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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: Rakhine State Faces a Third Crisis
Myanmar: Rakhine State Faces a Third Crisis
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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Former Program Director, Asia
anaghaneel
Commentary / Asia

Myanmar: Rakhine State Faces a Third Crisis

Overlapping crises – displacement, conflict escalation and COVID-19 – threaten the already vulnerable Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to work closely with other donors in pushing for government accountability while remaining engaged in critical humanitarian and development support.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

Myanmar has made no meaningful progress since 2017 in addressing the Rohingya crisis, with no organised return of refugees from Bangladesh, and no improvement in the lives of those Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State. Prospects for progress have been further undermined by the dramatic escalation in armed conflict in the state between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgency, which has led to some of the fiercest fighting Myanmar has witnessed in many years. Civilians are regularly caught in the crossfire, at least 60,000 people are presently living in displacement camps as a result of the conflict, and de-escalation appears unlikely in the near future. The novel coronavirus now looms as a third crisis. Rakhine State has extremely weak health infrastructure, and its capacity is already overwhelmed by the rising conflict casualties. The April killing of the driver of a UN vehicle, who was transporting COVID-19 swabs for testing, underlines the dangers the conflict poses to an effective pandemic response. Across the border in Bangladesh, the disease is starting to spread in Cox’s Bazar district, with the first cases now detected in the Rohingya camps, where crowded conditions make social distancing impossible and poor sanitation is likely to accelerate any spread. Rohingya refugees are becoming more desperate. With no hope of a safe and dignified return home, many are once again choosing to put their fate in the hands of people smugglers as they seek to reach Malaysia by boat – an increasingly perilous journey as Malaysia and other countries in the region are tightening border controls and blocking their entry due to COVID-19 concerns.

The EU and its member states can help address these evolving crises in the following ways:

  • Seize opportunities for incremental change. Prospects for a ceasefire or major positive developments in Rakhine State appear slim, and the leverage of the EU and other Western powers constrained. Nevertheless, it remains possible to achieve more limited change in respecting Rohingya rights and addressing the armed conflict’s impact on both Rakhine and Rohingya civilians.
     
  • Cooperate with like-minded donors to pursue concerted diplomatic action. In a context of limited leverage, coordination among international actors is all the more important in order to defend principles, maximise advocacy opportunities for humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas of Rakhine and Chin States, and push for changes in government policy toward the Rohingya.
     
  • Stay engaged and maintain current levels of humanitarian and development funding for Myanmar. Whatever the frustrations with the lack of progress in steering the government toward accountability and rights for the Rohingya and a political solution to Rakhine grievances, lifesaving needs of conflict-affected populations and developmental challenges remain high and must continue to be addressed. Disengagement would risk exacerbating structural factors underlying Myanmar’s multiple crises.
     
  • Continue to support the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh. The humanitarian response should continue to be adequately funded. The risks of failing to do so – in both human and security terms – are considerable. The EU should also better integrate its humanitarian and development funding streams for a more effective aid response targeting both refugees and local communities in Cox’s Bazar district

Worrying Developments

Myanmar’s Rakhine State now faces three overlapping crises. The Rohingya crisis remains unresolved, with no sign of refugee repatriation through official channels almost three years after the mass exodus. Those Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State have seen no meaningful improvement in living conditions: many remain corralled in squalid displacement camps; the rest are confined to isolated villages. All face apartheid-like bans on access to most hospitals, schools are mostly segregated and freedom of movement remains curtailed. Restrictions on humanitarian access further compound their plight.

Civilian casualties have spiked in the first four months of 2020, with disturbing attacks on schools, medical facilities and humanitarian convoys.

In parallel, fighting has escalated dramatically since late 2018 between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group fighting for greater Rakhine autonomy. There are regular, often intense clashes across central and northern parts of the state – including many areas from which Rohingya fled or in which they remain – as well as in Paletwa township in neighbouring Chin State. There have also been sporadic attacks in the south of Rakhine State, as the Arakan Army attempts to expand its areas of operation. Chances of de-escalation or a ceasefire appear remote as both sides vie for strategic control of key townships and waterways. Civilian casualties have spiked in the first four months of 2020, with disturbing attacks on schools, medical facilities and humanitarian convoys. Young men in Rakhine are particularly exposed to the risk of violence at the hands of the military for being suspected Arakan Army members; women and children are disproportionately affected by conditions in displacement camps, where risks of domestic violence are high and health and education facilities limited or non-existent. The March government designation of the Arakan Army as a terrorist group has scuttled prospects of peace talks and will restrict possibilities for third-party mediation. The armed conflict has diverted what little attention the government was devoting to the Rohingya crisis, making significant policy steps even less likely.

In the Bangladesh camps, desperation is growing. Living conditions are dire, and with no prospect of returning home and no real future in Bangladesh, increasing numbers of refugees are taking extreme risks to escape the situation by any means possible. As in 2015, smuggling boats packed with human cargo are adrift in the Bay of Bengal, blocked from reaching Malaysia or landing elsewhere. The EU has urged regional maritime states to conduct search-and-rescue operations, but little has been done to save these people, many of whom are women and children.

The coronavirus adds a worrying new dimension to the situation in both Rakhine State and the Bangladesh refugee camps. Although Myanmar has so far avoided a major epidemic, with fewer than 200 reported COVID-19 cases and six reported deaths as of mid-May, it remains vulnerable to an outbreak. Conflict in Rakhine State is a significant impediment to disease preparedness and response, with little hope of cooperation between the government and the Arakan Army, which controls large swathes of the countryside. Many of the most vulnerable do not even have access to the health system – the Rohingya, due to movement restrictions and discrimination in access to health care; and ethnic Rakhine people living in conflict areas, many of whom now reside in crowded displacement camps, due to their inability to cross checkpoints. The April killing by unknown gunmen of a World Health Organization staff member transporting COVID-19 testing swabs highlights the direct impact that conflict can have on the response. The government’s internet ban in eight townships is also an obstacle to disease surveillance and public health messaging. In Bangladesh, COVID-19 has reached Cox’s Bazar district, and the first case was reported in the camps on 14 May. If the disease is not contained, it would likely have devastating consequences given the extreme population density, unsanitary living conditions and the internet ban in the camps, which limits refugees’ access to information about the disease.

What the EU Can Do

The likelihood of any major positive developments in Rakhine State is slim, and the EU, like other Western powers, has had diminished leverage over Myanmar since the Rohingya crisis began. The EU should continue pushing for accountability for the Rohingya displacement and for review of Myanmar’s policies on freedom of movement, access to non-segregated services and respect for fundamental human rights – also preconditions for any refugee repatriation. It needs to be realistic, however, about the impact it might have with this advocacy, which it should combine with efforts to achieve more limited, incremental changes to improve the lives of the Rohingya and mitigate the impact of armed conflict on civilians. Working with national and regional officials more open to engagement and reform is one such approach, although it is important not to overexpose such individuals.

In order to be effective, it is critical that the EU work closely with other donors. While international assistance constitutes only a small proportion of Myanmar’s GDP, it still provides opportunities to influence policy – not enough to prompt policy U-turns by the government, but sufficient to generate meaningful openings for dialogue and engagement and influence outcomes for the most vulnerable, including Rohingya and conflict-displaced people. This can be achieved through negotiating better humanitarian access to Rakhine internally displaced person (IDP) camps or advocating for local policy changes – for example, allowing Rohingya greater access to medical facilities and reducing the cost of and time for referrals. Coordinated and unified approaches among donors will be important to defend humanitarian principles, ensuring that international aid is channelled to all communities in a neutral and impartial manner. Working closely with other donors will also allow the EU to maximise chances of achieving the incremental steps described above.

An impoverished and less educated Myanmar is a recipe for further bigotry, social division and armed conflict.

Frustration with lack of progress on policy objectives in Myanmar ought not to translate into either political disengagement by the EU or its member states, or cuts to humanitarian and development support. Isolating Myanmar is unlikely to produce positive change and could instead exacerbate the structural factors underlying the country’s multiple crises: a poorer and more insular country will struggle even more to develop tolerance for diversity and the political imagination required for a more inclusive and peaceful future. Lifesaving needs of conflict-affected populations still need to be addressed, and development aid has a key role to play. An impoverished and less educated Myanmar is a recipe for further bigotry, social division and armed conflict. But the EU should implement development projects in a way that is sensitive to local contexts – particularly in conflict zones and areas in the throes of human rights crises – and gendered analysis. This means, in particular, recognising the challenges of providing development assistance in a context where one community, the Rohingya, is segregated and cannot benefit equally or at all from public goods, and designing programming accordingly.

It is also critical for the EU to remain fully engaged in the Rohingya refugee response in Bangladesh through adequate development and humanitarian funding, especially given the uncertainties and risks engendered by COVID-19. Donor fatigue is a real threat. The European Commission has already mobilised critical aid for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Much more support is needed, but the pandemic’s impact on the EU’s overall financial capacity could well reduce the Commission’s spending power in the coming years. For a more effective response, the EU should aim to achieve better complementarity between its humanitarian and development funding in Cox’s Bazar district, which remains one of the country’s poorest. This implies engaging with the government of Bangladesh both to address the growing restrictions on providing immediate assistance to refugees and vulnerable local communities, and to discuss longer-term policy changes that would allow the active participation of refugees in the local economy and community. Should the European Commission choose to deprioritise Rohingya support in Bangladesh due to lack of meaningful progress, consequences could be dire. With no sign of refugees returning to Myanmar in the near future, failure to provide needed support could lead Bangladesh to adopt a more uncompromising stand toward the Rohingya and push more desperate refugees into people smugglers’ hands.