Since Rohingya militant attacks on Myanmar border police last October and the a retaliatory security force crackdown, an uneasy lull has descended over northern Rakhine State. Major military-led “area clearance operations” have given way to occasional arrests of suspected militants. On February 9, an earlier 11 hour evening to early morning curfew was reduced to eight.
But any suggestion that the current lockdown in northern Rakhine that still remains sealed off from independent observers will see a return to what passes for normality can almost certainly be dismissed, with security analysts and diplomats in Yangon predicting renewed violence in the months ahead. A clash this week that injured two government soldiers along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border underscored those concerns.
Described in a ground-breaking International Crisis Group report in December as the Harakah al Yaqin (HaY), or Movement of Faith, the ethnic Rohingya insurgent group emerged from the unrest of 2012, when scores were killed in communal rioting involving Buddhist and Muslim mobs.
With a leadership council reportedly based in Saudi Arabia and apparently committed to securing Rohingya rights within Myanmar, HaY has been building up a clandestine village infrastructure and providing rudimentary guerrilla training to recruits since at least 2014.
That agenda appears to distance the group from virulent strains of transnational jihadism espoused by Islamic State and Al Qaeda. But regional intelligence sources are concerned that a combination of military pressure on HaY and a lack of ideological cohesion in its leadership could render an essentially moderate movement with local goals vulnerable to the blandishments of Bangladeshi Islamist radicals with wider jihadist connections and agendas.
Given the sheer savagery of the security force campaign – condemned in a United Nations report released on February 3 as likely involving “crimes against humanity” – events on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border suggest that further trouble is brewing.
Since the HaY attacks on border police on October 9 and a major clash that followed on November 12, many militants not caught up in mass arrests are believed to have fled into Bangladesh where, according to regional intelligence sources, they are now regrouping and planning.
At the same time, a measure of low-level insurgent activity has continued on the Myanmar side of the border. Some of the violence has gone unreported in mainstream media but has been covered in on-the-ground reports circulated over social media.
In other cases, incidents have been briefly reported in Myanmar’s state-run media, though without any fanfare that might suggest a deliberate attempt by authorities to play up an ongoing “terrorist” threat with links to the Middle East.
Security analysts in Yangon estimate that since the October 9 attacks, in which nine police officers and eight militants died and now viewed as the shadowy insurgent group’s first salvo in what threatens to become a wider conflict, a further 10-15 security force personnel have been killed.
Rohingya fatalities in the military crackdown have officially been set at over 100, while reports from international organizations estimate several hundred people may have been killed in often indiscriminate sweeps through villages.
To date, residual militant operations in the affected area of Maungdaw and parts of Buthidaung township have involved three distinct tactics, albeit in a tentative fashion that suggests would-be insurgents are still testing the waters.
One has been pinprick hit-and-run attacks on security forces and what appears to be reconnaissance probing of likely targets. Sources in Yangon noted that in the period between mid-November and mid-January there had been somewhere between 10 and 20 mostly minor incidents.
Two incidents covered by the state-run Myanmar News Agency (MNA) provided some reflection of the current situation in the blacked out area. The first involved an attack in the first week of January on a police post in Norula village in Maungdaw, the township where most of the violence has been centered.
It was carried out by six militants on motorcycles who reportedly killed one policeman. The MNA report of January 7 failed to mention whether any militants had been captured or killed, but did note that a pistol and three motorcycles were seized from the attackers.
Another incident in the early hours of February 3 involved an estimated six men approaching Aung Zayya police station, also in Maungdaw. Police reportedly opened fired into the darkness, driving off the intruders and following up with an apparently fruitless “area clearance operation.” It was unclear whether the incident was a foiled insurgent attack or simply a probing operation aimed to test police responses.
A secondary tactic has involved occasional use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This was immediately evident in the first days of the unrest when several devices were used in Maungdaw.
Since then a small number of further incidents have occurred, though apparently without inflicting serious casualties. As one Yangon-based analyst with sources in the security service put it in mid-January: “Since October they have hit their targets less than five times.”
What evidence is available suggests that these IEDs have been produced in only limited numbers and remain fairly crude. One device reportedly found and disarmed by security forces in Maungdaw on November 16 was made from car engine parts, suggesting an inability to source or locally manufacture more suitable bomb-making materials.
Moreover, those deployed to date appear all to have been triggered by unsophisticated battery-charged hard-wire connections rather than remote detonation using mobile telephone or radio transceivers, which would permit less risky stand-off attacks and pose a far more serious threat.
A third militant tactic employed in recent weeks has been targeted killing of Rohingya Muslims known or suspected of being security force intelligence assets. At a time when the HaY is likely to be seeking to re-infiltrate from across the border and reestablish a clandestine village-level network, this tactic has been fairly blatant and involved over 10 victims to date, some stabbed or beaten to death, others abducted and disappeared.
At least two victims were serving or former village headmen, individuals likely to be vulnerable to pressure or blandishments from local security forces to provide information. According to one report carried in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar on February 4, the result in one area has been that “no one dares tell the truth and cooperate with authorities.”
It remains to be seen whether the current low tempo of militant activity gains traction and escalates into a more serious insurgency; or alternatively can be effectively suppressed beneath a suffocating security lockdown akin to that imposed by Chinese security forces with notable success across the violence-prone Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang in that country’s remote far west.
Several factors, however, militate against a similarly effective lock-down in northwestern Myanmar. Most compelling is the existence of a militant organization already embedded on both sides of Myanmar’s international border.
Much of this organizational infrastructure will have been seriously disrupted by the sheer ferocity of the security force response and the flight of an estimated 69,000 refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.
But ongoing HaY activity inside Myanmar indicates that the organization has survived the onslaught. The new refugee presence inside Bangladesh, meanwhile, will undoubtedly prove fertile ground for further recruitment by HaY cadres regrouping in the border districts of Teknaf and Ukhia.
Secondly, international publicity and a new wave of condemnation of Myanmar security force atrocities against unarmed civilians is likely to galvanize both financial assistance from the broader international Rohingya diaspora and logistical support from sympathetic Islamist extremists groups in Bangladesh.
Thirdly, any prospect of a sustained security lockdown will inevitably be undermined by the porous nature of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. From the mouth of the Naf River at its southern extremity to the jungled hills at its northern end, the border runs for 271 kilometers.
To date, patrols by para-military police on both sides reinforced by several stretches of fencing have proved conspicuously ineffective in countering cross-border flows of contraband narcotics, cattle and people. The chaos of recent months on the Myanmar side of the line will not have improved that situation.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based analyst and security consultant