Treacherous Home, Perilous Road: The Displacement of Myanmar’s Rohingya

By Sydney Fernandez


The sudden escalation of conflict in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state has caused the displacement of 400,000 members of the nation’s persecuted Rohingya minority. With a growing insurgency in Rakhine threatening to landmine Myanmar’s democratic transition, it is more crucial than ever that the government and security forces rely on time-tested principles of peace building and conflict management, rather than indiscriminate security crackdowns that will certainly escalate tensions, if they are to pull the nation back from the brink.

Top Left, Clockwise: The New Indian Express, BBC, CNN, The New York Times

At the heart of the Rakhine state conflict is over two century’s worth of festering mutual distrust between Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population and the nation’s impoverished, oppressed, and abused Muslim minority. In Rakhine state, the Rohingya population have traditionally been unrecognized by the state and deprived of fundamental human rights such as education and healthcare. (1) Now, they are fleeing in unprecedented numbers from a brutal military crackdown that began early in September following a series of attacks on police checkpoints.
Underpinning the asymmetric challenges facing conflict-resolution in Rakhine State is the enormity of the task at hand in Myanmar: complete a transition from over a half century of military rule to a federal democracy. Spearheading this ambitious bridge to peace is Nobel Laureate and daughter of a national hero, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her elected government has worked tirelessly and often fruitlessly to bridge gaps between the ambitious and administratively independent military and the hundreds of armed groups (some of which have tens of thousands of well equipped, foreign supported troops) that control Myanmar’s 21 administrative regions. Although this slow road to peace has been challenging and plagued with setbacks, it shows signs of progress, and, when viewed optimistically, has the potential to be one of the greatest success stories of peace-building and national healing in modern history. The recent flurry of violence in Rakhine state, however, threatens everything Suu Kyi has worked for.

Myanmar’s Retreat to Tradition
The Buddhist population of Myanmar is experiencing a substantial renaissance in their commitment to fundamental religious principles, spurned on by a variety of populo-social, economic, and political factors. As their relationship with the nation’s increasingly persecuted Muslim minority deteriorates, the risk of violence grows, and the chance of reconciliation diminishes.

Origins of Mistrust: The Colonial Era
Although a range of factors have contributed to this resurgence of religious nationalism, they took on a sense of urgency during the 19th century colonial period. During the 1800’s, the fear that Buddhism’s role in society was diminishing became actualized by British decentralization of religion and state affairs. There is a counterbalancing relationship that has traditionally existed between the government and Buddhist clergy (or Sangha) in Myanmar: far from either separation of religion and state, or total unity between the two, there is a generally held belief among Myanmar’s Buddhists that action by the religious authority that interferes in the work of the government is not an overstep by the Sangha, but rather a sign of failure in the government. This fact is relevant today: There is now a sharp divide between the desire for religious consolidation among the clergy and a call for unity from the government, however it was also relevant during the colonial period: The severing of Sangha and state by the British authority in Myanmar (then Burma) affirmed the anxieties of the population at large: the influence of their religion was waning. Catalyzing fears of societal irrelevance for Myanmar’s Buddhists was the importation of scores of Indian bureaucrats, soldiers, and merchants during the early 20th century. (2) This era saw massive shifts in Burma’s ethnic makeup, and became the genesis of the massive distrust that has bred today’s political crisis.

Medicine for the Fearful: Ma Ba Tha
Leading the charge in the retreat to traditionalism is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, also known by the local dialect’s acronym Ma Ba Tha. A highly transitive organization encompassing community building activities, political activism, and youth education, the rhetoric of Ma Ba Tha’s leadership has taken on an alarmingly nationalist and anti-muslim hue. (3) The fledgling democracy in place in Myanmar has existed for less than a decade, meaning that it is a time of great social upheaval and uncertainty within the country. Therefore it is unsurprising that the country’s Buddhist population has turned to religious organizations such as Ma Ba Tha for a sense of belonging during the turbulent and economically challenging times the country faces. Although religious adherence is not inherently violence-inducing, the increasingly nationalistic flavor that groups such as Ma Ba Tha have taken on is troubling.
Despite widespread fear and contempt between Buddhist and Muslim populations, Muslims account for less than 5 per cent of the overall population, while Buddhists account for nearly 80. (4) Whatever the factors that have contributed to the perception among the Buddhist population that Muslims constitute at threat, resolving this deeply embedded social crisis will require the government to thoroughly denounce hate speech wherever it appears, and shift the center of gravity away from further violence by acting as peacekeepers, not aggressors, in Rakhine state.


Eye of the Storm: Rakhine State

In a nation already marred by decades of communist rule and the abject poverty that followed, the looming catastrophe in Rakhine state risks undoing the tentative steps towards democracy the country has taken since 2011. 400,000 members of the state’s persecuted muslim minority, the Rohingya, have fled their homes towards Bangladesh following a brutal security crackdown that began earlier this month. (5) The security crackdown, in turn, was spurned on after a spate of asynchronous insurgent attacks by the organization known as Arakan Rakhine Salvation Army on several police checkpoints in Rakhine.

Myanmar’s Metastasizing Terror Threat
ARSA, previously known as Harakah Al-Yaqin (HaY) grabbed global headlines last October for a series of attacks on police forces and government administration. (6) They are a locally organized, internationally funded insurgent group that displays sophisticated tactics but, crucially, no transnational ambitions. Although they have proclaimed a jihad (holy war) against Myanmar’s government, as well as sought fatwas (religious rulings) on the legality of doing so, it is unlikely the government’s labeling of the group as a transnational terrorist outfit is correct. While no government should ever be forced to condone terrorist behavior, it is crucial to recognize the domestic nature of ARSA’s agenda, rather than using their distant links to global jihadi outfits to justify a security crackdown that will only terrorize civilians and deepen the crisis.

A Spiral of Conflict
Attacks by ARSA represent a microcosm of Jihadi tactics (if not necessarily their aims:) by prompting a heavy-handed response from security forces, they galvanize support among their already marginalized constituency. If the military continues to act with impunity trying to crush the insurgency, the only result will be more suffering among the Rohingya. If this continues for much longer, the half a million Muslims who remain in Rakhine may see groups such as ARSA as their only means of defending themselves. A security vacuum exists, therefore, not just in Rakhine state, but also in the life of each and every one of the 400,000 Rohingya that have been forcefully displaced. If the government fails to construct a comprehensive framework that takes steps towards peace, that void will likely be filled by the increasingly violent and alarmingly radical groups such as ARSA. It is crucial for the government and security forces to renounce overwhelming force as a counter-insurgency strategy and protect the human rights of the already desperate and hopeless Rohingya.

Looming Threats
The longer groups such as ARSA operate, the more support they will receive. If the level of sophistication underpinning their organization reaches critical mass, such as a situation in which they have the networks necessary to conduct attacks throughout the country, they may attract the attention of more globally-focused Jihadi outfits who will seek to destabilize the region to drive up their own recruitment. ARSA, fully committed to civil war with the government of Myanmar by that point, would likely accept further radicalization as a reasonable stipulation of receiving advanced weapons and training. It is at this juncture that no amount of peace initiatives will be able to pull the nation back from the brink. Myanmar will have entered a state of sustained high-intensity internal conflict against global jihadists. This outcome would not only create a humanitarian catastrophe, but have far-reaching ramifications for the entire security neighborhood in Southeast Asia.


Building peace: Crucial steps to resolve the conflict


To the Armed Forces of Myanmar:
It is more crucial than ever that the security forces focus on the protection of their citizens, rather than the outright destruction of violent political groups. The military’s tendency to conduct “clearance operations” not just in Rakhine but also in northern Shan state, where they are battling another insurgency, is counterproductive, serving only to displace civilians and deepen the frustration and anger of long-embattled communities.
Indiscriminate military action reduces the government’s capacity to address the underlying injustices that have caused the conflict in the first place, but steps such as providing media and humanitarian access will go a long way towards reducing support for groups like ARSA. Supporting humanitarian endeavors is not just strategically prudent because it contributes to the alleviation of the economic and civil factors that cause violence, it also serves a tactical purpose: providing security forces with a very legitimate auspices for forward deployment not predicated on invasive missions into exceedingly hostile communities. Should the armed forces of Myanmar partner with INGOs to provide relief to the displaced Rohingya, they may begin to repair their receding reputation and establish lasting peace.

To ARSA, and Members of the Rohingya Considering Armed Resistance:
If the stated aim of aiding the disparaged Rohingya community is a true statement of ARSA’s goals, violence directed at the government is not the solution. Baiting a heavy-handed response by the security forces through indiscriminate attacks will weaken support for the cause of the Rohingya worldwide, and encourage the government to operate with impunity against civilians. Documenting state abuses is a far superior tactic to garner global support. The global community is already shunning the government of Myanmar for their handling of the crisis and displacement of hundreds of thousands, but attacks on military and police cause this condemnation to wane.

To the Aung San Suu Kyi’s Government:
State counsellor and de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi’s hesitancy to denounce the military’s use of clearance operations and deny human rights abuses is understandable, given her strong desire to pursue an agenda of national unity in the wake of the stalled peace conferences of 2016. If she were to fully renounce the military’s actions, it would embolden other armed groups by making her government appear weak and unable to control the rebellious army. To her credit, she has in the past been a champion of human rights and has taken steps to protect minorities, including the Rohingya. However, by not fully denouncing what are now clearly human rights abuses and what may amount to ethnic cleansing, she has secured legitimacy with the nation’s buddhists (and even this is tacit) even as she destroys her reputation on the world stage. With the international community now soundly denouncing her government, she has lost a key element of her future path to success: substantial global support for her personally as a Nobel Laureate of unflinching moral character. While it remains to be seen if the appearance of unity will be more valuable to Suu Kyi’s agenda than international respect, one thing is clear: the victims of her inaction now number in the hundreds of thousands, and the increasingly numerous reports of the burning of villages, mass rape, and the slaughter of children and the elderly utterly alarming.


Conclusion: A Nation on the Brink

Only recently transitioning from military oligarchy to civilian control, the fledgling government of war-weary Myanmar lead by Nobel Laureate Aun San Suu Kyi must now contend with a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the stateless Rohingya and the fully independent Armed Forces of Myanmar. The Muslim minority Rohingya, although numbering less than one million, are experiencing an alarming displacement of over 400,000 of their members that began on August 25th following a violent crackdown by security forces.
The poisonous mix of simmering insurgencies, threatened nationalists, and unprotected minorities present in Myanmar bears a terrifying resemblance to the years predating the conflict in Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. If Aung San Suu Kyi’s government does not act quickly to stem the ambitions of the security forces, appease the Buddhist majority who fear the loss of control, and protect the Rohingya who are experiencing crushing human rights abuses, the conflict could spiral out of control, resulting in total civil war that spurns a migration crisis of terrible proportions.

1) Human Rights Watch reports on Myanmar, 2016
2) Global Security – “Burma became a country by colonial definition, not genuine social evolution”
3) The Guardian – Ma Ba Tha’s growing influence in Mandalay
4) Global Religious Futures – Government Census data on Myanmar
5) BBC – Latest from Rakhine state
6) Time – the world’s newest Muslim insurgency


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