On 25 August, a group of Rohingya fighters launched a coordinated two-day attack on police posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The heavy, unchecked reaction by national authorities is giving militants more recruiting power and will prolong the conflict.
Around 30 police checkpoints in Rakhine state were attacked by hundreds of “extremist Bengali terrorists,” the Myanmar government’s description of the fighting ethnic Rohingya Muslims. The attacks left at least 90 people dead, including 12 members of the security forces. The government claims that these militants, who were armed with sticks and home-made explosives, are led by foreign-trained jihadis.
Although the authorities have every right to react to violence, the heavy-handed response, condemned by the UN and rights activists, has not only forced nearly 20,000 people to flee the area in one week; it has also thrown up reports of extrajudicial killings of unarmed civilians, including women and children, and the deliberate burning of multiple areas in a state inhabited mostly by the Rohingya. The area in question, northern Rakhine, has been in military lockdown since October 2016. The UN claims that military actions there could amount to ethnic cleansing.
The government, supported mainly by extremist Buddhist monks, has been persecuting and ostracising the largely peaceful Muslim Rohingya for some time. It was only last October that a group now calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged, growing increasingly active as state actions towards civilians in that month intensified. However, the August 2017 attacks, for which the ARSA claimed responsibility, were larger, seemingly more coordinated, and involved many more causalities. The group, which wants to set up a democratic Muslim state for the Rohingya, has evolved since then, although government claims that they are backed by foreign Islamist groups are unproven.
It is possible that with renewed and more intense violence, the Rohingya cause will receive more interest from outside parties, including those with a jihadi agenda who are experienced in commandeering unstable situations for their own ideological gains. The ARSA, however, claims the attacks were in defence of Rohingya communities being brutalised by the military, with little mention of religion.
There is a narrative that posits a religious collision between highly active anti-Rohingya nationalist Buddhist movements, which have allies in neighbouring countries, and the Muslim Rohingya. Groups like the Buddhist Ma Ba Tha have claimed that they are fighting to reverse the Islamisation of Myanmar and have spread anti-Muslim sentiment for years, possibly for political as well as ideological gain. These monks are powerful players in Myanmar’s state structure and have successfully lobbied for restrictions on Muslims, while more hard-line monks have taken up arms against civilian Rohingya across Myanmar. In one instance in Rakhine state, Buddhist villagers armed with swords penned in hundreds of Rohingya in Zay Di Pyin village. Although such confrontations have an underlying religious element, groups like the Ma Ba Tha have fused ultranationalist, religious, and race politics to create a powerful ideological combination that appeals to Ma Ba Tha’s claimed support base of 400,000.
The combination of a government that systematically fails to recognise the Rohingya as its people and Buddhist monks who violently object to the Rohingya’s existence has created a particularly depressing conflict in a state that is plagued by other, less-discussed ethnic clashes.
The UN, largely stymied by the government, has been unable to take much action or even assess the situation on the ground. Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize–winning de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has accused aid workers of helping terrorists, and her administration has restricted access for the UN and rights groups. Meanwhile, Buddhists have accused the UN of taking sides and condemned a planned papal visit. The leader of the Ma Ba Tha, Ashin Wirathu, said, “There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country, but the pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false.”
So far, Myanmar has been resistant to outside pressures. The government must be persuaded to take a more targeted approach towards militants and stop forcing out the one million Rohingya who have lived in Rakhine for generations. Failure to do so risks widening a multidimensional conflict that is already highly fuelled. Other similar conflicts, such as that in Kashmir, show that this sort of situation can and will be easily exploited by outsiders, including jihadis, jeopardising the country’s stability and the well-being of its citizens.