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Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
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.

A group of Rohingya refugee people walk towards Bangladesh after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, 1 September 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS
Statement / Asia

The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition

The violence since 25 August that has driven 270,000 Rohingya civilians over Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh is not just causing a humanitarian catastrophe. It is also driving up the risks that the country’s five-year-old transition from military rule will stumble, that radicalisation will deepen on all sides, and that regional stability will be weakened.

Since 2012, the International Crisis Group repeatedly has warned that, if left unresolved, Rakhine State’s volatile dynamics pose a major risk to Myanmar’s transition. If dealt with primarily through a heavy-handed, indiscriminate security response, rather than in the framework of a political strategy, the dangers were clearly set to become far worse. The events of recent weeks are not just causing enormous suffering to civilians, but bring Myanmar precipitously close to just such an unraveling of much that has been achieved since the end of military rule.

The 25 August attacks on Myanmar security forces by the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which the government has designated a terrorist group, undoubtedly were intended as a provocation. Neither these attacks nor the reported killing of non-Rohingya civilians, at least some of which are undoubtedly the work of the group, are excusable, no matter what political agenda they claim to represent. Any government has the responsibility to defend itself and the people living in the country. At the same time, such government security responses need to be proportionate and not target civilians.

Nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It is extremely difficult to verify the numerous reports of atrocities amid the confusion and chaos, and very limited access for media and humanitarian agencies. Yet even if specific allegations cannot be proven, the scale of the crisis is clear. The 270,000 Rohingya who have fled in the last two weeks to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and across are telling, both in terms of their numbers and the accounts they bring. The vast majority of these people, mostly women and children, are unlikely to be militants. Along with some 87,500 who fled a previous upsurge in violence in October 2016, nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It may indeed be difficult for the government to distinguish between ARSA members and other Rohingya. The events of last year and recent weeks, particularly the heavy handed military response in the wake of the October 2016 and August 2017 attacks, appear to have promoted a sense among Rohingya that a general uprising is underway. But operationally challenging as this is, it cannot be an excuse for military action against the general population. By doing so, the military will not quell the crisis, but rather play straight into the hands of ARSA by increasing the sense of grievance and hopelessness.

It is similarly vital to treat with utmost caution claims that the current crisis is being fuelled by militants with transnational jihadist aims. Rohingya communities have not typically been radicalised in this fashion and there are no indications that ARSA has been pursuing goals congruent with those of global jihadist outfits. While there may be domestic political imperatives or gains to be had for politicians in the region to make these claims, doing so is deeply dangerous.

If the Myanmar government chooses to continue a massive military response against the general population, even if parts of this population may be sympathetic to ARSA, or publicly to treat the violence as the work of jihadists, it risks creating conditions for the entrenchment or rise of those very same dynamics. An alienated, desperate and dispossessed population that is shunned by the country it claims as its home and by neighbours is ripe for exploitation by such groups and may believe it has little to lose if it were to turn to violence. The risks to those who live in Myanmar, the country’s transition and regional stability are considerable.

The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state.

There is no military solution to the crisis in Rakhine state. The Myanmar government will find no success, only long term violence and crisis, if it uses the presence of militants and the growth of some sympathy for them, as an excuse to address in an extreme manner the long-standing challenges of Rakhine state. The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state, Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities. This political path is difficult and will require compromises many may find distasteful. But taking this road is the only way to reduce the risks of serious violence, more displacement and greater human misery.