Myanmar has suffered sectarian conflict between its Buddhist majority and its Muslim minorities, in particular the Rohingya, for decades. The backlash against the Islamic-inspired terrorism of recent years, however, has provided Myanmar’s government a convenient excuse to expand its anti-Muslim pogrom and purge the Rohingya from the country under the guise of counterterrorism.
On October 9, 2016, what appears to have been a paramilitary of machete-wielding Rohingya insurgents ambushed a police station in Rakhine State in the west of the country, killing nine Buddhist policemen and wounding another five. The government, which confines thousands of Rohingya in segregated camps that been likened to concentration camps, responded by blaming the attacks on a group of religious extremists, allegedly led by a Rohingya expatriate trained by the Pakistani Taliban. The link to a transnational terrorist group allowed Myanmar to portray itself as the newest victim in the global “war on terror.”
The Myanmar Army has engaged in what amounts to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity since October 9, hoping to expel the Rohingya to Bangladesh. The government has never stopped to consider that its domestic persecution of Muslims, not support from foreign terrorists, might have inspired the very Rohingya rebellion that it now claims to be fighting. Proponents of far-right politics and Islamophobia, such as American website Jihad Watch, have been quick to adopt the Myanmarese government’s narrative that a widespread Rohingya insurgency guided by South Asian militants has seized Rakhine State, yet the circumstances of this shadowy Rohingya paramilitary warrant subtler analysis.
The Diplomat contacted the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the umbrella organization of Afghan and Pakistani insurgents linked to the Taliban, to hear its response to the events in Myanmar. “We are very much shocked at the worsening situation of Muslims in Burma [Myanmar],” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman, “and demand that the international community, human rights organizations, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in particular work to bring this situation to an end. They must play their respective roles. We cannot do more than just pray. You know that we face worse situations in our country.”
In effect, the Taliban expects the international community, which is fighting the group in Afghanistan, to resolve the sectarian problems in Myanmar. Though the Pakistani Taliban threatened to attack Myanmar’s government over its treatment of the Rohingya in 2012 and urged the Rohingya to rebel in 2015, the South Asian militants would likely have little interest in promoting a cause so distant from and foreign to their own. The Taliban’s support for Muslims outside South Asia has rarely extended beyond hosting foreign terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda, and the Turkestan Islamic Party in its hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Rohingya have embraced the international community, foregone militancy, and pursued nonviolent resistance for the past several decades for a reason. According to activists, the Rohingya want little to do with the Taliban, a vicious paramilitary group that rules through a supreme leader and shuns democracy.
“It is totally wrong and nonsensical to say that the Rohingya are working with the Taliban,” Saeed al-Arakani, a Rohingya activist from Sittwe, told The Diplomat. “As you see online, the group of Rohingya youths who are fighting against the Myanmar Armed Forces are just holding knives and sticks. If they were in contact with the Taliban, they would use big guns to fight back. Only the Myanmar Armed Forces are using big weapons such as launchers and helicopters to kill innocent Rohingya civilians.”
On December 15, 2016, the International Crisis Group released a report on the insurgency in Rakhine State. It describes not the terrorist menace that the Myanmar Army alleges to be pervading every Rohingya home, village, and concentration camp but an expat-led Rohingya resistance movement based on a clandestine cell structure. Some sourcing in the report seems dubious: it cites interviews with Rohingya insurgents even though, to date, no such insurgents have spoken to journalists or revealed themselves outside a few videos on social media. Nevertheless, the report proves telling.
Unlike better-known insurgencies undertaken by Muslims fighting non-Muslim governments in Chechnya, Kashmir, and Mindanao, the Rohingya rebels operate in secret and without support from civil society, and their Islamic credentials, though present, are by far secondary to their sociopolitical grievances. They want human rights for all Rohingya, not a caliphate or an emirate.
The Rohingya activists contacted by The Diplomat possessed nothing beyond common knowledge of the insurgency gleaned from the same articles and videos that human rights defenders and journalists read and watch, suggesting that the circumstances of the rebellion remain hidden from even the majority of Rohingya. Instead, the activists criticized the government’s questionable claims that it faces an existential, Islamist threat in Rakhine State.
“If the Myanmarese government is right, why doesn’t it allow international observers, media, and humanitarian groups to see the facts on the ground?” asked Sham Shu Anwar, an activist from Maungdaw. “In my view, the Myanmar Army is among the most dangerous terrorists in the world.”
On closer inspection, the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar resembles the Muslim insurgency that has been unfolding in southern Thailand since 2004 and brewing for much longer. Malay nationalists in the Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala have opposed Bangkok’s Buddhist rule since it absorbed the Sultanate of Patani in the 20th century.
In the last decade or so, Malay rebels who communicate with neither the news media nor the wider Malay minority in southern Thailand have employed guerrilla warfare, hit-and-run tactics, and improvised explosive devices to harass Bangkok’s local proxies, such as Buddhist bureaucrats, policemen, politicians, and soldiers. According to the Crisis Group, the newfound Rohingya resistance movement, which the Myanmar government estimates at 400 strong, relies on the same tactics.
If the Myanmar Army hopes to learn from the failures of the Royal Thai Army and the Royal Thai Police to stem the impending disaster in Rakhine State, it should cease a campaign of counterinsurgency that borders on genocide. As Duncan McCargo, a professor at the University of Leeds, documented in his book Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand, the Royal Thai Armed Forces’ heavy-handed response and attempts to link the Malay insurgency to terrorist organizations in Indonesia and the Philippines only backfired, alienating locals who might have been sympathetic to the Thai government and annoying its Western allies.
The 400 Rohingya rebels fighting the Myanmar Army, who receive funding from donors in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, neither depend on Rohingya civilians nor work with them. The Myanmar Army, then, has little to gain from bombing villages, burning homes, expelling internally displaced people, immolating children, massacring men, and raping women. If anything, such tactics will double, triple, or quadruple the manpower of determined, experienced insurgents.
If Myanmar’s authorities want to prevent a bloody, prolonged conflict along the lines of what has unfolded in southern Thailand, there is only one path. The Myanmar Army must withdraw from Rakhine State, and the government must offer the Rohingya the human rights that they deserve.