Myanmar and its Rohingya Muslim Insurgency

Early on the morning of August 25, armed militants from a Rohingya insurgent group in Myanmar mounted coordinated attacks on 30 government targets, including police outposts and an army base, in the northern part of Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Equipped with small arms, machetes, and hand-held explosives, the insurgents killed 10 police officers, a soldier, and an immigration official. Seventy-seven insurgents were killed, with one insurgent captured in the attacks. In response, the Myanmar military has begun conducting “clearance operations” across Rakhine state. Over the past week, this crackdown has forced many Rohingya from their homes, some fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.

Q1: Who are the players in this conflagration?

A1: There are approximately 925,939 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, living predominantly in Rakhine State. While not technically part of the official population count, Rohingyas constitute 1.7 percent of Myanmar’s total population of 55,123,814. Buddhists make up the religious majority of Myanmar, accounting for 87.9 percent of the total population. In Rakhine State, however, the religious and ethnic lines are drawn much more tightly. The 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census reported that 52.2 percent of Rakhine State are Buddhist and 42.7 percent Islamic, making religious tensions in Rakhine State much higher than in the rest of the country.

Earlier in August, Myanmar was reported to have sent hundreds of troops to Rakhine State to strengthen security and defuse tensions after Rohingya insurgents carried out a series of violent attacks on Buddhists in the region. These insurgents have been identified as members of the Harakah al-Yaqin (or Faith Movement), a Rohingya insurgent group now going by the name of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). According to a report by the International Crisis Group, ARSA members have trained abroad and are led by Rohingya emigres living in Saudi Arabia. While the group denies any direct links to jihadist or transnational terror groups, the larger issues of marginalization of Muslims in Myanmar has attracted the interest of transnational terror groups including Islamic State, Tehreek-e-Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Q2: What is the background to this violence?

A2: Shortly after Myanmar declared independence in 1948, a rebellion broke out along the border of Myanmar and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), calling for equal rights for Muslims living in Rakhine State. After years of insurgency, the Myanmar government suppressed the violence and secured a cease-fire in 1954. However, Myanmar’s military coup in 1962 hardened the government’s stance toward religious and ethnic minorities, and the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in particular were again repressed. In 1982, the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship and categorized as “nonnationals.” Since then, nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslims have lived within Myanmar’s borders as stateless people and faced the constant threat of detention camps, deportation, and forced labor, including sex trafficking.

The modern insurgency in Rakhine State dates to the 1970s when pan-Islamist movements around the world gave rise to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization; its splinter group, the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front; and eventually in 1998, a loose alliance of the two organizations called the Arakan Rohingya National Organization. The origins of the most recent insurgent group, Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), also known as ARSA, date back to 2013, when the leader of the organization, Ata Ullah, along with a committee of some 20 senior leaders, established the organization from Saudi Arabia. Since then, HaY/ARSA has obtained fatwas from clerics in countries with significant Rohingya diaspora to justify its use of violence against the Myanmar armed forces, and it has carried out significant attacks on security forces in the past year, including multiple coordinated attacks on October 9, 2016, which resulted in the deaths of nine police officers in Rakhine State.

Q3: What is the Myanmar government’s role in this crisis?

A3: In response to the growing threat of violence, members of the country’s Buddhist majority have demanded a crackdown on insurgents from the Rohingya Muslim minority. They have criticized the pro-democracy advocate and de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, for not responding quickly to the army’s call for a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, which has the power to enforce a state of emergency in Rakhine State, giving it full enforcement authority.

Suu Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her adherence to the practice of nonviolence and her call to establish a democratic society in which Myanmar’s ethnic groups could cooperate in harmony, has been harshly criticized by international voices, including human rights groups, who have accused her of failing to stop the army from committing human rights abuses, including killing, raping, and burning down more than 1,000 homes and other buildings.

Reuters has also reported accusations that the Myanmar military has been planting new mines along its already heavily mined border with Bangladesh. Bangladesh plans to protest the mining activity along the border and has already demanded that Myanmar’s army de-escalate the ongoing violence that has forced tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State across the border into the Bangladeshi resort town of Cox Bazaar.

Q4: How is the international community responding?

A4: In a statement released on September 5, the United Nations confirmed that the violence in Myanmar has forced nearly 125,000 Rohingya to flee their homes and risks further destabilizing the region. At the same time, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called on the Myanmar government to end “this cycle of violence,” noting further that “the grievances and unresolved plight of the Rohingya have festered for far too long and are becoming an undeniable factor in regional destabilization.” Earlier this year, the United Nations also released a report that found “very likely commission of crimes against humanity” by Myanmar’s military during its late 2016 operations targeting ARSA.

Myanmar’s campaign against ARSA, and its treatment of its Rohingya Muslims in general, has generated notable discontent in the Islamic world. Leaders from Muslim majority countries, particularly those in Southeast and South Asia, have spoken out against the conditions that have led to the recent wave of Rohingya displacement. Leaders from Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan have denounced the actions of the Myanmar government, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and foreign minister both described the situation as a genocide aimed at Muslim communities in the region.

Meanwhile, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley released a statement declaring “The United States supports democracy for the Burmese people, and we condemn attacks by militant groups in Rakhine State. However, as Burmese security forces act to prevent further violence, they have a responsibility to adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes refraining from attacking innocent civilians and humanitarian workers and ensuring assistance reaches those in need. We call on all members of the Security Council to support the Burmese government in ensuring the rights and dignity of all communities in Rakhine State and throughout Burma.”

Over the last several years, the U.S. government modified its relationship with Myanmar from one of isolation to one of engagement in part to build links with a resource-rich, strategically important country under heavy influence from China.

Q5: What are the implications of this violence inside and outside of Myanmar?

A5: Myanmar occupies an important strategic location, bordering China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Laos. A major exporter of natural gas, Myanmar figures prominently in the geopolitical maneuvering between China and the United States. The Myanmar military has mined the border with Bangladesh where Rohingyas are fleeing. The nation’s stability is of great interest and concern to many parties, from the private sector to human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations. Groups like the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) are already responding to the crisis.

There are other important security considerations, too, that reach well beyond Myanmar’s borders. The repression and marginalization visited upon the Muslim-minority Rohingyas by a powerful government largely consisting of leaders from another religion present a potential, transnational flashpoint for jihadi-Salafi organizations.

With parallels to the ethno-religio-nationalist insurgencies of southern Thailand and the southern Philippines, there is legitimate concern that the violence will attract outside forces. Now that thousands of battle-hardened, ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters are seeking new missions beyond a shrinking Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, new opportunities to defend Muslims will inevitably appeal to them.

In Mindanao, Philippines, that Catholic-majority nation’s Muslim heartland has been beset by terrorist and insurgent activity for decades. In May 2017, a major battle erupted between the terrorist-designated Abu Sayyaf Group and Philippine armed forces. More than 80 foreign fighters, hailing from Chechnya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Indonesia, supported the local fighters. Though there is no fair comparison between the ISIS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group and any of the groups in Myanmar, there is an unmistakable potential for ISIS to direct fighters and other resources to Myanmar to defend the Rohingyas—whether invited to or not. With sharply marginalized Muslim youth making up 45 percent of the Rohingya population, there is ample opportunity for radicalization. These boys and young men, stateless and targeted by government forces, could well reach for the chance to be heroes.

Thomas M. Sanderson is a senior fellow and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Maxwell B. Markusen is an associate fellow and associate director of the CSIS Transnational Threats Project.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Photo credit: HLA HLA HTAY/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas M. Sanderson

Maxwell B. Markusen