Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase

Rohingya run from a fire set in their village

The mass flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine State has created a humanitarian catastrophe and serious security risks, including potential cross-border militant attacks.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a Southeast Asian nation of more than 100 ethnic groups, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand.

Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the country’s largest city, is home to bustling markets, numerous parks and lakes, and the t,owering, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, which contains Buddhist relics and dates to the 6th century.

More than 300,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee their ancestral homeland in Myanmar’s western region of Rakhine amid a campaign of murder, torture, arson and mass rape by Myanmar security forces and allied Buddhist mobs.

The latest mass exodus, which began on August 25, comes after a small group of Rohingya men attacked around 30 police and army posts in Rakhine State, killing 12 officers, according to the government.

The response of Myanmar’s military to militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s (ARSA) August attacks has led to one of the most catastrophically fast refugee exoduses in modern times. More than 624,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, creating the world’s largest refugee camp.

The eviction of the Rohingya community from Myanmar is far from the end of the crisis. The situation is transforming Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations, and potential future cross-border attacks by ARSA militants could increase tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Burma’s civilian-led government, which took office in March 2016, has failed to meet expectations to implement significant reforms.

Since October 2016, security forces have carried out a series of brutal crackdowns on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and widespread arson, leading to hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.

Ongoing fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups has intensified in Shan and Kachin States, causing mass displacement. Authorities continue to use repressive laws to arrest and prosecute activists for criticizing the government or armed forces.

The military remains the country’s most powerful institution, with control of key ministries and autonomy from civilian oversight.

Imposing targeted sanctions can send an important message and potentially deter others from similar actions against minority communities. But they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar. Even as they impose targeted sanctions, the international community should continue to provide humanitarian support for Rohingya refugees and resist pressure to disengage from the country.

Three months after militant attacks triggered a brutal army operation targeting Rohingya Muslim communities in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, more than 624,000 have fled to Bangladesh, one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times.

In addition to unimaginable human suffering, the crisis has transformed Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations and will have a huge impact on the regional security landscape.

Myanmar is rapidly losing what remains of the enormous international good-will that its 2016 political transition had generated.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in particular has been widely criticised for failing to use her moral authority and domestic legitimacy to shift anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar and the government’s current course. Meanwhile, the exodus continues and will likely soon reach its tragic end point: the almost complete depopulation of Rohingya from northern Rakhine State.

As the world struggles to define a response, and as the crisis enters a new, fraught and highly uncertain phase, several important elements need to be borne in mind. First, there needs to be continued insistence on the right of refugees to return in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner.

At the same time, the grim reality is that the vast majority of the Rohingya in Bangladesh will not be going home any time soon. This presents the enormous humanitarian challenge of sustaining lives and dignity in the largest refugee camp in the world.

It also presents grave political and security risks that need to be addressed, including potential cross-border attacks by the ARSA militant group and possible transnational terrorism.

Second, it is important to recognise that Myanmar’s political direction has been set and will be extremely difficult to change. The strength of the national consensus is hard to overstate: the government, military and almost the entire population of the country are united on this issue as on no other in its modern history. This will make it extraordinarily difficult to move official policy.

Any imposition of sanctions thus requires careful deliberation: they can help send a welcome signal that might deter others around the world contemplating similar actions, but they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar and, depending on what precisely is done, could make the situation worse.

This report examines the lead-up to the ARSA attacks on 25 August 2017, revealing new and significant details about the group’s preparations, and the attacks themselves.

This is based on research in Myanmar and Bangladesh since October 2016, including interviews with members of ARSA, analysis of WhatsApp messages sent by the group and its supporters, publicly-posted videos and interviews with villagers in Rakhine State and recently-arrived refugees in Bangladesh.

Much of the research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the Rohingya language. The report also assesses the impact the crisis will have on Myanmar. Finally, it discusses some possible international policy responses.

 

 


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