The United Nations and Al Qaeda Respond to Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar

Less than two weeks after coordinated attacks by Muslim insurgents in Rakhine State, the Myanmar military has responded with a campaign of violence that the UN secretary general has said is tantamount to ethnic cleansing. On Wednesday, Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an end to the violence that has resulted in nearly 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to be uprooted from their homes in Rakhine State and forced across the border into Bangladesh.

The day before the secretary general’s statement, on September 12, al Qaeda leadership released a statement, calling “upon all Mujahid brothers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for [Myanmar] to help their Muslim brothers, and to make the necessary preparations—training and the like—to resist this oppression against their Muslim brothers, and to secure their rights, which will only be returned to them by use of force.”

Q1: What happened that has led to this violence?

A1: Rakhine State has a long history of ethnic and religious conflict. Shortly after Myanmar declared independence in 1948, an Islamic insurgency erupted along the border of Myanmar and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), calling for equal rights for Muslims living in Rakhine State. Beginning with the brutal suppression of this insurgency in 1954, Rohingya Muslims have been marginalized and discriminated against through state-sponsored policies, including stripping the Rohingya of their citizenship and categorizing them as “nonnationals” in 1982. 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.

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.

For the past several years, Myanmar has been fighting a low-level insurgency in its westernmost province, Rakhine State. As we discussed in a Critical Questions piece last week, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has been slowly ramping up its attacks on government and security targets in Myanmar. Last week, the Myanmar military responded with a harsh crackdown that has included human rights abuses, including killing, raping, and burning down more than 1,000 homes and other buildings. In less than a week, the United Nations has documented 380,000 Rohingya refugees who have crossed the border into Bangladesh.

Q2: Why is al Qaeda calling for fighters to join the fight in Rakhine State?

A2: The repression and marginalization visited upon the Muslim-minority Rohingya in Myanmar by a powerful government largely consisting of leaders from another religion present a potential, transnational flashpoint for jihadi-Salafi organizations. As we predicted last week, paralleling the ethno-religio-nationalist insurgencies of southern Thailand and the southern Philippines, the violence in Myanmar has now attracted the attention of al Qaeda. At a time when the fighting in Iraq and Syria is winding down, al Qaeda is taking this opportunity to open new fronts in the fight against the West. 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.

Q3: How is the international community responding to this crisis?

A3: Myanmar’s brutal campaign against ARSA, and Rohingya Muslims more broadly, has generated outrage 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. Turkey simultaneously secured permission, despite Myanmar having blocked all UN aid, to deliver a 1,000-ton shipment of food and medicine to the conflict in Rakhine State.

Meanwhile, regional powers China and India have supported Myanmar’s crackdown on terrorism. In a visit to Myanmar last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India did not mention the ongoing humanitarian crisis; however, the Indian Foreign Affairs Ministry did release a statement strongly condemning the terrorist attacks on Myanmar security forces in Rakhine State and announcing a joint affirmation for combatting terrorism. China has sent mixed signals to the international community, as the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar was quoted saying, “The counterattacks of Myanmar security forces against extremist terrorists and the government’s undertakings to provide assistance to the people are strongly welcomed,” while the Chinese delegation at the United Nations simultaneously expressed concern about the violence against the Rohingya and urged steps to end the crisis.

Competing with China for influence in Myanmar, the United States through its ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the reports of killings, rapes, and landmines, “egregious and unacceptable acts.” The U.S. State Department has also strongly condemned the deadly attacks by ARSA on Myanmar security forces, though it urged the government to “bring those responsible for the attacks to justice in a way that is consistent with the rule of law, protects and respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, demonstrates transparency, and avoids inflaming a tense situation.”


Q4: What are the regional implications of al Qaeda’s call to battle?

A4: In addition to al Qaeda’s call for fighters to travel to Rakhine State, ISIS released a video late last month calling on would-be fighters to head to Mindanao, Philippines, instead of to Iraq and Syria. Mindanao, the Muslim heartland of a Catholic-majority country, has been beset by terrorist and insurgent activity for decades. In the video, one of the militants calls on new recruits from East Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, and Singapore, to join the major battle that erupted in May 2017 between the terrorist-designated Abu Sayyaf Group and Philippine armed forces.

These announcements are warnings that Southeast Asian countries must address the underlying conditions that lead to radicalization and recognize that discontented, unemployed youth make optimal targets for ISIS propaganda. In addition to targeting new recruits, Southeast Asian governments need to be prepared to deal with the reality that battlefield-tested militants are traveling to Southeast Asia from Iraq, Syria, and other locations. During an August 1 press statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that some of the fighters in Marawi were coming from Iraq and Syria.

Moreover, Southeast Asian countries must deal with the threat of financial support for militancy. A July 21, 2017, report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) reported that “funds for the Marawi operation came both directly from ISIS central as well as local sources.” The report detailed that ISIS channeled $600,000 through Dr. Mahmud Ahmad—a Malaysian foreign fighter—who sent funds from Syria through Indonesia and then on to the Philippines through Western Union.

Q5: How can the United States work with Southeast Asian countries to respond to the threat of radicalization and insurgency?

A5: Since 2001, the United States has taken steps to secure a stronger military and intelligence relationship with Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines. This summer, U.S. forces joined Philippine forces in targeting militants in Mindinao. Projecting kinetic force, however, is not enough. While the United States continues to build a productive military and intelligence-sharing relationship with Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, it must also simultaneously ensure that human rights are not threatened and that food security, health and sanitation needs, basic education, and economic opportunities are guaranteed for the marginalized populations of Rakhine State. Failure to meet these basic needs is a failure to confront the root causes of radicalization.

In a statement issued by the U.S. State Department on August 25, the United States reissued its offer of support to the Myanmar government to address long-term challenges facing Rakhine State including “poverty, underdevelopment, shortcomings in government services and access to justice, and the need for improved security and better treatment of local populations, including ensuring a credible, transparent citizenship process for all people in Rakhine and lifting restrictions on freedom of movement.”

As evidenced by the crisis in Myanmar, the marginalization and abuse of ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim minorities, presents an opportunity for transnational terrorist organizations to radicalize youth from within those Muslim communities and from sympathetic communities around the world. To successfully combat the threat of further radicalization and destabilization in the region, the United States must support its partners in avoiding inflaming an already tense situation, addressing underlying instability factors, preventing heavy-handed government backlash, including ethnic cleansing, and offering an alternative to violence in the form of stable paths forward for Muslim-minority populations.

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

Thomas M. Sanderson

Maxwell B. Markusen