Escalating Tensions in Myanmar: Conflict Between the Rohingya Muslim Minority and Security Forces

Justin Graham

On October 9th, militants in the north-western Rakhine state of Myanmar launched three simultaneous, coordinated strikes against border-police posts held by government security forces.  The militants, numbering anywhere from 250 to 800 strong, armed with knives, slingshots, and a few firearms, killed 30 police officers, and escaped with at least 50 guns and over 10,000 rounds of ammunition.  Over the last month, there has been an escalation in armed clashes between security forces and this militant group. 

The troubling part of this story is who the attackers were: members of Myanmar’s oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority group.  Both government and local sources corroborate that fact, and a video circulating around Myanmar’s social networks, purporting to be of the attackers, shows one member of the group calling on all “Rohingya around the world to prepare for jihad and join” the attackers in their assault.  As the International Crisis Group puts it: the video, “the need for local knowledge to carry out the assaults, and the difficulty of moving large numbers of people around this area are all suggestive of local Muslim involvement – possibly organized with some outside support.”  The group could potentially be a resurgent form of the RSO, or Rohingya Solidarity Organization, which operated in the 1990s as a terrorist organization advocating a form of Rohingya nationalism.

Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority have essentially become a stateless nation within Myanmar, as the country refuses to recognize members of the Rohingya group as citizens, and tensions with Buddhist-majority Myanmar have exploded in the past, particularly in 2012, when conflict resulted in the deaths of 200 people, and 150,000 members of the Rohingya forced into squalid camps where most still languish, four years later.  In Rakhine, tensions are further compounded by the fact that 90% of all people living in the region are Rohingya community members.  Even with a democratic transition ongoing in Myanmar, the Rohingya have largely been left out of the process – marginalized and persecuted by Buddhist leaders.

Myanmar’s brutal mistreatment of the Rohingya community leaves them ripe for recruitment into terrorist organizations, as evidenced by the attacks carried out last month.  However, the government’s response to the attacks has been a string of high-handed, poorly targeted, ethnic revenge killings, instead of a legitimate counter-terrorism strategy.  Since the October 9th attacks, security forces have killed more than 100 people, most of whom were civilians, and burned down over 430 homes across Rohingya villages.  Over the last month, 3,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to seek shelter and China, and more than 500 people entered refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh just last weekend.

While Myanmar’s government should pursue terrorists, killing civilians and pursuing a campaign of ethnic-based persecution will only lead to a riper recruiting ground for whichever organization(s) carried out the attacks last month.  The real pathway to peace lies in ending attacks by security forces against civilians and entire villages, moving Rohingya members out of squalid camps, and giving the group real rights, incorporating them into Myanmar’s larger society.  That however, seems unlikely, as even the vaunted Aung San Suu Kyi has taken to calling Rohingya members “Bengalis,” in an attempt to emphasize their foreignness – and some might say, to dehumanize people, who like it or not, are part of her country.