Updated at 6:24 p.m. ET on 2018-08-29
One year ago, at least 720,000 Rohingya began to flee for their lives from their Myanmar homes to the relative safety of Bangladesh.
On the anniversary of the unprecedented exodus into Bangladesh, much has been written about the conflict’s causes, including a first-rate investigative report by Fortify Rights released in July 2018 that makes clear this was a pre-meditated plan by the Myanmar military.
This week an independent U.N. fact-finding team issued a report that found “genocidal intent” and called for senior Myanmar generals to be referred to the International Criminal Court. According to the team’s conservative estimates, up to 10,000 Rohingya were killed during so-called “clearance operations” in Rakhine state.
More has been written about Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral culpability in failing to stop the violence, and trying to whitewash the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Even more has been written about the immense human suffering of the more than 1 million refugees living in squalor, in monsoon-wracked refugee camps.
Yet what’s been missing is any analysis of what the insurgent group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has done since its ill-conceived attacks on Aug. 25, 2017 created the casus belli for genocide.
ARSA has repeatedly stated it has a legitimate right to self-defense under international law, and that it simply has been trying to protect the Rohingya population, to get the Myanmar government to give the population citizenship as well as full legal rights and protections. It has denied links to terrorism, or a secessionist agenda.
ARSA has displayed absolutely no self-awareness of the suffering they have caused.
What was ARSA thinking when it attacked border guard and security posts in an attempt to capture weapons? The insurgents had already infuriated the military leadership when it killed six policemen in a similar raid in October 2016. The military began to move battle-hardened troops and equipment into the region, while training civilian paramilitaries.
ARSA intentionally provoked a military with a 70-year history of scorched earth tactics in constant wars against secessionist minority insurgents. The Tatmadaw has never employed a people-centric counter-insurgency doctrine that strives to win the population’s hearts and minds through good governance and development. The UN panel found their response “grossly disproportionate to actual security threats.”
This was not lost on the Rohingya population, most of whom were subsistence farmers, living in fear after waves of pogroms and sectarian attacks. Few saw an armed campaign as anything but an enormous risk.
But this is the self-fulfilling prophecy of extremist groups, which see themselves as vanguards for their constituents.
Marking the anniversary, ARSA issued a statement condemning the “genocidal military regime,” and reasserted the Rohingyas’ right to self-defense: “We will continue our struggle for our right to exist and further strive in our ancestral land and seek justice for victims of Genocide committed by the Burmese Terrorist Government and its Genocidal Military.” [sic]
Building on human suffering
Since Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh, ARSA has done almost nothing to protect the interests of their people. In September 2017, ARSA announced a one-month humanitarian ceasefire, but the rebels had no capability to resume fighting.
The Tatmadaw has fortified the border with fencing, landmines, and armed patrols to prevent ARSA infiltration. There has been little, let alone a sustained, insurgency against the regime.
In early January 2018, an ARSA ambush wounded six soldiers in northern Rakhine. It was the first ARSA operation since August, and has not been followed up.
ARSA’s primary concern has been to consolidate its power in the camps. There has been a spate of killings of at least 21 community leaders, many of whom were outspoken opponents of ARSA, blaming their actions for the community’s plight.
Anti-ARSA activists claimed that by April 2018 they had turned over 15 ARSA members to Bangladeshi authorities. This has prompted revenge attacks.
With rivals eliminated or silenced, ARSA has been focusing on indoctrination and recruitment. And while joining ARSA in the hopes of forcing the Tatmadaw to make concessions may seem quixotic – in the context of the largest refugee camp in the world, where sexual violence and other insecurities exist – membership in a militant group is a rational choice: it accords protection and additional resources.
It seems unlikely that an armed insurgency will gather steam. Bangladesh has every incentive to quash militancy, in the hopes that it can negotiate the return of the Rohingya. Bangladeshi authorities have tried to stanch the acquisition of weapons by the Rohingya, and they arrested an ARSA leader for organizing in the camps.
ARSA has objected to the return of refugees. A voluntary return agreement was reached between Dhaka and Naypyidaw in November 2017. To date, few refugees have been willing to return without legal protections. As such, ARSA seems to be settling in for the long haul, building on human suffering.
Even ARSA’s short-lived propaganda campaign of YouTube videos and audio statements, which emerged in 2016-2017, seems to be in hiatus. With the exception of a few press releases, its leadership has been in hiding.
Which begs the terrorism question.
Fighting terrorism has always been the Tatmadaw’s justification. Without offering any proof, they draw a straight line between Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), the former name of ARSA, to international terrorist organizations, claiming that ARSA seeks to establish an Islamic State. The Myanmar government declared ARSA a terrorist organization in October 2017.
Myanmar’s concerns were bolstered when al-Qaeda issued a statement in September 2017 in defense of the Rohingya, quickly followed by similar appeals in pro-Islamic State media organs. Neither group has done much of anything to support the Rohingya.
In a recent speech in Singapore, Suu Kyi parroted the Tatmadaw, arguing that targeting ARSA made the region safer from the threat of terrorism.
“The danger of terrorist activities, which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine remains real and present today. Unless this security challenge is addressed the risk of inter-communal violence will remain. It is a threat that could have grave consequences, not just for Myanmar but also for other countries in our region and beyond,” the de facto Myanmar leader said.
The irony is that as the conflict becomes protracted, people will be more willing to take more desperate actions. The chief of Malaysia’s police counterterrorist special branch has raised this concern.
“There is always a possibility that these Rohingya people will be exposed to Salafi jihadi ideology, get recruited and get sent back to Rakhine state to wage this so called jihad war,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said Monday during an international symposium in Kuala Lumpur on counterterrorism.
The danger of a radicalized diaspora
ARSA has continuously denied links to terrorism. In a July 29, 2018 press release, it reiterated that it had no ties to al-Qaeda, the Islamic State or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT): “We do not welcome the involvement of these groups in the Arakan conflict.”
The insurgent group said that it wanted states to intercept militants coming to join ARSA and that it would cooperate with states over counter-terrorism.
While there clearly is a threat of the Rohingya within the camps being radicalized, in many ways the greater threat comes from the radicalization of the diaspora. Malaysia, which has accepted over 100,000 Rohingya, is acutely aware of the threat. It has arrested both nationals and third party citizens en route to join the struggle in Rakhine.
But with no end in sight, with both ARSA and the Myanmar government hunkering down, extremism seems likelier. That bodes ill for regional security, and even worse for the Rohingya.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.
CORRECTION: An earlier version wrongly identified ARSA as the Arakhan Rohingya Solidarity Army.