Myanmar’s Rohingya conflict risks spiraling out of control
Violence begets violence, and in Myanmar, that’s exactly what the military and nascent Muslim insurgency — Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY) — may seek, in order to advance their broader objectives.
Since fighters from HaY, or “Faith Movement” in Arabic, attacked border guard posts and killed 9 officers in October in the restive Rakhine State, the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, has waged a disproportionate and indiscriminate counterinsurgency campaign on the local Rohingya Muslims, according to activists. The intensive operation has seen an estimated 65,000 flee to neighboring Bangladesh, while killings, rapes, and the mass destruction of Rohingya homes have all been reported by various human rights organizations.
This latest episode of conflict in Rakhine builds on decades of violence and discrimination faced by the minority Rohingya Muslims at the hands of nationalists, and complicit governments, in the majority Buddhist Myanmar, also known as Burma. And when the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi became the nation’s de facto leader last April, it was widely assumed that she would protect the Rohingya. But, with her passivity on the issue, HaY has since emerged with the aim to violently defend and advance Rohingya rights in Myanmar.
The ongoing plight has driven support for the insurgency inside Rakhine, such that it now has “several hundred locally trained recruits” according to International Crisis Group. And, with the global spotlight on Myanmar following the landslide election victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, intense media coverage has helped HaY garner the support and sympathy of foreign patrons across Asia and the Middle East.
The widespread images of Muslim persecution in the news and on social media, also risks attracting jihadist fighters, much like Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Syria, before it. Malaysian officials recently warned that Myanmar faces the threat of attacks from the Islamic State group’s regional networks, building on the Pakistani Taliban and al-Shabaab‘s vows to avenge the Buddhist-led violence. Meanwhile, the depraved and hopeless situation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and Malaysia makes them susceptible to radical groups.
Reports of a riled-up, powerful, and extremist insurgency, in turn, drives the military narrative to maintain a heavy-handed presence in Rakhine, to push-out the Rohingya altogether, and to reclaim land and resources in the state. And makes it substantially harder for Suu Kyi’s administration to condemn, particularly given the strongly anti-Muslim electorate — not to mention the government’s limited control over the Tatmadaw. It means the stand-off between the military and HaY is at a turning point where further violence helps to broadcast and justify their respective causes.
Initially, HaY may seek small attacks on the military and the resultant reprisals as a means to boost their following, and eventually amass enough support to carry enough threat to help push for greater Rohingya autonomy. False stories of military atrocities may also be spread to further their cause. And if global jihadist fighters become drawn into the battle, the insurgency may become more directly combative and expand its objectives. Whatever happens, the Tatmadaw and Buddhist nationalists are unlikely to back down, using the violence and their own propaganda to justify a continued assault. And so, the crisis risks becoming a self-reinforcing conflict.
As a result, it will become increasingly difficult, and delicate, for the international community to pressure the government on protecting the Rohingya. Diplomats will have to carefully navigate defending civilians without taking sides or inadvertently buoying support for the insurgency. While calling for a non-violent negotiatory approach on both sides, will likely fall on deaf ears, given the palpable hostility — preventing the cycles of conflict from being broken. And, Suu Kyi’s arms will also be tied, as she seeks to avoid alienating herself from Buddhist nationalists and the military.
It means global leaders are racing against the clock to push the government into an unlikely public gesture that may assuage the Rohingya, and its foreign sponsors, before the violence begins to spiral. Regional leaders will also have a critical role in quashing extremist sentiment among the Rohingya and Muslim diaspora, as well monitoring terrorist-financing networks, and the potential flow of fighters at Burmese borders.
After years of neglect, the Rohingya crisis has inevitably intensified and grown ever more complex — shrinking the window, and capacity, for definitive action. And as the conflict simmers, damage limitation may be the only remaining option.