Myanmar’s military repression of the Rohingya community raises several security challenges that could haunt the country for years to come.

By Adrien Morin

The process of defining a national identity in Myanmar in the post-colonial era has brought the country into successive periods of ethnic and religious violence. The Rohingya community in particular, is now at the center of a major humanitarian crisis. The increasing military repression of the Muslim community has opened the way to the development of an Islamic insurgency in the country. With a fragile democratization process, a charismatic leader (Aung San Suu Kyi) gathering international criticism and an omnipresent and omnipotent military, the perspectives for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis in Myanmar are more than uncertain.

Myanmar has always been an ethnically divided country. Ethnic tensions were mostly mitigated during the British colonial rule, but they burst out in 1948 after the country gained independence. From then on, Myanmar, or Burma as the country was called until 2006, was subjected to periodic internal rebellions from various ethnic groups, primarily Shan, Kachin and Chin, individually pushing for the recognition of their ethnic rights.

In 1962 however, a coup imposed military rule on the country, undermining ethnic minority rights. Opposition movements attempted to call for more democracy since then, among which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was the most prominent one, and eventually led to democratic elections – although under tight military control – in 2012.

Anti-Muslim movements and the struggles of the Rohingya community

The post-colonial tensions that agitated Myanmar for the past seven decades have largely contributed to bringing the question of national identity at the heart of the political debate in the country. As mentioned earlier, ethnicity has been a key factor for domestic opposition, especially between the majority Burman ethnic group and the rest of the country’s minorities, some of which even struggling to achieve recognition of their Myanmar national citizenship. This national identity crisis must also be considered in the perspective of religious differences in Myanmar. Buddhism remains the most prominent religion practiced in the country and is also, for many people, an integral part of their national identity. These ethnic and religious factors explain the struggles of the Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar, seen by some observers as an ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya are not considered regular citizens in the country and for many Burmans, this Muslim group consists of illegitimate aliens brought in from India and Bangladesh by the British during the colonial era, in order to serve the interests of the former colonial Empire. This element is particularly important because Buddhist monks have been opposing the British rule ever since the mid-19th century, and have thus incorporated the destruction of the remains of that British Empire in the overall process of national identity building in Myanmar.

In this context, and in light of the relaxation of military rule along with the rise of Muslim identity around the world, Buddhist monks initiated a large-scale anti-Muslim campaign in 2012. At least 140,000 people were internally displaced and 200 were killed in the 2012 nation-wide riots. Among the most outspoken anti-Muslim groups promoting radical solutions in Myanmar is 969, an extremist Buddhist group led by Buddhist monk and founder, U Wirathu. 969, which notably exports its radical anti-Muslim narrative abroad (in Sri Lanka in particular), has been vigorously opposing non-Buddhist influence and the loosening of religious laws domestically. The group’s activism combined with the lack of an effective counter-narrative in Myanmar has contributed to the further isolation of Rohingya Muslims and pushed the government to go as far as implementing laws regulating interfaith marriage, restricting conversions and enacting population control of Muslims.

Finally, it is worth noting that while Buddhism is widely seen as a peaceful religion, it nonetheless incorporates “strains of cosmological imaginaries” – as Michael Gravers calls them in his article from 2015, “Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka: Religious Violence and Globalized Imaginaries of Engendered Identities” – built on theological conceptions of cosmic wars between forces of Good and Evil. These can end up being politically exploited, as is the case in Myanmar, to violently repress a divergent religious group such as Rohingya Muslims.

Violence on the rise in Rakhine State

The 2012 anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar has for years represented the country’s climax in terms of religious violence. However, the events of the past year highlighted that tensions are still very much present. It is the State of Rakhine, on the western shore of Myanmar, that crystallized the outburst of violence.

Map Myanmar - Rakhine State
Map of Myanmar with the Rakhine State (Credit: Myanmar with Regions – Muliticolor / FreeVectorMaps)

A crucial event which poured oil on fire occurred on 9 October 2016, when a group of armed combatants, allegedly Rohingya Muslims, attacked three police posts near the city of Maungdaw, killing nine police officers. Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to declare state of emergency, the military took effective control of the security response. An Amnesty International report highlighted that several Rohingya villages were burned down, villagers were arbitrarily arrested or killed, multiple cases of rape and sexual abuse were mentioned, while the area became restricted for humanitarian organizations and international observers.

This security crackdown resulted in an escalation of violence and another major attack occurred on 12 November 2016, when about 60 insurgents clashed with security forces near Pwint Hpyu Chaung village. The government stepped up its security response as a result, not hesitating to use attack helicopters. The International Crisis Group (ICG) described Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY, “Faith Movement” in Arabic, which also goes by the name of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA), as a combatant group including Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics, led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia. Its main figures are its speaker Ata Ullah (who also has multiple aliases) and Islamic scholar Ziabur Rahman.

HaY was created during the 2012 anti-Muslim campaign and its subsequent nationwide outburst of violence. It became more active after the 2015 elections which excluded the Rohingya community and stepped up its operations in the wake of the late 2016 crisis. The ICG describes the methods of the insurgent group as a classic model of guerilla warfare, including local recruitment in villages, practice of guerilla tactics and extensive use of improvised explosive devices. According to ICG experts, HaY had an ambitious plan to take complete control of the region bordering Bangladesh and create a liberated, defendable area. This plan has little chances to succeed and the insurgent group had to moderate its ambitions over time. However, they preserved their capacity to strike in the country and harm security forces

The engagement of members of the Rohingya community in violent struggle is unprecedented in Myanmar. Aparupa Bhattacherjee explains that the unlikely uprising of Rohingya behind the banner of an armed group like HaY was made possible by the government’s policies in Rakhine State, which created its own “Frankenstein monster.” She also highlights that “the Rohingya have always sought a peaceful resolution” of their conflicts, and have consistently “ruled out the claims of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the Islamic State (IS) taking up their cause.”

On August 25th of this year, HaY carried out its biggest operation to date, in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships: around 1,000 combatants attacked security forces, killing 12. Once again, the government reacted with large-scale repression of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State. Hundreds of Rohingya were killed, worsening the humanitarian situation in the border area. Given Naypyidaw’s handling of the situation in Rakhine State, there is no reason to hope for a brighter future for Rohingya, and the shadow of Islamic insurgency still hangs over the region.

A tricky situation for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD

1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been at the center of international criticism, due to her management of the crisis and her personal positions regarding the Rohingya community. The international community commended her release from house arrest in 2010, and largely praised her return to the frontline of Myanmar politics at the 2012 and 2015 elections, seeing a sign of hope for the development of democracy in the military-ruled country. International observers expressed great disappointment in the NLD leader’s inaction to help the Rohingya in their struggles. This phenomenon is not necessarily as new as many people think, and even before 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi’s movement was already criticized domestically by the country’s ethnic minorities, being considered as a “Burman-only” movement with little interest in the political claims of non-Burman groups.

Despite the emotional reactions sparked by the current crisis in Myanmar, the stance held by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD should probably not be analyzed through a Manichean prism. The political situation is very complex in Myanmar. The NLD won a major political battle with the organization of the first democratic election in over five decades (2012) and became the first political power in the country by taking nearly 80% of the contested seats in the Parliament (2015). However, these elections and the loosening military grip on the country came after rough negotiations. Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, preserved a major influence over the country’s institutions. 25% of the Parliament’s seats remains de jure in the hands of the Tatmadaw, along with key ministries including home affairs, defense and borders. This gives significant leverage to the military in managing the security policy of the country, and especially everything that relates to the security crackdown on the Rohingya community in Rakhine State. Finally, Aung San Suu Kyi was forced to give up on her aspirations to become Myanmar’s president because of a law designed specifically for her by the military junta prior to the elections that forbids nationals with foreign relatives to become president (Suu Kyi was married to a British national and her two kids hold British passports). She thus instead occupies the positions of State Counselor, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of the President’s Office.

Under harsh criticism coming from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the de facto leader of Myanmar mostly supported the policies implemented in response to the outburst of violence in the country, indicating that she did not fear international scrutiny. She also condemned what she described as a spread of “fake news helping terrorists” orchestrated by some international media. Such comments coming from a woman who has been considered for most of her life a protector of democracy and an advocate of human rights leave a bitter taste in the mouth of those concerned by the fate of the Rohingya.

It is hard to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi suddenly turned into an authoritarian leader unable to sympathize for the Rohingya. What is more likely is that she is walking on eggshells in her own country. Devjyot Ghoshal explains that there are several reasons why the “The Lady” (Suu Kyi’s nickname) has her hands tied in the current crisis, despite her attempt to moderate the military’s intention to crack down on Muslim communities which are “only tolerated” in the country. He adds that “the Tatmadaw isn’t used to being reined in by a civilian government, particularly not when its troops are under fire, as they have been in Rakhine.”

Myanmar has been under authoritarian military rule for over half a century and the democratic reforms were only achieved through difficult negotiations involving compromise from all sides. Although Aung San Suu Kyi’s attitude in the current crisis raises several questions regarding her political stances, she has a lot to lose by going against the military on such a sensitive issue. The biggest question here is how fragile the newborn democratic system really is in Myanmar, and thus, how much leverage Suu Kyi has on the military leaders of the country.

Perspectives in Rakhine State

Saying that perspectives for an improvement of the current situation in Rakhine State are unfavorable is an understatement. Whether Aung Sang Suu Kyi is committed to improving the situation of the Rohingya or not, her margin of action is clearly limited, and it is unlikely that the military would let anyone else dictate the security policy in the country and in Rakhine State in particular. Myanmar is unfortunately not an exception in the implementation of large-scale anti-Muslim policies as a security response. China, for instance, has encountered comparable issues in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, and saw a revival of Islamic insurgencies and religious violence after its decision to impose harsh security policies on Muslim communities in the region.

Myanmar’s military leaders would be well advised to study the repercussions of such policies if it seeks to achieve peace and stability in Rakhine State. Failure to do so will probably further aggravate grievances of desperate Rohingya and prolong the humanitarian crisis on the western border of the country.

Cover Picture: a small group of Rohingya men under military supervision in a camp near Myebon in 2013, © Christophe Reltien EU/ECHO / flickr