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A Rohingya refugee looks at the full moon with a child in tow at Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Report 292 / Asia

Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase

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. The international community should press the Myanmar government to urgently implement the Annan commission’s proposals, including as regards discrimination, segregation and citizenship.

  • What’s the issue?  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.
  • Why does it matter?  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.
  • What should be done?  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.

Executive Summary

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 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 Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (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.

Brussels, 7 December 2017

I. Background to the Crisis

While the current crisis is rooted in longstanding discrimination and denial of human rights, the immediate trigger was the emergence of a militant group within the Rohingya population in the north of Rakhine State.[fn]For detailed background on the situation in Rakhine State, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013. For other recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 149, Myanmar’s Peace Process: Getting to a Political Dialogue, 19 October 2016; 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; also Asia Reports N°s 290, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, 5 September 2017; 287, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, 29 June 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote This hardened national sentiment toward the Rohingya and shifted the calculus of the security forces.

Harakah al-Yaqin, subsequently rebranded in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), first began organising itself after deadly communal violence in 2012. It launched its initial attacks – coordinated assaults on the Border Guard Police (BGP) headquarters and two other bases – on 9 October 2016. Previous armed militant groups had been based in the hills (the Arakan mujahidin in the 1950s), or launched hit-and-run attacks from across the border in Bangladesh (for example the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation in the 1990s). In contrast, ARSA operates from within Rohingya villages, using cells of villagers who have been given some basic training but most of whom do not have access to firearms, only bladed weapons and some improvised explosive devices (IEDs).[fn]See Crisis Group Report, A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In response to the October 2016 attacks, the military deployed overwhelming retaliatory force against nearby villages, followed by extensive “clearance operations” – brutal counter-insurgency operations that the military has used for decades in other parts of the country – with the stated purpose of recapturing the dozens of small arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition looted by ARSA.[fn]For details on the Myanmar military’s counterinsurgency approach, known as the “four cuts”, see Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (London, 1999), p. 288 ff.; Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces (Norwalk, 2001), pp. 91-92; and Maung Aung Myoe, “Military Doctrine and Strategy in Myanmar”, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, working paper 339, 1999, p. 10.Hide Footnote When troops came under attack from militants and villagers and a senior officer was killed, the military further escalated, including the use of helicopter gunships in civilian areas. Over the following weeks, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and security forces burned down several thousand homes.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote A United Nations (UN) human rights office report found the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity”.[fn]“Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016”, Flash Report, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) mission to Bangladesh, 3 February 2017.Hide Footnote A retired senior army officer noted that it would have been more effective to use the police to achieve the operation’s stated purpose of recovering the looted weapons and ammunition (most were not found).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yangon, March 2017.Hide Footnote

In the months following the October 2016 attacks, ARSA set about consolidating its authority in Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine and preparing for the next round of attacks. It did this through the targeted killings of dozens of Rohingya men with links to the authorities (such as village heads, other local administrators and suspected informers), ramped up training in the hills as well as IED production in safe houses. The authorities were aware of these developments, with the state media reporting many of the killings as well as the discovery of IED factories. For them, the next ARSA attacks were seen as a matter of when, not if.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials and military officers, Yangon, Naypyitaw and Sittwe, November 2016-August 2017; “Rakhine slayings by insurgents”, Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), 22 July 2017. GNLM is the state-owned English-language daily. For details on discovery of IED production sites, see section II below.Hide Footnote  

II. Build-up to the Crisis

In the months before the August 2017 ARSA attacks, a series of incidents suggested an uptick in ARSA training and preparation, putting Rakhine Buddhist villagers and the security forces on edge:

  • On 4 May, the accidental detonation of an IED during an ARSA explosives training course in Kyaung Taung village tract (north Buthidaung) killed seven men including the instructor, and injured at least five others. According to a reliable source close to the events, the instructor was Pakistani, not Rohingya. He was badly injured and died in Padakar Ywar Thit village tract (Maungdaw) while being carried to Bangladesh for treatment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers with direct knowledge of the events, Rakhine State, May 2017. It appears there was a subsequent – possibly related – mass killing by the army of “at least scores” of Rohingya in an adjacent village (Min Gyi, or Tula Toli) on 30 August. “‘My World Is Finished’: Rohingya Targeted in Crimes Against Humanity in Myanmar”, Amnesty International, 18 October 2017, p. 21.Hide Footnote The people carrying him asked a village head to arrange his burial in a local cemetery but after being informed of the situation, security officials arrested the village head and took the body to Buthidaung hospital. These officials were the source of domestic Myanmar media reports some days later about the death of a foreign militant.
  • On 7 May, security forces investigating the IED detonation discovered the training camp and bomb-making materials. Six days later, the government announced it had found the bodies of five victims buried nearby, which they said included two foreigners. This prompted security forces to undertake violent evictions and clearance operations in the area (particularly around adjacent Tin May village tract), killing several people and prompting some families to flee to Bangladesh in May and June.[fn]While the government says two foreigners were killed in the 4 May incident, ARSA sources say there was only one, the Pakistani trainer who died. Six other people died, four on the spot and one later at a medical facility in Bangladesh. Five injured people received treatment at different medical facilities in Bangladesh; three were reportedly arrested by the Bangladeshi authorities. Crisis Group interviews, medical staff, Bangladesh, May 2017; refugees from Tin May, Bangladesh, May-July 2017. See also “Five Bodies Found in Buthidaung”, The Irrawaddy, 15 May 2017; “Five bodies unearthed near 5 May explosion site in Buthidaung”, GNLM, 16 May 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On June 20-21, the government reported that security forces had killed three men while clearing a likely ARSA training camp in the mountains near Sein Hnyin Pyar village tract (south Buthidaung).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers, June 2017; “Terrorist training camps, guns uncovered in Mayu Mountains”, GNLM, 22 June 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On 24 June, four Rakhine Buddhist villagers came across bomb-making material while foraging in Kyun Pauk Pyu Su village tract (north Maungdaw). ARSA members shot two of them dead; the two others, one of whom was injured, fled and alerted authorities. However, ARSA members apparently removed the incriminating material before the security forces reached the spot. This was the first known case of ARSA killing non-Rohingya civilians, and significantly increased anxiety among Rakhine Buddhist villagers; some 200 fled to Maungdaw town, fearing ARSA attacks. On 27 June, security forces in the area were placed on high alert; on 30 June, senior government officials in Naypyitaw discussed the situation at a “special meeting on Rakhine State”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ARSA member with knowledge of the events, June 2017. See also, “Four local ethnic people were attacked by swords and killed two”, GNLM, 26 June 2017; “Troops in Myanmar’s Rakhine on high alert after killings of Rohingya”, Reuters, 27 June 2017; “Special meeting on Rakhine issue held”, GNLM, 1 July 2017. The “special meeting” comprised the president, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, vice presidents one and two, the legislative speakers, deputy commander-in-chief, relevant ministers, and national security adviser.Hide Footnote
  • On 1 August, authorities reported that an IED accidentally exploded at an ARSA safe house in Pan Taw Pyin village tract (Maungdaw) and that they found explosives and other bomb-making material at the house.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local Rohingya villagers, August 2017; “IED explodes in Maungdaw”, GNLM, 2 August 2017.Hide Footnote Two days later, eight members of the Mro ethnic group, both men and women, were killed in the hills of Maungdaw township. The government immediately blamed ARSA, although some local villagers say the killings were related to the illicit methamphetamine trade.[fn]According to local sources, the area is on a methamphetamine smuggling route from Buthidaung to Bangladesh, and there had been previous tensions between the Mro village and a nearby NaTaLa (Buddhist resettlement) village, but generally good relations with nearby Rohingya villages; the method of killing of the Mro was not consistent with ARSA assassinations, which normally involve a machete cut to the neck. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya villagers in the area, August 2017.Hide Footnote
  • On 4 August, BGP clashed with a group of villagers in Auk Nan Yar village tract, Rathedaung township, firing a dozen or more shots while trying to disperse a 300-strong crowd angry over the arrest of villagers suspected of being associated with ARSA, including a prominent local imam. During the clash, one of the suspected militants escaped; local villagers reported several injuries from gunshots, including four people taken to Bangladesh for treatment.


There were already significant tensions in the area. On 27 July 2017, a Rakhine villager had gone missing while foraging in nearby Chut Pyin village tract. Three days later, while searching in the surrounding hills, security forces and villagers discovered a stash of tarpaulins and food, including World Food Programme (WPF)-branded energy biscuits (see section V.A below), which they took to be an ARSA camp. Believing militants killed the missing person, Rakhine villagers declared a boycott of Muslims in the area. In the nearby village of Zay Di Pyin, Buddhist villagers blocked all access roads with barbed wire and prevented residents from going to work or accessing the mosque, food markets and water sources.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local villagers, August 2017. See also “Tents of violent attackers discovered in Mayu Mountain”, GNLM, 1 August 2017; “Attack on police force arresting financial supporter of violent attackers in Yathedaung”, GNLM, 5 August 2017; “Rohingya villagers blockaded amid fresh tensions in Myanmar’s Rakhine – residents”, Reuters, 22 August 2017.Hide Footnote According to various sources, on 27 August, security forces and local vigilantes perpetrated a mass killing of “at least scores” of Rohingya villagers in Chut Pyin.[fn]Amnesty International, op. cit., p. 13.Hide Footnote

These events provoked heightened nervousness. On 9 August 2017, the commander-in-chief and other senior military officers met with leaders of the Arakan National Party, the largest party in Rakhine State – a rare meeting between the top brass and a political party. The party expressed concerns about the security situation in northern Rakhine and requested the arming of local Rakhine Buddhist militias. That same day, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi convened a ministerial meeting on the security situation in Rakhine to discuss the recent killings and rising tensions. The following day, the government highlighted its deployment of some 500 troops to northern Rakhine to reassure local non-Muslim villagers and conduct patrols in the mountains between Maungdaw and Buthidaung where militants were suspected of having established training camps.[fn]See Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Facebook post, 10 August 2017, http://bit.ly/2yqQYSA; “State Counsellor, Union Ministers hold talks on security in Rakhine State”, GNLM, 10 August 2017; “Myanmar Army Deployed in Maungdaw”, The Irrawaddy, 11 August 2017.Hide Footnote

The escalatory dynamic was well under way. On 16 August, ARSA uploaded a video of its commander, Ata Ullah, flanked by armed fighters and warning the Myanmar military to demilitarise northern Rakhine State and end abuses of Rohingya; he specifically cited the blockade of Rohingya villagers in Zay Di Pyin. He reiterated that the group had no relation with international jihadist groups and said that, contrary to government assertions, it did not target Rakhine civilians.[fn]ARSA Commander Addresses Rohingya diaspora & the world; Warns Myanmar military”, video, YouTube, 16 August 2017.Hide Footnote  

III. ARSA Attacks and Military Response

A. ARSA Attacks

In the early hours of 25 August 2017, from 1am until dawn, ARSA launched attacks on some 30 BGP posts and an army base.[fn]The information in this sub-section comes from Crisis Group interviews with ARSA members, Rohingya in Rakhine State and refugees in Bangladesh, August-October 2017; and from analysis of WhatsApp audio messages sent by Ata Ullah and others.Hide Footnote Their human wave attacks in some cases involved hundreds of people, mostly untrained local villagers armed with farm tools as well as some hand-held and remote-detonated IEDs. A small number of further clashes occurred over the next several days. The official death toll was fourteen members of the security forces, one government official and 371 people the government characterised as militants.[fn]Death toll listed in “Humanitarian aid provided to displaced people without segregation”, GNLM, 6 September 2017.Hide Footnote

ARSA initiated the attacks via a WhatsApp audio message delivered shortly after 8pm on 24 August. It instructed cell leaders to mobilise all male villagers over the age of fifteen, assemble in pre-planned locations with whatever sharp objects were available and attack designated targets. Many ordinary villagers apparently responded to the call, which was often conveyed by respected local Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) who seemingly made up most cell leaders and who enjoy considerable religious and community authority. Many untrained villagers were provided with IEDs for use in the attacks.

The targets were mostly small police posts and checkpoints, except for the army base in Chin Tha Mar village (near Nga Yant Chaung or Taung Bazar), Buthidaung township, though not many villagers appear to have joined this attack, which was quickly overpowered. ARSA members claim they planned to attack additional targets but that some police posts were deserted when militants reached them. Other targets were more heavily defended than expected and the attackers suffered heavy casualties. The security forces assert that they had several hours advance warning; whether accurate or not, they clearly were expecting attacks at some point.

On 25 August, ARSA issued a series of messages apparently intended both to instil confidence and resolve among its members and followers and to promote and glorify martyrdom, the goal being to encourage lightly armed male villagers to participate in highly risky attacks. Some messages falsely claimed that ARSA was taking control of the areas it attacked. Members were also reassured that armed reinforcements had been dispatched; they never arrived.

On 28 August, Ata Ullah issued WhatsApp audio messages instructing his followers to burn down Rakhine Buddhist villages with Molotov cocktails. This was in direct contradiction to the group’s repeatedly stated policy and prior approach, which was to refrain from attacking non-security targets. The reason for this change is not clear, though it may have been because non-Rohingya vigilantes from nearby villages were helping the military burn Rohingya villages during clearance operations. ARSA might have concluded that Rakhine and other non-Rohingya villagers therefore were a fair target.[fn]The Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group, make up the majority of the non-Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State, but numerous other ethnic groups live in the area and some have also reportedly been involved in vigilante attacks. See Amnesty International, op. cit.Hide Footnote In the event, the order does not appear to have been widely acted upon as only three non-Rohingya villages are known to have been attacked or burned down by Rohingya.[fn]On 28 August 2017, there were deadly attacks on the Rakhine Buddhist village of Auk Pyu Ma and the Mro village of Khon Taing (Pa Da Kar Ywar Thit village tract), as well as an earlier attack on the Daingnet village of Aung Zan (all in Maungdaw township). ARSA’s involvement in attacks on two Hindu villages (Myo Thu Gyi and Kha Maung Seik) is alleged, but not confirmed.Hide Footnote

One particularly high-profile case is the alleged massacre by ARSA of dozens of Hindu men and women in Kha Maung Seik (also known as Fakira Bazar) in Maungdaw township. Conflicting accounts of the incident and of who was responsible have surfaced. Survivors who fled to Bangladesh initially told Bangladeshi journalists in late-August that the killers were Rakhine militants; others said later that they wore masks, preventing identification. The first report of the incident by Myanmar media on 5 September 2017 attributed the killings to ARSA, based on interviews with survivors in Myanmar. A more detailed account reaching the same conclusion was posted on Facebook on 13 September by a Rakhine nationalist parliament member who investigated the incident. The security forces reported finding and exhuming a mass grave containing the victims’ bodies on 24 September; these subsequently were cremated. It is not clear what forensic evidence remains.[fn]“Hindus too fleeing persecution in Myanmar”, The Daily Star (Bangladesh), 31 August 2017; “Mystery surrounds deaths of Hindu villagers in Myanmar mass graves”, The Guardian, 12 October 2017; “Dozens of Hindus Killed in Maungdaw: Relatives”, The Irrawaddy, 5 September 2017; Kyaw Zaw Oo (Arakan National Party, Sittwe-2 constituency), Facebook post, 12 September 2017, http://bit.ly/2ApcmZ0; See “45 Hindu corpses cremated”, GNLM, 29 September 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Catastrophic Military Response

A brutal military response that failed to discriminate between militants and the general population, followed by continued insecurity and restrictions that have imperilled livelihoods, has driven more than 624,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. This is one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times and has created the largest refugee camp in the world. A large proportion of Rohingya villages in the area have been systematically reduced to ashes by both troops and local Rakhine vigilante groups that were equipped and supported by the military following the 25 August ARSA attacks.

This [Rohingya crisis] is one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times and has created the largest refugee camp in the world.

Grim details of the military and local vigilante campaign of violence, described by the UN as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (a characterisation that has now been echoed by the United States) and by human rights groups as crimes against humanity, have been set out in a series of detailed reports by these organisations. They document widespread, unlawful killings by the security forces and vigilantes, including several massacres; rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and children; the widespread, systematic, pre-planned burning of tens of thousands of Rohingya homes and other structures by the military, BGP and vigilantes across northern Rakhine State from 25 August until at least October 2017; and severe, ongoing restrictions on humanitarian assistance for remaining Rohingya villagers.[fn]See, in particular, Amnesty International, op. cit., as well as “Destroyed areas in Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung Townships of Rakhine State”, UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)/UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) imagery analysis, 16 November 2017; “Burma: New Satellite Images Confirm Mass Destruction”, Human Rights Watch, 17 October 2017; “Mission report of OHCHR rapid response mission to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 13-24 September 2017”, OHCHR, October 2017; “U.N. sees ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar”, Reuters, 11 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group’s analysis of population data for northern Rakhine State from various sources suggests that around 85 per cent of the Rohingya population in these three townships has fled to Bangladesh over the last twelve months, leaving behind only 100,000-150,000. There are also some 320,000 Muslims in central Rakhine State, many but not all of whom identify as Rohingya; 120,000 of these have been confined to displacement camps since communal violence in 2012.[fn]Analysis based on 2014 census estimates of non-enumerated (Rohingya) population; government 2016 General Administration Department figures; UN figures for camp populations; and community estimates of Rohingya population by township, all broadly consistent. There are 20,000-plus Muslims in southern Rakhine, where communal relations tend to be better.Hide Footnote

The three northern townships were impacted in somewhat different ways:

  • Maungdaw township was the focus of ARSA attacks on 25 August 2017 and in October 2016. It had the largest Rohingya population and shares the longest border with Bangladesh (river and land, as well as adjacent seaboard). It bore the brunt of the military response and it appears that almost the entire township has been depopulated of Rohingya, apart from some parts of Maungdaw town and a small number of villages.[fn]UNITAR/UNOSAT imagery analysis, op. cit.Hide Footnote
  • Buthidaung township has historically been less affected by violence and displacement than Maungdaw. It also shares a land border with Bangladesh, along the hilly and hard to access northern part of the township; most of the population lives in the south. There were no ARSA attacks here in October 2016, only a small number in August 2017, to which the initial military response appears to have been more localised and limited. Far fewer Rohingya villages were initially burned here compared to Maungdaw. While the military response and burnings triggered some immediate departures to Bangladesh, the vast majority left later to escape untenable living conditions: continued burning of villages and attacks or threats by Rakhine vigilantes plus new, severe movement restrictions that deprived people of their normal means of survival from farming, fishing, foraging and trading. With humanitarian assistance also heavily restricted, communities came to the decision in late September 2017 that they had no choice but to make the long and dangerous journey in large groups, over the mountains to Maungdaw and on to Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers, Buthidaung and Bangladesh, August-November 2017.Hide Footnote
  • Rathedaung township, unlike Maungdaw and Buthidaung, is a Rakhine Buddhist-majority area that does not share a border with Bangladesh. One of the three October 2016 ARSA attacks was here, in Koe Tan Kauk (close to the boundary with Maungdaw); the government claimed an ARSA attack in this area on 25 August 2017. Subsequent anti-Rohingya violence and threats had a much greater communal component. Nearly all Rohingya in the township have now fled to Bangladesh, apart from five villages with no viable escape route and only very limited access to food or humanitarian support.[fn]“‘We will kill you all’ – Rohingya villagers in Myanmar beg for safe passage”, Reuters, 17 September 2017.Hide Footnote


In addition to the massive Rohingya exodus, the crisis also led to the displacement of some 27,000 non-Rohingya villagers and government employees in northern Rakhine, most of whom fled the initial ARSA attacks and subsequent clashes. Nearly all moved or were evacuated inland, to the main towns of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Sittwe. The government is now strongly encouraging them to return and begin rebuilding their damaged or destroyed houses.[fn]“Ethnic IDPs who fled homes due to terrorist attacks”, GNLM, 6 September 2017; “Rakhine State Govt to Close Hindu, Ethnic Arakanese Displaced Person Camps”, The Irrawaddy, 30 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Since 25 August 2017, the government has blocked access to northern Rakhine State by the UN and most other humanitarian actors. The Red Cross movement (the International Committee, International Federation, and Myanmar Red Cross Society) have been permitted to work, although they face delays and restrictions as well as enormous logistical challenges in reaching populations in need; they have called for other humanitarian actors to be granted access. On 6 November, the World Food Programme was able to resume food aid to Rohingya and non-Rohingya communities through the government but with no staff access to monitor distribution directly.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian staff, Yangon, September-November 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Dangers Ahead

A. Repatriation Remains a Distant Hope

More than 624,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the last three months. Myanmar’s neighbours and other members of the international community must insist on their right of return and press the Myanmar authorities to create conditions conducive to a voluntary and safe repatriation. At the same time, prospects are extremely dim for the return of any significant number of Rohingya refugees to their home areas in Myanmar in the short or medium term.

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement on 23 November 2017 in Naypyitaw.[fn]“Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State”, 23 November 2017.Hide Footnote While it was politically expedient for both sides – Bangladesh to signal that it will not host the refugees indefinitely, and Myanmar to respond to charges of ethnic cleansing and ease pressure for action – it should be seen as a statement of intent rather than a sign that return is imminent. On paper, the criteria for returnees to be accepted by Myanmar are not too onerous: they need to have left Myanmar after 9 October 2016 (ruling out historical caseloads) and to provide evidence of bona fide residence in Myanmar, with no need for any particular documentation (an address should be sufficient).

But the main obstacle to repatriation is that most [refugees] are very unlikely to want to do so.

But the main obstacle to repatriation is that most are very unlikely to want to do so (according to the agreement, returns must be voluntary). The conditions on the ground in northern Rakhine are far from conducive, and the exodus of deeply traumatised refugees continues. There is lack of clarity from Myanmar on whether they would be allowed to return to their villages of origin and reclaim their farmland. The agreement also provides for the issuance of National Verification Cards at the point of return – a document most Rohingya reject out of fear that it will codify second-class citizenship status. The government and security forces have expressed concern about the presence of “terrorists” (that is, ARSA) or their supporters among the refugees, warning they would arrest such individuals upon return, which suggests returnees will be subject to extreme scrutiny or vetting. Another major obstacle is that Rakhine Buddhist leaders and communities are strongly opposed to the return of any Rohingya refugees.

A repatriation effort on this scale would overwhelm Myanmar’s capacity and resources.

Even if these obstacles could be overcome, a repatriation effort on this scale would overwhelm Myanmar’s capacity and resources; a senior official asserted that only 300 could be processed per day. Myanmar has consistently declined any role for the UN Refugee Agency, which could mobilise the necessary support as well as credibility in the eyes of the Rohingya and internationally; the bilateral agreement does not require it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, September-November 2017; “Sales from Maungtaw paddy kept as national budget”, GNLM, 12 November 2017; “Govt Suggests Possible Daily Repatriation of 300 Rohingya Refugees”, The Irrawaddy, 30 October 2017; “Tensions over Rohingya return highlight donor dilemmas”, Nikkei Asian Review, 27 October 2017; “Returning Rohingya may lose land, crops under Myanmar plans”, Reuters, 22 October 2017; “‘Caged Without a Roof’: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State”, Amnesty International, 21 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Fundamentally, neither the government nor security forces possess the political will to create conditions for voluntary return and implement a credible and effective process to that end. This raises the prospect of a long-term concentration of hundreds of thousands of traumatised Rohingya confined to squalid camps in Bangladesh, with no obvious way out or hope for the future. That would not only be a human tragedy, but also a grave security threat. Such a context would be ripe for mobilising further violent responses and potential transnational jihadist recruitment.

B. Security Risks

ARSA may still be reeling from the enormity of the crisis that its attacks triggered; tellingly, no videos of Ata Ullah have been released since 28 August 2017. Still, it appears determined to regroup and remain relevant. A Twitter account that likely represents the group remains active. It issued a statement on 7 October 2017 announcing the end of its unilateral ceasefire two days later, putting pressure on the group to demonstrate its continued capabilities. ARSA has not launched any new attack since then, but will undoubtedly strive to do so.[fn]“Assessment of the humanitarian pause”, ARSA press statement, 7 October 2017. The Twitter handle is @ARSA_Official; the 28 August video is available at http://bit.ly/2hn2V5a.Hide Footnote

Given how ARSA is organised, this will require a significant departure from its previous way of operating. Rather than basing uniformed, armed militants in camps, ARSA has, to date, organised cells within hundreds of villages, led by a network of respected local leaders, including young Mullahs. It attempted to incite a general uprising among the population, overrunning police posts using overwhelming numbers of ordinary villagers with farm tools, rather than military might. Yet operating under cover of the civilian population is no longer possible given that few Rohingya villages remain. Most of the group’s organisers and fighters are now in the Bangladesh camps, having fled along with the rest of the population.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ARSA members and well-placed individuals in the camps, Bangladesh, September-November 2017. For details on ARSA organisation, see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The group may thus shift to cross-border attacks, which would require different training, access to weapons as well as operating space in Bangladesh. Acquiring that space might now be more realistic given Bangladesh’s anger and frustration toward Myanmar. If ARSA launches cross-border attacks, it could aim at opportunistic security targets in northern Rakhine or turn to attacking any non-Muslim villagers resettled on Rohingya lands, an easier target.

Inevitably, such attacks would have profoundly negative consequences. They would escalate tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar and could potentially lead to clashes between the two countries’ militaries. New ARSA attacks would reinforce anti-Rohingya sentiment within Myanmar and prompt heightened security measures that would further diminish prospects for an eventual refugee return. Moreover, attacks against Rakhine Buddhist villagers would inflame anti-Muslim sentiment in general and could tip central Rakhine State, so far untouched by the recent violence, into crisis. Intercommunal relations are now on a knife-edge, which further constrains the ability of Muslims in the area to move freely and access services and livelihoods. Communal attacks there are a very real threat, and unlike their coreligionists in northern Rakhine, these communities have no viable escape routes.

While new ARSA attacks could provoke further violence, international jihadist groups represent a far bigger security threat to Myanmar.

Finally, while new ARSA attacks could provoke further violence, international jihadist groups represent a far bigger security threat to Myanmar. The country has justified what it calls clearance operations by arguing the nation faces a terrorist threat. This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The plight of the Rohingya has captured the attention of the Muslim world, becoming a cause célèbre like perhaps no other since Kosovo.

Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other jihadist groups, which have long issued statements of solidarity with the Rohingya for propaganda purposes, are now calling directly for attacks on Myanmar and its leaders. Most recently, on 27 October 2017, the media arm of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent released a video message from the group’s leader, Abu Syed al-Ansari, repeating calls for a jihad against Myanmar in support of the Rohingya. Myanmar is not prepared to prevent or deal with such an attack, which could be directed or merely inspired by these jihadist groups. Any attack, particularly on a religious target in a major city, would shred the fraught relations between Buddhists and Muslims across Myanmar, potentially sparking widespread communal violence; there are Muslim communities in most cities and many rural areas in Myanmar.[fn]See “Bangladesh dragging feet over repatriating Rohingya refugees, says Myanmar”, Reuters, 1 November 2017. For examples of earlier propaganda statements see Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, op. cit., section V.E.Hide Footnote

C. Impact within Myanmar

Extreme Buddhist nationalist sentiment, a growing concern in Myanmar in recent years, has contributed to – and been reinforced by – the current crisis. This has included anti-Rohingya hate speech in state media under the civilian government’s editorial control and in sermons by prominent Buddhist monks.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Report, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, op. cit. See also a 2016 editorial (in Burmese and English) referring to the Rakhine State violence as caused by “detestable human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench”; “A flea cannot make a whirl of dust, but …”, GNLM, 27 November 2016.Hide Footnote

A sermon by Sitagu Sayadaw, one of Myanmar’s most revered monks and a leading doctrinal authority, is particularly alarming. Preaching to military officers at a garrison and training college in Kayin State on 30 October 2017, he urged unity between the military and monkhood, then appeared to provide a religious justification for the mass killing of non-Buddhists. He recounted a well-known fifth century legend from Sri Lanka commonly used in Myanmar to justify violence in defence of the faith, telling the soldiers that no matter how much they had to fight, they should remember that non-Buddhists killed were “not fully human”. The sermon and local media reporting of it have been widely shared on social media, with many Myanmar people expressing support, though some have voiced unease or opposition.[fn]See Matthew J. Walton, “Religion and Violence in Myanmar: Sitagu Sayadaw’s Case for Mass Killing”, Foreign Affairs, 6 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The government and military’s repeated, blanket denials of wrongdoing, widely disseminated in English and Burmese via state media, further reinforce a climate of impunity. This is particularly dangerous given that negative sentiments toward the Rohingya population are widespread at all levels of the military and in society as a whole. A recent editorial in the state paper dismissed “baseless accusations against the Myanmar Armed Forces” and stated that “it certainly does not take a legal expert to come to the conclusion that all those village[r]s who took part in the raids are also punishable under the anti-terrorism law. This fact may perhaps explain why nearly half-a-million people decided to cross over to … Bangladesh”.

A detailed internal investigation by the military concluded that troops fired “not a single shot” on civilians and that “all security members … strictly abided by the orders”, a further signal of impunity. In a 21 September speech to northern Rakhine State troops, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing honoured “brilliant efforts to restore regional peace, security” and warned that a “race cannot be swallowed by the ground but only by another race” (a well-known Burmese saying that is also the motto of the immigration department). In a 15 November meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson, he stated that those who had fled to Bangladesh were ARSA terrorists and their families.[fn]“Rakhine State affair and cooperation”, GNLM, 2 November 2017; “Troops did not commit sexual violence nor killed civilians: Investigation Team”, GNLM, 14 November 2017, p. 10; Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Facebook posts, 21 September 2017, http://bit.ly/2hCQq9o and 16 November 2017, http://bit.ly/2muFJY4. See also the dated immigration ministry website at http://bit.ly/259WAfy.Hide Footnote

Beyond the risk of further abuses against the Rohingya, the authorities have reinforced an ugly strand of nationalism that will outlast the current crisis and could be channelled to target other minorities.

Beyond the risk of further abuses against the Rohingya, the authorities have reinforced an ugly strand of nationalism that will outlast the current crisis and could be channelled to target other minorities. At a minimum, it will be more difficult for national leaders to make the necessary concessions in the peace process of greater minority rights and political and economic devolution.[fn]For details on the peace process with ethnic armed groups, see Crisis Group Report, Building Critical Mass for Peace in Myanmar, op. cit. ARSA is not (and likely never will be) part of the peace process, given that the Rohingya are not a recognised ethnic group.Hide Footnote This could undermine prospects for a stable, peaceful and more prosperous future, and thus imperil the country’s political transition or significantly shift its landing spot.

The crisis also will define the country in the eyes of much of the world for years to come. This will have a negative impact on trade, investment, tourism and global good-will, at a time when Myanmar is emerging from decades of isolation from the West. This is in turn likely to feed anti-Western sentiment, leading to greater estrangement and potentially cementing the country’s status as a pariah. The government’s priority long-term aims – balancing China’s geostrategic influence, integrating into the global economy and rehabilitating the military’s international image – may now be all but impossible to achieve.

V. Government and International Response

A. Government Position

On the day of the attacks, the government declared ARSA a terrorist group under domestic law. It issued a warning to the media to refer to ARSA as “extremist terrorists” rather than use terms such as “insurgents”. It claimed that international NGOs may have been collaborating with ARSA and that World Food Programme (WFP) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) food aid had been diverted to the group. The government also stated that ammonia and tubes provided by development agencies for construction had been turned into IEDs. These statements set the tone for Myanmar’s escalatory response to the attacks and uncompromising attitude toward the UN and humanitarian agencies.[fn]“Anti-Terrorism Central Committee Order No. 1/2017”, 25 August 2017, under 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law, §72(B); “Warning in relation with extremist terrorists”, GNLM, 28 August 2017; “Terrorist hideouts discovered, items provided by int’l organisations found”, GNLM, 30 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Allegations of aid agency collusion were condemned by the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar as “absurd” and by the UN Human Rights chief as “irresponsible”, as they placed humanitarian staff “in danger and may make it impossible for them to deliver essential aid”. The accusations resulted in a boycott of aid agencies by their local contractors in Rakhine State and shipments came under mob attack. The government blocked access to northern Rakhine for all organisations (except the Red Cross) and most media.[fn]“US Ambassador Rejects Govt Implication of Aid Agencies in Rakhine Attacks”, The Irrawaddy, 31 August 2017; “‘Humanitarian catastrophe’ unfolding as Myanmar takes over aid efforts in Rakhine state”, The Guardian, 15 September 2017; “Myanmar police fire warning shots in Rakhine as mob attacks aid boat”, Agence France-Presse, 21 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The government blocked access to northern Rakhine for all organisations (except the Red Cross) and most media.

On 19 September and 12 October 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the Rakhine crisis in speeches that were criticised internationally, but gained strong local support. She questioned why Rohingya were fleeing, saying there were “allegations and counter-allegations” and claiming many Muslim villages were untouched and peaceful. She also announced the creation of a national fund for Rakhine State under her direction – the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development – and lobbied for Myanmar conglomerates and the general population to contribute cash; it has so far received some $20 million. Nine taskforces were established, all related to development.

The risk is that if, as seems likely, repatriation does not proceed quickly or at scale, and there is no dramatic progress on desegregation or citizenship for Muslim communities across Rakhine State, this fund will end up supporting development initiatives that increase inequality and exacerbate conflict.[fn]“State Counsellor: ‘Myanmar does not fear world scrutiny’”, GNLM, 20 September 2017; “Join hands for peace in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 October 2017. The taskforces are: infrastructure, agriculture and livestock, economic zone development, information and public relations, job creation and vocational training, healthcare, microfinance, crowdfunding, tourism promotion; “Nine private sector task forces formed to participate in UEHRD programme”, GNLM, 22 October 2017.Hide Footnote As we have noted in prior reports and briefings, development interventions must be properly sequenced with political steps to address discrimination, segregation and citizenship status.[fn]See, for example, Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. International Response

The crisis has prompted significant international scrutiny and criticism. UN Secretary-General Guterres sent an official letter to the Security Council on 2 September 2017 – the first time a Secretary-General has done so on any issue since 1989 – saying that “the international community has a responsibility to undertake concerted efforts to prevent further escalation of the crisis”. The Council met five times in August-October on the issue – including a briefing by Guterres on 28 September and a 13 October closed-door “Arria Formula” briefing with Kofi Annan, who was appointed by Suu Kyi in 2016 as chair of an advisory commission on Rakhine State, which completed its work in August. Guterres called on Myanmar to end the violence, allow unfettered humanitarian access, ensure the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees to their areas of origin, and prioritise implementation of the Annan commission recommendations – points echoed by several Council members.

On 6 November, given Chinese and Russian opposition to a resolution, the Council instead unanimously agreed on a presidential statement that “strongly condemns the widespread violence that has taken place in Rakhine State since 25 August, which has led to the mass displacement” of Rohingya communities; “expresses alarm at the significantly and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation”; and “demands the Government of Myanmar grant immediate, safe and unhindered access to United Nations agencies and their partners”. Myanmar expressed “deep concern” at the adoption of the statement and its use of the term “Rohingya”. The UN General Assembly approved a human rights resolution on Myanmar on 16 November, reviving annual resolutions dropped in 2016 in recognition of the country’s progress.[fn]See “Briefing under ‘any other business’”, Whatsinblue.org, 12 September 2017; “Public Briefing by the Secretary-General”, 27 September 2017; “Adoption of a Presidential Statement”, 6 November 2017; UNSC Presidential Statement S/PRST/2017/22, UN Security Council, 6 November; Statement of Myanmar Permanent Representative, GNLM, 8 November 2017; “Situation of human rights in Myanmar”, UN doc A/C.3/72/L.48, UN General Assembly, 31 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Some countries also raised concerns bilaterally in a series of phone calls and meetings with Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief. On 19 September, the UK announced it was suspending training programs for the Myanmar military and Prime Minister Theresa May signalled her willingness to support further action. The European Union Council of Foreign Ministers decided on 16 October to suspend visits of Myanmar military officers to Europe and review all defence cooperation, while also flagging the possibility of more formal sanctions.

On 23 October, the U.S. issued a statement outlining its own steps, including restrictions on travel of current and former senior military leaders to the U.S., cancelling military-to-military engagements and exploring options for visa bans and asset freezes under the Global Magnitsky Act. On 22 November, Secretary Tillerson declared that the situation in northern Rakhine constituted ethnic cleansing and that accountability would be pursued through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctions. Congress is currently vetting draft legislation that would re-impose some of the sanctions lifted in 2016.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed a Special Envoy to spearhead diplomatic efforts to address the crisis, but the envoy, Bob Rae, was unable to secure any meetings with government officials during his visit to Myanmar in early November 2017.[fn]“UK suspends aid for Myanmar military”, BBC News, 19 September 2017; “Myanmar/Burma: Council adopts conclusions”, European Council Press Release, 16 October 2017; “Accountability for Human Rights Abuses in Rakhine State, Burma”, U.S. Department of State Press Statement, 23 October 2017; “Efforts To Address Burma’s Rakhine State Crisis”, U.S. Secretary of State Press Statement, 22 November 2017; Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Yangon, November 2017.Hide Footnote

Myanmar set its political direction early in the crisis, and, so far, international scrutiny, pressure and diplomatic engagement has brought about no meaningful change – not even seemingly minor concessions such as allowing UN humanitarian access to the area or signalling openness to international support or advice. Extremely strong domestic political consensus on this issue has united the government, military and vast majority of the population as never before in Myanmar’s modern history.

The huge reservoir of international good-will for Myanmar and for Suu Kyi personally that existed prior to the crisis is rapidly drying up.

The international community thus faces a major challenge. In the face of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the political and moral imperative to take action has become overwhelming. The huge reservoir of international good-will for Myanmar and for Suu Kyi personally that existed prior to the crisis is rapidly drying up. Many countries wish to support Myanmar’s transition away from military rule, and have no desire to undermine its first democratically elected government in more than 50 years. But given the strong perception that the diplomatic channel is not producing results, and with public views hardening in many countries in the West and the Muslim world, the imposition of sanctions by Europe and the U.S. seems inevitable. Over time, the drumbeat for holding those most responsible criminally accountable will also likely increase.

Sanctions are very unlikely to prompt positive change in Myanmar.

Yet policymakers should be under no illusions: sanctions are very unlikely to prompt positive change in Myanmar. Indeed, – depending on specifics – they could make matters worse. Unlike in the past, there is no domestic debate on different policy approaches that sanctions might be thought to influence. Their most likely effect will thus be to push the government, military and population even closer together and to reinforce current narratives in Myanmar that the West is a fickle friend and unreliable partner. Government leaders have explicitly warned that criticism and punitive actions from the West will only push them closer to China.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Yangon, September-November 2017. See also “U.S. Pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi Only Helps China, Aides Warn”, Wall Street Journal, 13 November 2017.Hide Footnote

History also is a guide. Until 2012, Myanmar was under some of the most stringent bilateral sanctions of any country; contemporaneous Crisis Group research indicates that these did almost nothing to influence the military regime and had very little tangible impact on it. Although termed “targeted”, they had little impact on the regime and its leaders, but caused significant damage to the general economy and the fortunes of ordinary people – something acknowledged for example by then-Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton when she initiated a review of U.S. policy in 2009.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°78, Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?, 26 April 2004; Asia Briefing N°118, Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, 7 March 2011. “Shift Possible on Burma Policy”, Washington Post, 19 February 2009.Hide Footnote There are few new options on the table, and any return to sanctions will inevitably involve some of the same basic elements. For Myanmar, these do not represent ominous new threats but rather the prospect of return to a very familiar status quo ante.

Policymakers nevertheless feel they should act, not only in response to political pressure from their constituents but also to send an important broader signal to would-be perpetrators that such abuses will not go unpunished. There are ways policymakers can limit potential negative impact on the Myanmar people, who should not pay the price for the actions of a military that is constitutionally outside of democratic control.

  • First, resist the urge to disengage. Policymakers should not lose sight of the distinction between government and people. Myanmar is home to millions of the poorest people in the region, and their aspirations for a better economic future must not be forgotten. The urge to disengage from the country, therefore, should be resisted. People-to-people exchanges with the West through academic, cultural and commercial interactions and tourism are crucial for a country that was isolated for so many decades.
  • Second, maintain development assistance and non-military engagement. This will be easy for Western countries to commit to in theory, but hard to deliver in practice now that Myanmar is no longer a global good news story and its government is showing little flexibility on aid modalities. Trade preferences recently reinstated by the EU and U.S. are critical in supporting manufacturing jobs in Myanmar and should not be revoked.
  • Third, work carefully to minimise the collateral impact of any targeted sanctions. Targeted sanctions on specific individuals and entities against whom there is evidence of wrongdoing, can help to promote accountability. Recent experience in Myanmar shows, however, that ostensibly targeted sanctions can have broader systemic impact on the economy that should be avoided.
  • Fourth, engage with the military and government prior to imposing any sanctions. The goal should be to maximise any leverage that is available (even if minimal) at the critical moment of opportunity, by raising the prospect of any new sanctions and pushing for progress on the key objectives before these measures are imposed.


Given the limited utility of sanctions, the international community should do all it can to mitigate the humanitarian disaster and influence the situation in other ways. This could include:

  • Provide substantial ongoing humanitarian support to the Rohingya refugees, to reduce the risks of a further humanitarian catastrophe and alleviate the enormous burden on Bangladesh and local communities. This can help also mitigate the risk of refoulement.
  • Assist Myanmar to define a pathway out of the current crisis, on the understanding that at least part of the challenge relates to management and implementation ability, in addition to political will. In particular, since the development-first approach being pursued by the government will be neither credible nor effective, pushing for political decisions to implement key recommendations of the Annan commission, including as regards discrimination, segregation and citizenship. Meaningful progress on these issues is vital to creating an environment conducive to voluntary repatriation, and giving international credibility to the Myanmar’s efforts.
  • Begin contingency planning for the humanitarian, security and political consequences of a scenario where the Myanmar-Bangladesh bilateral process does not lead to significant numbers of refugees returning home. This will be discussed in detail in forthcoming Crisis Group reporting.


China is particularly well-placed to promote positive outcomes should it decide to prioritise these. While in recent decades it has always supported Myanmar governments politically, and continues to be sceptical of international pressure, its blanket support cannot be taken for granted by Myanmar. China does not want this to come at the cost of its important relations with Bangladesh and the wider Muslim world, which is part of the reason why it allowed the recent UN Security Council presidential statement to be issued. China also has significant economic and strategic interests in Rakhine State that could be impacted by the crisis. So far, however, it has focused on allowing Myanmar and Bangladesh to work out the issue bilaterally.

VI. Conclusion

The actions of the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine State have created a major humanitarian catastrophe, a crisis for the country and a security threat to the region. It has strengthened an ugly strand of nationalism that will be long-lasting and could lead to the targeting of other minorities in the future. The crisis will define Myanmar in the eyes of much of the world for years to come, with hugely negative consequences across the board on trade, investment, tourism. The country has squandered its considerable reserves of global good-will just when it needed them most, as it was emerging from decades of isolation from the West. Myanmar has also put itself at much greater risk of attack by transnational jihadist groups. Priority long-term aims of balancing China’s geostrategic influence and economic dominance in the country and rehabilitating the military’s international image have been significantly set back.

The abuses against the Rohingya minority have captured global public opinion, and the uncompromising posture of the government has exacerbated the situation. Western countries almost certainly will re-impose some of the sanctions that had been lifted in recent years. As they do so, they should acknowledge their inherent limitations and approach them in a manner that can maximise leverage while minimising collateral damage on Myanmar’s long-suffering population.

Brussels, 7 December 2017

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar Mike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017.
Smouldering debris of burned houses is seen in Warpait village, a Muslim village in Maungdaw located in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 14 October, 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Report 283 / Asia

Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

Recent attacks by an émigré-led force of trained Rohingya fighters mark a dangerous turn. To remove a main root of the violence – Rohingya despair – the government must reverse longstanding discrimination against the Muslim minority, moderate its military tactics, and reach out to Myanmar’s Muslim allies.

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Executive Summary

The deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) bases in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State on 9 October 2016 and the days following, and a serious escalation on 12 November when a senior army officer was killed, signify the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency there. The current violence is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades, seriously threatens the prospects of stability and development in the state and has serious implications for Myanmar as a whole. The government faces a huge challenge in calibrating and integrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are kept under control. It requires also taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.

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Failure to get this right would carry enormous risks. While the government has a clear duty to maintain security and take action against the attackers, it needs, if its response is to be effective, to make more judicious use of force and focus on a political and policy approach that addresses the sense of hopelessness and despair underlying the anger of many Muslims in Rakhine State. Complicating this is that Aung San Suu Kyi has some influence, but under the constitution no direct control over the military.

The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this well-organised, apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine State, which include longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, denial of rights and lack of citizenship. The current use of disproportionate military force in response to the attacks, which fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, together with denial of humanitarian assistance to an extremely vulnerable population and the lack of an overarching political strategy that would offer them some hope for the future, is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence and potential mass displacement.

HaY would not have been able to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local leaders and communities. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population, and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years rather than any sort of inevitability.

A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive.

It is important for the government’s response to start from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some Muslims in Rakhine State has emerged. The population has seen its rights progressively eroded, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. This has become particularly acute since the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. Disenfranchisement prior to the 2015 elections severed the last link with politics and means of influence. At the same time, the disruption of maritime migration routes to Malaysia closed a vital escape valve, particularly for young men whose only tangible hope for the future was dashed. An increasing sense of despair has driven more people to consider a violent response, but it is not too late for the government to reverse the trend.

It requires recognising first that these people have lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so. Ways must be found to give them a place in the nation’s life. A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive. It will likely create further despair and animosity, increasing support for HaY and further entrenching violence. International experience strongly suggests that an aggressive military response, particularly if not embedded in a broader policy framework, will be ineffective against the armed group and has the potential to considerably aggravate matters.

So far, though there are indications of some training and solidarity, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. But there are risks that if the government mishandles the situation, including by continued use of disproportionate force that has driven tens of thousands from their homes or across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for further radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit to pursue their own agendas in the country. To avoid that requires subordinating the security response and integrating it into a well-crafted, overarching political strategy – building stronger, more positive relations between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

I. Introduction

This report examines the emergence of a new form of organised violent resistance in the Muslim-majority northern parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.[fn]For recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Asia Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote It follows up Crisis Group’s detailed examination in 2014 of Rakhine politics, which should be referred to for a broader analysis of the dynamics in the state as a whole. It is important to know and acknowledge the perspectives of Rakhine Buddhists and their strongly-felt grievances.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote The current violence, however, is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades and has fundamental implications for the situation in the troubled state and potentially for Myanmar’s transition as a whole.

The report looks at the establishment of a new armed group, its objectives and international links; the response of the government and security forces; and the implications for the people of Rakhine State and the country. It is based on extensive research and interviews in Yangon; interviews with several members of the armed group in northern Rakhine State and villagers and key sources in the area; interviews with other sources connected to the group living outside Myanmar; interviews with members of the Rohingya diaspora, including in the Middle East; interviews with recent arrivals in Bangladesh who have fled Rakhine; and analysis of conversations on messaging applications such as WhatsApp over the last six months. Much research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the local dialect spoken by Muslims in northern Rakhine State. In cases of particularly sensitive information and to protect the identities of interviewees and researchers, details of locations and dates have been withheld, replaced by a general description of the sourcing for a paragraph or section.

The term “Rohingya” is highly contested within Myanmar, because it is perceived as a claim of indigenous ethnic status by a community most Rakhine Buddhists, indeed most people in Myanmar, regard as immigrants from Bangladesh, and whom they therefore prefer to refer to as “Bengali”.[fn]Ibid, Section V.C, including for more detailed discussion of the term’s sensitivity.Hide Footnote The government has asked its officials and the international community to refrain from either term. “Rohingya” is used in this report not to imply endorsement of any particular historical narrative or political claim but because it is the term that community overwhelmingly refers to itself by, and because other terms such as “Muslims from Rakhine State” are less precise: several Muslim communities in the state do not identify as “Rohingya”, including (but not only) the Kaman, a recognised indigenous Muslim group. It is Muslims in the northern parts of Rakhine State that most strongly identify as “Rohingya”; those in the diaspora who so identify are overwhelmingly from this area, rather than central or southern parts of the state.[fn]For detailed discussion of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, see ibid.Hide Footnote

II. Previous Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

During the Second World War, Rakhine was the front line between the Japanese invaders and allied forces. Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were on opposing sides; most of the former remained pro-British, while the latter supported the Japanese until a last-minute switch enabled the eventual allied reoccupation of Rakhine. Both communities formed armed units and attacked the other, with accounts of massacres on both sides in 1942-1943. Muslims fled to the north, where they were the majority, and Rakhine Buddhists moved south.[fn]Mary Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma (Ithaca, 2003), chapter 2; Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group (Wiesbaden, 1972).Hide Footnote

A mujahidin rebellion erupted in April 1948, a few months after independence. The rebels initially explored the possibility of annexing northern Rakhine State to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), but Pakistan rejected this. They then sought the right of the population to live as full citizens in an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the state and an end to what they saw as discrimination by the Rakhine Buddhist officials who replaced the colonial administrators. The immigration authorities placed restrictions on the movement of Muslims from northern Rakhine to Sittwe, the state capital. Some 13,000 Muslims who fled during the war and were living in refugee camps in India and East Pakistan were not permitted to return; those who did were considered illegal immigrants.[fn]Yegar, op. cit. On the eve of independence some Rakhine intellectuals led by barrister Hla Tun Pru were demanding an independent “Arakanistan” for the Rakhine people. See Aye Chan, “The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar)”, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, vol. 3, no. 2 (2005), p. 410.Hide Footnote

The rebels targeted Rakhine Buddhist interests as well as the government, quickly seizing control of large parts of the north and expelling many Buddhist villagers. Law and order almost completely broke down, with two communist insurgencies (Red Flag and White Flag) in addition to the mujahidin, as well as Rakhine nationalist groups, including the (Marxist) Arakan People’s Liberation Party, in the south of the state.[fn]Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (London, 1999), p. 28.Hide Footnote An embattled Burmese army, facing ethnic insurgencies across the country, controlled little of Rakhine other than Sittwe. In the violence and chaos, relations between Buddhist and Muslim communities deteriorated further. Many moderate Rakhine Muslim leaders rejected the mujahidin insurgency, even vainly asking the government for arms to fight back.

It was not until 1954 that the army launched a massive offensive, Operation Monsoon, that captured most of the mujahidin mountain strongholds on the East Pakistan border. The rebellion was eventually ended through ceasefires in 1961 and defeat of remaining groups, leaving only small-scale armed resistance and banditry. Partly in response to mujahidin demands, partly for electoral reasons, in 1961 the government established a Mayu Frontier Administration in northern Rakhine, administered by army officers rather than Rakhine officials.[fn]Martin Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, unpublished article, 1995. Yegar, op. cit.Hide Footnote But the 1962 military coup led to a more hardline stance toward minorities, and the Mayu Frontier Administration was dissolved. This prompted attempts to re-form the mujahidin movement that failed to gain significant local support.

In 1974, inspired by the rise of pan-Islamist movements in the world, the Rohingya Patriotic Front armed group was formed from remnants of earlier failures. It split into several factions, one of the more radical of which became the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) armed group in 1982. The RSO split in 1986, giving rise to the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) splinter; in 1998, the two groups formed a loose alliance, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the RSO had small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the Myanmar border but was not thought to have any inside Myanmar. In its highest-profile attack, in April 1994, several dozen fighters entered Maungdaw from Bangladesh, including a group landed by boat in Myin Hlut village-tract, south Maungdaw. On 28 April, bombs they planted in Maungdaw town caused damage and several civilian injuries, and fighters followed up with attacks on the town’s outskirts. The group did not receive strong local support, and security forces, alerted by informants, quickly defeated them.[fn]Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Regional security analysts viewed the RSO as essentially defunct as an armed group by the end of the 1990s, though it kept an organisational structure in Bangladesh and did training and occasional small attacks on Myanmar security forces into the early 2000s. A Myanmar military intelligence report, cited in a U.S. diplomatic cable in 2002, made the “generally plausible” claim that 90 RSO/ARIF members attended a guerrilla war course, and thirteen also participated in explosives and heavy weapons courses in Libya and Afghanistan in August 2001. Also in the early 2000s, the RSO had an active weapons and explosives training exchange with the militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, regional security analysts, Dhaka, July-August 2014, November 2016. “Arakan Rohingya National Organization contacts with Al Qaeda and with Burmese insurgent groups on the Thai border”, U.S. embassy Rangoon cable, 10 October 2002, as made public by WikiLeaks. Crisis Group Asia Report N°187, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, 1 March 2010.Hide Footnote

More recently, the authorities have continued to blame the RSO for occasional attacks on security forces in northern Rakhine State, for example deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) patrols in northern Maungdaw in February and May 2014, including one on 17 May that killed four officers.[fn]Internal UN security management team note, Bangladesh, June 2014. See also, “All not quiet on the Burmese front”, Probe Weekly, 6 June 2014.Hide Footnote However, there is no evidence that it retained operational capability after the early-2000s, and armed criminal gangs operate on the border, smuggling drugs and other contraband. The RSO has also become something of a Rohingya militant brand that anyone can use, regardless of connections to the original organisation.

III. Deepening Despair

The anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine State in June and October 2012, though it did not primarily affect the north of the state, seriously strained intercommunal relations.[fn]For analysis, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 238, Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, 12 November 2012; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013.Hide Footnote It generated feelings of insecurity in Buddhist and Muslim communities but had the biggest impact on the latter. It also hardened anti-Muslim sentiment and led to increases in Buddhist nationalist hate speech. There were multiple cases of serious anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar the following year, as well as nationalist lobbying for a package of “protection of race and religion” laws widely seen as targeting Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Dark Side of Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote

These were in addition to longstanding restrictions on access to citizenship for most Muslims in Rakhine State. This has led to serious discrimination against these communities, particularly the Rohingya. Permission to marry must be obtained from the authorities, and there are also severe restrictions on freedom of movement outside the village-tract or between townships, limiting work opportunities and access to government services.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In the lead-up to the 2015 elections, the Muslim population in Rakhine State without citizenship cards – nearly all other than some Kaman – was disenfranchised, severing its last connection to politics and peaceful influence. Even those without citizenship cards had voted in previous elections. Crisis Group warned in advance that this risked organised violence.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Compounding the sense among many Rohingya that politics had failed them was that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) did not take a strong stand on minority religious rights in general or the Rohingya’s specific plight in the campaign. After coming to power, she did make it a top government priority, chairing a committee on Rakhine State and appointing former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head an advisory commission, but some Rohingya had already concluded there was little hope the new administration would address their demands.[fn]Myanmar election: Aung San Suu Kyi campaigns in contentious Rakhine state”, The Guardian, 16 October 2015; “Burma elections: Aung San Suu Kyi steers clear of ‘stateless’ minority the Rohingya”, The Independent, 17 October 2015; “After Myanmar election, few signs of a better life for Muslims”, The New York Times, 18 November 2015; “Aung San Suu Kyi aide: Rohingya are not our priority”, The Telegraph, 19 November 2015. Crisis Group interviews, analysts specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November-December 2015.Hide Footnote

In May 2015, a maritime migration crisis escalated in the Andaman Sea, after a Thai crackdown disrupted people smuggling networks, causing smugglers and crew to abandon boats laden with migrants from Myanmar (mostly Rohingya) and Bangladesh; hundreds were feared to have died. This shut down smuggling routes to Malaysia. When these routes had not reopened by the start of the post-monsoon sailing season in September, it meant a critical escape valve for Rohingya had closed and caused despair among young men who saw migration as their only chance of a better future.[fn]“Mixed maritime movements, April-June 2015”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Office for South-East Asia. Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Yangon, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Emergence of a New Organised Violent Resistance

A. The 9 October Attacks

In the early hours of 9 October, several hundred local Muslim men, armed mostly with knives and slingshots and about 30 firearms, launched simultaneous attacks on three BGP posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships near the north-western border with Bangladesh. According to the authorities, nine police were killed; and the attackers, eight of whom were killed and two captured, made off with 62 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition.[fn]Government press conference, Naypyitaw, 9 October, reported in Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), 10 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote

One of the targets was BGP headquarters, a major installation in Kyee Kan Pyin (just north of Maungdaw town) that was overrun in a multi-phase attack, and from where the majority of weapons were looted. In another indication of the preparation level, the group planted an improvised explosive device (IED) and set an ambush on the approach road to the headquarters, delaying reinforcements and damaging vehicles. The two other targets were a BGP sector headquarters at Nga Khu Ya in north Maungdaw and a BGP outpost at Koe Dan Kauk in Rathedaung, just south of Maungdaw township. The government estimated the total attackers at 400.[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016. See also “Operation Backdoor”, Yehtun Blog, 20 October 2010.Hide Footnote Several further clashes occurred 10-12 October, including one on 11 October in which four soldiers were killed.[fn]Troops fight back violent armed attackers, kill four”, GNLM, 11 October 2016, p. 1; “Tatmadaw attacked by 300 armed men, four soldiers killed”, GNLM, 12 October 2016, p. 1; “Troops kill 10 violent armed attackers in area clearance operation in Maungdaw tsp” and “Armed men violently attack Kyikanpyin border outpost, set fire to 25 houses in Warpaik Village”, GNLM, 13 October 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote Two attacks on 3 November that state media reported as linked to the attackers are more uncertain.[fn]As reported in GNLM, 5 November 2016, p. 2, the incidents occurred in south rather than north Maungdaw where the other attacks and subsequent clashes took place. One was the burning down of a disused BGP post, the other allegedly on a BGP base. There are competing narratives about the latter incident: village sources said it was a shooting between two police officers, not an attack. Crisis Group interviews, November 2016, and information from a non-government source with contacts in the area.Hide Footnote

The attacks marked a major escalation of violence in Rakhine and reflected an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that had seen little organised violent resistance from the Muslim population. They caused widespread fear in both communities, particularly among Buddhist Rakhine villagers, who are the minority in the northern part of the state; some 3,000 of them fled to towns.[fn]Myanmar - New displacement in Rakhine State”, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, Daily Flash, 21 October 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Response from Government and Security Forces

The military and BGP launched a major operation aimed at recovering the looted weapons, capturing those involved and arresting their helpers. Its intensity likely reflected both the exigencies of the security situation and that the initial attacks and subsequent deadly clashes were seen as a major affront to security forces’ dignity. The BGP commander, Police Brigadier-General Maung Maung Khaing, was removed for “poor performance”, probably due to both intelligence failures (see Section IV.C) and losing his headquarters and its armoury during the attacks; his replacement is a brigadier-general transferred from the regular police.[fn]Government press conference, 17 October, reported in GNLM, 18 October 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote

The Myanmar authorities have consistently referred to “joint operations”, usually indicating that the military is supporting BGP operations. This language began to be used in particular following a “special meeting on national defence and security” on 14 October that brought together the president, Aung San Suu Kyi, the commander-in-chief and others. The normal constitutional mechanism for activating military involvement in such a situation would be declaration of a state of emergency by the president, with National Defence and Security Council approval, as happened three times under the Thein Sein administration. However, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to regard the Council as politically illegitimate, and it has not met under her government, so no state of emergency can be declared.[fn]Ibid; see also “Special meeting on national defence and security”, GNLM, 15 October 2016, p. 1. Under Section 413(a) of the constitution, a state of emergency in a state/region empowers local civilian authorities and civil service bodies to obtain military help in carrying out their duties. The reason for Suu Kyi’s view is that the military has the majority of the Council’s eleven seats (five uniformed officers plus the military-nominated vice president, a retired senior officer), so can outvote civilian government representatives. She may also have protocol concerns: it is chaired by the president; her membership is as foreign minister, not state counsellor.Hide Footnote In practice, though joint BGP-army patrols take place, the army has authority over the security response, under its western commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the response, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The military has indicated it is conducting “area clearance operations” across a section of northern Maungdaw township, which it has sealed off. On the basis of reports from the authorities and non-government sources, it appears to be using something akin to its standard counter-insurgency “four cuts” strategy developed in the 1960s to cut off rebel forces from their four main support sources (food, funds, intelligence, recruits) and largely unchanged since. It involves cordoning off territory for concentrated operations, a “calculated policy of terror” to force populations to move, destruction of villages in sensitive areas and confiscation or destruction of food stocks that could support insurgents.[fn]For details, see Smith, Insurgency, op. cit. p. 288 ff.; Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces (Norwalk, 2001), pp. 91-91; and Maung Aung Myoe, “Military Doctrine and Strategy in Myanmar” Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, working paper 339, 1999, p. 10.Hide Footnote

 

Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers … as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security.

Operations in the sealed-off area bear many hallmarks of that strategy. After the 9 October attacks, there were multiple reports of suspects shot on sight, burning of many houses, looting of property and seizure or destruction of food stocks – as well as of women and girls raped.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, villagers and community leaders in the operations area, October 2016. Also, Arakan Project, internal notes nos. 1 and 2, October and November 2016.Hide Footnote Humanitarian agencies have been denied access to some 30,000 people in the sealed-off area, displaced as a result of the attacks and their aftermath, as well as 130,000 previously receiving life-saving aid, with the exception of a one-time food delivery to four villages (6,500 people) on 6 November and the following days by the World Food Programme (WFP); and a food delivery by the government on 18 November to an IDP camp that had formed spontaneously in Thu U Lar village-tract.[fn]Situation in northern Rakhine State”, WFP, Situation Report no. 3, November 2016; “Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 12 December 2016; Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, December 2016; “Food provided to residents of Maungtaw”, GNLM, 21 November 2016, p. 3. Government permission for WFP to deliver a two-week supply of rations was granted following a government-led visit to the affected area by the UN Resident Coordinator and nine ambassadors on 2-3 November.Hide Footnote

Another common element of counter-insurgency operations in other parts of Myanmar is army establishment of local militias. Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers, particularly since the 2012 violence, as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security. This is particularly serious in the current context, because arming Buddhist villagers could lead the Muslim armed group, which has avoided attacking Buddhist civilians, to view them as combatant targets.

That would be a major escalation. Worryingly, the security forces have been contemplating the initiative. They have recruited some 120 local non-Muslims in what was initially presented to the Rakhine community and so likely interpreted by local Muslims as raising a BGP militia. The government has clarified that it is an accelerated BGP training program with loosened admission criteria, and trainees will be deployed as regular BGP.[fn]Militia call a shot in the arm for Rakhine armies”, Myanmar Times, 12 May 2014. “Myanmar police to arm and train non-Muslims in conflict-torn Rakhine region”, Reuters, 3 November 2016. “Myanmar's training for non-Muslim police stokes fear in Rakhine”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote But a significant risk remains of blurring lines between civilian villagers and security personnel, even if only in perception. One Rakhine armed group, the Arakan Liberation Army, has been attempting to increase its armed strength in the area to counter a perceived Muslim threat.[fn]Authorities seize cache of weapons and ammunition in Hpa-an bust”, The Irrawaddy, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The government denies allegations of human rights violations.[fn]See, for example, “False allegations on violating human rights exposed to the world”, GNLM, 3 November 2016, p. 1; “Local residents’ accounts differ from fabricated media stories”, GNLM, 7 November 2016, p. 1; “Military’s information team refutes fabrication about massive destruction in Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 November 2016, p. 3; “Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2o16, p. 1; “Reports of hundreds fleeing Myanmar being pushed back by Bangladesh said to be false” and “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote Lack of media and other independent access makes verification hard, but blanket denials, even of factual claims based on satellite imagery or international media reports from the ground of flight to Bangladesh, are not plausible and undermine the credibility of its other claims.[fn]Credible evidence that has been denied includes: “Satellite-based damage assessment of affected villages in Maungdaw District”, Human Rights Watch, 10 November 2016; an updated damage assessment, 18 November 2016; and “Hundreds of Rohingya flee Myanmar army crackdown to Bangladesh – sources”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote Some counter-narratives clash with satellite data, for example that local Muslim villagers are torching their own homes to get international sympathy or that it is the armed group’s arson. Analysis of that data shows destruction of at least 1,500 buildings.[fn]Burma: Military burned villages in Rakhine State”, Human Rights Watch, 13 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Some villages were systematically destroyed over days, rather than isolated, geographically dispersed events as would be expected from individuals or small-group hit-and-run attacks. Moreover, much arson took place during military operations when many troops were present – not only at the time of attacks, but also over subsequent days. Troops also have security motivation (denial of access to villages in insecure areas is a standard counter-insurgency tactic, often achieved in the past in other parts of Myanmar by burning villages), while the armed group is reliant on at least some local civilian support.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Human Rights Watch staffer, November 2016. Selth, op. cit., p. 163.Hide Footnote

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working ‘hand in glove’ with the attackers.

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working “hand in glove” with the attackers. The government reportedly interceded with the Myanmar Times when one of its experienced foreign journalists reported on allegations of rapes by military personnel. She was fired shortly thereafter, and the paper’s owner put a moratorium on reporting on the Rakhine State conflict. An opinion piece in state media called the reporting “an act of gross unethical journalism” but added that “credit should be given to the media group for … immediately firing that journalist”.[fn]Fourth estate must abide by ‘code of ethics’: minister for information”, Myanmar Times, 9 November 2016. “Myanmar journalist says she was fired over story on military rape allegations”, The Guardian, 4 November 2016; “Reporter’s sacking followed MoI [Ministry of Information] phone call, sparking press freedom fears”, Frontier Myanmar, 4 November 2016. “Myanmar press under pressure as paper bans Rakhine reports”, Agence France-Presse, 8 November 2016. Khin Maung Myint, “Morality and ethics”, GNLM, 24 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote Such intimidation has a chilling effect on reporting by other journalists and publications. For example, a reporter from a prominent local English-language publication interviewed a member of the BGP who admitted burning down Muslim homes in the operations area but self-censored the account.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual with direct knowledge of the incident, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Potentially even more serious is that the repeated blanket government denials, widely disseminated via the state media in English and Burmese, reinforce a climate of impunity for troops that is particularly dangerous in a context of widespread negative sentiments toward the Muslim population at all levels of the military and in society as a whole. The state media has published disturbing opinion pieces, for example one that referred to the Rakhine State situation as caused by “detestable human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench”.[fn]A flea cannot make a whirl of dust, but …”, GNLM, 27 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote

C. A Spiral of Violence

A further serious escalation on 12 November made clear that the attacks on security forces were not one-off and that the armed group was still operational despite a month of intensive military operations.

Government accounts and Crisis Group interviews with villagers, other local sources and members of the armed group paint a broadly consistent picture.[fn]A government account is given in “One officer, one soldier dead, several injured [as] fighting continuously erupts in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote At 6:45am, an army column clashed with some 60 members of the armed group in a valley near Pwint Hpyu Chaung village; one soldier died and several were wounded; six attackers were reportedly killed. There were several other skirmishes as the attackers retreated to Gwa Son village. When troops approached the village, the armed group shot at them. Several hundred villagers, armed with whatever they had to hand (knives and farming implements), supported the attackers, seemingly spontaneously. A lieutenant-colonel was shot dead, and the troops retreated, calling in air support from two attack helicopters with mounted machine guns.[fn]Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p.1.Hide Footnote The helicopters allegedly fired indiscriminately, including at villagers fleeing across paddy fields; videos taken by villagers show several bodies in fields, including women and children.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The same day, there were at least two IED attacks on government forces in the area. A BGP convoy was struck as it crossed a bridge, then came under attack by armed combatants; the authorities report the attackers were repelled and that there were no casualties. In the second incident, an army column was struck by an IED, reportedly damaging a vehicle but without casualties.[fn]Violent armed attackers ambush convoy of border guards and government staffs, explode a bridge in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1. “Government troops attacked with improvised mines in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 14 November 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote The authorities have reported several other IED incidents and said that explosives/IEDs were also used tactically in the initial attack on the BGP headquarters.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November 2016; also, for example, “IED discovered on village road in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote

Following the 12 November clashes, the military considerably stepped up its operations. In addition to using attack helicopters in areas with many civilian non-combatants, ground troops became much more aggressive. Troops entered Gwa Son and surrounding villages on 13 November, shooting at villagers who fled. Videos taken by villagers show several charred bodies discovered the next day in the remains of a house, in circumstances that remain unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote Many villages were also partially or completely destroyed by arson.

The impact of a “four cuts” operation on civilians is far greater in Maungdaw than in the mountains of the eastern border, where it has been used in the past. Those areas are sparsely populated, communities often have decades of conflict experience, well-developed coping mechanisms and generally better food security. Even there, the toll is heavy. But Maungdaw is densely populated predominantly lowland, communities have almost no experience of armed conflict, and there is pre-existing malnutrition and food insecurity well above critical emergency thresholds.[fn]According to UN 2015 data, the global acute malnutrition rate (measured in children under five) in Maungdaw is 19 per cent, by far the worst in Myanmar and well above the World Health Organisation’s emergency critical threshold of 15 per cent. See also “Myanmar aid curbs hit children in Muslim-majority region: U.N.”, Reuters, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote The population was already living on the edge; fear of conflict and abuses combined with a serious livelihoods shock – humanitarian support is almost completely blocked, and food imports from Bangladesh have been disrupted – have led many to flee across the border. At least 27,000 are known to have done so in recent weeks; it would not take much for this to become a mass exodus like 1978 (200,000) or 1991 (250,000).[fn]Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UNOCHA, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Violence and abuses are likely to boost support for the armed group. People pushed to desperation and anger, with no hope for the future, are more likely to embrace extremist responses, however counterproductive. With an armed militant group in place and ready to capitalise, the current security response is likely to drive a dangerous spiral of attacks, military responses and increased popular radicalisation. This would also seriously impact the Rakhine and Burman Buddhist communities’ security and livelihoods in northern Rakhine State, where they have long felt themselves an embattled and fearful minority.

V. The Armed Group and its Motivations

A. The Group and its Objectives

Crisis Group has interviewed six persons linked to the armed group: four members in northern Maungdaw and two outside Myanmar. Separate discussions with them, as well as others involved in chat groups on secure messaging applications and analysis of videos released by the group have revealed a partial picture of its origins, structure and objectives.

The group refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY, “Faith Movement” in Arabic). The government calls it Aqa Mul Mujahidin, a generic Arabic phrase meaning “communities of fighters” that it gleaned from interrogations of suspects. Prior to the attacks, even members and supporters at village level were not aware of the real name and referred to it by this generic phrase (and perhaps also “RSO”, which may be why the government claimed that old group’s involvement). After the 9 October attacks, Rohingya communities in Saudi Arabia, other Middle Eastern countries and Malaysia began to ask who carried them out. According to HaY, people associated with the RSO began to falsely claim responsibility and to collect donations on this basis from the Rohingya diaspora and large private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. This, they say, was what prompted the group to reveal its name, show some of its faces on camera and prove that it was on the ground.

The first video, circulated to Rohingya networks on 11 October and leaked on YouTube the next day, has the name Harakah al-Yaqin overlaid in Arabic script. In the second, uploaded to YouTube on 14 October, the group used this name and warned donors not to trust other groups claiming to be behind the attacks, saying that “some people tried to sell our movement and our community”, a reference to the RSO. Further videos were subsequently released, showing their continued actions in north Maungdaw and stating their demands.[fn]The first video is James MMT. “Islamic terrorist asked Rohingya to join them for jihad to Myanmar Burma Rakhine Arakan”. 12 October 2016. YouTube: Harlz Erdogan. “Rohginya mujahideen call for weapons”. 14 October 2016. YouTube. There have been nine so far, the latest filmed after the 12 November escalation and uploaded to YouTube 20 November.Hide Footnote

HaY was established and is overseen by a committee of some twenty senior leaders headquartered in Mecca, with at least one member based in Medina. All are Rohingya émigrés or have Rohingya heritage. They are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and possibly India. Some or all have visited Bangladesh and northern Rakhine State at different times in the last two years.

… the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise.

The main speaker in the videos is Ata Ullah (alias Ameer Abu Amar, and, within the armed group, Abu Amar Jununi, the name mentioned in a number of the videos); the government identifies him as Hafiz Tohar, presumably another alias. His father, a Muslim from northern Rakhine State, went to Karachi, where Ata Ullah was born. The family then moved to Saudi Arabia, and he grew up in Mecca, receiving a Madrassa education. This is consistent with the fact that on the videos he shows fluent command of both the Bengali dialect spoken in northern Rakhine State and Peninsular Arabic. He disappeared from Saudi Arabia in 2012 shortly after violence erupted in Rakhine State. Though not confirmed, there are indications he went to Pakistan and possibly elsewhere, and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare.[fn]In Arabic, Abu Amar Jununi means “mad father of Amar”, perhaps an indication his eldest son is named Amar. The government spells Hafiz Tohar as Havistoohar. It said he attended a six-month Taliban training course in Pakistan (government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3); In Crisis Group interviews, HaY members suggested he went from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and from there to other countries (possibly including Libya) for training, but no further details or confirmation were obtained.Hide Footnote Some twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia (separate from the leadership committee), including Ata Ullah, are leading operations on the ground. Like him, they are thought to have experience from other conflicts, possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Rohingya returned from the camps (official and informal) in Bangladesh before 9 October to join the group. A registered refugee from Nayapara camp in Bangladesh stood beside Ata Ullah in the first video; he disappeared from the camp the night of a 13 May attack on its guard post in which a commander was killed and eleven weapons stolen.[fn]Attackers kill guard at Bangladesh Rohingya refugee camp”, Agence France-Presse, 13 May 2016.Hide Footnote Since 9 October, several hundred young Rohingya men from Bangladesh have joined the fight. However, the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise. These are mostly led by young Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) from those villages.

Though it does not appear to have religious motivations, HaY has sought religious legitimacy for its attacks. At its prompting, senior Rohingya clerics and several foreign clerics have ruled that, given the persecution Muslim communities face in Rakhine State, the campaign against the security forces is legal in Islam, and anyone opposing it is in opposition to Islam. Fatwas (religious rulings) to this effect were apparently obtained shortly after 9 October in several countries with a significant Rohingya diaspora, including Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. These have significantly influenced many Muslim religious leaders in northern Rakhine State to endorse HaY despite earlier feeling violence to be  counterproductive. The group also has a senior Islamic scholar with it in Maungdaw, a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, Mufti Ziabur Rahman, who brings religious legitimacy to operations and has authority to issue fatwas.[fn]The foreign clerics are from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other places. The mufti is the main speaker in the third video and identifies himself: “Islamic terrorist Rohingya act like villagers”. 12 October 2016. YouTube.Hide Footnote

Information from members and analysis of its methods indicate that its approach and objective are not transnational jihadist terrorism.[fn]This report uses “international jihadist” to refer to groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and their affiliates. The Arabic root of “jihad” refers to striving in God’s service. Many Muslims find its use in the political violence context imprecise and offensive, reducing a complex religious concept, which over centuries has had many, often peaceful forms, to war-making. Even when used in the organised violence context, it can refer to insurgency and guerrilla war, not only terrorism. For the vast majority of Muslims, today’s “jihadists” pervert Islam’s tenets. But it is hard to escape the term. Groups such as al-Qaeda and IS self-identify as “jihadist”; and while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent “jihadist” ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that could constrain fighting tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: fighting to return society to a purer Islam; violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them; and belief in duty to use violence if Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. This report’s use of “jihadist” is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. It uses “terrorism” and “terrorist” only to describe non-state actors’ attempt to use violence or intimidation, especially of civilians, to achieve political goals by manipulating fear. See Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote It has only attacked security forces (and perceived threats in its own community), not religious targets, Buddhist villagers or civilians and family members at the BGP bases it hit on 9 October. It has called for jihad in some videos, but there are no indications this means terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Unlike all previous such insurgent groups (see above) and for unclear reasons, it does not include “Rohingya” in its name. Its stated aim is not to impose Sharia (Islamic law), but rather to stop persecution of Rohingya and secure their rights and greater autonomy as Myanmar citizens, notwithstanding that its approach is likely to harden attitudes in the country and seriously set back those goals. It is possible, however, that its objectives could evolve, given its appeals to religious legitimacy and links to international jihadist groups, so it is essential that government efforts do not focus only or primarily on military approaches, but also address underlying community grievances and suffering.

HaY’s modus operandi is similar to the now-defunct RSO as well as many ethnic armed groups in Myanmar – but it faces much greater hurdles than the latter given rejection of Rohingya identity by the government and most of the country. Though the government has claimed close links with RSO, it is a distinct group that is more a reaction to perceived RSO failures than an evolution of that group (see Section IV.C below) – hence Ata Ullah’s RSO criticism in the second video. As the RSO has become something of a brand associated with Rohingya militancy by both Muslims and the authorities, it is not surprising that the government has identified the attackers as linked to it.[fn]Government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote But institutional ties do not appear to exist, though there are some efforts to recruit around 200 Rohingya in Bangladesh trained since 2012 by an ex-RSO military commander, but never deployed due to lack of an organisational structure that HaY may potentially now offer.[fn]There is also information that some former RSO members acting on their own have been providing very basic training to Rohingya refugees interested in joining HaY. This started only after the first attacks. All indications are it is not linked institutionally to either the RSO or HaY. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh), November 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Communications and Social Media Environment

Much of HaY’s communications and planning was over encrypted messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Viber, as well as WeChat (which does not have end-to-end encryption).[fn]Crisis Group observation of Rohingya WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. On Viber use, see “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, pp. 1, 3. A Myanmar Muslim has been warning members of the diplomatic and aid communities about the use of WeChat to promote extremism in the country since the 9 October attacks. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Use of these has become widespread across Myanmar over the last few years, as mobile voice and data connectivity have been rolled out along with $20 smartphones (people close to the border have had access to these opportunities for much longer, by connecting to Bangladeshi networks). Myanmar is one of the only countries where Viber is the dominant messaging app: the company claims 25 million unique users as of October 2016, out of a 51.5 million population. Such tools have significantly lowered communication and organisation barriers for communities in northern Rakhine State, something that the draconian movement restrictions in place for decades can no longer prevent.[fn]Buddhist nationalists also use messaging applications to organise and disseminate views; Viber has long been their preferred application, but recently WhatsApp has been gaining popularity. Crisis Group interview, technology industry source, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The preferred messaging app among Rohingya is WhatsApp. This is probably due to its much greater popularity internationally and the fact that Rohingya use these apps to keep in touch with family overseas and the diaspora more generally. Crisis Group identified more than 50 WhatsApp groups in use in northern Rakhine State, each with as many as 250 members, and including diaspora Rohingya around the world. These are mainly used for social interaction and information sharing, not nefarious purposes. Some individuals are members of ten to twenty WhatsApp groups and can also easily share information from group chats with their individual contacts. In the wake of the 9 October attacks, these have been used to quickly disseminate information about security threats and other urgent issues. They are likely also an important source of HaY operational intelligence.

Since the Rohingya dialect of Bengali does not have a written form, much of the communication over these applications uses audio files or voice messages.

C. Planning and Operational Strategy for the Attacks

Crisis Group interviews with HaY members and other well-informed sources in Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Middle East, cross-referenced with additional information, including Myanmar government reports based on interrogations of captured HaY and from regional diplomats and security analysts, have revealed a fairly detailed picture of the planning and operational strategy behind the attacks.

HaY’s formation and planning for operations were initiated in the wake of the 2012 violence. Active recruitment of local leaders began in 2013, then training of hundreds of villagers they recruited, mainly from Maungdaw township, since 2014, initially in Bangladesh and then more intensively in northern Rakhine State. Training was in small batches to avoid attention, a village at a time, so members would not know the identities of other trainees, and primarily in the hills of the Mayu range along the border of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, as well as possibly in the compounds of some large houses in villages. It included weapons use, guerrilla tactics and, HaY members and trainees report, a particular focus on explosives and IEDs. It was given by Rohingya veterans and Pakistanis or Afghans with experience of recent operations in those countries and possibly elsewhere and took more than two years to complete.[fn]For a map with village tracts in Maungdaw township, see “Village Tracts of Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State”, Myanmar Information Management Unit, 22 November 2011. Some RSO veterans have explosives expertise, from training by Bangladeshi militants in the early 2000s in an exchange program. Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

During this period, the group apparently killed several informers among the Muslim villages of north and south Maungdaw and others they feared might reveal their plans. It also paid significant hush money to potential informers. Following the training, two Saudi-based senior leaders spent a month in northern Rakhine State, around August 2016, selecting targets and determining how and when the attacks would take place.[fn]A different source claims that only one of the men was a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, and the other was a foreigner.Hide Footnote Once they left, the intention was to obtain weapons and ammunition for the hundreds of trainees. Plans were also made to deploy at least four experienced doctors with medicines and supplies and to train locals as medics to assist them. From roughly late August, there was an increase in the killing of known informers within the Rohingya community.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights monitor, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The claimed objective of the operation was to take complete control of Maungdaw township, cut off communications with Buthidaung to the east and establish military posts on the ridges of the Mayu range between Maungdaw and Buthidaung, creating a defendable liberated area in the same manner as the larger ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s eastern borderlands. After this, the intent was to attack the northern part of Buthidaung – a very ambitious plan that would give complete control of the Bangladesh border – as well as parts of Rathedaung.

Now that it [HaY] has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints.

This plan had to be changed. In early September, after the two senior leaders left, two informers in U Shey Kya village-tract, close to Nga Khu Ya where one of the 9 October attacks occurred, revealed the identities of eight local HaY members to the BGP, which arrested them on 12 September. They were interrogated and allegedly tortured (including electric shocks and denailing). HaY arranged a bribe to the BGP of 3 million kyat (about $2,300), and five were released on 16 September. The remaining three were freed on 28 September, after a bribe of more than 40 million kyat (over $30,000).[fn]This is the highest known bribe ever paid to the BGP to release a detainee. Crisis Group interviews, local researcher, well-informed locals, Maungdaw, September-November 2016.Hide Footnote On 30 September, HaY reportedly killed the two informants, leading to BGP night raids and arrests in the area that prompted several families to flee to Bangladesh. The authorities subsequently began large payments to informers in north Maungdaw to draw up lists of villagers in their area engaged in illegal activity, some of whom fled.

Additionally, local people say, an IED that accidentally exploded in Ngar Sar Kyu village-tract around 7 October while it was being prepared drew the attention of the security forces. According to members of the group, HaY saw that the net was closing and decided that though its preparations were not yet complete, it had to make an emergency plan and launch its operation on 9 October, ahead of schedule.

Though done hastily, the attacks showed some sophistication, including diversionary tactics; blocking reinforcements with a complex attack (IEDs plus armed assault) on a convoy some distance away; and felling of trees across roads to halt military vehicles. It is unclear where the explosives came from, but a foreign expert described the IEDs as crude but not completely amateurish.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the matter, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The group was able to organise widely, pay numerous potential informers in northern Rakhine State prior to the attacks to keep them quiet and large bribes to the security forces to free detained militants. Now that it has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints. It seems to be receiving funds from the Rohingya diaspora and major private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the group and sources in the Rohingya diaspora, October-November 2016.Hide Footnote It may also attract the attention of international groups interested in more than funding (see Section IV.E below).

D. Level of Local Support

It would not have been possible for HaY to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local, particularly religious leaders and local communities in northern Rakhine State. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population; that some now embrace violence reflects deep policy failures over many years.

The community follows a conservative Islam, but not in general a radicalised one, and even as people saw their rights, livelihoods and hopes eroded, the vast majority of religious leaders and the population as a whole continued to eschew violence, which they considered likely to prompt further discrimination and undermine the objective of achieving recognition and rights within Myanmar. But in the wake of the 2012 violence, a segment of the population began more active consideration of organised violent responses. While a minority view, it was driven by influential individuals, including some of the younger generation of religious leaders in northern Rakhine State, who began to break with the views of community elders and older clerics. It was these people and their followers who started the organisational and training activities on the ground that were well under way by mid-2014.[fn]See Crisis Group report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A.Hide Footnote

With the 9 October attacks, views began to shift. Initially, there were intense debates within the community, which played out on WhatsApp group chats. Some felt they were “dying slowly day by day”, and that after years of desperation and hopelessness, someone was standing up for them.[fn]The group chats were monitored by Crisis Group researchers since mid-2016. Crisis Group interview, villager in Maungdaw, October 2016.Hide Footnote But there was considerable criticism of the group in WhatsApp for not consulting or warning the community before the attacks and not considering the very serious consequences. It appears to have been the issuance of fatwas shortly after the attacks that was decisive in convincing many throughout Maungdaw to support HaY’s approach.

Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

HaY leaders also seem to have been effective in this regard. The local commanders, about twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia including Ata Ullah, had been working on the ground with the trainees and local leaders for a long time, living with local people unlike the leaders of Rohingya armed groups in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers in several villages in north and south Maungdaw, recent arrivals in Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh) and observation of discussions on WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. These are not the same twenty as the approximately twenty-member leadership committee based in Mecca, mentioned in Section IV.A above.Hide Footnote Several village leaders who have observed the activities of HaY’s leaders say they were impressed by their dedication, sincerity and strong commitment to their cause; as a result, they gained increasing trust and support from villagers. Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

An important part of HaY’s success, local community members say, is that these twenty or so leaders had good, secure lives in Saudi Arabia, the dream of many Rohingya, but were seen to have sacrificed comfort and prosperity to live beside impoverished villagers, without wearing shoes or good clothes and eating the same meagre food. That persons with so many other options were willing to take such risks convinced many locals the group was sincere and committed. This overcame doubts about joining or supporting an armed insurgency. Now, after two rounds of attacks and a brutal security response, it appears that a sizeable proportion of the area’s Muslim population and the diaspora support or are sympathetic to HaY, even if the ferocity of the military’s response causes some to flee.

At the same time, HaY also relied on threats and intimidation to ensure its survival. It has killed some suspected informers and drawn up a hit list of others. In addition to the killings in the lead up to the 9 October attacks, a Muslim man who used to work as a BGP cook was abducted by fellow villagers in Laungdon village-tract and found in a paddy field on 31 October with his throat cut; on 3 November, a former U Shey Kya village administrator was similarly found dead, as was a 100-household leader in south Maungdaw on 17 November.[fn]Arakan Project, internal note no. 2, op. cit.; “54-year old man found dead in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 6 November 2016, p. 2; and “Elder village leader murdered in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote These killings were done in the same gruesome way, presumably to inspire fear, while there have been no attacks on Buddhist civilians.

E. Links with International Jihadist Groups

There is some limited information on links between HaY and international jihadist groups. It is not surprising that such links exist, given the recruitment over several decades of vulnerable and marginalised Rohingya refugees and migrants by militant groups, initially mostly in Bangladesh, for deployment there and elsewhere.[fn]For example, it is known that Muslims from Myanmar were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, 1999-2001, Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A; that Rohingya fighters have been operating, and one was killed, in Indian Kashmir, “Killing of Burmese militant ups ante of intelligence agencies”, The Tribune, 13 November 2015; and that there is information ISIS has been recruiting among the Rohingya diaspora for Iraq and Syria, “ISIS look to recruit Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar”, Newsweek, 6 February 2015.Hide Footnote However, HaY’s public statements and modus operandi, as well as interviews with its members, all point to this being an insurgent group targeting Myanmar security forces and aiming – albeit in a way likely to be counterproductive – to obtain rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar, along the lines of previous mujahidin groups in Myanmar (see Section II above).

With that important caveat, the information on connections with international groups is as follows. First, members of HaY say Ata Ullah and the non-local fighters with him are well trained and experienced in guerrilla warfare; their tactics and operational success appear to confirm this, particularly their use of asymmetric methods and weapons such as IEDs, albeit crude ones. Such training and experience imply at least some links with international extremist groups. HaY members confirm that their leaders are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, India; the Myanmar government says its interrogations reveal that training was provided in Bangladesh and Pakistan. HaY recruits have also been instructed in Rakhine State by both Rohingya and Pakistani or Afghan trainers, according to members of the group and local people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and Myanmar government press release, 14 October 2016, op. cit. There are unconfirmed indications that the group may have a leader in Syria. Based on the profiles of other leaders and their connections, if this is true it might be a Rohingya fighter with a jihadist group rather than implying non-Rohingya leadership. Others have noted the raised index finger gesture, commonly associated with IS, displayed by Ata Ullah and some other fighters in several videos; however, this is a common gesture in South Asia and does not in itself imply any such links. See Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Conflict: Foreign Jihadi Brewing”, RSIS Commentary no. 259, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Secondly, the Rohingya cause has been used propagandistically by international jihadist groups for several years. Examples include threats against Myanmar by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (2012); calls by an Indonesian extremist leader for Muslims to wage jihad in Myanmar (2013); threats by the IS leader to take revenge on Myanmar and several other countries for abuses against their Muslims; promises to rescue Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere from “injustice and oppression” in the formation announcement of “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”; frequent citations in speeches as recently as 2015 by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, to the “atrocities on Rohingya Muslims” and calls for revenge; offers of resources and training facilities by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in June 2015 to help Myanmar Muslims “take up the sword”; and a call in the April 2016 issue of IS’s Dabiq magazine by Bangladeshi militant Abu Ibrahim to help oppressed Muslims in Myanmar in every possible way, but stating that it was not a current operational focus.[fn]Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan threaten Myanmar over Rohingya”, Agence France-Presse, 26 July 2012; a 23 April 2013 call by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir from his prison cell in Indonesia, mentioned in Crisis Group interview, security analyst, Jakarta, July 2014; “ISIS leader calls on Muslims to ‘build Islamic state’”, BBC, 1 July 2014; “Pakistani terror group active on Myanmar-Bangladesh border”, Mizzima News, 28 July 2015; “Pakistani Taliban attempts to recruit Rohingyas to kill Myanmar's rulers”, Agence France-Presse, 9 June 2015; and Dabiq Magazine (English edition), issue 14, April 2016, p. 62.Hide Footnote

Beyond these statements of solidarity and calls for support, there has been little evidence that Myanmar is an operational priority for such groups. There appear to be some other forms of cooperation or assistance, including training (discussed above) and funding, as well, potentially, as provision of weapons and explosives, which HaY currently seeks in Bangladesh. According to security analysts, small arms and military-grade explosives are available there, and procuring them should not be too difficult if the group has connections with regional arms traffickers or Bangladeshi or regional militant entities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, HaY members, November 2016; security analysts, Yangon, Dhaka, November 2016. Illegal shipments of small arms are regularly intercepted in Bangladesh; their use in domestic crimes has increased markedly in recent years. “Use of illegal firearms on rise”, Dhaka Tribune, 13 November 2016; and “New JMB planned big attack for Dhaka”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote There are no indications of any significant presence of non-Rohingya fighters.[fn]There is unconfirmed information from a credible source that about a dozen Patani Malays went to Maungdaw before 9 October to fight with HaY, apparently in solidarity and on their own initiative. Crisis Group correspondence, analyst, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Such links appear driven by umma (Islamic community) solidarity and do not imply convergence between HaY and international jihadist groups on ideology, strategy or tactics. HaY’s objectives and tactics and its focus on security targets suggest that it is Rohingya rather than transnationally focused. It is necessary to be careful not to over-interpret the significance of the international links noted above or leave unchallenged efforts by some Myanmar officials, politicians and other leaders to portray HaY as part of the global jihadist movement. Nevertheless, the longer violence continues, the greater the risks become of such links deepening and potentially becoming operational.

Recent minor explosions in Yangon do not appear directly linked to Rakhine State. Crude homemade devices were set off on 17, 20, 24 and 26 November at two shopping centres and two immigration offices, one inside the fairly secure regional government office. There were no casualties, only minor damage. The location of the devices in bins and toilets and the timing of blasts (after work hours or on public holidays) appeared designed to avoid casualties. Police arrested several suspects said to be Muslims on 26 November, but no further details have been released.[fn]Mayangone bomb intended to scare, not hurt, say police”, Frontier Myanmar, 21 November 2016; “Myanmar police arrest Muslims over Yangon bombings”, Agence France-Presse, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote Targeting of immigration offices, which are also responsible for citizenship verification, suggests a possible link to the Rakhine situation. If so, however, it more plausibly was an unsolicited expression of solidarity or anger at the security response than a direct attack, which might be expected to have been more dramatic. However, it does perhaps indicate existence of individuals with an intent and capability to access (semi-)secure locations that potentially could be utilised by those with the technical expertise and materials for a major attack.

VI. How Should the Government Respond?

Emergence of a new Muslim armed group in Rakhine State is a serious threat to prospects for stability and development there. The government faces a big challenge in calibrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are not inflamed. It also requires taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section IV. See also Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments in “Focus on resolving difficulties in Rakhine rather than exaggerating them, says Suu Kyi”, Channel NewsAsia, 2 December 2016. As regards the risk of intercommunal violence, monitors report a significant increase in hate speech posts after 9 October and their spread to pages and networks where that had not previously been observed. Crisis Group interview, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Failure to get this right carries enormous risks, so it is important that any response starts from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some in the Muslim population of Rakhine State has emerged now. For many years, this population has seen its rights eroded and its progressive marginalisation from social and political life. This became particularly acute at the time of the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. In the wake of that violence, and seeing no likelihood of improvement, some Rohingya in northern Rakhine State and the diaspora began contemplating taking up arms and made initial preparations to launch a new insurgency (see Section IV.C above). A leader of this initiative with whom Crisis Group met in Bangladesh in 2014 described the group’s plans and made clear the objective was for the community to live as Myanmar citizens with rights respected by the state, and was not separatist, anti-Buddhist or transnational jihadist.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A. At the time, he described the group as a “new RSO”, with a generation of younger leaders based in Rakhine State. It is now clear that he was describing HaY.Hide Footnote

Three key developments in 2015 are likely to have cemented the group’s resolve to launch an insurgency and created a much more fertile recruiting ground for it: disenfranchisement of Muslim voters, lack of hope of a political solution and the shutting down of migration routes to Malaysia (see Section III above). The authorities have a responsibility to respond to the deadly attacks on BGP bases. At the same time, an effective security response must be set within an overarching policy that addresses the sense of hopelessness of Muslims in Rakhine State. This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. While increasing despair has driven more to consider violence, it is not too late for the government to reverse this if it recognises that the population has lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so and resolves to give them a place in the nation’s life.

This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive.

All indications are that HaY is preparing further attacks on security forces and retains the capability to do so. Heavy-handed security measures would directly contradict the above objectives, likely creating more despair and animosity among local Muslims, increasing support for HaY and provoking a deepening cycle of violence. There is likewise a very real prospect of even larger population displacements to Bangladesh. In this respect, it is also vital to open up the conflict-affected part of north Maungdaw for aid workers and independent media.

Experience from other countries strongly suggests an aggressive military response not embedded in a broader policy framework would also be ineffective against the armed group and risk greater attention from international jihadist groups.[fn]For experiences elsewhere, see, for example, Crisis Group Europe & Central Asia Briefing N°77, A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks, 17 December 2015; Middle East & North Africa Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009; and Special Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., Section V.A.Hide Footnote The presence of a well-organised, effective, internationally connected insurgency in Rakhine State could then provide channels that did not previously exist for terrorism. This does not appear to be the HaY’s objective, but the situation could give international jihadists opportunities to insert their own agendas, for example by recruiting Rohingya (particularly in Bangladesh) to carry out such actions on Myanmar soil, or attracting foreign fighters, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent who could blend in easily, to do so.

It is also possible that the spotlight on the Rohingya’s plight might prompt foreign groups unconnected with HaY to conduct a terrorist attack; there has been a foiled attempt to bomb Myanmar’s Jakarta embassy, and the individual who carried out the recent attack at Ohio State University in the U.S. claimed to have been inspired at least in part by oppression of the Rohingya.[fn]See “Indonesia foil plan to attack embassy”, Agence France-Presse, 27 November 2016; “‘I can’t take it anymore’: Ohio State attacker said abuses of Burma’s Muslims led to ‘boiling point’”, The Washington Post, 29 November 2016.Hide Footnote To mitigate these risks requires political, not military responses: building stronger, more positive ties between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and improving cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Such cooperation is essential to ensure security and effectively address potential transnational jihadist threats. On the western border in particular, arms, narcotics and human smuggling networks are intertwined and could be used by insurgent and jihadist groups to transport weapons, materiel and personnel. The current security operation has strained relations with countries that have large Muslim populations and with which there are practical needs for close ties. There have been big protest demonstrations in Bangladesh (including by Islamist parties) as well as in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and Indonesia. Deep concerns have been expressed by the Bangladeshi and Malaysian governments. Western countries are also alarmed at the Rakhine State situation and the lacklustre government response.[fn]Malaysia to summon Burmese ambassador as protests mount over treatment of Rohingya”, Reuters, 25 November 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis stirs regional protests”, Nikkei Asian Review, 26 November 2016; “Malaysia says Myanmar violence against Muslim Rohingya ‘ethnic cleansing’”, Reuters, 2 December 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya issue a ‘humanitarian crisis’: Malaysia”, Channel NewsAsia, 3 December 2016; “Malaysian PM urges intervention to stop ‘genocide’ of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims” Reuters, 4 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Yangon, December 2016. “Regional criticism of Myanmar's Rohingya policy risks ASEAN split”, Nikkei Asian Review, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State.

In the Malaysian case, this became a public spat after Prime Minister Najib Razak indicated he would join a major protest in Kuala Lumpur. Myanmar accused him of violating ASEAN non-interference principles and using the issue for domestic politics; Malaysia retorted that Myanmar was pursuing “ethnic cleansing” and destabilising South East Asia. At the 4 December demonstration, Najib called for international intervention to stop “genocide”, directly criticised Suu Kyi and said “enough is enough”.

While this was seen in many quarters as having a primarily domestic political objective for Najib, the anger against Myanmar in much of the Muslim world is real. ASEAN, in particular Indonesia, has a potentially important role in helping to de-escalate the situation. This would be of great benefit to Myanmar; it would also be in the interests of ASEAN, which has long carried the burden of large numbers of Rohingya refugees and migrants, a flow that will increase if the violence continues and lead to radicalisation risks for the region. There is also fear that the issue could be destabilising for ASEAN as a whole.[fn]Surin Pitsuwan, “Asia’s moral duty to the Rohingya”, The Wall Street Journal, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote In response to regional concerns, Myanmar has called a special retreat for ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon on 19 December, so Aung San Suu Kyi can brief them on the situation.[fn]Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Myanmar to brief ASEAN amid alarm over Rakhine”, Nikkei Asian Review, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote Myanmar should use this opportunity to set out a credible political strategy for addressing the violence.

Suu Kyi’s flagship initiative for addressing the situation, the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission established in August, faces major further challenges after the 9 October attacks.[fn]Press release, Office of the State Counsellor, reproduced in GNLM, 24 August 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State. The commission lacks the composition, expert staff and mandate to address the current crisis. On 1 December, the government announced another (national) commission to investigate the attacks and security forces’ response and consider measures to prevent new incidents. It is chaired by the military’s pick for vice president, Myint Swe, a retired army lieutenant-general and former military intelligence chief, widely regarded as a hardliner. That its membership is mainly serving or retired government officials suggests it is unlikely to challenge or contradict government and military narratives.[fn]Formation of Investigation Commission”, President’s Office, notification 89/2016, 1 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and observers, Yangon, December 2016.Hide Footnote How it will work or liaise with the Annan commission is unclear.

VII. Conclusion

The violent attacks on BGP bases on 9 October 2016, and further clashes in the next days and on 12 November, when a senior army officer was killed, represent the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency in northern Rakhine State. The HaY group is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and commanded on the ground by other Rohingya, who have international training and experience in modern guerrilla tactics, the legitimacy of supportive local and international fatwas and considerable sympathy and backing from the local Muslim population, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this organised, well-funded group is a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address Rakhine State’s complex challenges, including longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, with denial of rights and citizenship status. The government’s response to the attacks – injudicious use of military force that fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, denial of humanitarian aid to an extremely vulnerable population and lack of an overarching political strategy that offers it some hope – is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence.

Though there are indications of some training and support links, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. If the government mishandles the situation, however, including by continued use of disproportionate military force that has driven thousands across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that jihadist groups might exploit for their own agendas. To avoid that risk requires a moderated military response, well-crafted political strategy and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with Myanmar’s neighbours and the ASEAN bloc.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Crisis Group. Based on UN map 4168, rev. 3, June 2012.