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Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Myanmar Border Attacks Fuel Tensions with Rohingya Muslim Minority
Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?
Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?
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 woman casts her vote at a mobile polling station inside her home in Yangon on 29 October, 2020, as advance voting in the country's elections began for elderly people. Sai Aung Main / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Another Landslide Victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party in Myanmar – But at What Cost?

The National League for Democracy is set to win a second term following Myanmar’s 8 November elections – its second competitive polls since absolute military rule ended in 2011. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Richard Horsey reflects on the implications for the country’s conflicts.

What do the initial results indicate?

The full official results of Myanmar’s 8 November general elections have yet to be announced, but it is already clear that, as expected, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has scored another landslide victory. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has not only won virtually every seat in the central Burman Buddhist heartland, which constitutes its traditional stronghold, but also increased its haul of seats in many ethnic minority areas. The main national opposition party, the military-established Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), suffered an even more humiliating defeat than in 2015. The ethnic minority parties had mixed success in various states, but they fell far short of their aim of becoming kingmakers in the new parliament. As for the crop of new opposition parties that were hoping to establish themselves as credible alternatives – led by a collection of ex-generals, NLD malcontents and social activists – they do not appear to have won a single seat.

The NLD landslide is largely the result of Aung San Suu Kyi’s immense popularity among Myanmar’s Burman Buddhist majority, who see her as having sacrificed so much in the past to challenge military rule that her government’s performance over the last five years is only secondary. While the Rohingya crisis has demolished her image abroad, her personal defence of Myanmar against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 has, on the contrary, enhanced her aura at home, as has her prominent leadership of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the NLD’s victory was never really in doubt in light of this unwavering support for its leader among the Burman Buddhist majority, its strong wins in many ethnic areas, for reasons that will be pored over by analysts and ethnic parties in the weeks ahead, has come as a huge blow to ethnic parties. This result sets up the post-election period for deeper division between ethnic minorities and the Burman Buddhist majority, and potentially, further conflict.

The further erosion of the USDP’s support does not come as much of a surprise. The party has failed to reinvent itself as a credible alternative to the NLD, which would imply shedding is military links and association with the authoritarian past. It would also mean offering a coherent challenge to the government’s performance – on the economy, social issues or, more recently, COVID-19. Over the last five years, the party has not been effective at putting forward any policies to show how it would do things differently. The upshot is that most Myanmar voters see it as a party of the past, as the results indicate. On 11 November, the USDP held a press conference claiming that the elections were not free and fair and declining to accept the outcome. So far, however, it has presented no convincing evidence to back up its claims. Given the extent of the NLD’s landslide, the electorate’s view of the USDP appears unambiguous.

If the NLD victory was a foregone conclusion, what was at stake in these elections?

Elections in Myanmar are not taken for granted. For most voters, this time was only the second in their lives that they could vote for the party of their choice, after over five decades of military rule. Despite the public health risks from COVID-19, voters in most areas turned out in large numbers, indicating that they saw casting their ballot as an important opportunity and a civic duty. For the Burman Buddhist majority, the vote was also an opportunity to reaffirm their confidence in and reverence for Aung San Suu Kyi as their leader.

Over the last couple of years, ethnic parties have been merging, and organising, in the hope that they could attain some real influence through these elections.

But many other communities feel that they have not been well served by the NLD in its first term. The most marginalised of all are of course the Rohingya, 750,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh since 2016 after a brutal military crackdown. The estimated 600,000 who remain in Rakhine State continue to face severe discrimination, and the community was almost entirely disenfranchised in this poll. But many other ethnic communities, who considered the NLD a potential ally ahead of the last election, now also feel let down by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, which once in power treated them more as adversaries, failed to consult them and promoted a Burman nationalist agenda – for example erecting statues of nationalist hero Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, in their areas. Over the last couple of years, ethnic parties have been merging, and organising, in the hope that they could attain some real influence through these elections.

Why was voting cancelled in many ethnic areas?

The election commission’s decision to cancel voting in a large number of ethnic minority-dominated areas for security reasons resulted in some 1.5 million voters being denied the chance to cast their ballots in various parts of the country. This decision most significantly affected Rakhine State, as well as some parts of Shan State and – to a more limited extent – several other ethnic areas.

These cancellations were very controversial, particularly in Rakhine State. Not that cancellations were unjustified: the security situation in Rakhine State is objectively grave, not only because of the armed conflict that is raging between the security forces and the Arakan Army, but also because of political violence – the most recent example being the Arakan Army’s kidnapping and continued detention of three NLD candidates from Toungup township. The problem, however, is that the commission is a partisan body, appointed by the government. Its decisions are not transparent, the process behind the cancellations is not consultative and the rationale is not explained publicly.

In theory, future by-elections could remedy the problem, but in practice the security situation means that is unlikely.

Since many of the areas cancelled are Rakhine party strongholds, where the NLD was almost guaranteed to lose, many local people have been crying foul, claiming that the election commission is biased. Adding to the suspicion is the lack of cancellations in nearby conflict-wracked Paletwa township, in southern Chin State, traditionally an NLD bastion. With elections only being held in the south of Rakhine State and the state capital Sittwe, most parts of the state have been denied representation. In theory, future by-elections could remedy the problem, but in practice the security situation means that is unlikely.

What are the likely political and conflict consequences of these results?

Although the results of these elections are broadly similar to those of 2015, with a large parliamentary majority for the NLD at both central and most sub-national levels, the consequences will be very different. Myanmar’s first competitive election in over five decades was a historical moment of enormous hope and unity, but the 2020 elections risk being divisive. While Aung San Suu Kyi has, during her first term as the government’s de facto leader, consolidated support among her Burman Buddhist base, she has, at the same time, alienated many minorities. Minorities are disappointed in her for treating them as adversaries rather than allies and failing to consult them on decisions that affect their lives.

The winner-takes-all electoral system amplifies the sense of marginalisation, leading some minorities to be increasingly disillusioned with electoral democracy.

A first-past-the-post system like Myanmar’s magnifies the victory of the winning party. As a result, the ethnic minority parties, and the communities that support them, are likely to feel further sidelined by electoral politics. In 2015, this phenomenon was eased by their expectation that the NLD would be a natural ally in their fight for equality and autonomy. But they have now come to see the ruling party as an adversary, governing in the interests of the Burman Buddhist majority. The winner-takes-all electoral system amplifies this sense of marginalisation, leading some minorities to be increasingly disillusioned with electoral democracy. This perception is dangerous, as it could easily lead to an escalation in armed conflict: some groups may be tempted to resort to insurgency rather than electoral politics as a way to fight for communal rights.

A particular source of concern is Rakhine State, which is in the grip of the most destabilising conflict the country has experienced in decades. Initial results there indicate that despite the vote being cancelled in most of its strongholds, the ethno-nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) has managed to win the largest bloc of seats in the regional parliament, by flipping a number of seats in the south previously held by the NLD. These pickups were not enough, however, to give the ANP a majority in the local parliament, and the next NLD government in Naypyitaw is likely to appoint an NLD-led government in the state, as it did in 2015. That will enrage many Rakhine people, a recipe for further armed conflict and political violence.

The NLD would likely win some good-will among ethnic minorities by taking a different approach in its second term: appointing representatives of minority parties to lead state governments in Rakhine and other states where those parties won the largest bloc of seats would carry immense political symbolism, and open new channels for constructive dialogue with ethnic leaders.

What hopes for the stalled peace process during a second NLD term?

Ending the decades-old armed conflicts that affect various parts of the country was a top priority in the NLD’s 2015 electoral campaign. But progress has been elusive. The central parts of the country, where the Burman majority live and which constitute the party’s electoral base, have been little touched by the violence. There is neither a significant national peace movement nor a political imperative to solve the underlying issues of discrimination and marginalisation of minorities. Against this backdrop, progress is likely to be slow and difficult. In the absence of strong political will to fundamentally rethink and reinvigorate the peace process, and a new tone and consultative approach toward minorities on the NLD’s part, the conflict could even escalate further in the coming months and years, particularly in Rakhine State.

In the absence of strong political will to fundamentally rethink and reinvigorate the peace process [..] the conflict could even escalate further in the coming months and years, particularly in Rakhine State.

The peace process, which implies negotiating simultaneously with a myriad of ethnic armed groups that have different interests, was always an issue on which the government was unlikely to have quick or easy success. But there is much that the first NLD government could have done to reach out to minorities, consult with them on decisions that affect their lives and build consensus on a way forward. The second term, which will start at the end of March, offers a new opportunity to do so.

What about relations between the NLD and the military?

The last five years have been characterised by an unlikely accommodation between the military and the NLD: the long-time adversaries were forced into an uncomfortable cohabitation on account of the constitution giving a significant political role to the military – including one of the two vice president positions, control of the three security ministries and 25 per cent of parliamentary seats at both central and sub-national levels. Relations remain tense and distrustful. In the lead-up to the polls, the commander-in-chief alarmed many Myanmar people by criticising the quality of electoral preparations and hinting that he might not accept the result. He eventually moderated his tone once election day arrived, and the scale of the NLD victory will, in any event, have likely shot down any potential questioning of the results’ legitimacy. Ironically, the commander-in-chief’s comments may have actually amplified the NLD’s success, both boosting turnout by the party faithful and convincing wavering voters to back the incumbent party, thereby expressing their opposition to the military’s interference in politics.

Despite the tensions, over the last five years both sides have come to the conclusion that they do not represent an existential threat to each other. The fact that both share a similar socially conservative, Burman nationalist outlook has also helped prevent relations from breaking down. The military will be in no mood, however, to give the government easy victories on the peace process or constitutional reform – particularly when it comes to diluting the army’s political role. Progress on those fronts over the next five years therefore remains very unlikely. It is improbable even if the present commander-in-chief steps down at the end of his term in mid-2021, as chances are close to nil that any of his potential successors would have a very different view on these issues.