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The World’s Newest Muslim Insurgency Is Being Waged in Burma
The World’s Newest Muslim Insurgency Is Being Waged in Burma
Myanmar at the International Court of Justice
Myanmar at the International Court of Justice
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.

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A billboard depicting Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Su Kyi with the three military ministers in front of a background showing the building of the International Court of Justice in The Hague is displayed along a main road in Hpa-an, Karen State. AFP
Q&A / Asia

Myanmar at the International Court of Justice

On 10 December, the International Court of Justice convened to hear an opening request in a genocide case filed against Myanmar for its atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Richard Horsey looks at the legal and diplomatic stakes of these proceedings.

Why is Myanmar before the International Court of Justice?

The Gambia has lodged a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal UN judicial body based in The Hague, alleging violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (usually known as the Genocide Convention) in Myanmar’s treatment of ethnic Rohingya Muslims. The charges stem from atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces in northern Rakhine State, which have forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh since August 2017. The Gambia, relying on the Convention’s provision that the ICJ can adjudicate disputes over such charges, brought this case on behalf of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The allegations against Myanmar include responsibility for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and failure to prevent and punish genocide, among others.

The Gambia has also asked the ICJ to order “provisional measures”, the equivalent of an injunction in domestic law, authorising steps to protect the parties’ rights pending the case’s final adjudication. Hearings at the court from 10-12 December – at which Aung San Suu Kyi will represent Myanmar – are dealing with this request for provisional measures. Both The Gambia and Myanmar have retained top international lawyers as counsel.

The allegations against Myanmar include responsibility for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and failure to prevent and punish genocide, among others.

Two other countries – the Netherlands and Canada – have indicated that they will support The Gambia’s case. They have called on all state parties to the Genocide Convention to do the same. One possibility is that the Netherlands and Canada will become “intervening states”, a status that would give them access to court documents and the right to participate in oral proceedings, without being formal parties to the dispute.

A decision on provisional measures is expected within weeks. But the case itself will probably be long and convoluted, with the court taking years to render its final decision. The diplomatic and reputational impact is thus likely to be most immediate and consequential.

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s top civilian leader, speaking at the ICJ hearing this week and what does she hope to achieve?

In addition to a legal team, states involved in ICJ cases must nominate an “agent” empowered to represent the state and make commitments on its behalf. Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s agent, in her capacity as foreign minister (she also holds the title of state counsellor). A justice minister or an attorney general normally plays this role; it is extremely rare for a political figure of her prominence to do so. Aung San Suu Kyi likely feels that as the country’s de facto leader she has the primary responsibility to respond to The Gambia’s claims, and also that she is the person best qualified to do so – given her fluent English and experience on the world stage.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s public statements over the last two years, and what she is known to have said in private, suggest that she believes no genocide has occurred in the Rohingya case. She thinks that, on the contrary, the outside world has deeply misunderstood and exaggerated the Rohingya crisis. She no doubt intends to use the legal setting in The Hague to try to set the record straight. She also no doubt understands that the eyes of the world will be on her at this pivotal moment for Myanmar. The global audience – particularly in the West – will expect her to go much farther than she has in previous speeches in acknowledging the security forces’ wrongdoing and committing to address it. It remains to be seen how far she will go in this direction.

What impact will Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance in The Hague have within Myanmar?

Views on the Rohingya crisis inside Myanmar are almost diametrically opposed to those outside the country. The near ubiquitous narrative in the country – coming from its leaders and promulgated by the local media – is that the outside world misunderstands what has happened with the Rohingya. Myanmar thinks that its primary problem is therefore one of communication: how to explain the “real situation” more clearly and effectively.

Since The Gambia filed the ICJ case on 11 November, and Aung San Suu Kyi decided to represent Myanmar personally in The Hague, a wave of nationalist fervour has swept the country. Billboards and mass rallies endorse her mission at the ICJ; even the military – her nemesis during fifteen years of house arrest – is giving her its unequivocal backing. The civilian government is likewise soliciting vocal support from the people for the state counsellor’s defence of the nation. President Win Myint’s wife even conducted a ritual at Aung San Suu Kyi’s “eternal peace pagoda” in Naypyitaw, invoking the spirits to confer success on her efforts.

Since [...] Aung San Suu Kyi decided to represent Myanmar personally in The Hague, a wave of nationalist fervour has swept the country.

This outpouring of support will play well for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the November 2020 elections, though electoral advantage is unlikely to be her primary motivation. Her stance for Myanmar in The Hague could also lead to a slight thaw in the chilly relations between the civilian government and the military. But the risk is that unleashing the forces of narrow nationalism will not only silence voices calling for human rights protections and greater tolerance for diversity in the country but also postpone any honest national reckoning with what happened to the Rohingya. Such an accounting is the only way that Myanmar can get out of its international legal and diplomatic predicament.

What impact will the ICJ case have on international perceptions of Myanmar?

A moment of truth is fast approaching. Part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international audience at The Hague will consist of some Asian governments that are determined to maintain close bilateral ties with Naypyitaw. She might say enough to satisfy them, but she will have more difficulty meeting the expectations of Western governments. It is hard to imagine, moreover, given the documentation of the Rohingya’s plight, that she will convince the many sceptical observers in the global media and civil society that Myanmar’s state is misunderstood and unfairly maligned. In defending Myanmar as part of proceedings live-streamed worldwide, she will necessarily be defending the military against genocide charges. Anyone can easily compare the substance of this defence with the numerous third-party reports about why so many Rohingya fled northern Myanmar and how they are living stuck in Bangladesh. Anyone can also read about the Rohingya who continue to live in precarious circumstances at home. Myanmar could lose in the court of international public opinion well before the ICJ makes any legal ruling.