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Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation
Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation
Police officers and volunteers walk during the national census in a Rohingya village in Sittwe, on 31 March 2014. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Commentary / Asia

Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority

Large coordinated attacks hit three Myanmar border police posts in the troubled Rakhine State on 9 October. In this Q&A, Crisis Group Myanmar Adviser Richard Horsey warns that it could tip simmering tensions between the beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority and the government into wider, open conflict.

What’s new in the Rakhine State attacks?

At least 250 assailants, and perhaps as many as 500-800, launched simultaneous early morning attacks on 9 October on three border police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships near Myanmar’s north-western border with Bangladesh, according to information released by the government. They were armed mostly with knives and slingshots, as well as about 30 firearms. Nine police officers were killed and the attackers fled with at least 50 guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. In subsequent days there have been further deadly clashes between this group and the security forces.

The attacks were carried out by Muslims, according to both government statements and local sources. An unverified video of the attackers, filmed in the wake of the attacks, has been circulating on social networks and seems legitimate. In it, one of the group calls on “all Rohingya around the world to prepare for jihad and join them”. This, the need for local knowledge to carry out the assaults, and the difficulty of moving large numbers of people around this area are all suggestive of local Muslim involvement – possibly organised with some outside support. However, many details of who exactly organised this and how remain unclear.

The attacks mark a major escalation of violence in Rakhine. The number of attackers and their sophisticated tactics – they used a diversionary attack to draw the defenders out of one of the posts before the main assault began – display an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that has to date seen little sign of organised violent resistance from the oppressed Muslim population.

Who do you think was behind the attacks? Are Rohingya forces to blame?

There is clear evidence that many of the attackers were from the Rohingya community, who make up over 90 per cent of the population in this area of Rakhine State. But it is not clear how they were organised.

Rakhine’s 1.3 million Muslims, most of whom identify as Rohingya, are effectively stateless in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Years of intercommunal tensions exploded into violence in 2012, leaving some 200 people dead and driving 150,000 into squalid camps where most still languish. There has been a sense of creeping despair among the Rohingya that nothing is going to change, although Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, recently announced that an advisory commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would look at possible solutions for the stand-off in Rakhine.

The Rohingya have not had any organised armed force for many years. Some local government officials are suggesting that an armed group called the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) is responsible, but this group is not known to have been active since the 1990s. Rakhine nationalists and state officials, and sometimes Bangladesh, have blamed this group in the past for such security incidents, usually without detailed evidence being provided.

There was a series of deadly attacks on Myanmar Border Guard Police patrols in northern Maungdaw in February and May 2014, including one on 17 May that left four officers dead. In the tense period that followed, there were firefights between Myanmar and Bangladesh border forces, including one in which a Bangladeshi soldier was killed. In mid-July 2014, a senior humanitarian official told Crisis Group that the authorities restricted humanitarian access to parts of northern Rakhine State on the grounds of unspecified “RSO activity” in that area.

In May 2016, some 35 armed attackers stormed a security post at a camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh just across the border from Maungdaw, killing one camp commander and capturing eleven weapons. The attackers were allegedly led by a Pakistani national, along with others from Myanmar and Bangladesh, with the RSO being implicated, according to the Bangladeshi police.

Given the lack of clear evidence in all these cases, new claims as to the identity of any organisation behind the recent attacks should be treated with caution until further information becomes available.

Does the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation really exist?

The RSO is considered by most regional security analysts to have been long defunct as an armed organisation. The question is whether it has been reconstituted, or whether a new grouping with similar aims has now emerged. The RSO was established in 1982, along the lines of Myanmar’s many other ethnic insurgent organisations engaging in conventional attacks on military and strategic targets. The RSO never gained much traction and did not pose a serious military threat. In the 1980s and 1990s it had some small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the border with Myanmar; at least in recent decades it had none on Myanmar soil.

There may have been efforts, in the wake of the 2012 violence, to rehabilitate the RSO as an armed organisation, driven by a new generation of local-level leaders. According to a local Rohingya leader who claimed to be one of the leaders of this effort, whom Crisis Group met with in 2014, their aim was not separatist, anti-Buddhist or jihadi in nature; rather, it was for their community to live as citizens of Myanmar with their rights respected by the state. The objective was to reconstitute the RSO as an insurgent force focused on attacking the state security apparatus (police, border police and military). Crisis Group interviews at the time suggested there was a modicum of support for this among some members of the population, who saw it as the only path left open to them. But most of the population was and still is opposed to violent resistance.

At the same time, security forces and political actors in both Myanmar and Bangladesh may have their own reasons for invoking the RSO, including to raise the spectre of an organised radical Islamic group to justify crackdowns or restrictions on the Rohingya population.

It is not yet clear whether the RSO has been reactivated, or a new mujahidin group has emerged with similar aims, or the recent attacks are a local uprising without a permanent institutional structure. However, what is extremely worrying is that a new threshold of violence has been passed.

Is Myanmar about to see new levels of violence related to the Rohingya issue?

The fact that influential individuals have considered violence as a strategy for regaining Rohingya rights and citizenship does not mean that such a strategy can successfully take root. There remain serious obstacles to establishing and sustaining a militant Rohingya organisation capable of targeting the security forces, including the extremely restrictive environment in northern Rakhine State and a longstanding sense among much of the Rohingya population and many religious leaders that violence would be counterproductive.

The environment in Bangladesh is also not very conducive to cross-border operations of the kind the RSO used to mount in decades past, sometimes with the support of Bangladeshi militant groups. Bangladesh is cracking down on its own extremist organisations as part of a broader perceived terrorist threat against the country.

As for transnational terrorist networks, these have often expressed concern for and solidarity with the Rohingya, and made some general threats – including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Islamic State, and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. However, there have so far been no indications that Myanmar has been an operational priority for these networks.

How will these attacks change the situation in Rakhine State?

Regardless of who was behind the recent attacks, they are likely to have a serious impact on the political, human rights and humanitarian situation in Rakhine State. These impacts will be both short-term and longer-term.

A major security operation was launched following the attacks, to lock down the area in an effort to capture the attackers and recover the looted weapons and ammunition. There are already reports of multiple casualties over the past 48 hours as a result of that operation.

For the foreseeable future, increased security operations in northern Rakhine will attempt to prevent any further incident of this kind. Given the security forces’ history of bad treatment of the local Muslim population, this risks creating further tension, abuses and negative impact on livelihoods.

Violent incidents – or the possibility of them – have been used to temporarily restrict humanitarian access to parts of Rakhine State in the past, and temporary movement restrictions on international agencies have been imposed by the authorities in response to the 9 October incident; it remains to be seen how long these will remain in effect.

Security fears are part of the reason for the continued imposition of a curfew in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships under section 144 of the Myanmar Code of Criminal Procedure. The 11pm to 4am curfew order was most recently renewed on 8 August 2016 for two months and includes restrictions on gatherings of five or more people in public areas or at mosques. As a result of the latest incident, the curfew has been extended, and now runs from 7pm to 6am. This impacts people’s livelihoods and means that in practice attending Friday prayers is prohibited – a much-resented religious and social restriction.

Government worries about security are among justifications for tightened checkpoints and severe restrictions on the movement of Muslims in northern Rakhine State. These are a major source of vulnerability, limiting access to health and education services, jobs and livelihoods. Any possibility that these restrictions might be eased has now receded.

Overall, efforts to find solutions to the situation in Rakhine state, including the work of the Annan Commission, will now be very much more difficult.

Will there be any broader impacts on Myanmar?

The 9 October incident will have major ramifications across Myanmar.

It will amplify the general sense of insecurity about Islam and about an Islamic extremist threat in Myanmar; the radical nationalist monk U Wirathu has already taken to social media calling for the security forces to take all necessary steps to “protect the sovereignty of the nation and its citizens”. These events risk strengthening radical Buddhist nationalist groups that had been on the back foot since the elections. They can exacerbate intercommunal tensions across the country, and make it harder for moderate voices to be heard – with a potential spillover effect to other parts of Myanmar with a large Muslim presence.

This all represents a significant new challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempts to steer Myanmar in a more tolerant direction.

Commentary / Asia

Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation

Ethnic armed conflict, the ongoing Rohingya crisis and thriving illegal business are preventing Myanmar from solving the country’s protracted conflicts. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to sustain aid and diversify its peacebuilding initiatives.

The Rohingya crisis continues to take a heavy toll on the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, and Myanmar’s international reputation, and remains a significant barrier to peace. No durable solution is on the horizon for the refugees, most of whom are in crowded camps exposed to health and natural disaster risks. Muslims remaining in Rakhine State suffer increasingly entrenched conditions of apartheid, with limited access to essential services and livelihoods. The human catastrophe on both sides of the border represents a major threat to peace and security. The ethnic Rakhine are also on a collision course with Naypyitaw, particularly over the detention and potential high treason conviction of a key Rakhine leader. This has undermined the Rakhine population’s confidence in politics and is driving broad support for the Arakan Army insurgency, which has sharply escalated attacks and threatens to tip the state into prolonged armed conflict. Elsewhere, in the north east, armed conflict has eased due to the unexpected declaration by the military on 21 December of a unilateral ceasefire in Shan and Kachin States. However, clashes between ethnic armed groups continue, the peace process remains moribund, and insecurity is exacerbated by increasingly lucrative opportunities for armed groups in drug production, human trafficking, and a range of other illicit activities.

The EU and its member states can help to address this complex set of challenges by:

  • Continuing to fund the humanitarian appeal for Rohingya camps in Bangladesh and stepping up development aid to host communities. This is the best way to give greater dignity to refugees and limit space for actors with other agendas, potentially including those promoting violence.
     
  • Providing humanitarian and development support that takes into account the differentiated needs of men, women, girls, and boys from all ethnic and religious groups in Rakhine State. Delivery of this support should avoid entrenching segregation or reinforcing apartheid policies, and should be sensitive to past human rights abuses some have suffered, including sexual and gender-based violence.
     
  • Remaining engaged with Myanmar while continuing to support international accountability measures. Disengagement and isolation will not bring positive change and will likely exacerbate the structural factors underlying Myanmar’s multiple crises.
     
  • Establishing sectoral exemptions if it decides to revoke Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme, which provides Least Developed Countries with tariff- and quota-free access to EU markets. Revoking the scheme in its entirety would harm hundreds of thousands of low-income garment industry workers, mostly young women who would lose their jobs, potentially further impoverishing their families and leaving these women at heightened risk of trafficking and exploitation.
     
  • Diversifying its support to peacebuilding initiatives aimed at ending Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. This support should aim to protect civilians, assist conflict-affected communities and de-escalate rising levels of violence, including in Rakhine State.

Deadlock in the Peace Process and a New Escalation in Rakhine State

While international condemnation helped avert Bangladesh’s planned forcible repatriation of some Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar in November 2018, the risk remains that Dhaka could revive the process or force refugees to relocate to a remote island. Uncertainty about their future is feeding fear and desperation among the refugees, creating fertile ground for potential militancy. No long-term solution is in sight. Safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation is a distant prospect, third-country resettlement is extremely unlikely for all but a tiny proportion of refugees (and currently blocked even for small numbers), and the Bangladeshi government continues to resist local integration.

In Rakhine State, living conditions for the Rohingya that were already dire are worsening. Myanmar’s government is making no concerted effort to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State – it has taken some steps on health, education and development, but made no progress on guaranteeing freedom of movement, citizenship and other fundamental rights. Nor has it made progress on holding accountable those responsible for crimes committed during the Myanmar army’s expulsion of the Rohingya following militant attacks in October 2016 and August 2017, which a UN report has said merits investigation for genocide. The government is moving forward tentatively with closing camps for displaced Muslims but without granting the freedom of movement necessary to access services and livelihood opportunities, thereby reinforcing a situation of apartheid and leaving the population indefinitely reliant on humanitarian assistance. Repression and poverty are fuelling a new wave of dangerous boat journeys from Rakhine State across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia and Indonesia; desperation in the Bangladesh camps is prompting Rohingya refugees to attempt the same route.

At the same time, deadly coordinated attacks by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, on four police posts in northern Rakhine on 4 January – Myanmar’s Independence Day – will have a major impact in Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Beyond the immediate escalation in clashes this will bring, and the added complications for addressing the plight of the Rohingya, the attacks portend something significant and dangerous for the longer term: a shift in Rakhine popular sentiment away from politics toward armed insurgency as the means of addressing their grievances. This shift threatens to plunge the state into serious and sustained armed conflict for the first time in decades. The popular perception that politics has failed comes in part from the fact that, although a Rakhine political party won a large majority of elected seats in 2015, Naypyitaw imposed a minority National League for Democracy government; subsequently the top Rakhine political leader was arrested for high treason and remains on trial facing a possible death sentence.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy.

In the restive north of the country, even with the military’s unilateral ceasefire, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government will likely struggle to reinvigorate the moribund peace process for ending Myanmar’s multiple internal ethnic armed conflicts. This is due to a loss of trust on all sides, resistance from the military and government to meaningful concessions on minority rights and greater devolution of power, and the fact that political dynamics ahead of the 2020 elections further narrow the administration’s room for manoeuvre. Armed conflict in Shan State has eased as a result of the unilateral ceasefire, although clashes between competing Shan factions continue; this will enable the military to focus more attention and firepower on the escalating conflict in Rakhine State.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy. Revenues from illegal businesses (including drug production, gem and wildlife smuggling, gambling, money laundering and racketeering) now contribute to funding and sustaining the civil war. A toxic political economy based on organised crime and corruption fosters local resentment and enormous disincentives against ending conflicts.

Moving Beyond the Status Quo

The EU should take steps in three areas. First, it should re-evaluate its approach to the Rohingya crisis. More than six years on from the initial segregation of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, the government has shown no sign of reintegrating them – rather, it has opted for an ever more entrenched system of segregation. The EU and others providing humanitarian assistance in such a context are an important lifeline for these communities, but must ensure that they take a principled approach and keep the parameters of assistance under close review to ensure they are not inadvertently reinforcing the government’s discriminatory practices. For example, the Rohingya camps in central Rakhine are not classic internally displaced persons camps but, rather, internment camps, and policy approaches must start from a recognition of this. This dynamic presents a dilemma to which there is no easy answer: withdrawing humanitarian support from this population would negatively impact on vulnerable people; continuing support as camps transition to semi-permanent confinement sites could amount to complicity in longer-term ghettoisation. The only way forward for the EU and other humanitarian actors is to continuously assess their approach and the evolving context to ensure they are minimising harm.

The EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme.

The EU should continue its vital support to the camps in Bangladesh while also continuing to push for accountability for those responsible for violence against the Rohingya. Domestic processes such as the government-appointed Commission of Enquiry are not credible; this leaves international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court, and the UN-established body charged with preparing case files for future criminal proceedings, as the most likely route through which perpetrators could be held to account.

Second, the EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme. Such a move would have a catastrophic impact on many workers, particularly girls in the garment industry, without doing anything to punish the perpetrators of crimes in Rakhine State and elsewhere, who should be the focus of the EU’s actions in this regard. Hurting vulnerable workers would damage the EU’s reputation in Myanmar and beyond, and hamper its ability to engage with the government and other actors for no positive gain.

Last, the EU has a leading role on Myanmar’s peace process, having been a key donor since its inception. While the EU should continue to support the stalled negotiations, it should also make a realistic assessment of prospects for success, particularly as the country heads to elections in 2020. Redirecting EU funds to local initiatives could have a greater impact than support to the formal process at national level. Recognising that no imminent end to the armed conflicts is in sight, funds should go toward de-escalation efforts, peacebuilding and protecting civilians. The EU should also extend support to the Anti-Corruption Commission and related initiatives. Such support could strengthen government efforts toward combating organised crime, including drug production and human trafficking, which are rampant in conflict-affected areas and help fuel those conflicts.