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Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
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.

Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 7 March 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Briefing 155 / Asia

Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees who have little hope of going home any time soon. The government should move to improve camp living conditions, in particular by lifting the education ban and fighting crime. Donors should support such steps.

What’s new? With no near-term prospect of returning to Myanmar, almost a million Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh face an uncertain future. An impressive aid operation has stabilised the humanitarian situation; attention must now turn to refugees’ lives and future prospects, in particular improved law and order and education for children.

Why does it matter? A lack of security and hope creates major risks. Militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity in the camps, consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political leaders. Without education opportunities, children will be left ill equipped to thrive wherever they live in the future.

What should be done? Bangladesh should institute an effective police presence in the camps and bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice. It should also lift its ban on formal education in the camps. If it does, donors should help meet the costs of these and other measures to improve refugees’ lives.

I. Overview

Eighteen months on from the mass expulsion of 740,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, no sustainable solution for the refugees is in sight. Repatriation to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal – not only to relieve the huge burden on Bangladesh but also because that is the strong preference of the refugees themselves. But the unfortunate reality is that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will be unable to return home to Myanmar for the foreseeable future. Systems are now largely in place to provide for their essential humanitarian needs in the sprawling refugee camps. It is now time to move beyond the emergency phase of managing this crisis. Shifting focus in this way requires Bangladesh to ease its restrictions on longer-term assistance. Specifically:

  • The Bangladesh government should lift its ban on the provision of formal education in the camps; local and international organisations are ready to provide such education.
     
  • It should also improve law and order in the camps, where militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity and are consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political voices and leaders. This requires instituting a regular and effective Bangladeshi police presence in the camps and investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.
     
  • For their part, donors should help Bangladesh not only to meet the refugees’ immediate humanitarian needs but also to cover the costs of measures that improve their lives and prospects for the future.

II. Slim Prospects for Return

The Myanmar security forces’ mass expulsion of Rohingya starting in August 2017 created a major humanitarian emergency in neighbouring Bangladesh and the largest refugee settlement in the world.[fn]This briefing is based on an April 2019 visit by Crisis Group to Dhaka and the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, including interviews with refugee leaders, humanitarian agencies and local analysts. For more background on the situation of the Rohingya, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 296, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 16 May 2018; 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; and Asia Briefing N°153, Bangladesh-Myanmar: The Danger of Forced Rohingya Repatriation, 12 November 2018.Hide Footnote Around one million Rohingya, from this and previous exoduses, live in a cluster of densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar district, as well as some in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Some eighteen months on from the main exodus, a major humanitarian operation by local and international aid groups has successfully addressed the immediate priorities. Life-saving essentials – food, water, sanitation, shelter and basic health services – are now in place. As the monsoon season looms, the camps are much better prepared this year than before: drainage has been improved and roads through the camps have been surfaced. But there are limits to what can be done to mitigate risk in such densely packed camps carved out of former forest and where there are almost no flat areas. A heavy monsoon (unlike last year’s unusually mild one) could still take a serious toll, and a cyclone – a relatively frequent event in this region – would be devastating.

The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects.

There is no prospect that the refugees will be able to return home to Myanmar’s Rakhine State any time soon. The Myanmar authorities still have not addressed the fundamental issues of Rohingyas being denied citizenship, freedom of movement, security and other basic rights. Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army – a militant outfit that draws its support mainly from the ethnic Rakhine population (a mostly Buddhist group distinct from the Rohingya Muslims) – has escalated sharply since January.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote The fighting has affected remaining Rohingya communities, both because they are caught between the warring parties and sometimes find themselves in the crossfire, and because of the uncertainty and fear that fighting brings. This creates a further impediment to the refugees’ return. The conflict also has pushed repatriation down the list of priorities in Naypyitaw, which is currently focused on the Arakan Army insurgency and national elections in 2020.

III. Fraught Conditions in the Camps

The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects. A key priority is education. The Bangladesh government currently prohibits the provision of formal education to the refugees. This restriction robs families of their hope for a more economically secure future and ensures that a generation of children will be deprived of the skills they will need to flourish, wherever they ultimately live.

Informal private “tuitions” held in private dwellings and networks of madrassas that only teach the Koran do not adequately fill the formal education gap.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders and humanitarian agencies, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 2019.Hide Footnote No evidence has emerged of these madrassas promoting violence or intolerance among children, or of indoctrination or recruitment by local or transnational jihadists. However, a policy of denying young people formal education and leaving them reliant on unregulated madrassas almost certainly increases the risks of such groups gaining a foothold in the camps.[fn]Bangladeshi officials also cite this as a risk. See “Delayed repatriation risks breeding Rohingya terrorists: Bangladesh official”, The Irrawaddy, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Already, the Chittagong-based Islamist movement Hefazat-e-Islam – which has publicly called for jihad against Myanmar – has considerable influence over the madrassa network in the camps, through the funding and religious scholars that it provides.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalists and analysts, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 2019. For more details on Hefazat-e-Islam, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°295, Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh, 28 February 2018. On the calls for jihad, see “Hefazat: Jihad against Myanmar if Rohingya killing continues”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Equally concerning is the lack of law and order. One prominent refugee leader described the security situation as “very serious”, saying he was “unable to sleep at night” for fear of attack.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya refugee leader, refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote A determined and often violent struggle is currently underway for de facto control of the camps. At stake is informal political authority over a huge population and access to lucrative economic rents from the camp economy – both licit and illicit – through corruption and extortion. The groups vying for control include the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which has shown that it is willing to deploy deadly violence to further its aims; informal networks of religious leaders; non-violent political and civil society groups; and a random assortment of criminal gangs.

Violent groups operate freely in the camps. As evening draws in and humanitarian workers withdraw to their bases in Cox’s Bazar town, security is in the hands of untrained and unarmed night watchmen appointed from among the refugees. Overstretched Bangladeshi police are focused on perimeter security and protection of local Bangladeshi communities and remain mostly outside the camps at night. Refugees express serious concerns about their personal security, and militants and gangs are intimidating, kidnapping and killing with impunity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders, analysts and humanitarian workers, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019. See also “In Rohingya camps, a political awakening faces a backlash”, Reuters, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Murders and other forms of violence are an almost nightly occurrence; the police rarely investigate, and perpetrators have almost never been brought to justice.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority.

This creates a toxic political environment within the camps. Without basic security, non-violent political actors face intimidation or worse. For example, ARSA was likely responsible for the grisly murder of Arif Ullah, a camp leader, in June 2018 – based on the manner of his killing which is typical of ARSA (a deep knife cut to the throat) and the fact that death threats typical of ARSA had been circulating against him on WhatsApp, accusing him of being too close to the Bangladesh army.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts with detailed knowledge of the security situation in the camps, Bangladesh, April 2019.Hide Footnote Some refugee leaders to whom Crisis Group spoke in April 2019 had received credible death threats, they believe from ARSA, and fear for their lives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote Amid the lawlessness, violent actors are likely to further consolidate control, which will stifle peaceful political organisation among the refugees and constructive debate about how to shape their own futures. Effective control of the camps will pass to those who prioritise accumulation of power or wealth, or militant agendas, over the future well-being of the community.

The burden of ameliorating these problems disproportionately falls on Bangladesh. Understandably, Dhaka’s policy response is focused on repatriation, which it sees as the only viable durable solution for the refugees. Making life better for the Rohingya where they are now would not only impose financial strain on Bangladesh but might be perceived as working at cross-purposes with Bangladesh’s interest in Rohingya returns to Myanmar.

IV. Improving Refugees’ Medium-term Prospects

Returns to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal – not only to relieve the hardship visited on Bangladesh and avoid consolidating what a UN investigation called ethnic cleansing, but also because that is the preference of the refugees themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and refugee leaders, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019 and 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 International pressure on Myanmar through the UN and by countries having influence in Naypyitaw should continue to focus on improving the situation of Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State, a prerequisite for any sustainable return. This pressure should include insistence on implementing the Kofi Annan Commission recommendations of August 2017, in particular its detailed suggestions on addressing discrimination and ensuring freedom of movement and a credible pathway to restoring Rohingyas’ citizenship rights. It is only by demonstrably improving conditions in Rakhine that any refugees would consider returning home.

At the same time, Bangladesh should recognise – even if it does not want to state this publicly – that no major repatriation is on the horizon. In this context, policies that restrict the Rohingya refugees’ ability to prepare for an uncertain future should be eased. Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority, and there exist local and international groups with the ability and willingness to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian agencies, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote Measures to improve law and order would include instituting a regular Bangladeshi police presence in the camps, investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. Failure to address these issues now will do significant long-term harm to the refugees, and potentially fuel insecurity and instability in this part of Bangladesh.

Though some of the burdens to be borne by Bangladesh are unavoidable, donors can and should, at least, lessen the financial impact on Dhaka. If the implications of the Rohingya refugee crisis for regional peace and security are not to worsen, donor countries need to be generous in their support not only to the annual humanitarian appeal but, if Dhaka’s restrictions are eased, also to longer-term assistance to the refugees.

Brussels, 25 April 2019

Appendix A: Map of Rakhine State