Behind the Current Conflict in Burma (Myanmar)

With the Burmese government denying accusations about its military attacking the Rohingya in Rakhine state, details on the situation in Burma (Myanmar) are contradictory.

The latest tensions in Burma have escalated due to reported attacks by a Rohingya insurgent group on police posts in northern Rakhine on August 25th leading to clashes between the militants and military.

The conflict between the Burmese government and the Rohingya has been going on since Burma became an independent state in 1948. Following independence in the country, many Rohingya started a jihadist rebellion seeking to establish Arakan state, now known as Rakhine state, to join East Pakistan which is now Bangladesh.

Rohingya are considered “Bengalis” and illegal aliens by the Burmese government due to the country’s 1982 citizenship law which excludes communities that settled after 1823. While some families migrated to Burma during the British colonial rule, historical evidence suggests that some Rohingya resided in Rakhine at least 25 years before the 1823 cut-off, while some families trace their roots to the fifteenth century in the former Arakan Kingdom.

After efforts at recession failed, the group fought to establish an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the Rakhine state. Rebels targeted the government as well as Rakhine Buddhists and successfully controlled considerable territory in Rakhine. Several ethnic insurgencies broke out including two separate communist insurgencies, as well as Rakhine nationalist groups in the south of the state, in addition to the jihadist group. Government forces were in control of little of Rakhine other than Sittwe. The jihadist-led rebellion was eventually defeated by the military in 1961.

Since the 1970s, there have been several groups that surfaced to fighting the Burmese government including the Rohingya Liberation Party (RLP).

In the 1980s, the RPF was split into different factions, one of them being the Rohingya Salvation Organization (RSO). The RSO split in 1986 leading to the formation of Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF).  In 1998 the RSO and ARIF formed a loose alliance called the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO).

While various Islamist groups, particularly in the Afghan/Pakistan region have endorsed the Rohingya’s fight against the Burmese government since the 1970s, the extent of the Rohingya rebellion’s connections with global jihadist terror groups remains disputed. In 2002, videos surfaced reportedly showing RSO fighters training in Al Qaeda training camps. In 2013 videos on an AL Qaeda-linked website identified a “Burmese branch” of Pakistani-based, Al Qaeda-linked Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami conducting paramilitary training.

The origins of the newest insurgency group, Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY) or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), began in 2013, and the group launched its first attack in 2016.

The group is believed to have a leadership council based in Saudi Arabia and local leaders with backgrounds in Pakistan with funding coming from the donors in Saudi Arabia, as well as other parts of the Middle East, but the leader of the group has denied any ties to foreign terrorist organizations.

In recent years, specifically 2012 and 2016 conflicts have led to the latest violence against the Rohingya Muslims.

In 2012, rioting and clashes broke out between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims after Muslim men were suspected of raping and killing a Buddhist woman. These clashes led to military deployment which allegedly destroyed mosques, conducted violent mass arrests, and blocked aid to displaced Muslims. At least 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims were displaced because of the violence that took place in June.

In October of 2016, ARSA staged attacks on police posts with machetes. The government reportedly responded with attacks on civilians, arson attacks on Rohingya villages, and again denied the entry of any humanitarian aid for the Rohingya. As a result of this attack about 87,000 Rohingya refugees were displaced and crossed the border to Bangladesh.

In the latest violence in Rakhine state, ARSA claimed responsibility for attacking the police posts. The Burmese government identifies ARSA as a terrorist organization and accuses the Rohingya insurgent group of killing Muslims as well as Buddhists, Hindus, and others. ARSA rejects the claim saying their aim is to protect and defend the Rohingya against state repression.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been the de facto leader of Burma since April of last year. Part of her promises last year were to help protect the ethnic minorities in Burma which include the Rohingya population. Since she became state counsellor in 2016,  Suu Kyi has been credited with progress in freeing political prisoners and creating an advisory commission on Rakhine state where the Rohingya live. However International activists have argued that Suu Kyi has ignored human rights abuses by the Burmese government, and not fulfilled pledges.

Several governments have called for action against Suu Kyi and the military in Burma for committing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, but the government denies the accusations. The Maldives has cut all economic ties with Burma until it stops violating the rights of Rohingya people. The U.S. and other countries are working to provide assistance and aid to those who have been displaced.

It is clear that ARSA started the latest round of violence by attacking police and that villages have been set on fire with almost 300,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing north.

What’s unclear is who is still causing violence because there are conflicting sources about how the villages were destroyed. The military blames the ARSA while refugees have said it was the military who burned the villages.

As of Sunday, ARSA declared a month-long unilateral ceasefire and has urged the military to do the same so that humanitarian aid can resume but the government has rejected the ceasefire stating they refuse to negotiate with terrorists.