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Rohingya refugees stand in a queue to collect aid supplies in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 21 January 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Report 296 / Asia

The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis

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

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

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

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

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Introduction

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

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

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

II. Prospects for Repatriation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Situation in the Bangladesh Camps

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

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

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

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

A. Leadership and Governance in the Camps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Refugee Views on ARSA and the Use of Violence

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

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

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

This question was the subject of a detailed media report in Bangladesh in March 2018.[fn]“Rohingya muftis prohibit jihad and self-defense”, Dhaka Tribune, March 2018.Hide Footnote The article cited the issuance of a fatwa by 47 Rohingya muftis (Islamic scholars who interpret religious law) condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defence, against Myanmar.[fn]The Arabic root of “jihad” refers to striving in God’s service. Many Muslims find its use in the political violence context imprecise and offensive, reducing a complex religious concept to war-making. In reference to violence, it can encompass insurgency and guerrilla war as well as terrorism. For the vast majority of Muslims, today’s “jihadists” pervert Islam’s tenets. But it is hard to escape the term. Groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS self-identify as “jihadist”, and while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent “jihadist” ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this history; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that might constrain combat tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: that fighting to return society to a purer Islam is proper; that violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them is justified; and that, in fact, there is a duty to use violence if Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. This report’s use of “jihadist” is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or to detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. For more about Crisis Group’s use of this term, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote It stated that Deobandi madrassas in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan backed the fatwa (Deobandi Islam is a Sunni revivalist movement to which the most influential Rohingya clerics adhere).

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

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

IV. What Next for the Crisis?

A. In Bangladesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. In Northern Rakhine State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. Role of the International Community

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

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

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

In Bangladesh, it is vital that international donors not only support the humanitarian operation by funding the Joint Response Plan,[fn]The Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, launched by UNHCR and IOM in March 2018, is an appeal for $951 million to support the humanitarian operation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for the period March-December 2018 (http://reporting.unhcr.org/node/
20415
).Hide Footnote
but also that they invest heavily in development support for the affected part of Bangladesh, to reduce the burden on local communities and the government and to create an environment more conducive to any future local integration.

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

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

VI. Conclusion

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

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

Brussels, 16 May 2018

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar Mike Shand/International Crisis Group,2017
A Rohingya refugee looks at the full moon with a child in tow at Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Report 292 / Asia

Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase

The mass flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine State has created a humanitarian catastrophe and serious security risks, including potential cross-border militant attacks. The international community should press the Myanmar government to urgently implement the Annan commission’s proposals, including as regards discrimination, segregation and citizenship.

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  • What’s the issue?  The response of Myanmar’s military to militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s (ARSA) August attacks has led to one of the most catastrophically fast refugee exoduses in modern times. More than 624,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, creating the world’s largest refugee camp.
  • Why does it matter?  The eviction of the Rohingya community from Myanmar is far from the end of the crisis. The situation is transforming Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations, and potential future cross-border attacks by ARSA militants could increase tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
  • What should be done?  Imposing targeted sanctions can send an important message and potentially deter others from similar actions against minority communities. But they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar. Even as they impose targeted sanctions, the international community should continue to provide humanitarian support for Rohingya refugees and resist pressure to disengage from the country.

Executive Summary

Three months after militant attacks triggered a brutal army operation targeting Rohingya Muslim communities in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, more than 624,000 have fled to Bangladesh, one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times. In addition to unimaginable human suffering, the crisis has transformed Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations and will have a huge impact on the regional security landscape.

Myanmar is rapidly losing what remains of the enormous international good-will that its political transition had generated. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in particular has been widely criticised for failing to use her moral authority and domestic legitimacy to shift anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar and the government’s current course. Meanwhile, the exodus continues and will likely soon reach its tragic end point: the almost complete depopulation of Rohingya from northern Rakhine State.

As the world struggles to define a response, and as the crisis enters a new, fraught and highly uncertain phase, several important elements need to be borne in mind. First, there needs to be continued insistence on the right of refugees to return in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner. At the same time, the grim reality is that the vast majority of the Rohingya in Bangladesh will not be going home any time soon. This presents the enormous humanitarian challenge of sustaining lives and dignity in the largest refugee camp in the world. It also presents grave political and security risks that need to be addressed, including potential cross-border attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group and possible transnational terrorism.

Second, it is important to recognise that Myanmar’s political direction has been set and will be extremely difficult to change. The strength of the national consensus is hard to overstate: the government, military and almost the entire population of the country are united on this issue as on no other in its modern history. This will make it extraordinarily difficult to move official policy. Any imposition of sanctions thus requires careful deliberation: they can help send a welcome signal that might deter others around the world contemplating similar actions, but they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar and, depending on what precisely is done, could make the situation worse.

This report examines the lead-up to the ARSA attacks on 25 August 2017, revealing new and significant details about the group’s preparations, and the attacks themselves. This is based on research in Myanmar and Bangladesh since October 2016, including interviews with members of ARSA, analysis of WhatsApp messages sent by the group and its supporters, publicly-posted videos and interviews with villagers in Rakhine State and recently-arrived refugees in Bangladesh. Much of the research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the Rohingya language.  The report also assesses the impact the crisis will have on Myanmar. Finally, it discusses some possible international policy responses.

Brussels, 7 December 2017

I. Background to the Crisis

While the current crisis is rooted in longstanding discrimination and denial of human rights, the immediate trigger was the emergence of a militant group within the Rohingya population in the north of Rakhine State.[fn]For detailed background on the situation in Rakhine State, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013. For other recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; also Asia Reports N°s 290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017; 287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote This hardened national sentiment toward the Rohingya and shifted the calculus of the security forces.

Harakah al-Yaqin, subsequently rebranded in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), first began organising itself after deadly communal violence in 2012. It launched its initial attacks – coordinated assaults on the Border Guard Police (BGP) headquarters and two other bases – on 9 October 2016. Previous armed militant groups had been based in the hills (the Arakan mujahidin in the 1950s), or launched hit-and-run attacks from across the border in Bangladesh (for example the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation in the 1990s). In contrast, ARSA operates from within Rohingya villages, using cells of villagers who have been given some basic training but most of whom do not have access to firearms, only bladed weapons and some improvised explosive devices (IEDs).[fn]See Crisis Group Report, A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In response to the October 2016 attacks, the military deployed overwhelming retaliatory force against nearby villages, followed by extensive “clearance operations” – brutal counter-insurgency operations that the military has used for decades in other parts of the country – with the stated purpose of recapturing the dozens of small arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition looted by ARSA.[fn]For details on the Myanmar military’s counterinsurgency approach, known as the “four cuts”, see Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (London, 1999), p. 288 ff.; Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces (Norwalk, 2001), pp. 91-92; and Maung Aung Myoe, “Military Doctrine and Strategy in Myanmar”, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, working paper 339, 1999, p. 10.Hide Footnote When troops came under attack from militants and villagers and a senior officer was killed, the military further escalated, including the use of helicopter gunships in civilian areas. Over the following weeks, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and security forces burned down several thousand homes.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote A United Nations (UN) human rights office report found the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity”.[fn]“Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016”, Flash Report, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) mission to Bangladesh, 3 February 2017.Hide Footnote A retired senior army officer noted that it would have been more effective to use the police to achieve the operation’s stated purpose of recovering the looted weapons and ammunition (most were not found).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yangon, March 2017.Hide Footnote

In the months following the October 2016 attacks, ARSA set about consolidating its authority in Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine and preparing for the next round of attacks. It did this through the targeted killings of dozens of Rohingya men with links to the authorities (such as village heads, other local administrators and suspected informers), ramped up training in the hills as well as IED production in safe houses. The authorities were aware of these developments, with the state media reporting many of the killings as well as the discovery of IED factories. For them, the next ARSA attacks were seen as a matter of when, not if.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and military officers, Yangon, Naypyitaw and Sittwe, November 2016-August 2017; “Rakhine slayings by insurgents”, Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), 22 July 2017. GNLM is the state-owned English-language daily. For details on discovery of IED production sites, see section II below.Hide Footnote  

II. Build-up to the Crisis

In the months before the August 2017 ARSA attacks, a series of incidents suggested an uptick in ARSA training and preparation, putting Rakhine Buddhist villagers and the security forces on edge:

  • On 4 May, the accidental detonation of an IED during an ARSA explosives training course in Kyaung Taung village tract (north Buthidaung) killed seven men including the instructor, and injured at least five others. According to a reliable source close to the events, the instructor was Pakistani, not Rohingya. He was badly injured and died in Padakar Ywar Thit village tract (Maungdaw) while being carried to Bangladesh for treatment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers with direct knowledge of the events, Rakhine State, May 2017. It appears there was a subsequent – possibly related – mass killing by the army of “at least scores” of Rohingya in an adjacent village (Min Gyi, or Tula Toli) on 30 August. “‘My World Is Finished’: Rohingya Targeted in Crimes Against Humanity in Myanmar”, Amnesty International, 18 October 2017, p. 21.Hide Footnote The people carrying him asked a village head to arrange his burial in a local cemetery but after being informed of the situation, security officials arrested the village head and took the body to Buthidaung hospital. These officials were the source of domestic Myanmar media reports some days later about the death of a foreign militant.
  • On 7 May, security forces investigating the IED detonation discovered the training camp and bomb-making materials. Six days later, the government announced it had found the bodies of five victims buried nearby, which they said included two foreigners. This prompted security forces to undertake violent evictions and clearance operations in the area (particularly around adjacent Tin May village tract), killing several people and prompting some families to flee to Bangladesh in May and June.[fn]While the government says two foreigners were killed in the 4 May incident, ARSA sources say there was only one, the Pakistani trainer who died. Six other people died, four on the spot and one later at a medical facility in Bangladesh. Five injured people received treatment at different medical facilities in Bangladesh; three were reportedly arrested by the Bangladeshi authorities. Crisis Group interviews, medical staff, Bangladesh, May 2017; refugees from Tin May, Bangladesh, May-July 2017. See also “Five Bodies Found in Buthidaung”, The Irrawaddy, 15 May 2017; “Five bodies unearthed near 5 May explosion site in Buthidaung”, GNLM, 16 May 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On June 20-21, the government reported that security forces had killed three men while clearing a likely ARSA training camp in the mountains near Sein Hnyin Pyar village tract (south Buthidaung).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers, June 2017; “Terrorist training camps, guns uncovered in Mayu Mountains”, GNLM, 22 June 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On 24 June, four Rakhine Buddhist villagers came across bomb-making material while foraging in Kyun Pauk Pyu Su village tract (north Maungdaw). ARSA members shot two of them dead; the two others, one of whom was injured, fled and alerted authorities. However, ARSA members apparently removed the incriminating material before the security forces reached the spot. This was the first known case of ARSA killing non-Rohingya civilians, and significantly increased anxiety among Rakhine Buddhist villagers; some 200 fled to Maungdaw town, fearing ARSA attacks. On 27 June, security forces in the area were placed on high alert; on 30 June, senior government officials in Naypyitaw discussed the situation at a “special meeting on Rakhine State”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ARSA member with knowledge of the events, June 2017. See also, “Four local ethnic people were attacked by swords and killed two”, GNLM, 26 June 2017; “Troops in Myanmar’s Rakhine on high alert after killings of Rohingya”, Reuters, 27 June 2017; “Special meeting on Rakhine issue held”, GNLM, 1 July 2017. The “special meeting” comprised the president, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, vice presidents one and two, the legislative speakers, deputy commander-in-chief, relevant ministers, and national security adviser.Hide Footnote
  • On 1 August, authorities reported that an IED accidentally exploded at an ARSA safe house in Pan Taw Pyin village tract (Maungdaw) and that they found explosives and other bomb-making material at the house.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local Rohingya villagers, August 2017; “IED explodes in Maungdaw”, GNLM, 2 August 2017.Hide Footnote Two days later, eight members of the Mro ethnic group, both men and women, were killed in the hills of Maungdaw township. The government immediately blamed ARSA, although some local villagers say the killings were related to the illicit methamphetamine trade.[fn]According to local sources, the area is on a methamphetamine smuggling route from Buthidaung to Bangladesh, and there had been previous tensions between the Mro village and a nearby NaTaLa (Buddhist resettlement) village, but generally good relations with nearby Rohingya villages; the method of killing of the Mro was not consistent with ARSA assassinations, which normally involve a machete cut to the neck. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya villagers in the area, August 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On 4 August, BGP clashed with a group of villagers in Auk Nan Yar village tract, Rathedaung township, firing a dozen or more shots while trying to disperse a 300-strong crowd angry over the arrest of villagers suspected of being associated with ARSA, including a prominent local imam. During the clash, one of the suspected militants escaped; local villagers reported several injuries from gunshots, including four people taken to Bangladesh for treatment.


There were already significant tensions in the area. On 27 July 2017, a Rakhine villager had gone missing while foraging in nearby Chut Pyin village tract. Three days later, while searching in the surrounding hills, security forces and villagers discovered a stash of tarpaulins and food, including World Food Programme (WPF)-branded energy biscuits (see section V.A below), which they took to be an ARSA camp. Believing militants killed the missing person, Rakhine villagers declared a boycott of Muslims in the area. In the nearby village of Zay Di Pyin, Buddhist villagers blocked all access roads with barbed wire and prevented residents from going to work or accessing the mosque, food markets and water sources.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers, August 2017. See also “Tents of violent attackers discovered in Mayu Mountain”, GNLM, 1 August 2017; “Attack on police force arresting financial supporter of violent attackers in Yathedaung”, GNLM, 5 August 2017; “Rohingya villagers blockaded amid fresh tensions in Myanmar’s Rakhine – residents”, Reuters, 22 August 2017.Hide Footnote According to various sources, on 27 August, security forces and local vigilantes perpetrated a mass killing of “at least scores” of Rohingya villagers in Chut Pyin.[fn]Amnesty International, op. cit., p. 13.Hide Footnote

These events provoked heightened nervousness. On 9 August 2017, the commander-in-chief and other senior military officers met with leaders of the Arakan National Party, the largest party in Rakhine State – a rare meeting between the top brass and a political party. The party expressed concerns about the security situation in northern Rakhine and requested the arming of local Rakhine Buddhist militias. That same day, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi convened a ministerial meeting on the security situation in Rakhine to discuss the recent killings and rising tensions. The following day, the government highlighted its deployment of some 500 troops to northern Rakhine to reassure local non-Muslim villagers and conduct patrols in the mountains between Maungdaw and Buthidaung where militants were suspected of having established training camps.[fn]See Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Facebook post, 10 August 2017, http://bit.ly/2yqQYSA; “State Counsellor, Union Ministers hold talks on security in Rakhine State”, GNLM, 10 August 2017; “Myanmar Army Deployed in Maungdaw”, The Irrawaddy, 11 August 2017.Hide Footnote

The escalatory dynamic was well under way. On 16 August, ARSA uploaded a video of its commander, Ata Ullah, flanked by armed fighters and warning the Myanmar military to demilitarise northern Rakhine State and end abuses of Rohingya; he specifically cited the blockade of Rohingya villagers in Zay Di Pyin. He reiterated that the group had no relation with international jihadist groups and said that, contrary to government assertions, it did not target Rakhine civilians.[fn]ARSA Commander Addresses Rohingya diaspora & the world; Warns Myanmar military”, video, YouTube, 16 August 2017.Hide Footnote  

III. ARSA Attacks and Military Response

A. ARSA Attacks

In the early hours of 25 August 2017, from 1am until dawn, ARSA launched attacks on some 30 BGP posts and an army base.[fn]The information in this sub-section comes from Crisis Group interviews with ARSA members, Rohingya in Rakhine State and refugees in Bangladesh, August-October 2017; and from analysis of WhatsApp audio messages sent by Ata Ullah and others.Hide Footnote Their human wave attacks in some cases involved hundreds of people, mostly untrained local villagers armed with farm tools as well as some hand-held and remote-detonated IEDs. A small number of further clashes occurred over the next several days. The official death toll was fourteen members of the security forces, one government official and 371 people the government characterised as militants.[fn]Death toll listed in “Humanitarian aid provided to displaced people without segregation”, GNLM, 6 September 2017.Hide Footnote

ARSA initiated the attacks via a WhatsApp audio message delivered shortly after 8pm on 24 August. It instructed cell leaders to mobilise all male villagers over the age of fifteen, assemble in pre-planned locations with whatever sharp objects were available and attack designated targets. Many ordinary villagers apparently responded to the call, which was often conveyed by respected local Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) who seemingly made up most cell leaders and who enjoy considerable religious and community authority. Many untrained villagers were provided with IEDs for use in the attacks.

The targets were mostly small police posts and checkpoints, except for the army base in Chin Tha Mar village (near Nga Yant Chaung or Taung Bazar), Buthidaung township, though not many villagers appear to have joined this attack, which was quickly overpowered. ARSA members claim they planned to attack additional targets but that some police posts were deserted when militants reached them. Other targets were more heavily defended than expected and the attackers suffered heavy casualties. The security forces assert that they had several hours advance warning; whether accurate or not, they clearly were expecting attacks at some point.

On 25 August, ARSA issued a series of messages apparently intended both to instil confidence and resolve among its members and followers and to promote and glorify martyrdom, the goal being to encourage lightly armed male villagers to participate in highly risky attacks. Some messages falsely claimed that ARSA was taking control of the areas it attacked. Members were also reassured that armed reinforcements had been dispatched; they never arrived.

On 28 August, Ata Ullah issued WhatsApp audio messages instructing his followers to burn down Rakhine Buddhist villages with Molotov cocktails. This was in direct contradiction to the group’s repeatedly stated policy and prior approach, which was to refrain from attacking non-security targets. The reason for this change is not clear, though it may have been because non-Rohingya vigilantes from nearby villages were helping the military burn Rohingya villages during clearance operations. ARSA might have concluded that Rakhine and other non-Rohingya villagers therefore were a fair target.[fn]The Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group, make up the majority of the non-Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State, but numerous other ethnic groups live in the area and some have also reportedly been involved in vigilante attacks. See Amnesty International, op. cit.Hide Footnote In the event, the order does not appear to have been widely acted upon as only three non-Rohingya villages are known to have been attacked or burned down by Rohingya.[fn]On 28 August 2017, there were deadly attacks on the Rakhine Buddhist village of Auk Pyu Ma and the Mro village of Khon Taing (Pa Da Kar Ywar Thit village tract), as well as an earlier attack on the Daingnet village of Aung Zan (all in Maungdaw township). ARSA’s involvement in attacks on two Hindu villages (Myo Thu Gyi and Kha Maung Seik) is alleged, but not confirmed.Hide Footnote

One particularly high-profile case is the alleged massacre by ARSA of dozens of Hindu men and women in Kha Maung Seik (also known as Fakira Bazar) in Maungdaw township. Conflicting accounts of the incident and of who was responsible have surfaced. Survivors who fled to Bangladesh initially told Bangladeshi journalists in late-August that the killers were Rakhine militants; others said later that they wore masks, preventing identification. The first report of the incident by Myanmar media on 5 September 2017 attributed the killings to ARSA, based on interviews with survivors in Myanmar. A more detailed account reaching the same conclusion was posted on Facebook on 13 September by a Rakhine nationalist parliament member who investigated the incident. The security forces reported finding and exhuming a mass grave containing the victims’ bodies on 24 September; these subsequently were cremated. It is not clear what forensic evidence remains.[fn]“Hindus too fleeing persecution in Myanmar”, The Daily Star (Bangladesh), 31 August 2017; “Mystery surrounds deaths of Hindu villagers in Myanmar mass graves”, The Guardian, 12 October 2017; “Dozens of Hindus Killed in Maungdaw: Relatives”, The Irrawaddy, 5 September 2017; Kyaw Zaw Oo (Arakan National Party, Sittwe-2 constituency), Facebook post, 12 September 2017, http://bit.ly/2ApcmZ0; See “45 Hindu corpses cremated”, GNLM, 29 September 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Catastrophic Military Response

A brutal military response that failed to discriminate between militants and the general population, followed by continued insecurity and restrictions that have imperilled livelihoods, has driven more than 624,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. This is one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times and has created the largest refugee camp in the world. A large proportion of Rohingya villages in the area have been systematically reduced to ashes by both troops and local Rakhine vigilante groups that were equipped and supported by the military following the 25 August ARSA attacks.

This [Rohingya crisis] is one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times and has created the largest refugee camp in the world.

Grim details of the military and local vigilante campaign of violence, described by the UN as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (a characterisation that has now been echoed by the United States) and by human rights groups as crimes against humanity, have been set out in a series of detailed reports by these organisations. They document widespread, unlawful killings by the security forces and vigilantes, including several massacres; rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and children; the widespread, systematic, pre-planned burning of tens of thousands of Rohingya homes and other structures by the military, BGP and vigilantes across northern Rakhine State from 25 August until at least October 2017; and severe, ongoing restrictions on humanitarian assistance for remaining Rohingya villagers.[fn]See, in particular, Amnesty International, op. cit., as well as “Destroyed areas in Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung Townships of Rakhine State”, UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)/UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) imagery analysis, 16 November 2017; “Burma: New Satellite Images Confirm Mass Destruction”, Human Rights Watch, 17 October 2017; “Mission report of OHCHR rapid response mission to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 13-24 September 2017”, OHCHR, October 2017; “U.N. sees ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar”, Reuters, 11 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group’s analysis of population data for northern Rakhine State from various sources suggests that around 85 per cent of the Rohingya population in these three townships has fled to Bangladesh over the last twelve months, leaving behind only 100,000-150,000. There are also some 320,000 Muslims in central Rakhine State, many but not all of whom identify as Rohingya; 120,000 of these have been confined to displacement camps since communal violence in 2012.[fn]Analysis based on 2014 census estimates of non-enumerated (Rohingya) population; government 2016 General Administration Department figures; UN figures for camp populations; and community estimates of Rohingya population by township, all broadly consistent. There are 20,000-plus Muslims in southern Rakhine, where communal relations tend to be better.Hide Footnote

The three northern townships were impacted in somewhat different ways:

  • Maungdaw township was the focus of ARSA attacks on 25 August 2017 and in October 2016. It had the largest Rohingya population and shares the longest border with Bangladesh (river and land, as well as adjacent seaboard). It bore the brunt of the military response and it appears that almost the entire township has been depopulated of Rohingya, apart from some parts of Maungdaw town and a small number of villages.[fn]UNITAR/UNOSAT imagery analysis, op. cit.Hide Footnote
  • Buthidaung township has historically been less affected by violence and displacement than Maungdaw. It also shares a land border with Bangladesh, along the hilly and hard to access northern part of the township; most of the population lives in the south. There were no ARSA attacks here in October 2016, only a small number in August 2017, to which the initial military response appears to have been more localised and limited. Far fewer Rohingya villages were initially burned here compared to Maungdaw. While the military response and burnings triggered some immediate departures to Bangladesh, the vast majority left later to escape untenable living conditions: continued burning of villages and attacks or threats by Rakhine vigilantes plus new, severe movement restrictions that deprived people of their normal means of survival from farming, fishing, foraging and trading. With humanitarian assistance also heavily restricted, communities came to the decision in late September 2017 that they had no choice but to make the long and dangerous journey in large groups, over the mountains to Maungdaw and on to Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers, Buthidaung and Bangladesh, August-November 2017.Hide Footnote
  • Rathedaung township, unlike Maungdaw and Buthidaung, is a Rakhine Buddhist-majority area that does not share a border with Bangladesh. One of the three October 2016 ARSA attacks was here, in Koe Tan Kauk (close to the boundary with Maungdaw); the government claimed an ARSA attack in this area on 25 August 2017. Subsequent anti-Rohingya violence and threats had a much greater communal component. Nearly all Rohingya in the township have now fled to Bangladesh, apart from five villages with no viable escape route and only very limited access to food or humanitarian support.[fn]“‘We will kill you all’ – Rohingya villagers in Myanmar beg for safe passage”, Reuters, 17 September 2017.Hide Footnote


In addition to the massive Rohingya exodus, the crisis also led to the displacement of some 27,000 non-Rohingya villagers and government employees in northern Rakhine, most of whom fled the initial ARSA attacks and subsequent clashes. Nearly all moved or were evacuated inland, to the main towns of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Sittwe. The government is now strongly encouraging them to return and begin rebuilding their damaged or destroyed houses.[fn]“Ethnic IDPs who fled homes due to terrorist attacks”, GNLM, 6 September 2017; “Rakhine State Govt to Close Hindu, Ethnic Arakanese Displaced Person Camps”, The Irrawaddy, 30 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Since 25 August 2017, the government has blocked access to northern Rakhine State by the UN and most other humanitarian actors. The Red Cross movement (the International Committee, International Federation, and Myanmar Red Cross Society) have been permitted to work, although they face delays and restrictions as well as enormous logistical challenges in reaching populations in need; they have called for other humanitarian actors to be granted access. On 6 November, the World Food Programme was able to resume food aid to Rohingya and non-Rohingya communities through the government but with no staff access to monitor distribution directly.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian staff, Yangon, September-November 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Dangers Ahead

A. Repatriation Remains a Distant Hope

More than 624,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the last three months. Myanmar’s neighbours and other members of the international community must insist on their right of return and press the Myanmar authorities to create conditions conducive to a voluntary and safe repatriation. At the same time, prospects are extremely dim for the return of any significant number of Rohingya refugees to their home areas in Myanmar in the short or medium term.

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement on 23 November 2017 in Naypyitaw.[fn]“Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State”, 23 November 2017.Hide Footnote While it was politically expedient for both sides – Bangladesh to signal that it will not host the refugees indefinitely, and Myanmar to respond to charges of ethnic cleansing and ease pressure for action – it should be seen as a statement of intent rather than a sign that return is imminent. On paper, the criteria for returnees to be accepted by Myanmar are not too onerous: they need to have left Myanmar after 9 October 2016 (ruling out historical caseloads) and to provide evidence of bona fide residence in Myanmar, with no need for any particular documentation (an address should be sufficient).

But the main obstacle to repatriation is that most [refugees] are very unlikely to want to do so.

But the main obstacle to repatriation is that most are very unlikely to want to do so (according to the agreement, returns must be voluntary). The conditions on the ground in northern Rakhine are far from conducive, and the exodus of deeply traumatised refugees continues. There is lack of clarity from Myanmar on whether they would be allowed to return to their villages of origin and reclaim their farmland. The agreement also provides for the issuance of National Verification Cards at the point of return – a document most Rohingya reject out of fear that it will codify second-class citizenship status. The government and security forces have expressed concern about the presence of “terrorists” (that is, ARSA) or their supporters among the refugees, warning they would arrest such individuals upon return, which suggests returnees will be subject to extreme scrutiny or vetting. Another major obstacle is that Rakhine Buddhist leaders and communities are strongly opposed to the return of any Rohingya refugees.

A repatriation effort on this scale would overwhelm Myanmar’s capacity and resources.

Even if these obstacles could be overcome, a repatriation effort on this scale would overwhelm Myanmar’s capacity and resources; a senior official asserted that only 300 could be processed per day. Myanmar has consistently declined any role for the UN Refugee Agency, which could mobilise the necessary support as well as credibility in the eyes of the Rohingya and internationally; the bilateral agreement does not require it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, September-November 2017; “Sales from Maungtaw paddy kept as national budget”, GNLM, 12 November 2017; “Govt Suggests Possible Daily Repatriation of 300 Rohingya Refugees”, The Irrawaddy, 30 October 2017; “Tensions over Rohingya return highlight donor dilemmas”, Nikkei Asian Review, 27 October 2017; “Returning Rohingya may lose land, crops under Myanmar plans”, Reuters, 22 October 2017; “‘Caged Without a Roof’: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Amnesty International, 21 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Fundamentally, neither the government nor security forces possess the political will to create conditions for voluntary return and implement a credible and effective process to that end. This raises the prospect of a long-term concentration of hundreds of thousands of traumatised Rohingya confined to squalid camps in Bangladesh, with no obvious way out or hope for the future. That would not only be a human tragedy, but also a grave security threat. Such a context would be ripe for mobilising further violent responses and potential transnational jihadist recruitment.

B. Security Risks

ARSA may still be reeling from the enormity of the crisis that its attacks triggered; tellingly, no videos of Ata Ullah have been released since 28 August 2017. Still, it appears determined to regroup and remain relevant. A Twitter account that likely represents the group remains active. It issued a statement on 7 October 2017 announcing the end of its unilateral ceasefire two days later, putting pressure on the group to demonstrate its continued capabilities. ARSA has not launched any new attack since then, but will undoubtedly strive to do so.[fn]“Assessment of the humanitarian pause”, ARSA press statement, 7 October 2017. The Twitter handle is @ARSA_Official; the 28 August video is available at http://bit.ly/2hn2V5a.Hide Footnote

Given how ARSA is organised, this will require a significant departure from its previous way of operating. Rather than basing uniformed, armed militants in camps, ARSA has, to date, organised cells within hundreds of villages, led by a network of respected local leaders, including young Mullahs. It attempted to incite a general uprising among the population, overrunning police posts using overwhelming numbers of ordinary villagers with farm tools, rather than military might. Yet operating under cover of the civilian population is no longer possible given that few Rohingya villages remain. Most of the group’s organisers and fighters are now in the Bangladesh camps, having fled along with the rest of the population.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ARSA members and well-placed individuals in the camps, Bangladesh, September-November 2017. For details on ARSA organisation, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The group may thus shift to cross-border attacks, which would require different training, access to weapons as well as operating space in Bangladesh. Acquiring that space might now be more realistic given Bangladesh’s anger and frustration toward Myanmar. If ARSA launches cross-border attacks, it could aim at opportunistic security targets in northern Rakhine or turn to attacking any non-Muslim villagers resettled on Rohingya lands, an easier target.

Inevitably, such attacks would have profoundly negative consequences. They would escalate tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar and could potentially lead to clashes between the two countries’ militaries. New ARSA attacks would reinforce anti-Rohingya sentiment within Myanmar and prompt heightened security measures that would further diminish prospects for an eventual refugee return. Moreover, attacks against Rakhine Buddhist villagers would inflame anti-Muslim sentiment in general and could tip central Rakhine State, so far untouched by the recent violence, into crisis. Intercommunal relations are now on a knife-edge, which further constrains the ability of Muslims in the area to move freely and access services and livelihoods. Communal attacks there are a very real threat, and unlike their coreligionists in northern Rakhine, these communities have no viable escape routes.

While new ARSA attacks could provoke further violence, international jihadist groups represent a far bigger security threat to Myanmar.

Finally, while new ARSA attacks could provoke further violence, international jihadist groups represent a far bigger security threat to Myanmar. The country has justified what it calls clearance operations by arguing the nation faces a terrorist threat. This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The plight of the Rohingya has captured the attention of the Muslim world, becoming a cause célèbre like perhaps no other since Kosovo.

Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other jihadist groups, which have long issued statements of solidarity with the Rohingya for propaganda purposes, are now calling directly for attacks on Myanmar and its leaders. Most recently, on 27 October 2017, the media arm of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent released a video message from the group’s leader, Abu Syed al-Ansari, repeating calls for a jihad against Myanmar in support of the Rohingya. Myanmar is not prepared to prevent or deal with such an attack, which could be directed or merely inspired by these jihadist groups. Any attack, particularly on a religious target in a major city, would shred the fraught relations between Buddhists and Muslims across Myanmar, potentially sparking widespread communal violence; there are Muslim communities in most cities and many rural areas in Myanmar.[fn]See “Bangladesh dragging feet over repatriating Rohingya refugees, says Myanmar”, Reuters, 1 November 2017. For examples of earlier propaganda statements see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit., section V.E.Hide Footnote

C. Impact within Myanmar

Extreme Buddhist nationalist sentiment, a growing concern in Myanmar in recent years, has contributed to – and been reinforced by – the current crisis. This has included anti-Rohingya hate speech in state media under the civilian government’s editorial control and in sermons by prominent Buddhist monks.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Report, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, op. cit. See also a 2016 editorial (in Burmese and English) referring to the Rakhine State violence as caused by “detestable human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench”; “A flea cannot make a whirl of dust, but …”, GNLM, 27 November 2016.Hide Footnote

A sermon by Sitagu Sayadaw, one of Myanmar’s most revered monks and a leading doctrinal authority, is particularly alarming. Preaching to military officers at a garrison and training college in Kayin State on 30 October 2017, he urged unity between the military and monkhood, then appeared to provide a religious justification for the mass killing of non-Buddhists. He recounted a well-known fifth century legend from Sri Lanka commonly used in Myanmar to justify violence in defence of the faith, telling the soldiers that no matter how much they had to fight, they should remember that non-Buddhists killed were “not fully human”. The sermon and local media reporting of it have been widely shared on social media, with many Myanmar people expressing support, though some have voiced unease or opposition.[fn]See Matthew J. Walton, “Religion and Violence in Myanmar: Sitagu Sayadaw’s Case for Mass Killing”, Foreign Affairs, 6 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The government and military’s repeated, blanket denials of wrongdoing, widely disseminated in English and Burmese via state media, further reinforce a climate of impunity. This is particularly dangerous given that negative sentiments toward the Rohingya population are widespread at all levels of the military and in society as a whole. A recent editorial in the state paper dismissed “baseless accusations against the Myanmar Armed Forces” and stated that “it certainly does not take a legal expert to come to the conclusion that all those village[r]s who took part in the raids are also punishable under the anti-terrorism law. This fact may perhaps explain why nearly half-a-million people decided to cross over to … Bangladesh”.

A detailed internal investigation by the military concluded that troops fired “not a single shot” on civilians and that “all security members … strictly abided by the orders”, a further signal of impunity. In a 21 September speech to northern Rakhine State troops, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing honoured “brilliant efforts to restore regional peace, security” and warned that a “race cannot be swallowed by the ground but only by another race” (a well-known Burmese saying that is also the motto of the immigration department). In a 15 November meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson, he stated that those who had fled to Bangladesh were ARSA terrorists and their families.[fn]“Rakhine State affair and cooperation”, GNLM, 2 November 2017; “Troops did not commit sexual violence nor killed civilians: Investigation Team”, GNLM, 14 November 2017, p. 10; Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Facebook posts, 21 September 2017, http://bit.ly/2hCQq9o and 16 November 2017, http://bit.ly/2muFJY4. See also the dated immigration ministry website at http://bit.ly/259WAfy.Hide Footnote

Beyond the risk of further abuses against the Rohingya, the authorities have reinforced an ugly strand of nationalism that will outlast the current crisis and could be channelled to target other minorities.

Beyond the risk of further abuses against the Rohingya, the authorities have reinforced an ugly strand of nationalism that will outlast the current crisis and could be channelled to target other minorities. At a minimum, it will be more difficult for national leaders to make the necessary concessions in the peace process of greater minority rights and political and economic devolution.[fn]For details on the peace process with ethnic armed groups, see Crisis Group Report, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, op. cit. ARSA is not (and likely never will be) part of the peace process, given that the Rohingya are not a recognised ethnic group.Hide Footnote This could undermine prospects for a stable, peaceful and more prosperous future, and thus imperil the country’s political transition or significantly shift its landing spot.

The crisis also will define the country in the eyes of much of the world for years to come. This will have a negative impact on trade, investment, tourism and global good-will, at a time when Myanmar is emerging from decades of isolation from the West. This is in turn likely to feed anti-Western sentiment, leading to greater estrangement and potentially cementing the country’s status as a pariah. The government’s priority long-term aims – balancing China’s geostrategic influence, integrating into the global economy and rehabilitating the military’s international image – may now be all but impossible to achieve.

V. Government and International Response

A. Government Position

On the day of the attacks, the government declared ARSA a terrorist group under domestic law. It issued a warning to the media to refer to ARSA as “extremist terrorists” rather than use terms such as “insurgents”. It claimed that international NGOs may have been collaborating with ARSA and that World Food Programme (WFP) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) food aid had been diverted to the group. The government also stated that ammonia and tubes provided by development agencies for construction had been turned into IEDs. These statements set the tone for Myanmar’s escalatory response to the attacks and uncompromising attitude toward the UN and humanitarian agencies.[fn]“Anti-Terrorism Central Committee Order No. 1/2017”, 25 August 2017, under 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law, §72(B); “Warning in relation with extremist terrorists”, GNLM, 28 August 2017; “Terrorist hideouts discovered, items provided by int’l organisations found”, GNLM, 30 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Allegations of aid agency collusion were condemned by the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar as “absurd” and by the UN Human Rights chief as “irresponsible”, as they placed humanitarian staff “in danger and may make it impossible for them to deliver essential aid”. The accusations resulted in a boycott of aid agencies by their local contractors in Rakhine State and shipments came under mob attack. The government blocked access to northern Rakhine for all organisations (except the Red Cross) and most media.[fn]“US Ambassador Rejects Govt Implication of Aid Agencies in Rakhine Attacks”, The Irrawaddy, 31 August 2017; “‘Humanitarian catastrophe’ unfolding as Myanmar takes over aid efforts in Rakhine state”, The Guardian, 15 September 2017; “Myanmar police fire warning shots in Rakhine as mob attacks aid boat”, Agence France-Presse, 21 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The government blocked access to northern Rakhine for all organisations (except the Red Cross) and most media.

On 19 September and 12 October 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the Rakhine crisis in speeches that were criticised internationally, but gained strong local support. She questioned why Rohingya were fleeing, saying there were “allegations and counter-allegations” and claiming many Muslim villages were untouched and peaceful. She also announced the creation of a national fund for Rakhine State under her direction – the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development – and lobbied for Myanmar conglomerates and the general population to contribute cash; it has so far received some $20 million. Nine taskforces were established, all related to development.

The risk is that if, as seems likely, repatriation does not proceed quickly or at scale, and there is no dramatic progress on desegregation or citizenship for Muslim communities across Rakhine State, this fund will end up supporting development initiatives that increase inequality and exacerbate conflict.[fn]“State Counsellor: ‘Myanmar does not fear world scrutiny’”, GNLM, 20 September 2017; “Join hands for peace in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 October 2017. The taskforces are: infrastructure, agriculture and livestock, economic zone development, information and public relations, job creation and vocational training, healthcare, microfinance, crowdfunding, tourism promotion; “Nine private sector task forces formed to participate in UEHRD programme”, GNLM, 22 October 2017.Hide Footnote As we have noted in prior reports and briefings, development interventions must be properly sequenced with political steps to address discrimination, segregation and citizenship status.[fn]See, for example, Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. International Response

The crisis has prompted significant international scrutiny and criticism. UN Secretary-General Guterres sent an official letter to the Security Council on 2 September 2017 – the first time a Secretary-General has done so on any issue since 1989 – saying that “the international community has a responsibility to undertake concerted efforts to prevent further escalation of the crisis”. The Council met five times in August-October on the issue – including a briefing by Guterres on 28 September and a 13 October closed-door “Arria Formula” briefing with Kofi Annan, who was appointed by Suu Kyi in 2016 as chair of an advisory commission on Rakhine State, which completed its work in August. Guterres called on Myanmar to end the violence, allow unfettered humanitarian access, ensure the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees to their areas of origin, and prioritise implementation of the Annan commission recommendations – points echoed by several Council members.

On 6 November, given Chinese and Russian opposition to a resolution, the Council instead unanimously agreed on a presidential statement that “strongly condemns the widespread violence that has taken place in Rakhine State since 25 August, which has led to the mass displacement” of Rohingya communities; “expresses alarm at the significantly and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation”; and “demands the Government of Myanmar grant immediate, safe and unhindered access to United Nations agencies and their partners”. Myanmar expressed “deep concern” at the adoption of the statement and its use of the term “Rohingya”. The UN General Assembly approved a human rights resolution on Myanmar on 16 November, reviving annual resolutions dropped in 2016 in recognition of the country’s progress.[fn]See “Briefing under ‘any other business’”, Whatsinblue.org, 12 September 2017; “Public Briefing by the Secretary-General”, 27 September 2017; “Adoption of a Presidential Statement”, 6 November 2017; UNSC Presidential Statement S/PRST/2017/22, UN Security Council, 6 November; Statement of Myanmar Permanent Representative, GNLM, 8 November 2017; “Situation of human rights in Myanmar”, UN doc A/C.3/72/L.48, UN General Assembly, 31 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Some countries also raised concerns bilaterally in a series of phone calls and meetings with Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief. On 19 September, the UK announced it was suspending training programs for the Myanmar military and Prime Minister Theresa May signalled her willingness to support further action. The European Union Council of Foreign Ministers decided on 16 October to suspend visits of Myanmar military officers to Europe and review all defence cooperation, while also flagging the possibility of more formal sanctions.

On 23 October, the U.S. issued a statement outlining its own steps, including restrictions on travel of current and former senior military leaders to the U.S., cancelling military-to-military engagements and exploring options for visa bans and asset freezes under the Global Magnitsky Act. On 22 November, Secretary Tillerson declared that the situation in northern Rakhine constituted ethnic cleansing and that accountability would be pursued through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctions. Congress is currently vetting draft legislation that would re-impose some of the sanctions lifted in 2016.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a Special Envoy to spearhead diplomatic efforts to address the crisis, but the envoy, Bob Rae, was unable to secure any meetings with government officials during his visit to Myanmar in early November 2017.[fn]“UK suspends aid for Myanmar military”, BBC News, 19 September 2017; “Myanmar/Burma: Council adopts conclusions”, European Council Press Release, 16 October 2017; “Accountability for Human Rights Abuses in Rakhine State, Burma”, U.S. Department of State Press Statement, 23 October 2017; “Efforts To Address Burma’s Rakhine State Crisis”, U.S. Secretary of State Press Statement, 22 November 2017; Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Yangon, November 2017.Hide Footnote

Myanmar set its political direction early in the crisis, and, so far, international scrutiny, pressure and diplomatic engagement has brought about no meaningful change – not even seemingly minor concessions such as allowing UN humanitarian access to the area or signalling openness to international support or advice. Extremely strong domestic political consensus on this issue has united the government, military and vast majority of the population as never before in Myanmar’s modern history.

The huge reservoir of international good-will for Myanmar and for Suu Kyi personally that existed prior to the crisis is rapidly drying up.

The international community thus faces a major challenge. In the face of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the political and moral imperative to take action has become overwhelming. The huge reservoir of international good-will for Myanmar and for Suu Kyi personally that existed prior to the crisis is rapidly drying up. Many countries wish to support Myanmar’s transition away from military rule, and have no desire to undermine its first democratically elected government in more than 50 years. But given the strong perception that the diplomatic channel is not producing results, and with public views hardening in many countries in the West and the Muslim world, the imposition of sanctions by Europe and the U.S. seems inevitable. Over time, the drumbeat for holding those most responsible criminally accountable will also likely increase.

Sanctions are very unlikely to prompt positive change in Myanmar.

Yet policymakers should be under no illusions: sanctions are very unlikely to prompt positive change in Myanmar. Indeed, – depending on specifics – they could make matters worse. Unlike in the past, there is no domestic debate on different policy approaches that sanctions might be thought to influence. Their most likely effect will thus be to push the government, military and population even closer together and to reinforce current narratives in Myanmar that the West is a fickle friend and unreliable partner. Government leaders have explicitly warned that criticism and punitive actions from the West will only push them closer to China.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Yangon, September-November 2017. See also “U.S. Pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi Only Helps China, Aides Warn”, Wall Street Journal, 13 November 2017.Hide Footnote

History also is a guide. Until 2012, Myanmar was under some of the most stringent bilateral sanctions of any country; contemporaneous Crisis Group research indicates that these did almost nothing to influence the military regime and had very little tangible impact on it. Although termed “targeted”, they had little impact on the regime and its leaders, but caused significant damage to the general economy and the fortunes of ordinary people – something acknowledged for example by then-Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton when she initiated a review of U.S. policy in 2009.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°78, Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?, 26 April 2004; Asia Briefing N°118, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, 7 March 2011. “Shift Possible on Burma Policy”, Washington Post, 19 February 2009.Hide Footnote There are few new options on the table, and any return to sanctions will inevitably involve some of the same basic elements. For Myanmar, these do not represent ominous new threats but rather the prospect of return to a very familiar status quo ante.

Policymakers nevertheless feel they should act, not only in response to political pressure from their constituents but also to send an important broader signal to would-be perpetrators that such abuses will not go unpunished. There are ways policymakers can limit potential negative impact on the Myanmar people, who should not pay the price for the actions of a military that is constitutionally outside of democratic control.

  • First, resist the urge to disengage. Policymakers should not lose sight of the distinction between government and people. Myanmar is home to millions of the poorest people in the region, and their aspirations for a better economic future must not be forgotten. The urge to disengage from the country, therefore, should be resisted. People-to-people exchanges with the West through academic, cultural and commercial interactions and tourism are crucial for a country that was isolated for so many decades.
  • Second, maintain development assistance and non-military engagement. This will be easy for Western countries to commit to in theory, but hard to deliver in practice now that Myanmar is no longer a global good news story and its government is showing little flexibility on aid modalities. Trade preferences recently reinstated by the EU and U.S. are critical in supporting manufacturing jobs in Myanmar and should not be revoked.
  • Third, work carefully to minimise the collateral impact of any targeted sanctions. Targeted sanctions on specific individuals and entities against whom there is evidence of wrongdoing, can help to promote accountability. Recent experience in Myanmar shows, however, that ostensibly targeted sanctions can have broader systemic impact on the economy that should be avoided.
  • Fourth, engage with the military and government prior to imposing any sanctions. The goal should be to maximise any leverage that is available (even if minimal) at the critical moment of opportunity, by raising the prospect of any new sanctions and pushing for progress on the key objectives before these measures are imposed.


Given the limited utility of sanctions, the international community should do all it can to mitigate the humanitarian disaster and influence the situation in other ways. This could include:

  • Provide substantial ongoing humanitarian support to the Rohingya refugees, to reduce the risks of a further humanitarian catastrophe and alleviate the enormous burden on Bangladesh and local communities. This can help also mitigate the risk of refoulement.
  • Assist Myanmar to define a pathway out of the current crisis, on the understanding that at least part of the challenge relates to management and implementation ability, in addition to political will. In particular, since the development-first approach being pursued by the government will be neither credible nor effective, pushing for political decisions to implement key recommendations of the Annan commission, including as regards discrimination, segregation and citizenship. Meaningful progress on these issues is vital to creating an environment conducive to voluntary repatriation, and giving international credibility to the Myanmar’s efforts.
  • Begin contingency planning for the humanitarian, security and political consequences of a scenario where the Myanmar-Bangladesh bilateral process does not lead to significant numbers of refugees returning home. This will be discussed in detail in forthcoming Crisis Group reporting.


China is particularly well-placed to promote positive outcomes should it decide to prioritise these. While in recent decades it has always supported Myanmar governments politically, and continues to be sceptical of international pressure, its blanket support cannot be taken for granted by Myanmar. China does not want this to come at the cost of its important relations with Bangladesh and the wider Muslim world, which is part of the reason why it allowed the recent UN Security Council presidential statement to be issued. China also has significant economic and strategic interests in Rakhine State that could be impacted by the crisis. So far, however, it has focused on allowing Myanmar and Bangladesh to work out the issue bilaterally.

VI. Conclusion

The actions of the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine State have created a major humanitarian catastrophe, a crisis for the country and a security threat to the region. It has strengthened an ugly strand of nationalism that will be long-lasting and could lead to the targeting of other minorities in the future. The crisis will define Myanmar in the eyes of much of the world for years to come, with hugely negative consequences across the board on trade, investment, tourism. The country has squandered its considerable reserves of global good-will just when it needed them most, as it was emerging from decades of isolation from the West. Myanmar has also put itself at much greater risk of attack by transnational jihadist groups. Priority long-term aims of balancing China’s geostrategic influence and economic dominance in the country and rehabilitating the military’s international image have been significantly set back.

The abuses against the Rohingya minority have captured global public opinion, and the uncompromising posture of the government has exacerbated the situation. Western countries almost certainly will re-impose some of the sanctions that had been lifted in recent years. As they do so, they should acknowledge their inherent limitations and approach them in a manner that can maximise leverage while minimising collateral damage on Myanmar’s long-suffering population.

Brussels, 7 December 2017

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar Mike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017.