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Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
The World’s Newest Muslim Insurgency Is Being Waged in Burma
The World’s Newest Muslim Insurgency Is Being Waged in Burma
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.

Op-Ed / Asia

The World’s Newest Muslim Insurgency Is Being Waged in Burma

Originally published in Time

Deadly attacks in October and November against security forces in Burma’s northern Arakan state are qualitatively different from anything that has occurred there in recent decades.

International Crisis Group interviews with several members of the armed group that carried out attacks against government forces in October and November, as well as other sources, have revealed important new details about the situation in western Burma.

The group refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin, or Faith Movement in Arabic. It was established following the 2012 deadly riots between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012, which killed some 200 people and displaced over 120,000, almost all of them Muslim. Most have long been denied citizenship and face draconian restrictions on freedom of movement — limiting their access to government services and jobs.

This new armed group is overseen by a committee of Rohingya émigrés based in Mecca. The public face of its operations in northern Arakan, also called Rakhine, is Ata Ullah (known by several aliases), who is the main speaker in several videos released by the group. He was born in Karachi to a Rohingya father and grew up in Mecca. He is part of a group of 20 Rohingya who have international experience in modern guerrilla warfare and are leading operations on the ground in northern Arakan. Also with them is a senior Islamic scholar, Ziabur Rahman, a Saudi-educated Rohingya mufti with the authority to issue fatwas.

To enhance its religious legitimacy further, al-Yaqin has obtained fatwas from senior clerics in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and elsewhere, giving backing to its cause under Islamic law. This has helped the group gain significant support among Rohingya in northern Arakan. It has spent at least two years training hundreds of local recruits in guerilla warfare and explosives. Several hundred Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have also traveled to Arakan in recent weeks to join up. The current heavy-handed security response is very unlikely to dislodge al-Yaqin; rather, it is creating further despair and animosity among the population, which may further entrench violence.

The emergence of this well-organized and apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the government’s efforts to address the complex challenges of Arakan state. Though there have been some small insurgent groups in recent decades, mostly based out of Bangladesh, in Burma — which is officially called Myanmar — the Rohingya have never been a radicalized population, and the majority have eschewed violence, seeing it as counterproductive to improving their lot. But impoverished and oppressed, they struggle to survive and have little hope for their future; over the past year, the sense of desperation has been increasing. The fact that more people in northern Arakan are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years, rather than any sort of inevitability.

The emergence of this well-organized and apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the government’s efforts to address the complex challenges of Arakan state.

Importantly, although there are some indications of training and solidarity links with international jihadist organizations, the aims and actions of al-Yaqin involve insurgency against security forces, rather than being terrorist or transnational jihadist. It has not attacked civilians or religious targets. Its stated aim is to secure the rights of the Rohingya as citizens within Burma — although its violent approach has set back that cause immensely.

Its tactics are sophisticated. On Oct. 9, it launched predawn attacks on three border police bases, including an audacious assault on the headquarters, a key security installation. The headquarters was overrun in a complex attack involving several hundred assailants that included planting improvised explosive devices and setting an ambush on the approach road, delaying the arrival of army reinforcements, while the attackers looted the armory. A further clash on Nov. 12 killed a senior army officer. These actions represent the actions of a determined, well-trained insurgency that will likely launch further attacks.

The military responded with a major operation to recover the looted weapons and capture those involved. Feeling its dignity affronted and taking casualties, the military employed disproportionate force and failed to adequately distinguish attackers from civilians. At least 1,500 homes have been burned down — almost certainly by the military, according to satellite analysis released by Human Rights Watch on Dec. 13. Some 30,000 have been internally displaced and 27,000 have so far sought refuge in Bangladesh. The area where the military is focusing its crackdown has been almost entirely sealed off, which has made it difficult to verify multiple allegations of serious human-rights abuses; but as more people arrive in Bangladesh, a clearer picture is starting to emerge.

Aung San Suu Kyi has said little publicly on the situation, has not traveled to the area or criticized the crackdown. The state media she controls have issued blanket denials of abuses, risking reinforcing the impunity of troops on the ground. Tensions with the Muslim world — including Malaysia and Bangladesh — are rising.

These dangerous outcomes can be avoided, but only if the security response is subordinated and integrated into a well-crafted political strategy

There are real risks that if the government mishandles the situation, for instance with the further use of excessive force, it will push more of the Muslim population in that area to support al-Yaqin, entrenching the armed group and a cycle of violence. It may also create conditions for radicalization that could be exploited by transnational jihadists to pursue their own agendas in Burma. A terrorist incident would inflame religious tensions across the country, with potentially disastrous consequences.

These dangerous outcomes can be avoided, but only if the security response is subordinated and integrated into a well-crafted political strategy that offers hope to the Rohingya, is sensitive to the deeply-felt grievances of Buddhist Arakanese, and prioritizes closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with countries in the region. The political space for such initiatives has now shrunk. Strong, public leadership is required from Aung San Suu Kyi to prevent the situation deteriorating.

Contributors

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Acting Program Director, Asia
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