Myanmar Update March 2018

By Nick Carpenter, Lynx Fellow


In October of 2016 in the village of Kyiganbyin, in the Myanmar (also known as Burma) a group of armed men with knives and blunt objects stormed police checkpoints on the Myanmar Bangladesh boarder. According to state media six police officers and eight of the attackers were killed and two were arrested by police. The attackers also managed to make off with dozens of the Myanmar police’s firearms and a sizable amount of ammunition. [1] Following the attack, the assailants quickly slipped back across the border with Bangladesh.

Violence is nothing new in Myanmar’s poorest state, Rakhine. The region has been the scene of ethnic tension between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine people that spans decades. These tensions turned violent in 2012 when riots broke out. 100 Rohingya were killed by Rakhine. Since then sporadic violence—usually targeted at the Rohingya—has killed countless others and has caused hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The Rohingya also face ethnically motivated discrimination from the Myanmar government. The Rohingya are not given citizenship rights in Myanmar and face oppressive population control measures implemented by the government.[2]

Although violence in Rakhine is a common occurrence in recent years, the October 2016 episode marks something altogether different. The men who stormed the border posts were believed to be Rohingya. What is more, a group calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) later claimed responsibility.[3] ARSA claims it has been training and organizing Rohingya in the border region between Bangladesh and Myanmar since 2013. Their stated goal is to defend Rohingya civilians from violence from both the Myanmar government and Rakhine Buddhists.[4] Since 2016, ARSA has made other attacks on government posts at an ever-increasing rate, including the most devastating attack to date in August of 2017 in which 59 ARSA fighters and at least a dozen Myanmar security personnel were killed.[5]

From these increasingly violent and organized attacks, it is clear that some Rohingya have turned to violent resistance as a response to their worsening human security situation. What this has done is create a new security challenge for the government of Myanmar. Not only does the government now face an ethnically fueled insurgency, but they also risk a region-wide escalation of the conflict with their neighbor, Bangladesh, as ARSA uses Bangladesh as a refuge and staging ground for its attacks. Another outcome of the heightened tension in Rakine is that Rakhine Buddhists are likely to view ARSA attacks as a threat to their communities and potentially respond with more violence toward Rohingya as a means of perceived self-defense.

The Rakhine state sits on a powder keg that has created one of the worst modern refugee crises, has created a new insurgency, raised tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and put the lives of tens of thousands of people—Rohingya and Rakhine alike—at risk. It will be up to the Myanmar government to solve the Rakhine crisis. The government’s solution thus far has been a violent crackdown on the Rohingya. The government has been accused of shooting unarmed civilians and burning villages in an attempt to root out ARSA fighters.[6] This has largely been counterproductive and has only served to greatly increase Rohingya flight from Myanmar and push Rohingya civilians into the arms of ARSA.

So what is to be done? Since Myanmar government’s heavy-handed approach has only made the situation worse, the government must adopt an alternative solution. To stabilize the Rakhine state and end the violence, the Myanmar Government solution to the Rakhine crisis should be through improving the human security situation and developing a political solution that grants Rohingya Muslims citizenship rights and full legal protections.

Improving the human security situation in Rakhine will be crucial for ending the violence in the state. The military should make efforts to shield both Rohingya and Rakhine civilians and property form violent attacks. Violent episodes in Rakhine—outside of ARSA engagement with government forces and the subsequent crackdowns—has largely been inter-communal violence between Rohingya and Rakhine non-state actors.[7]  The tendency of the Myanmar government to only respond to Rohingya attacks on the Buddhist population must stop if the government wishes in earnest to thwart ARSA and stabilize Rakhine.  Instead the Myanmar government should make it clear to aggressors on both sides that violence will not be tolerated.[8] This will accomplish three things: It will eliminate Rakine fears of attacks from ARSA or Rohingya groups, it will enable a safe environment for Rohingya refugees to return to their homes and will reduce the incentives for new would-be refugees to flee, and finally it will eliminate ARSA’s central claim that only it is capable of defending Rohingya civilians.[9] This will hinder ARSA’s draw amongst the general population by eliminating its political relevance. Without a politically relevant narrative, recruiting, gathering support, and mobilizing the Rohingya population will become much more difficult.

Providing physical security for Rohingya and Rakhine lives and property will not be enough. To truly stabilize Rakhine and bring an end to the violence, the Myanmar government must address the underlying issues that caused the instability in the first place. The Myanmar government must grant Rohingya Muslims full citizenship rights and legal protections. They must also end the oppressive population control measures that they have put in place on the Rohingya. By granting Rohingya full citizenship and legal rights, they will be better protected against Rakhine attacks, there will be less of an incentive to flee the country, and most importantly, it will discredit ARSA’s message. Establishing security and order in Rakhine, granting legal status, and repealing oppressive policies targeting Rohingya people will of course not be enough to completely end the insurgency. It will need to be followed up by a comprehensive security, humanitarian aide, economic, and refugee resettlement strategies. Myanmar will also need to address the issue of ARSA members using Bangladesh as a sanctuary and staging ground for attacks.  However, preventing Rohingya and Rakine from attacking each other in Rakine state, expending Rohingya civil rights and granting the Rohingya citizenship are all important steps in rooting out the core issues of the Rakine conflict. And it’s the best chance the government has for dealing with ARSA and solving the security situation in Rakine.








[8] There is a broad range of strategies and tactics that the Myanmar military can use to accomplish this task that will not be recounted here.