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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.
Demonstrators gather in downtown Yangon to protest against the military coup. 7 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey
Briefing 166 / Asia

Responding to the Myanmar Coup

Myanmar’s military overthrew its newly elected parliament on 1 February, halting the country’s democratic transition and sparking massive protests. External actors should cooperate to prevent a violent crackdown and adopt tailored measures that target coup leaders, without penalising the population or damaging the broader economy.

What’s new? The Myanmar military’s 1 February coup d’état brought a sudden halt to the country’s democratic transition and showed disdain for the will of the people, overwhelmingly expressed in the November 202o elections which returned the National League for Democracy government in a landslide.

Why does it matter? The coup has arrested a decade of political and economic liberalisation. It has prompted almost universal outrage from Myanmar’s people, who have taken to streets across the country to demand its reversal. The military is unlikely to back down, and the risk of deadly violence against protesters is high.

What should be done? Foreign governments must unanimously condemn the coup. Nonetheless, all should be realistic about the limits of international leverage over the generals. Those responsible for the coup should be sanctioned but the population and economy should be protected from harm. Asian and Western powers should work together to deter violence.

I. Overview

The Myanmar military took the world by surprise on 1 February, staging a coup d’état that abruptly curtailed the country’s democratic transition and has sparked mass protests that could lead to deadly violence. The generals say their move is constitutional, alleging fraud in November 2020 elections that saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) defeat the military-backed party. These claims lack substantiation. The detention of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as her anointed president, Win Myint, has generated immense popular anger. Foreign governments are now grappling with how to respond. Some (largely Western) governments threaten sanctions to punish democratic backsliding; the U.S. has already imposed some restrictions. Asian powers that have expressed concern focus on the risk of instability. Governments that impose sanctions should adopt measures that target coup leaders and insulate Myanmar’s people and broader economy from their effects. Regional governments should consider such steps to protect regional stability. All external actors should cooperate to prevent violence.

Complicating efforts by foreign governments to react is a dynamic situation on the ground. The new regime has tried to tamp down protests by issuing a curfew order that prohibits public gatherings of five or more people, rolling back some reforms that protected civil liberties and using heavy-handed crowd control devices such as water cannons and rubber bullets (compounded, some reports suggest, by live fire in some instances). Still, demonstrations show no sign of abating. Indeed, the junta’s sharp response, which resulted in the reported killing of at least one person, appears to have drawn even more people onto the streets, including in the capital city of Naypyitaw, suggesting significant support among government workers. The security forces’ approach could take an even darker turn fast. Soldiers and armoured vehicles have begun to reinforce the police lines and, should the generals become impatient with the status quo, could easily become the sharp end of a bloody crackdown, as has happened in the past.

Riot police in front of Yangon’s City Hall. The crowd of peaceful protesters is chanting “the people’s police” and has given them roses, water and snacks to signify that their protest is against the military junta, not the police. February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey.

Responses around the world have varied. Many governments denounced the military takeover. The UN Security Council issued a press statement expressing “deep concern” about the “arbitrary detention” of members of the government, calling for the release of those detained and emphasising the need to “uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law”. For Western governments invested in Myanmar’s democratic transition, initial statements were only an opening salvo. U.S. President Joe Biden has already approved sanctions on coup leaders, their business interests and close kin, and redirected more than $40 million of aid from the Myanmar government to civil society. New Zealand rejected “the legitimacy of the military-led government” and suspended high-level military and political contacts. Asian governments and commentators have been more muted; many expressed concern for regional stability, but prominent voices have cautioned against a severe international reaction unlikely, in their eyes, to sway the generals.

Targeted sanctions and the like can serve as a signal to the generals in Myanmar and others similarly inclined elsewhere.

Western leaders will have to thread a needle. Targeted sanctions and the like can serve as a signal to the generals in Myanmar and others similarly inclined elsewhere. Sanctions might impose costs that will not reverse the coup but could offer modest leverage or deterrence in the future. Some measures, such as cutting off weapons shipments, can also help ensure those governments previously supplying arms are not complicit should the military again use force against Myanmar’s people. Yet sanctions should be formulated with a clear grasp of their shortfalls. Prior to Myanmar’s transition that began in 2010, the U.S., EU and others imposed ferocious sanctions that, alongside the junta’s economic mismanagement, harmed the population. The sanctions alienated Myanmar’s neighbours, which saw them as disproportionate, creating an unhelpful West-versus-East dynamic that inhibited cooperation. Sanctions did not play a decisive role in Myanmar’s 2011 democratic opening. Steering a policy course today requires humility about and historical perspective on external actors’ limited sway over internal developments. 

Still, outside powers can take useful steps. Governments wanting to signal the importance of a return to democracy should – as the U.S. has done – adopt tailored measures that seek to punish those responsible for the 1 February actions but avoid penalising the country’s population who are the coup’s victims and, in many cases, are risking their lives protesting it. Such punitive measures could include sanctions on military-owned enterprises, provided they do not hurt the broader economy and the people. Myanmar’s neighbours should join these efforts – whether or not, given their own systems, they are concerned about democracy in Myanmar – to help push the generals onto to a more stable path. All governments should suspend delivery and sales of weapons and other defence and dual-use equipment during this volatile period and maintain this policy until genuine civilian government is restored. At the same time, there is little to gain from cutting off communication with the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar military is known), an institution that, however objectionable its actions, holds the country’s immediate future in its hands. 

Finally, external actors should bear in mind that even if they cannot act in concert on every element of policy concerning Myanmar’s dispiriting democratic reversal, they must retain the ability to work together to reduce risks of further bloodshed. Crackdowns on protesters are a real danger and, given that Myanmar is a highly militarised country with dozens of heavily armed ethnic armed groups and militias, violence could escalate in other ways, too. In charting their response, Western and Asian governments should place a premium on keeping space open for coordination among them. Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that such cooperation will be crucial in the days to come.

Myanmar’s future is uncertain but even were it to return to the status quo ante – awkward power sharing between an unpopular military and a popularly elected government – many challenges would remain. Multiple ethnic conflicts persist and the state’s disenfranchisement of and atrocities against the Rohingya are an open wound. The optimal way forward would not only end military rule but also replace the 2008 constitution with a charter that brings the military under civilian control and allows for a process of ethnically and religiously inclusive nation building. These are deep structural challenges that, beyond the military’s acquiescence, require broad social changes to achieve. But without these, Myanmar will continue to be beset by its many problems.

II. After the Coup, What’s the Plan?

A. The Military and the NLD

Early in the morning of 1 February, the Tatmadaw detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other key NLD and government figures; shut down internet access in the country; and deployed soldiers in strategic locations. It took these actions only hours before the new parliament – elected on 8 November 2020 – was to convene. Later in the day, it seized legislative, administrative and judicial power.[fn]Order No. 1/2021, Office of the President, 1 February 2021.Hide Footnote

A demonstrator holds up a sign during 7 February protests in Yangon, Myanmar. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey.

Myanmar has seen coups before, in 1958, 1962 and 1988, but unlike in those cases, this time around the Tatmadaw has been at pains to paint its overthrow of the elected government as constitutional and seems intent on maintaining the existing constitutional setup. Its first step in creating the appearance of legitimate rule, in the morning of 1 February, was to appoint Vice President Myint Swe, an ex-general, as interim president.[fn]By the constitution, the Tatmadaw’s appointed members of parliament can select one of the country’s two vice presidents. They nominated Myint Swe as vice president in 2016.Hide Footnote The move, although it did not satisfy constitutional requirements for when a president can be replaced, created a pretext for Myint Swe to exercise the president’s constitutional power to invoke a state of emergency, transferring executive, legislative and judicial power to military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing under Articles 417 and 418(a) of the constitution.[fn]See “National Defence and Security Council of Republic of the Union of Myanmar holds meeting”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 2 February 2021.Hide Footnote The military has also said it will remain in power for one year, reflecting the constitutional time limit for such a state of emergency.[fn]Order 1/2021, op. cit.Hide Footnote

New regime leaders, now constituted as a State Administration Council chaired by Min Aung Hlaing, have since tried to project an air of normalcy, signalling that they will continue governing as the previous government did – and indeed improve upon its performance.[fn]The formation of the Council was declared in Order No. 9/2021, Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, 2 February 2021. On the continuation of the previous system, see “Senior General makes speech at Union Government meeting”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 3 February 2021; and “State Administration Council Chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing makes speech to public”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 9 February 2021.Hide Footnote It will not be easy, given the massive demonstrations against the coup, and a broad civil disobedience movement that has crippled many government functions. The coup could also alter the dynamics of the country’s multiple conflicts with ethnic armed groups in unpredictable ways.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°312, Identity Crisis: Ethnicity and Conflict in Myanmar, 28 August 2020.Hide Footnote

A sign showing the Hunger Games three-finger salute which has come to symbolise revolutionary defiance in neighbouring Thailand and Myanmar. 7 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey.

The Tatmadaw’s concern in seizing power does not appear to be the system of hybrid civilian-military governance set out in the constitution but, rather, the political popularity of State Counsellor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.[fn]See also Thant Myint-U, “Myanmar’s youth hold the country’s future in their hands”, Financial Times, 12 February 2021.Hide Footnote The constitution the military drafted in 2008, after half a century of its direct rule, lays out a framework the generals still appear to consider apt, but which has done little to help Myanmar tackle its many challenges: an elected government; a politically empowered and largely autonomous military; and a president with broad executive powers who the military expects would be its ally. By crafting a constitution that reserves 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for itself and requires more than 75 per cent of parliamentarians to approve amendments to the constitution, the military dealt itself a veto over constitutional change. What it did not contemplate was a scenario in which a figure as popular as Aung San Suu Kyi, as de facto civilian head of government, would be able to use her position to control the president’s selection, as has been the case since 2016, and then wield power through her appointee. 

If the military hoped the 8 November election would curb this power, it was surely disappointed. The NLD’s margin of victory expanded the party’s influence, gaining it 83 per cent of the elected seats in parliament – slightly better than even its 2015 landslide. By contrast, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) made a weak showing by winning only 7 per cent of the same pool of seats. Other national opposition parties failed to win a single seat, and ethnic parties – widely expected to do better than in the past – were not able to improve on their 2015 performance. The failure of other parties to make a dent in the NLD’s commanding position meant that even with a quarter of parliament’s seats reserved for military officers, the commander-in-chief had no pathway to becoming president, long believed to be his ambition.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°151, Myanmar’s Stalled Transition, 28 August 2018.Hide Footnote His toxic personal relations with Aung San Suu Kyi and her perceived failure to treat the military and its concerns with due respect added to the friction.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

It seems that a second NLD term [...] was too much for the generals to swallow.

The November election drove home that, a decade after it initiated the transition to partial democracy, Myanmar’s military had two major problems on its hands: Aung San Suu Kyi’s persistent domestic popularity and its own enduring unpopularity, as evidenced by the USDP’s abysmal performance and the lack of improvement in results for other opposition and ethnic minority parties. It seems that a second NLD term, with no imminent prospect of a return to the kind of military influence over the government and presidency envisaged by the authors of the 2008 constitution, was too much for the generals to swallow. Without evidence, they issued a long succession of accusations of massive electoral fraud to justify the coup, and then, on 1 February, made their move.[fn]These were published daily in the military’s Myawady newspaper from 23 December 2020.Hide Footnote

Military leaders have sustained this narrative in the post-coup period. They claim their objective is to repair the fraud through fresh elections. Immediately after seizing power, the new military regime published a five-point roadmap, in which it promised to name a new election commission, hold elections in a year’s time and hand over power to the winner.[fn]Notification No. 1/2021, Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, 1 February 2021. See also “State Administration Council Chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlaing makes speech to public”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Given the scale of the NLD’s November victory, it is inconceivable that such a vote, if essentially free and fair, could have a radically different result. Indeed, the coup has boosted both Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity and anger at the military. At this juncture, even a return to the status quo ante, with the military exercising autonomous control over all security matters, would be difficult for many people to accept.

To avert another failure at the polls, the military has two options. The first would be for it to continue holding onto power after one year, delaying the promised elections. This approach, however, would strain even further its effort to create the appearance of acting constitutionally, and would make its stated adherence to the 2008 constitution even more implausible. If it jettisoned the constitution, it would then need to draft a new charter – a daunting prospect considering that the 2008 text was two decades in the making. The second and more likely Tatmadaw strategy would be to use the coming year to tilt the playing field in favour of pro-military political forces, in order to secure for itself a positive outcome in a future vote. Given the NLD’s massive popularity, the playing field would have to be extremely skewed to keep it out of power.

Protesters wave NLD “fighting peacock” flags at a demonstration in downtown Yangon, near Sule Pagoda, with the Sunni Bengali Mosque in the background. 7 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey.

One way to do this might be to modify the electoral system, for example by injecting a dose of proportional representation, though that would appear to require amending the constitution – which can only be done by the parliament, not by emergency decree.[fn]Proportional representation would reduce the NLD’s haul of seats and open up a greater possibility of a Tatmadaw, USDP and ethnic party alliance being able to secure a majority. In the November 2020 elections, the NLD received around 68 per cent of the popular vote, which would translate into a wafer-thin majority of 51 per cent of the entire parliament, given that one quarter of the seats are reserved for Tatmadaw appointees.Hide Footnote Alternatively, the generals could take steps that in effect neutralise Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as political threats. Dubious charges filed against her and President Win Myint since the coup would allow the military to do just that. If convicted, they could be declared ineligible to stand for elected office or head a party. The NLD could then be required to dissolve.[fn]There is a recent precedent for such a move: on 17 October 2020, the election commission announced that the United Democratic Party would dissolve, following its chairman’s arrest, on the grounds that it had received foreign funds.Hide Footnote There are also persistent rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi could be tried for treason. Such an approach has precedent: the military did much the same in the run-up to the 2010 elections, loading the dice so heavily that the NLD boycotted the vote, paving the way for newly retired members of the junta to sweep the polls.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°118, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, 7 March 2011.Hide Footnote

For its part, the NLD has limited options to change the course of events. With its ministers and parliamentarians ousted and its leaders detained, the NLD appears subject to the military’s whim, at least for the time being. The party seems to be adopting the same approach it did after the military nullified the NLD’s electoral victory in 1990 and kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Deprived of their leader and unable to take their seats in parliament, the party’s MPs continued to meet in what was, in effect, internal exile, in a bid to keep alive their legitimate claim to rule, albeit to little avail.

For its part, the NLD has limited options to change the course of events.

Consistent with this precedent, on 4 February, some 70 lawmakers elected in November defied the military government by taking their oaths of office at a symbolic parliamentary meeting.[fn]“Amid coup, Myanmar’s NLD lawmakers form committee to serve as legitimate parliament”, The Irrawaddy, 8 February 2021.Hide Footnote This group has nominated MPs to a body to represent the parliament elected in 2020 – the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw [Union Parliament] – who continue to meet virtually and publish statements.[fn]The Committee’s statements appear in Burmese on its Facebook page.Hide Footnote The Committee has refused to recognise the new regime and invited the UN and foreign governments to discuss official business with its members rather than the generals. It has also promulgated a law reappointing Aung San Suu Kyi to the state counsellor position.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The Committee is unlikely to be able to influence the course of events, however, until the military decides to reopen the door to civilian rule.

Meanwhile, peaceful public protests launched on 2 February have continued to expand across the country – including tens of thousands demonstrating in downtown Yangon every day. The new regime has tried to tamp down the protests with curfew orders, heavy-handed crowd control techniques and restrictions on public communications. To suppress popular dissent and external coverage of the protests, the Tatmadaw have ordered internet service providers to block access to popular social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, temporarily cut off countrywide internet access multiple times, circulated a draft law that would give them sweeping new surveillance powers and rolled back civil liberties by removing restrictions on warrantless searches and requiring people to register all overnight guests with authorities.[fn]“Myanmar junta pushes punitive cyber bill”, Financial Times, 12 February 2021; Amendment of Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of the Citizens, State Administration Council Law No. 4/2021, 13 February 2021; and Fourth Amendment of the Ward or Village-Tract Administration Law, State Administration Council Law No. 3/2021, 13 February 2021.Hide Footnote

B. External Actors

Western governments, which had been among the most vocal supporters of Myanmar’s democratic transition, quickly and forcefully condemned the coup. For example, a senior State Department official said the U.S. “denounced in the strongest possible terms Burma’s military leaders for seeking to reject the will of the people of Burma”.[fn]“Briefing with Senior State Department Officials on the State Department’s Assessment of Recent Events in Burma”, U.S. State Department, 2 February 2021.Hide Footnote On 11 February, the Biden administration took the first steps in imposing sanctions, with more details to come; it also announced the redirection of $42 million of bilateral assistance from the government to civil society.[fn]“Executive Order on Blocking Property with Respect to the Situation in Burma”, White House, 11 February 2021. See also Laura Kelly, “Biden to redirect $42 million in aid to Myanmar, sanction key military figures”, The Hill, 11 February 2021.Hide Footnote New Zealand announced the suspension of high-level contacts with Myanmar’s new leadership, measures to ring-fence its foreign aid from benefitting that leadership, and the imposition of travel bans on its military leaders.[fn]See “New Zealand Takes Measures against Myanmar Following Military Coup”, press release, Government of New Zealand, 9 February 2021; and “New Zealand suspends ties with Myanmar, to ban visits from military leaders”, Reuters8 February 2021.Hide Footnote The EU announced that it would meet on 22 February to review its relations with Myanmar and is considering its own targeted sanctions and adjustments to development assistance.[fn]Kim Tong-Hyung, “Countries curb diplomatic ties, weigh sanctions against Myanmar”, Associated Press, 11 February 2021.Hide Footnote

Initial responses from most Asian capitals were more subdued. Japan, which has forged a close partnership with Myanmar, arguably went furthest in expressing “grave concern”.[fn]“The Internal Situation in Myanmar (Statement by Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu)”, Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1 February 2021.Hide Footnote The coup represents a serious setback for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which must once again manage the consequences of Myanmar being the sick man of the grouping. Thus far, ASEAN has called for the “pursuance of dialogue”, while several of its members characterised the developments as their neighbour’s “internal affairs”.[fn]“ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on the Developments in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar”, ASEAN, 1 February 2021. In the hours following the coup, Thailand’s Vice Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Cambodian President Hun Sen both referred to the coup as part of Myanmar’s “internal affairs”, while a Philippines presidential spokesman called it “an internal matter that we will not meddle with”.Hide Footnote China “noted” the situation and “hoped” the parties would “properly settle their differences”.[fn]“China ‘notes’ Myanmar coup, hopes for stability”, Reuters, 1 February 2021.Hide Footnote

The UN Security Council, for its part, held closed consultations on 2 February and after some negotiation produced a press statement calling for the “immediate release” of those in “arbitrary detention” and citing the need to “uphold democratic institutions and practices”. Although the statement indicated a degree of unity in condemning the military takeover, the Chinese mission released one of its own emphasising the need for “stability” in Myanmar that other diplomats read as more favourable to the military.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and officials, New York, February 2021.Hide Footnote China may wish to keep the Tatmadaw in some doubt about how far it will go defending the Myanmar generals at the UN. New York-based diplomats do not think it likely that Beijing will support the UN Security Council adopting specific measures (for example, sanctions) in response to the coup, and see the UN more as a forum for consultation going forward.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, diplomats, New York, February 2021.Hide Footnote

A motorcyclist draped in a ‘fighting peacock’ NLD flag observes crowds of demonstrators in downtown Yangon. 7 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey.

The question is what comes next. Around the world, and particularly in Western capitals that have asserted they will hold the military to account for the coup, policymakers are faced with the challenge of how to match actions to words. The task is particularly difficult given the limits of external actors’ influence over Myanmar’s military leadership, who have demonstrated for decades their resistance to outside pressure, and the prospect that the few tools in their toolbox – in particular, sanctions – could wind up harming the people of Myanmar while leaving the generals relatively untouched. As policymakers evaluate the costs and benefits of their next moves, they should look for lessons in Myanmar’s past experience with sanctions.

III. What Effect Did Sanctions Have Last Time Round?

A. Years of Biting Sanctions

Although it was never subject to UN Security Council-mandated sanctions, Myanmar was, for over two decades, at the receiving end of some of the toughest bilateral and multilateral sanctions ever applied. These were first imposed mostly by Western governments and the EU after the brutal army crackdown on demonstrators in 1988 and then the regime’s refusal to hand over power to the NLD following the party’s landslide victory in the 1990 elections. Sanctions were later tightened, progressively, in response to various political and human rights concerns, and only started to be rolled back in 2011.

A police roadblock near City Hall in downtown Yangon. 7 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey.

While these sanctions may have had some benefits – for example, in sending a clear message of moral opprobrium to the military and support to pro-democracy advocates – they did not appear to alter the junta’s “will or capacity to maintain power and continue its repressive policies”.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°78, Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?, 26 April 204.Hide Footnote Nor did they appear harnessed to a viable strategy for doing so. Indeed, sanctions may have hardened Myanmar’s military leaders against diplomatic entreaties from the West, at the same time rallying Asian neighbours to the junta’s side (throughout this period, countries in Asia – including all Myanmar’s neighbours – continued to trade and engage with it).[fn]Ibid., p. 17. “International censure and sanctions have reinforced the siege mentality of highly nationalistic leaders. Most officers are fiercely proud of Myanmar's historical resistance to imperialism and extremely sensitive to any attempt by foreigners to dictate its internal policies”.Hide Footnote Moreover, while the generals ruling Myanmar were largely impervious to their effects, the general population was not.[fn]Ibid., p. 16. “The sanctions have not significantly diminished the military elite's personal welfare. Most of the top leaders live relatively frugally, driven more by a taste for power and sense of patriotic duty than a lavish lifestyle. They are not avid travellers, and their families have access to everything they need in the region, including tertiary education. Contrary to their counterparts in many other military-ruled states, they remain hesitant to embrace foreign investment fully, although it is an extremely lucrative arena for rent seeking”. Also: “The economic burden of sanctions has to a large extent been shifted to the general population through money printing (which fuels inflation), cuts in government social spending and forced labour. While the government obviously is primarily responsible for this, sanctions have thus had an indirect negative effect on poverty, health and education standards”.Hide Footnote

Pre-reform period sanctions fell largely into three categories:

Suspension of development aid and technical assistance. Starting in 1988, most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries suspended aid programs, although very limited amounts of humanitarian assistance continued in ways that bypassed state structures. U.S. laws required it to block (and lobby its allies to also block) World Bank and International Monetary Fund assistance, and the UN tightly restricted some of its agencies’ and programs’ operational mandates. Aid relations began normalising in 2009, in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis, which had struck the previous year. In the face of the enormous and urgent humanitarian needs the disaster created, Western governments began to interpret aid restrictions more flexibly and donors significantly increased assistance.[fn]Even so, the population affected by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar received only about one tenth of the assistance provided to Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, a tragedy of comparable scale and impact. See also Crisis Group Asia Report N°161, Burma/Myanmar After Nargis: Time to Normalise Aid Relations, 20 October 208.Hide Footnote

Sanctions targeting named individuals and entities. Starting in 1996, the EU and U.S., as well some other Western governments, imposed visa bans and subsequently also asset freezes on military and government officials, their families and associated businesses. The lists of targeted individuals and entities were periodically expanded over the following years. The initial EU list contained a few dozen individuals; by 2010, it included more than 50 individuals and 120 enterprises. Restrictions were also imposed on high-level government-to-government bilateral contacts.[fn]See Council of the European Union Common Position of 28 October 1996, 96/635/CFSP.Hide Footnote As discussed below, however, these “smart sanctions” were ill suited to changing the calculations of Myanmar’s military leadership.

Investment and trade bans. The broadest sanctions applied to trade and investment and were put in place by Washington and Brussels, with the U.S. taking the additional step of imposing financial sanctions (in the U.S., these were often imposed by congressional legislation rather than presidential order, making them less flexible):

1.    The U.S. imposed a ban on arms exports to Myanmar in 1988.[fn]The Reagan administration imposed this ban on 23 September 1988 under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act. Restrictions on exports of defence-related materials were further strengthened by executive order 58, Federal Register 33293, 16 June 1993.Hide Footnote The following year, it revoked Myanmar’s access to Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) concessions and trade financing support. In 1997, Congress used appropriations legislation to prohibit new investment by U.S. persons or entities in Myanmar. In 2003, it imposed a ban on all imports from Myanmar as well as a ban on export of financial services under the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which effectively excluded Myanmar from the global dollar clearing system.[fn]The 2003 U.S. decision, together with other financial sanctions, further crippled business in the country, making international transactions in dollars almost impossible and forcing a move to other currencies. Banks tended to adopt the most cautious possible posture in relation to the measures, assessing that the risks of making a single mistake were much greater than the total value of the business. Hence it was standard for any transaction in and out of Myanmar or even containing the keyword “Myanmar” to be blocked and marked for manual review, which could take days or weeks, even if the entity were as a legal matter exempted from sanctions. Also, any person or entity worldwide who was unlucky enough to share part of the name of a sanctioned Myanmar entity was liable to be excluded from the system. See Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?, op. cit.; and contemporaneous Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, companies and analysts, 2003-2010.Hide Footnote In 2008, it banned import of precious stones originating from Myanmar, regardless of where they were processed, under the JADE Act.

2.   For its part, the EU imposed a ban on exports of arms in 1991, and the following year EU member states severed defence links, including through the withdrawal of their military attachés (something the U.S. never did). In 1997, Brussels revoked Myanmar’s access to GSP trade concessions. In 2004, it banned new investments in state- and military-owned companies, which had been the predominant joint-venture partners for foreign companies. In 2007, it introduced sanctions on logs, wood products and gemstones, prohibiting their import into the EU and banning export of technology, equipment, technical advice or financing/investment to these sectors. (Detailed lists of named enterprises in these sectors were taken verbatim from a Myanmar Yellow Pages directory, with no verification.)[fn]Although the entire sectors were sanctioned, for both regulatory and political purposes a list of businesses known to be operating in the sectors was published in annexes to the EU decisions; it was this list that was copied from the Yellow Pages. Contemporaneous Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats. See also Lee Jones, “The questionable logic of international economic sanctions”, OUP Blog, 20 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Trade and investment sanctions severely reduced Western investment in Myanmar and were especially devastating for the most vulnerable.

Trade and investment sanctions severely reduced Western investment in Myanmar and were especially devastating for the most vulnerable, who lost jobs as a result, and were left with few alternatives outside the informal sector.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?, op. cit.Hide Footnote Even before these bans came into force, many Western and multinational companies had decided to withdraw, due to reputational risks or because they were targeted by boycott campaigns initiated by Western advocacy organisations and Myanmar groups in exile. The sanctions compounded the impact of these steps. The 2003 U.S. import ban dealt a particularly grave blow to Myanmar’s garment industry, for which the U.S. was the major export market. When the ban came into force without any warning or grace period, or any attempt to negotiate concessions from the regime prior to imposition, tens of thousands of young women lost their garment factory jobs overnight.[fn]See Richard Horsey, Ending Forced Labour in Myanmar (London, 2011), p. 196; Toshihiro Kudo, “The Impact of United States Sanctions on the Myanmar Garment Industry”, Institute of Developing Economies, December 2005.Hide Footnote

B. Sanctions’ Counterproductive Impact

By the late 2000s, many Western leaders recognised that international pressure and sanctions had failed, and had had significant counterproductive effects.[fn]For example, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out that sanctions had failed, saying in 2009 that “clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta”. “Shift possible on Burma policy”, The Washington Post, 19 February 2009. Senator Jim Webb went further, saying the result of sanctions “has been overwhelmingly counterproductive”. Jim Webb, “We can’t afford to ignore Myanmar”, International Herald Tribune, 25 August 2009. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stated that with regard to Myanmar, “sanctions are useless, and everyone recognises that”. See “Aung San Suu Kyi meets ambassador for sanctions talks”, The Times (London), 10 October 2009. For further discussion, see Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, op. cit., Section VI.Hide Footnote Contemporaneous Crisis Group interviews with individuals closely involved in the post-2011 opening indicated that outside pressure and sanctions played no meaningful role in triggering the reform process.[fn]For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to
the Barracks?, 22 April 2014, Section III.Hide Footnote
Rather, the generals opened up after reaching the objective they had set themselves when seizing power from the socialist regime in 1988 – creating a political system that combined a powerful military with elected politicians to whom it could delegate day-to-day governance without giving up much of its political or economic clout. The generals’ quest to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Myanmar by seeking new alliances in the West also contributed. But in the end, the evolution toward the political system enshrined in the 2008 constitution was the military’s strategic decision more than the result of internal pressures, external sanctions or the West’s unanimous condemnation of the regime.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

A huge protest in downtown Yangon. 7 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey

Furthermore, sanctions were ill suited to affecting the generals’ calculations and may even have worked to the financial advantage of the military elite.[fn]See footnotes 29 and 30.Hide Footnote The regulatory complexities and additional transaction costs that the sanctions imposed on commerce in Myanmar likely benefitted the military and its favoured business partners by crowding out competition from other businesses. Companies with high profit margins (usually as a result of monopolistic privileges conferred by the regime) and overseas connections (for example, to set up holding companies in Singapore) were the ones best able to absorb the higher transaction costs and/or find ways to circumvent the sanctions. These were precisely the entities that were the intended targets of the measures.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Myanmar businessman, economist, January 2011. For further discussion, see Crisis Group Briefing, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, op. cit., Section VI.Hide Footnote

Sanctions also undercut the technical capacity of the civil service to run the country and carry out reform. Any government in Myanmar, whether authoritarian or democratic, has had to rely on the same bureaucracy to undertake its policy agenda. For many years, sanctions blocked technical assistance from international financial institutions and capacity-building efforts more generally for civil servants, a legacy that continues to be felt today. Denied access to capital markets, technology, information, good practice corporate standards, and models of good governance and environmental stewardship, Myanmar’s economy fell further behind its rapidly developing ASEAN neighbours. Companies from the region enthusiastically filled the gap created by Western sanctions but were not able to offer the same quality of foreign direct investment and knowledge transfer as companies from more developed jurisdictions.[fn]For further discussion of sanctions’ detrimental impact on technical capacity in Myanmar, see Crisis Group, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, op. cit. The quality of foreign direct investment refers to its contribution to equitable and sustainable development.Hide Footnote

As a result of the reform process initiated by President Thein Sein from 2011, Western sanctions were progressively rolled back, and remaining EU and U.S. measures – apart from the arms embargoes – were lifted once power was peacefully transferred to the Aung San Suu Kyi administration in 2016.[fn]See “U.S. sanctions on Myanmar formally eased”, The New York Times, 11 July 2012; “Joint Statement between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the United States of America”, press release, White House, 14 September 2016; “EU-Myanmar relations”, European External Action Service, 25 June 2018.Hide Footnote But the military’s violence against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017 led to a number of targeted sanctions on individuals being reimposed, including asset freezes and visa bans on the senior military officers and other security officials seen as most responsible for the violence.[fn]“EU-Myanmar relations”, op. cit.; “Treasury Sanctions Commanders and Units of the Burmese Security Forces for Serious Human Rights Abuses”, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 17 August 2018; and “Treasury Sanctions Individuals for Roles in Atrocities and Other Abuses”, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 10 December 2019.Hide Footnote Because they were tailored, these sanctions did not have the same broad impact on the economy or population as pre-reform sanctions regimes, but they were not effective in nudging Myanmar to make changes in policy regarding the Rohingya.

IV. Would Outside Pressure Sway the Generals Today?

There is nothing to suggest that external actors could today exert more leverage over Myanmar’s generals than they have in the past. The sum total of leverage that international actors could summon after the brutal violence against the Rohingya, and the massive refugee flow that that prompted, had little discernible impact on even the civilian government’s decisions regarding the Rohingya.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017, Section V.B.Hide Footnote With respect to the country’s political direction, the military is likely to be just as impervious today as it was in the 1990s and 2000s.

Anti-coup poster in downtown Yangon. 7 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey

There are several reasons for this. First, the fact that the generals staged a coup implies they are ready to sacrifice the international acceptability and economic gains that liberalisation delivered over the last decade in exchange for other objectives. Secondly, military-owned businesses are largely focused on the domestic market or resource exports to neighbours, and thus are unlikely to be hurt by Western sanctions. Thirdly, military leaders enjoy close alliances with important international actors, not least two veto-wielding powers on the UN Security Council, China and Russia, both of whom have protected Myanmar from opprobrium over the Rohingya crisis since 2017 and appear likely to shield it from at least some pressure now. As for ASEAN, the bloc is well known for keeping out of its member states’ political affairs, to the extent possible. The coup will certainly test some of Myanmar’s other foreign relations, but the Tatmadaw has clearly bet that they have enough international support to protect them from any degree of outside pressure that would make their lives too difficult.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western and Asian diplomats, Yangon, February 2021.Hide Footnote

As the regional heavyweight and a veto-wielding Security Council member, China’s stance is important.

As the regional heavyweight and a veto-wielding Security Council member, China’s stance is important. The relatively strong wording of the Security Council’s 4 February press statement suggested some Chinese disquiet about the military takeover and the possibility for instability in its backyard. In the past decade, Beijing forged links with Aung San Suu Kyi, while its relations with the Tatmadaw became frostier as Chinese weapons made their way to Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups. At this point, China is likely worried that major dysfunction in the country could hurt the sizeable Chinese investment in Myanmar, and that any instability could spill across its border.[fn]On both the weapons flows and the investment, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°305, Commerce and Conflict: Navigating the Myanmar-China Relationship, 30 March 2020.Hide Footnote Still, whatever its frustrations, chances are that going forward Beijing will express them bilaterally and privately, as it tends to do with countries with which it has cultivated close relations. The Security Council statement, and a UN Human Rights Council resolution passed at a 12 February special session in Geneva, thus may be a high mark of UN action on Myanmar for some time.[fn]The Human Rights Council resolution calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and enjoins the Myanmar authorities to refrain from violence in their response to popular protests. Though it was adopted by consensus at a meeting called for by the UK and EU, Russia and China issued a statement “disassociating” themselves from its provisions. “UN HRC adopts resolution demanding Suu Kyi release”, Al Jazeera, 12 February 2021.Hide Footnote

Asian governments that have developed close economic, security and political ties with Myanmar over the last ten years may be able to exert some influence over the Tatmadaw, or at least could be central to probing the potential for dialogue between the military and the erstwhile civilian authorities. Japan has become a significant player in the country, through private investment, development assistance, diplomatic engagement and military cooperation. The Japanese special envoy brokered an unexpected informal ceasefire in Rakhine State following the November elections, a testimony to Tokyo’s influence with the Tatmadaw.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°164, From Elections to Ceasefire in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 23 December 2020.Hide Footnote While Beijing is a useful ally to Myanmar, its might is often a source of unease within the military; Japan, on the other hand, is seen in a generally very positive light, including as a partial counterbalance to China. Tokyo, which has already reached out to the new regime, could have an important role to play in keeping channels open with Naypyitaw.  

Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours also have influence, though early reactions from the bloc and some of its members indicate that many will adopt a hands-off approach to their neighbour’s “internal affairs”. ASEAN’s aversion to commentary on any member’s politics is well known, and several countries in the region may be little concerned with the state of democracy in Myanmar given their own political systems. Nevertheless, there are risks for ASEAN that it would be a mistake to ignore. A return to junta rule in Naypyitaw with no meaningful response from the grouping could diminish the regional bloc’s international standing, all the more so if the military cracks down on protesters; ASEAN should aim to be a more proactive and engaged part of the solution. Myanmar became a thorn in the side of ASEAN’s relations with the U.S. and EU in the 2000s, although that never translated into meaningful ASEAN pressure on the generals. Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint request for an exceptional foreign minister-level meeting on Myanmar indicates that some members at least are concerned about the coup’s potential fallout.[fn]“Indonesia and Malaysia call for ASEAN meeting on Myanmar coup”, Nikkei Asia, 5 February 2021.Hide Footnote

V. What the World Can Do

A. Coordinated Messaging to Reduce the Risk of Violence

Even as they look for ways to push the Tatmadaw toward restoring democratic rule, foreign powers’ immediate objective should be to deter deadly violence against protesters, which history shows Myanmar’s military is willing to inflict. Western and Asian capitals should keep up the rhetorical pressure in urging the Tatmadaw to remain peaceful and show the utmost restraint in the face of the mass protests that erupted after the coup.[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “Myanmar’s Military Should Reverse Its Coup”, 2 February 2021.Hide Footnote The generals have not so far attempted to decisively end the protests, but if they feel compelled to do so, deadly violence is certainly in their repertoire. The memory of the crackdown on the 8888 student-instigated protests that broke out on 8 August 1988, in which thousands died, should be on everyone’s mind. In 2007, the junta again used deadly force against demonstrations, this time to crush a popular monk-led uprising known as the Saffron Revolution.[fn]On the repression of the monks’ uprising, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°144, Burma/Myanmar: After the Crackdown, 31 January 208.Hide Footnote

Foreign powers’ immediate objective should be to deter deadly violence against protesters, which history shows Myanmar’s military is willing to inflict.

To be maximally effective – in reducing the risk of violence and urging a return to civilian rule – outside powers should coordinate as much as possible, ideally with their approaches mutually reinforcing one another. Forging a common front will be hard, given geopolitical friction, the economic interests important regional actors – including China, India, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam ­– have in Myanmar and the lack of interest some have in supporting democratic principles. Western powers should avoid the dynamics of the pre-reform period, when their imposition of broad sanctions angered some Asian governments and scuppered prospects for cooperation, for example, disrupting regional dialogues in the framework of the Asia-Europe Meeting. While West and East may respond differently to the military takeover this time, they must keep working together where there is common ground, particularly to ward off violence. Even for those disinclined to oppose the coup on grounds of democratic values, turmoil in Myanmar and the related risk of bloodshed run contrary to their economic and security interests.

B. The Sanctions Question

The temptation to fall back on sanctions is understandable, particularly in facing a regime with so few pressure points. Sanctions can signal international anger and that there are consequences for military seizures of power. But it is vital to design them in ways that limit their impact on the broad economy and the general population. This principle is especially relevant at a time when millions in Myanmar are suffering from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased poverty. 

Broad economic and trade sanctions – for example, the targeting of Myanmar’s key export sectors such as natural gas, garments and agricultural products – would punish Myanmar’s population for something they are themselves protesting. The EU, whose framework of “Everything but Arms” (EBA) trade privileges includes human rights conditionality, should be especially watchful.[fn]Human Rights in EU Trade Policy”, European Parliament, May 2018.Hide Footnote The scheme gives Myanmar’s export industries tariff-free access to European markets. Already in 2017, a debate, sparked by the Rohingya crisis, about removing Myanmar from the EBA resulted in the EU putting the country under a regime of enhanced monitoring.[fn]Joint Report to the President and the Council: Report on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Covering the Period 2018-2019”, European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, 10 February 2020.Hide Footnote The question will now inevitably become more acute. Revoking trade privileges would be catastrophic for hundreds of thousands of workers, particularly young women in the garment industry, who have been empowered over recent years through their financial independence and ability to support their extended families.[fn]See “Myanmar coup clouds the future of country’s crucial garment industry”, Nikkei Asia, 10 February 2021.Hide Footnote At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the revocation would influence the regime’s decisions regarding the country’s political path.

A less controversial option lies in targeting the economic interests of Myanmar’s military.

A less controversial option lies in targeting the economic interests of Myanmar’s military. Even a decade after liberalisation began, these remain substantial, though not as dominant in the economy as often portrayed. The Tatmadaw controls two conglomerates, the Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd and the Myanmar Economic Corporation, whose activities include banking, mining, telecommunications and brewing, among many others. Sanctions would force some foreign companies to pull out of partnerships with these entities, though they may be replaced by others with fewer scruples or from less vulnerable jurisdictions. Moreover, the conglomerates’ activities are largely oriented toward the domestic market and not significantly exposed to international sanctions. Given that some military-owned businesses control systemically important infrastructure such as ports, sanctions would also require careful analysis of potential knock-on effects on supply chains. These considerations deterred action against military holding companies in connection with the 2017 Rohingya crisis.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. and European diplomats, Yangon, Washington and Brussels, 2017-2021.Hide Footnote

In the weeks that followed the military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine State in late August 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas crossed the border into Bangladesh, across the Naf river. November 2017. CRISISGROUP/Pierre Prakash.

Recent developments warrant opening that debate again. Any measures should be preceded by a careful review and evaluation of potential consequences of targeting the conglomerates as a whole, rather than some (or many) of their constituent companies. While this may be seen as blunting the effectiveness of any measures, foreign capitals also need to keep in mind that the military probably derives significant income through trade with regional allies, including China, as well as through Myanmar’s extensive illicit economy. Such profits would stand unaffected by sanctions. Also likely to curb the effectiveness of economic measures is that the military has never been primarily motivated by profit, and nothing indicates that this coup was about anything other than military disaffection with the political status quo ante, and personal ambition and desire for power on the part of Min Aung Hlaing.

Sanctions targeting individuals, along the lines of those recently implemented by the U.S., are a safer bet, in that they would have limited negative side effects on the population. They would, however, also have little impact on the military’s incentives: Myanmar’s military leaders seem quite content staying inside the country’s borders or visiting only close allies, and they have few assets in Western jurisdictions. The Tatmadaw’s main figures, including the commander-in-chief, have been targets of U.S. and EU sanctions in the wake of the 2017 violence against the Rohingya, with little evident effect. Symbolically, though, extending such restrictions to a larger group of people, including those now granted positions in the ruling body, the State Administration Council, would signal that the coup is unacceptable. Pressure on regional financial centres known to be preferred by the military, notably Singapore, could also be an effective, if difficult, avenue to pursue for freezing assets, blocking transactions or denying financial services to the same individuals.

Decisions by private entities to curtail their operations in Myanmar for reputational or commercial reasons could also have impact given the military’s stated eagerness to continue foreign direct investment. The Japanese brewer Kirin, for example, terminated its joint venture with its military-affiliated Myanmar partner days before U.S. sanctions were imposed.[fn]“Statement on the Situation in Myanmar”, Kirin Holdings Company, 5 February 2021; “Japan's Kirin to end joint beer ventures in Myanmar after coup”, Nikkei Asia, 5 February 2021.Hide Footnote Others may follow suit, particularly if the military cracks down on protesters. The Norway-based Telenor, a telecommunications company serving 19 million people in Myanmar, has walked a particularly delicate line. It complied with military internet restrictions while publicly criticising the measures and even temporarily making calls and text messages free.[fn]See “Directives from authorities in Myanmar – February 2021”, and other Telenor statements available at the company’s website. See also tweet by Telenor Myanmar, @Telenor_mm, 4:49am, 6 February 2021.Hide Footnote Such balancing acts will be difficult to sustain.

C. Foreign Assistance

Over the last decade, international donors have poured vast quantities of development funding into Myanmar as a result of the country’s democratic opening.[fn]According to figures compiled by the OECD Development Assistance Committee, Myanmar’s average annual Official Development Assistance (ODA) inflows from OECD countries increased from $202 million per year before the opening (2000-2009) to $1.269 million per year over the period 2010-2017. In 2016, the year before the Rohingya crisis, ODA flows reached $1.537 million. See “Development Aid at a Glance: Statistics by Region”, OECD, 2019, p. 7.Hide Footnote The combination of blanket sanctions, the previous junta’s inept economic management and development actors’ wariness of working under a military regime had long left the country far behind its neighbours in development indicators. Myanmar received only around one tenth of the per capita aid flows compared to other countries at the same level of development.[fn]See Crisis Group, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, op. cit., p. 12.Hide Footnote From 2011, donors started aid programs on a massive scale, many of them in coordination with the government. Prior to the coup, Myanmar was the largest recipient of U.S. aid in South East Asia, although that may now change.[fn]Crisis Group interview, USAID official, Yangon, 2020. See also S. Rept. 116-126 – Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2020, 116th Congress (2019-2020).Hide Footnote

After the coup, many donors will look to review their Myanmar programs in light of the risks posed and signals sent by providing assistance to an illegitimate government. Washington’s designation of events in Myanmar as a coup automatically triggers such a review, leading to the suspension of all U.S. assistance that benefits the government.[fn]“Briefing with Senior State Department Officials on the State Department’s Assessment of Recent Events in Burma”, op. cit.Hide Footnote On 11 February, USAID announced it would redirect $42.4 million “away from work that would have benefited the Government of Burma” and toward non-government channels.[fn]“USAID immediately redirects $42 million in response to the military coup in Burma”, press release, USAID, 11 February 2021.Hide Footnote The military will hardly welcome such a move but may be reluctant to block aid to the country.

Such reviews are appropriate and may be legally required, but donors should do all they can to prevent any recalibration from imperilling programs that have become crucial to millions of Myanmar people. The criterion for scaling down aid should not be whether it funds government-run programs but whether it primarily benefits the Tatmadaw. As always, donors should be careful to preserve humanitarian funding, which for the most part goes through non-government channels. In particular, there should be no cuts to assistance going to humanitarian agencies operating in the country’s many conflict-affected areas, which is saving lives on a daily basis.

D. Arms Embargoes

An obvious pressure point on the military regime is its supplies of weapons and military equipment. Many countries – the U.S., the EU, Canada and Australia – already have arms embargoes in place, some of them decades old. These are comprehensive, with most encompassing “arms and related material”, and they cover dual-use items (goods and technology that can be used for both civilian and military ends).[fn]For U.S. measures, see footnote 20 above. For EU measures, see the SIPRI arms embargo database. For UK measures, see “The Burma (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. For Australian measures, see “Myanmar Sanctions Regime”, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. For Canadian measures, see “Canadian Sanctions Related to Myanmar”, Government of Canada.Hide Footnote The Tatmadaw’s main arms providers, Russia and China, are unlikely to use arms sales as leverage. Other countries still selling weapons and military equipment to Myanmar should cease doing so. Stopping or suspending sales would not only send a strong signal but could also weaken the regime’s capabilities by constraining its capacity to maintain existing equipment.

E. Engaging the Generals

The imposition of punitive measures should not keep international actors from seeking to maintain channels of communication with the military regime. Isolating Myanmar would equate to abandoning its people at a time when international support matters most.

Isolating Myanmar would equate to abandoning its people at a time when international support matters most.

All those who wield any influence in Naypyitaw should use it to nudge the generals back to the path they chose themselves a decade ago, pushing for negotiations between the army and NLD. Granted, the coup is a direct result of the breakdown of relations between the two, but such talks are not impossible, and they remain the best way to probe possible outcomes to the crisis. Some actors in Asia – notably Japan, Korea and Singapore – will likely have more buy-in with the new regime than others and would be better placed to engage in actual dialogue. While it has an important role to play, the U.S. may need to take a back seat when it comes to direct engagement.[fn]It is revealing, in this regard, that the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly could not get through when trying to call Myanmar’s commander-in-chief on the day of the coup. “Top U.S. general tried, but was unable, to connect to Myanmar’s military”, Reuters, 1 February 2021.Hide Footnote

The UN’s role will largely be tied to dynamics on the Security Council, where both Russia and China have traditionally shielded Myanmar from international scrutiny.[fn]India’s and Vietnam’s presence in 2021 on the Security Council – both countries have close links to the Tatmadaw – may also diminish its ability to play a major role in managing the crisis.Hide Footnote The stronger-than-expected condemnation of the coup in the Council’s initial statement could indicate that China is not entirely opposed to a UN role on Myanmar, even if it is unlikely to support any moves to put significant pressure on Naypyitaw through the Council. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has pledged to try to help reverse the coup.[fn]“A Conversation with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres”, The Washington Post, 3 February 2021; “Statement Attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary General – on Myanmar”, UN Secretary-General, 31 January 2021.Hide Footnote Taking her cue from the Council statement, the UN special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, could act as an intermediary between the military and regional and global capitals, and even potentially between the military and the NLD, although she has little direct leverage of her own.

VI. Conclusion

The coup that stole Myanmar’s second free election in over half a century threatens to undo a decade of political and economic liberalisation and leaves the country at the mercy of a military regime notorious for its past brutality. The scale of protests indicates that after ten years of relative freedom – and unprecedented exposure to the outside world thanks to social media – the Myanmar people, and particularly the younger generation that has come to take freedoms for granted, are even more strongly resistant to military rule than they were under the previous junta. The prospect of a violent crackdown remains very real.

A crown of protesters demonstrates at a police roadblock in front of Yangon’s City Hall. 7 February 2021. CRISISGROUP/Richard Horsey.

International actors are left with few options for influencing events beyond signalling the unacceptability of the Tatmadaw’s takeover, and sadly none of those options are likely to reverse it. Broad-based economic sanctions would harm the population more than the regime, and the impact of targeted sanctions will inevitably be limited. The military has never been primarily motivated by profits, and nothing indicates that this coup was about anything other than politics, power and personal ambition. 

Yet the coup cannot go unchallenged. This is especially true as the generals are acting as if all is well, inviting foreigners to invest in Myanmar, promising to move forward with the moribund peace process and even hinting that they may take steps to repatriate Rohingya refugees – the very people whom the military massacred and chased out of the country only three years ago. The pre-coup political order was hardly satisfactory, and the civilian leadership had certainly fallen far short in many areas, especially its treatment of the Rohingya. Indeed, a return to civilian rule would ideally include overhauling the political system that gives the generals such power and a process of nation building that is ethnically and religiously inclusive. Still, the coup represents a massive setback, puts such a process even further out of reach, and adds the prospect of widespread social unrest given the NLD’s popularity and the near-universal rejection of return to military rule. For this reason, foreign governments of every stripe need to continue to press the generals to reverse course.

Yangon/Bangkok/Brussels, 16 February 2021