more secure and the exodus to Bangladesh from the north of the state ends. This challenge is not primarily one of development, but one of policy. As an immediate step in northern Rakhine, the government needs to ease the draconian restrictions on freedom of movement – curfews, checkpoints and other impediments – so that agriculture, fishing and trading can resume in rural areas and there is better access to services. It should follow through on promises of closer cooperation by providing unfettered access to the UN and its international NGO partners – including by quickly reaching agreement on the memorandum of understanding it is discussing with UNHCR and the UN Development Program. In the longer term, the only credible solution is progress on desegregation, citizenship and equality in all parts of Rakhine State, as outlined in the report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Kofi Annan.

The UN Security Council visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar from 29 April to 1 May demonstrates the deep concern of Council members and will likely strengthen their commitment to ongoing scrutiny of the situation.[fn]For a summary of the visit, see the series of “dispatches from the field” by Security Council Report, available at www.securitycouncilreport.org/myanmar.Hide Footnote The UN secretary-general’s appointment in advance of the visit of a special envoy for Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, gives the UN an important new avenue for political engagement with the government.[fn]“Secretary-General Appoints Christine Schraner Burgener of Switzerland as Special Envoy on Myanmar”, UN Press Release, 26 April 2018.Hide Footnote These developments – in particular, a strategic combination of continued Council scrutiny with sustained diplomatic engagement by the special envoy – could create new opportunities to make at least some progress on the immediate steps outlined above. Indeed, at the end of the Security Council visit to Myanmar, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi issued a press release stating that “this is the appropriate time” for strengthened cooperation with the UN on Rakhine State and expressing confidence that the Council’s visit would be “an important turning point in this regard”.[fn]Press Release, Ministry of the Office of the State Counsellor, Naypyitaw, 1 May 2018.Hide Footnote This signal, along with the appointment of President Win Myint at the end of March 2018, which could lead to redistribution of political authority in the government, may open space for changes in the government’s approach. Progress on longer-term solutions through implementation of the Annan Commission recommendations will remain extremely difficult.

VI. Conclusion

The massive exodus of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh has slowed to a few hundred per week. But no repatriation has taken place or appears likely. The large majority of Rohingya are now in Bangladesh, living as refugees in squalid mega-camps. The threat of landslides and floods looms large as the monsoon and cyclone season approaches, with a concomitant risk of waterborne disease. Those who remain in northern Rakhine State are in a precarious position, unable to move freely or sustain livelihoods; many may be forced to flee to Bangladesh in the coming weeks and months.

Efforts to pursue accountability – whether through the International Criminal Court or other mechanisms – remain vital, as does pressing Myanmar to improve the situation in northern Rakhine and create conditions conducive to voluntary return. At the same time, large-scale voluntary returns for now are highly unlikely. The imperative must be to find sustainable solutions for the refugees in Bangladesh. In addition to supporting the humanitarian operation, donors should invest in developing the affected area of Bangladesh to help host communities and to create conditions amenable to local integration. The reluctance of the international actors to openly acknowledge that the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya forced out by Myanmar’s military operations are unlikely to return any time soon is understandable. But the lack of sustained political discussions and concrete planning for the refugees’ extended stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their plight and could propel the crisis in a dangerous new direction.

Brussels, 16 May 2018

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar Mike Shand/International Crisis Group,2017