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.

Duterte Money: Geoeconomics, America, and the Philippines

Michael Green

“I announce my separation from the United States, both militarily and economically” proclaimed Rodrigo Duterte in mid-October to an audience of Chinese businesspeople. “America has lost.” Having called Obama a “son of a whore” - among numerous other disparaging remarks about America and its president - Duterte has launched an ostensible rebalancing towards China. He speaks of “realigned… in your ideological flow “. This constitutes a drastic break from the policies of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, the pro-American foreign policy of whom was epitomised by pursuing a case against China in the Permanent Court of Appeals for UNCLOS. What does this rejection of American security cooperation mean for US policy in Asia? How should the State Department regain favour with the erstwhile linchpin of its much-vaunted ‘pivot’?

Before formulating a prognosis, it is important to note the prior advantages possessed by the US in terms of relations with the Philippines. 90% of Filipinos view the US favourably, there is a millions-strong diaspora therein, and America is its second largest trading partner. Colonial links stretch back decades. There is a longstanding security relationship, including five bases and an American program to help train Philippine forces against insurgents on the southern region of Mindanao. Indeed, the Filipino establishment is outraged by the apparently reckless behaviour of Duterte, and even dignitaries within the government explicitly downplay Duterte’s iconoclasm. In the words of Trade Minister Ramon Lopez, “the statement the President made maintains the relationship with the West”. The US-Philippines alliance is unlikely to disintegrate any time soon.

Nevertheless, overtures to China are clearly being made. This is for two reasons: firstly, Duterte’s brutal and merciless anti-drugs campaign has flagrantly contravened commitments to Human Rights and the Rule of Law, both championed by the US and ignored by China; secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Duterte feels that the economic benefits to be gained by alignment with China outweigh the geopolitical costs. The US thus faces the challenge, without abandoning its values, of convincing ordinary Filipinos that the fruits of pursuing quasi-suzerain obeisance towards China will not match the largesse of the United States.

The US already provides over $40 million per year in military aid to the Philippines, but this is not felt by average Filipinos. Given the already overwhelming military superiority of the US armed forces in the region, there is scope for replacement of some of this military aid with direct investment in development and infrastructure. Certainly, the US already provides significant non-military aid to the Philippines ($150 million in 2012), and is a massive contributor to multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank that attempt to achieve these aims. Even so, in order to pre-empt geostrategic realignment on the part of the Philippines, the US could transition into providing a greater amount of more visible non-military aid. Although unable to emulate the Chinese by using State-owned Enterprises to build infrastructure, the US can encourage investment through various incentives, including giving greater support to providers of FDI. This, in conjunction with augmentation of extant aid, can increase both economic ties and American soft power. Tax incentives could even play a part. With enough trade and investment, Filipinos might be convinced of the relative gains of siding with the US. Duterte may have announced separation from the United States, but American munificence could lead to rapprochement. 

North Korea's Rocket Launch

Hubert Cruz

North Korea launched a long-range rocket last Sunday (7 February), claiming it was used to place a satellite into orbit. The act was widely regarded by other nations as a guise for ballistic missile testing, which North Korea is prohibited from conducting under United Nations sanctions. Reports suggest that the range of the missile fired was up to 13,800km, meaning it could reach the continental US.


The rocket launch drew significant backlash from the international community. The US Senate swiftly approved new financial sanctions against North Korea, while South Korea suspended operations at the Kaesong factory complex, a compound jointly run with its neighbour. After an urgent meeting, the UN Security Council said the rocket launch was a threat to world security and clear violation of UN resolutions. The Security Council is already considering tougher sanctions over North Korea’s fourth nuclear test a few weeks ago.


The situation became complicated as China, a major ally of Pyongyang, only expressed a subtle statement of regret over the incident. Beijing worries that further sanctions would push North Korea towards political and economic collapse, and has expressed deep concerns over the US’ intent to deploy an advanced missile-defence shield in South Korea, warning that such a move would only escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.


What is the significance of North Korea’s latest rocket launch? Should the UN Security Council adopt tougher sanctions against North Korea? What is the best strategy to build sustainable peace in the Korean Peninsula? Whatever your view, send it in - via Twitter, Facebook or our website. If you would like to learn more about the issue, here are a few useful articles:


Eurasia Review – North Korea’s Rocket Launch: Tension In Northeast Asia Returns – Analysis


The Wall Street Journal – North Korea Rocket Launch Shows Few Gains in Capabilities, Seoul Says


Washington Post – North Korea’s rocket launch shows that Mr. Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ has failed