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A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks
Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks
Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar

Over the past week there has been more inter-communal violence in Myanmar, this time in the country’s heartland – with the worst incidents in the town of Meiktila, between Mandalay and the capital Naypyitaw. The incident started with a brawl in a gold shop and rapidly escalated into large-scale Buddhist-Muslim clashes that left nearly 50 people dead and over twelve thousand displaced, according to the latest government figures. Other credible estimates put the number of displaced even higher.

The Muslim community was the hardest hit, as it has tended to be in previous such clashes. More than three-quarters of those displaced were Muslims. Many of their homes were destroyed, and a number of religious buildings (mosques and madrassas) were burned down. Although a state of emergency and a visible presence of the security forces on the streets has restored calm, it will be weeks or months before the displaced can rebuild their homes and lives. And, given that most have lost everything – and are in fear of further attacks – there is uncertainty about how many of them would have the means or the confidence to return to their former neighbourhoods.

For communities that have lived together for generations, the speed and scale of the violence comes as a shock. Yet such incidents are not unheard of in Myanmar: serious Buddhist-Muslim clashes occurred in central parts of the country in 2001, triggered in part by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban and calls by firebrand Myanmar monks for the destruction of mosques in retaliation. Serious riots also occurred in the 1930s and 1960s, and smaller-scale incidents have occurred with some regularity.

There is much speculation about what is behind the current violence. Feedback from witnesses is contradictory: some say they did not recognize the perpetrators and believe that they were from outside the community; others say they recognized their neighbours among the attackers. It is clear that there are some agents provocateurs with radical anti-Muslim agendas at work in the country – including influential Buddhist monks preaching intolerance and hatred of Muslims. Also, the systematic and methodical way in which Muslim neighbourhoods were razed to the ground is highly suggestive of some degree of advance planning by radical elements. At the same time, there is scant evidence to support claims that the violence was orchestrated to further some ill-defined aim of alleged hardliners unhappy with the rapid reforms taking place in the country.

In fact, it is not unusual for countries emerging from authoritarianism to experience inter-communal strife. Following the violence in Rakhine State last year, Crisis Group warned of the risk of Buddhist-Muslim clashes spreading to the many other parts of the country with Muslim minority populations. A previous blog post also looked at comparisons and possible lessons Myanmar could draw from the communal violence that rocked post-Soeharto Indonesia.

There is a real risk that violence could spread. Already, there have been incidents in other towns near to Meiktila, as well as elsewhere in the country, though none so deadly as the clashes in Meiktila. There is nervousness and many rumours are circulating in the commercial capital, Yangon, but no serious violence has occurred there so far. But if these incidents do continue to spread, and escalate, they could do enormous damage to the country, beyond the immediate human costs: by tearing Myanmar’s social fabric in ways that will be difficult to repair; damaging the transition process currently underway by taking the focus of government away from the other very challenging political, economic and peace-building reforms; and undermining domestic and international confidence in the future of the country.

What should be done? Restoring calm and reducing the chances of future incidents must be addressed on three levels:

  • The government must do much better at addressing the problem. In order to limit further violence, perpetrators must be swiftly and visibly brought to justice. While the Meiktila violence may have caught the authorities by surprise, given the possible emerging pattern of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence officials now need to be prepared. Much more rapid and robust police responses are required. These incidents have shown that the police force does not have the capacity to respond effectively – because police do not have adequate training and rules of engagement, because the mostly Buddhist force is often seen as partisan, and because there is a lack of the kind of community policing that would provide the intelligence needed to give early warnings.
     
  • Similarly, religious leaders must come out forcefully at this time with messages of calm and peace. In particular, there is a need for the Buddhist Sangha to be proactive: too often, Buddhist monks are heard preaching words of intolerance, or caveating their calls for peace with explanations for the violence based on prejudice. At a time of bloodshed there is no room for moral ambiguity.
     
  • Now is the time for political leaders to rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion, rather than just following it. In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi, as the most powerful political and moral voice in the country, must be prepared to go further than she has been willing to up till now. She has said that she does not want to take sides in inter-communal conflicts – yet she must be prepared to vocally and unambiguously take the side of peace and tolerance.
A Myanmar border guard police officer stands guard in Tin May village, Buthidaung township, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar on 14 July 2017. REUTERS/Simon Lewis
Statement / Asia

Myanmar Tips into New Crisis after Rakhine State Attacks

The Rohingya insurgent attacks that killed twelve Myanmar soldiers and officials and perhaps 77 of their own number is a serious escalation of a ten-month-old crisis. They make implementation of this week’s recommendations to address Rohingya grievances from Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission both harder and more urgent.

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In the early hours of 25 August, militants from Harakah al-Yaqin – a Rohingya insurgent group that now refers to itself in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – mounted coordinated attacks on 30 police posts and an army base in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The government reports that the attackers, equipped with hand-held explosive devices, machetes and a few small arms, killed ten police officers, a soldier and an immigration official. Reportedly, 77 insurgents also were killed and one captured. In response, the military is conducting “clearance operations” across the area and police in rural outposts have moved to more secure locations in case of further attacks. Clashes continue in some locations, and there are reports of vigilantism against Rohingya communities. Both Rohingya and Buddhist residents are attempting to flee the areas affected. Time is not on the government’s side if Rakhine state is to be pulled back from the brink. It must quickly take bold measures to address legitimate Rakhine and Rohingya concerns.

This episode represents a very serious escalation in the conflict and was preceded by a significant rise in tensions in northern Rakhine. The insurgent group launched its first operation in October 2016, when it conducted a complex, deadly, coordinated attack on three border police bases in northern Rakhine state. A months-long, heavy-handed military response followed, including a new deployment of Myanmar army troops. As a result, some 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and, in February 2017, a UN investigation concluded that there had been grave and widespread abuses by the military that “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity. A domestic investigation has rejected these claims.

The path to a long-term solution is clear, if challenging. It has been set out in considerable detail in the final report of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission, released on 23 August and welcomed by the government. It involves addressing the legitimate grievances of the Rakhine, while ensuring freedom of movement, access to services and livelihoods, political participation and citizenship rights for the Rohingya. The recent attacks have created a far more difficult political context for the government to implement these recommendations, but have also reinforced the urgency of doing so.

[T]he Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence.

The current crisis was neither unpredicted nor unpreventable. The anti-Muslim violence of 2012, and the emergence of the new insurgent group last year were both clear signals that the volatile dynamics of Rakhine state urgently need a political, not just a security response to address the concerns of all communities in the state. Yet the Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence. These include extreme discrimination by Myanmar’s society and state as well as a progressive erosion of rights and barriers to obtaining critical identity and citizenship documents, the community’s disenfranchisement before the 2015 elections, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. These factors, in combination with the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rohingya communities that resulted from separate violence in 2012, and the military crackdown last year that targeted civilians, create an environment where ARSA can increase its legitimacy and recruiting base among local communities and more easily intimidate and kill Rohingya who disagree with it and lack any real protection from the state. 

There are clear lessons for the Myanmar government from the previous episodes of violence and from the present crisis. Crisis Group has noted repeatedly that an aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation. In the immediate future, if the military response is not to entrench worsening cycles of violence, it must respect the principle of proportionality and distinguish between insurgents and Rohingya civilians. It must provide protection to all civilians caught up in or fleeing the fighting. And it must provide unfettered access to humanitarian agencies and media to affected areas, lest it contribute to a dangerous, violent polarisation, increase alienation and despair, and enable provocative misinformation to take hold.

Crisis Group has noted repeatedly that an aggressive military response that is not part of a broader political strategy and policy framework will only worsen the situation.

ARSA’s violent actions inevitably will harm, not help it, despite its claims to be fighting the Myanmar state – and not Rakhine civilians – for the Rohingya cause. ARSA will face international censure for the violence of its attacks, which will increase if it seeks to improve its fighting capacity. The Myanmar government formally declared it a terrorist group under national law on 25 August. This has limited legal implications but will placate nationalists who have been calling for the government to be unequivocal on this point. It also means that Myanmar is likely to increasingly present this as a fight against transnational terrorism rather than domestic insurgency. In short, by resorting to violence, ARSA’s leaders are hardening social divisions and biases against the Rohingya, and increasing anti-Muslim sentiment across Myanmar.

ARSA are well aware that their latest attacks are likely to provoke a strong military response and political backlash, as they did in 2016, which will greatly harm Rohingya villagers. That almost certainly is its aim. Despite its claim that it is “protecting” the Rohingya, it knows that it is provoking the security forces into a heavy-handed military response, hoping that this will further alienate Rohingya communities, drive support for ARSA, and place the spotlight of the world back on military abuses in northern Rakhine state. A disproportionate military response without any overarching political strategy once again will play directly into ARSA’s hands.

There is no evidence that ARSA’s goals or members support a transnational jihadist agenda, despite indications that the group may have received some training from members of such outfits. That will not stop those who resent all Muslim groups and grievances from characterising it as such. On the other side, another harsh military response and the continued displacement of scores of thousands to camps in Bangladesh will create conditions ripe for exploitation by transnational jihadists. 

The deepening crisis in Rakhine state threatens to sweep aside all other priorities.

The costs of failing to address the roots of the crisis inrease every day. The impact will not fall only on Rakhine state, but on Myanmar as a whole, where anti-Muslim sentiment and Buddhist nationalism are on the rise, threatening fragile communal relations. The government has many other urgent issues to deal with, including its complex peace process with multiple ethnic armed groups and the difficult job of steering the economy and ensuring greater prosperity for all the people of the country. The deepening crisis in Rakhine state threatens to sweep aside all other priorities, as it will continue to dominate both domestic debate and international engagement with Myanmar.