Myanmar’s Rakhine State is in flames once again. An estimated 270,000 Rohingya Muslims have crossed from this troubled region in northwest Myanmar to Bangladesh, fleeing counterinsurgency operations carried out by the Myanmar Army.
The military offensive is a response to a series of coordinated attacks launched in Maungdaw District on August 25 against three dozen police outposts by an estimated 1,000 militants associated with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an armed group that emerged for the first time in October last year.
The violence has already triggered the biggest Rohingya exodus in history and is ongoing at the time of writing.
The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, is fighting a particular “war on terror.” Immediately after ARSA launched it attacks last month, the government officially declared it a “terrorist organization.” Government officials have claimed that ARSA has links with jihadist groups like Islamic State or al-Qaeda. While nobody has shown any evidence so far, there is a distinct possibility that these groups could enter the picture if the region descends into further chaos.
The portrayal of ARSA as a Rohingya terrorist outfit is helping the Tatmadaw to boost its popularity in the country to an unprecedented degree. The civilian wing of the government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and most of the population are closing ranks with the military against the foreign threat posed by what officials refer to as “Bengali terrorists”, often without making clear distinctions between militants and the general Rohingya population.
Whether the word terrorism is adequate to describe ARSA or not, it carries strong emotional connotations – all the more intense in our post-9/11 world. The use of the term in connection with the Rohingya is more plausible now than before: for the first time in decades there is a Rohingya armed group active in Rakhine.
ARSA, or elements associated with it, seem to have targeted civilians in Rakhine state, despite claims made its leadership of fighting only against security forces.
The emergence of this “terrorist threat” is to a certain extent a self-fulfilling prophecy which has been years in the making. The portrayal of the Rohingya as “terrorists” has been touted for years, long before ARSA emerged, and got widespread currency among the local Rakhine population after the waves of sectarian violence that pitted them against the Muslims in 2012.
Rohingya leaders have for years advocated non-violent strategies to regain their people’s rights, fully aware that taking weapons against the Tatmadaw would unleash a terrible backlash against their own people
With the allegations of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and the “demographic explosion” of the Rohingya population, estimated before the recent exodus at around 1.1 million in Rakhine state, is one of the main elements that has underpinned their demonization.
The Rohingya have a history of armed struggle, as do most ethnic groups in the country, whose zenith was the Mujahid Rebellion in the aftermath of independence in 1948. But that insurgency was defeated in 1961, and subsequent armed groups like the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) have been largely inactive for decades.
Rohingya leaders have for years advocated non-violent strategies to regain their people’s rights, fully aware that taking weapons against the Tatmadaw would unleash a terrible backlash against their own people.
ARSA had allegedly recruited and trained Rohingya young men three years before the attacks of last October. At that time, four years had passed since the sectarian violence of 2012 that sent up to 140,000 Rohingya to camps in Bangladesh without any prospect of returning to their homes.
With the ostensible rationale of maintaining peace between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine communities, the government has maintained a strict separation in many areas of the state which will make any possible reconciliation difficult.
Until May 2015, many Rohingya were able to flee to Malaysia (and to a lesser extent Indonesia), often putting themselves in the hands of ruthless mafias of human smugglers. But that exit route was closed when the Thai and Malaysian governments dismantled those criminal networks.
Unable to vote in the 2015 elections, the Rohingya were also deprived of even a token participation in the country’s political life. The victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 elections arouse some hopes among the Rohingya community. But the new government has not brought any tangible or positive change to their lives.
The appeal of ARSA is far from universal among the Muslim population in Rakhine state, but this context of utter hopelessness provides the key to understanding why so many young men have decided to join a struggle doomed to failure.
The only glimmer of hope for the Rohingya was the commission headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, appointed by Suu Kyi in 2016 to investigate the situation in Rakhine state and submit recommendations for policy change. The recommendations were contained in a report submitted only a few hours before ARSA launched its attacks last month.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that ARSA timed its attacks to coincide with the report’s release. In a statement made public after the attacks, the militants claimed that the Tatmadaw had increased its military presence in the Maungdaw district and conducted raids against the area’s Rohingya to “derail” the report recommendations.
Then ARSA launched its attacks to “defend the helpless people and ourselves.” According to this twisted logic, it would seem that ARSA conducted the attacks that derailed the commission’s recommendations in order to prevent the Tatmadaw from doing so.
Whatever the immediate circumstance preceding ARSA’s latest wave of attacks, it is impossible to portray them as “defensive.” And while the ultimate goal of ARSA’s leadership remains a mystery, it is inconceivable that they did not foresee an entirely predictable brutal backlash against their own civilian population. Moreover, such a backlash could well have been part of their calculations.
There is possibly only one specific context in which it is possible to portray as “defensive” clearly offensive actions and justify as “protective” a move that will lead one’s own civilians to an almost certain death: the context of a genocide, a crime that ARSA has attributed to the Tatmadaw
Some activists and rights groups have argued that the Rohingya are the victims of “genocide” carried out by the Myanmar state, a notion that gained wider currency after 2012. The word has been increasingly used in media reports since then and has become associated with the Rohingya’s plight.
The genocide narrative has also become deeply embedded in the psyche of the Rohingya themselves, both in Myanmar and among the diaspora. As the accusation of terrorism from the other side, it makes any negotiated solution highly difficult.
Some have argued that a “slow burning” genocide started around 1978, when the regime of General Ne Win launched the Operation Dragon King with the stated purpose of identifying illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. At that time, 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from the heavy-handed methods of the army and security forces, but most were allowed to return after a few months.
Ever since, the Rohingya have been subjected to oppressive policies that have been increasingly pervasive, but also erratic. The Myanmar state has acted in an ad-hoc manner throughout, sometimes provoking events and at other times reacting to them; sometimes using the Rohingya as political pawns – as when it allowed them to vote in the elections held in 2010 to counterweight the Rakhine nationalist parties – and sometimes as convenient scapegoats.
The Rohingya have been the victims of multiple state-sponsored crimes against humanity, as have other ethnic minorities and the Bamar majority. Others have been directed specifically at the Rohingya, most importantly the crime of apartheid, to which they have been subjected for decades, including policies aimed at reducing their birth rates. They have also suffered bouts of ethnic cleansing, as the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, a city that drove out its Rohingya population five years ago, shows.
While the ultimate goal of ARSA’s leadership remains a mystery, it is inconceivable that they did not foresee an entirely predictable brutal backlash against their own civilian population
Realities on the ground, harsh as they are, belie the notion of genocide. While the Rohingya are victimized in general terms, the conditions vary enormously from place to place. And not all Rohingya are victims to the same degree; some are even relatively wealthy. Most Rohingya live in abject misery, but so do most of their Rakhine neighbors, whose lives are not much different in the second poorest state in the country.
The sum of these crimes does not amount to genocide, but it has contributed to create the conditions in which a genocide, or at least an even more brutal ethnic cleansing, is possible provided there is a trigger strong enough to make the Rohingya appear as an existential threat to Myanmar. ARSA’s emergence might well be such a trigger.
The tragedy unfolding in Rakhine state now is further alienating the Rohingya still living in Myanmar. Both sides in the fighting seem to be feeding each other’s fires: the more ARSA attacks, the more brutal the Tatmadaw’s response and the more popular support it gets.
And the more the Tatmadaw attacks civilians, the more Rohingya youth will be pushed to join ARSA. It is difficult to make predictions in an extremely volatile situation, but the Rohingya crisis appears to be reaching a point of no return. Both ARSA and the Tatmadaw seem to be sleepwalking into the self-fulfillment of their worst prophecies.