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The Rohingya Crisis: A Failing Counterinsurgency

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The Rohingya Crisis: A Failing Counterinsurgency

 

Sarah Rowland

 

Introduction

 

Myanmar is a diverse country with a population of fifty-five million, which consists of one hundred and thirty-five different ethnic groups of which Buddhists account for nearly eighty eight percent of the population. It is a unitary state with a parliamentary system of governance, which includes fourteen administrative divisions within the republic.[i] A former colony of the British Commonwealth throughout the early 20th century and a former puppet government for Japan during World War II, Myanmar has deeply rooted ethnic, religious, social, and economic issues; these issues arose largely as a result of decolonization and the creation of Myanmar (formerly Burma) as a sovereign, political state in 1948. Being a majority Buddhist state, Myanmar experiences significant sectarian violence among the minority religious and ethnic groups, specifically the Rohingya Muslims.

 

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Figure 1: Map of Major Ethnic Groups in Myanmar

 

The Rohingya Muslims comprise approximately four percent of the Burmese population and reside in the western Rakhine State, which includes the townships of Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung, in Myanmar along the border of Bangladesh.[ii] The Rohingya Muslims have long attempted to secede from the government of Myanmar and have created multiple forms of a separatist movement since the 1950s, implementing various insurgency and guerilla warfare strategies. Insurgents are classified by their desire to control a particular area and/or group of people within a state and their efforts usually lead to a protracted political-military conflict with state and non-state actors.[iii] The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is the insurgency group now active within the Rohingya Muslim community in the Rakhine State, and it seeks to “defend, salvage and protect the Rohingya community in Arakan” against the government and military, known as the Tatmadaw, in Myanmar.[iv] This analysis will describe the historical relationship between the Rohingya Muslims and the government of Myanmar, identify the participants in this insurgency movement, explain the root causes driving the insurgency, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the insurgent and counterinsurgent forces, and prescribe potential solutions for this ongoing conflict.

 

Geography of Myanmar

 

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Figure 2: Map of Burmese Terrain

 

Myanmar is located in Southeast Asia, shares borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand, and Laos, and has coastlines along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. The country’s borders encompass two mountain ranges, Arakan Yoma in the west and Shan Plateau in the east, surrounding lowlands in the center of the country.[v] It is known for its dense forests along the mountains and exterior and its rice paddies and large rivers along the interior. The Rakhine State is part of the Arakan Peninsula on the West coast of Myanmar and is located on the western side of the Arakan Yoma highlands along the Bay of Bengal and the border of Bangladesh.

 

Origins & Characteristics of the Insurgency

 

Ethnic and sectarian tensions can be traced directly back to the colonial legacy of the British who colonized significant portions of south and southeast Asia including the modern-day countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), and Myanmar (formerly Burma). Borders were fairly permeable meaning ethnic and religious groups were not severed along state boundaries demarcating citizenship rights until independence from Britain in 1948.[vi] Prior to these states receiving their independence, however, the Japanese invaded during World War II and the British enlisted the Rohingya Muslims, who were promised their own post-war Rohingya State, to assist them in fighting against the Japanese and their allies, the Burmese, who make up the Buddhist majority in Myanmar today. After defeating the Japanese, the British rescinded ownership of their colonial territories and declared Burma (now Myanmar), India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) independent in 1948. The British failed to provide the Rohingya Muslims with their own Muslim state and instead drew the Burmese national border to encompass many different and often conflicting ethnic and religious groups.[vii] The Rohingya Muslim response is now a three-phase protracted military-political conflict between the Rohingya Muslim insurgents and the Burmese government and military forces.

 

Phase I: Rohingya Mujahideen (1947-1961)

 

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Figure 3: Burma’s Western Rakhine State of Arakan (In Red)

 

The Rohingya Muslims reacted to the British creation of a Burmese government dominated by Buddhists by forming a separatist movement of Mujahideen fighters in 1947. Their main goal was to utilize local Muslim fighters in an attempt to annex the Arakan state from Burma into East Pakistan. The Rohingya Mujahideen’s annexation proposals were rejected by the Burmese parliament and by the government of East Pakistan inciting Rohingya insurgents to employ targeted killings of Burmese soldiers to gain their own territory in the Arakan region.[viii] The Burmese government declared martial law in 1948 and the Tatmadaw, the Burmese Armed Forces, utilized conventional tactics to push the insurgents into the northwest region of the Arakan state, forcing many Rohingya Muslims to flee across the border into Bangladesh. The Mujahideen achieved limited success and lost momentum by the mid-1960s due to a lack of local civilian support among the Rohingya and their lack of a common message or ideology. The rise of Myanmar’s leader, Ne Win, and his military socialist regime in 1962 also brutally persecuted and ultimately displaced many Rohingyas.[ix] The Rohingya people were regarded by the Burmese government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subsequently were not recognized as Burmese citizens or as their own Rohingya Muslim ethnic group. Phase one of the Rohingya insurgency can be classified as a proto-insurgency due to its limited success and scope of impact.

 

Phase II: Rohingya Separatist Movements (1964-2001)

 

In 1964, the Rohingya Mujahideen changed their name to the Rohingya Independence Front (RIF) which defined them as a separatist movement and led to demands for political action from the Burmese government in creating an autonomous Muslim zone within Burma. The RIF quickly became the Rohingya Independent Army (RIA) in 1969 and later the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1973.[x] The RPF was able to dramatically increase the number of Rohingya insurgency fighters from about 200 to 500 and smuggled in weapons and supplies across the Bangladesh border, which continued to be fairly permeable and provide sanctuary for fighters and civilians. The Rohingya Muslims sought political advocacy through the creation of a Rohingya Liberation Party (RLP) to supplement the more violent efforts of the RPF, however, lack of political recognition of the Muslim Rohingya limited government receptiveness to RLP demands.[xi]

 

Efforts of the Burmese government to expel all foreigners prior to the 1983 census resulted in a “Four Cuts” campaign characterized by the Tatmadaw “relocating local villagers with relentless military sweeps to flush out insurgent forces and their sympathizers”.[xii] The Four Cuts campaign was focused on cutting off insurgents’ sources of food, funds, intelligence and recruits by identifying insurgent-controlled regions, isolating the civilian population, and conducting extensive military campaigns to eradicate insurgents.[xiii] These heavy-handed operations by the Burmese government and the Tatmadaw pushed many Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh. The Burmese Government proceeded to quickly pass the Burmese Citizenship Law in 1982 which denied the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group citizenship within the country of Burma.[xiv] The passage of the new, discriminatory citizenship laws radicalized certain individuals within the RPF, who then formed the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), an extremist, Islamic insurgency faction accused of having ties to other extremist, insurgent groups such as the Taliban, Jameet-e-Islami, and Al Qaeda.[xv] In 1986, the RSO forces led by Nurul Islam merged back with RPF forces to become the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF).[xvi] The Myanmar (formerly Burmese) government continuously attempted to push Rohingya Muslims back into Bangladesh by countering these insurgent groups with efforts such as “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation” in 1991. The insurgent forces, often varying in numbers and force throughout this second stage, remained prevalent in the Rakhine State, however, the continued discrimination, marginalization and oppression against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, meant that the problems causing the insurgency remained. In October of 1998, the ARIF became the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO), which represented the political, humanitarian, social, and economic concerns of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Although ARNO focused on political agency, it worked closely with its armed sector, the Rohingya National Army (RNA), which carried out insurgent practices and guerilla tactics in the Rakhine State.[xvii]

 

Phase III: The Rise of ARSA (2001-2018)

 

Phases I and II of the Rohingya insurgency are characterized by a lack of central leadership, the intersection of complex political changes, a lack of a clear purpose and message on behalf of the Rohingya Muslim insurgents, and difficulties countering the strong military efforts of the Tatmadaw to eradicate insurgents in a post-independence military junta government. The ARNO spent much of the 2000’s hopeful of the prospects of peace under the democratizing government of Aung San Suu Kyi, who the Rohingya Muslims expected to reconsider their ethnic group’s political designation as stateless non-citizens. By 2012, the International Crisis Group released reports of the existence of a Rohingya insurgency group from Mecca called the Harakah al-Yaqin, or “New Faith Movement,” comprised of approximately twenty Rohingya insurgents trained in guerilla warfare, who have emigrated to Myanmar and have recruited and trained several hundred Rohingyas.[xviii] Harakah al-Yaqin reacted to the government’s hesitancy to respond to the human rights violations occurring against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine by carrying out a series of coordinated guerilla attacks on police border posts near Bangladesh with the support of armed Rohingya Muslim civilians. These attacks resulted in about a dozen fatalities and spurred a significant counterinsurgency reaction from the Tatmadaw forces, and even local vigilante forces, who reportedly carried out “widespread military abuses against Rohingya civilians, including rapes, killings, and disappearances” in an attempt to eradicate Harakah al-Yaqin insurgents.[xix] Over 200,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees fled to Bangladesh, while the Myanmar government continued to deny brutality in their counterinsurgency campaign and released statements stating that the “’refugees’ are in fact illegal immigrants or fugitives from the law.”[xx] This level of brutality continued throughout 2012, but was not successful in separating the insurgents from civilians as both groups tended to interact in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

 

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Figure 4: Map of the Rakhine State and Refugee Crisis in Bangladesh

 

In October 2014, the Myanmar government released “The Rakhine State Action Plan,” which categorized the Rohingya Muslims as “non-nationals” or “foreign residents” and forced them to either prove family residency in Myanmar for sixty consecutive years, or assume a Bengali classification and face deportation and placement in a detention camp.[xxi] The result was the creation of a new insurgency group in 2016 from the remnants of ARNO and Harakah al-Yaqin called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which uses violence, specifically guerilla and terrorist tactics, against the Myanmar government and Buddhist majority in order to protect the rights and interests of the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State in Myanmar.[xxii] In August 2017, ARSA insurgents coordinated attacks on thirty government targets such as Tatmadaw army bases and police outposts in the Rakhine State, killing one immigration officer, one soldier and ten local police officers. Utilizing weapons such as small arms, hand-held explosives, and machetes, ARSA members are trained to target military and police forces, as well as crucial infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and border command posts. [xxiii] Amnesty International additionally reported several ARSA attacks on Buddhist civilians residing within the Rakhine State throughout Fall 2017, to which ARSA has denied involvement and connection. Additionally, ARSA regularly releases statements on Twitter, one of which identified the “’Burmese Brutal Military Regime’ as a ‘Terrorist Organization’ that is causing the Rohingya native indigenous population to suffer maximum degree of terror and destruction”; another states that the “’Burmese Colonial Government’ is blatantly sponsoring (i.e. State Sponsored Terrorism) the “Burmese Brutal Military Regime’.”[xxiv] The ARSA insurgents have been highly active from 2016 up until today in subverting government and local police forces on behalf of the Rohingya Muslim people.

 

ARSA receives resources and support through the narco-terrorism networks present in Southeast Asia, which specialize in opium and heroin production and distribution. These networks take advantage of the weak and corrupt banking and justice systems to launder money and increase their involvement and profits from the illegal small arms trade that occurs across the porous borders between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.[xxv]  It is unknown whether ARSA is still actively seeking support from foreign extremist groups, however, transnational terror groups such as the Islamic State, Tehreek-e-Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and al-Qaeda have expressed interest and support for the ARSA insurgency movement.[xxvi]

 

The Local Government

 

The Myanmar Government, the Tatmadaw Armed Forces, the Border Guard Police (BGP) and the local police forces throughout the fourteen administrative areas comprise the levels of local government confronting the ARSA insurgency. The Myanmar government experienced a massive shift as parties such as the National League for Democracy (NLD) pushed the government away from the socialist dictatorship of Ne Win that existed from 1962 to 1988 and the military junta of pro-Win generals called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime, which ruled from 1988 to 2011.[xxvii] Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won the first, hotly debated and flawed, presidential election in 2011 and Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to be the First State Counsellor of Myanmar in 2016. The Myanmar government is currently considered a parliamentary republic undergoing the process of full democratization.[xxviii]

 

The Myanmar government continues to work closely with the Burmese Defense Forces, referred to as the Tatmadaw, which consists of Army, Navy and Air Force divisions, as well as with local police forces within each of the fourteen administrative divisions within Myanmar, specifically the Rakhine State Police. The pseudo-democratic elections of 2011 mark the first attempt at instituting a civilian-led government in Myanmar, rather than a military-led system, however, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose role is similar to a prime minister, has no constitutional authority allowing her to directly control military actions. This lack of control means the counterinsurgency efforts are largely implemented through the joint operation of the notoriously brutal Tatmadaw and the Border Guard Police (BGP); recently, their joint operations consist of “area clearance operations” throughout the Rakhine State where the Tatmadaw and BGP forcibly relocate populations, destroy villages, and confiscate food and arms, similar to the 1960s “four cuts” strategy.[xxix] These forces have been accused of committing mass atrocities against innocent civilians in the Rakhine State though the “area clearance operations,” which tend to be used as propaganda for recruitment by ARSA insurgents, who blend in among the civilians. Additional counterinsurgency methods consist of establishing local militias of nationalists, largely Buddhists living in the Rakhine State, who can provide their own security as well as human intelligence and support to the Tatmadaw forces and BGP, however, these militias are a minority in the region and are increasingly subject to small-group hit-and-run ambushes by the insurgent forces.[xxx]

 

Current Burmese Military Doctrine is characterized by offensive, modern, counterinsurgency tactics aimed at the strategic denial of sanctuary, massive counteroffensive campaigns and even cross-border strikes into Bangladesh, India and China.[xxxi] The Tatmadaw’s modern training and access to crucial technology such as air support, make it a formidable counterinsurgency force supporting and overseeing the efforts of the local police and BGP. The concern is whether the brutality and indiscriminate violence is too security-heavy and will alienate the already dwindling civilian base of support in the Rakhine State.

 

External Actors

 

The number of external actors interested and engaged in this counterinsurgency effort has grown over the past decade, however, no actor has played a crucial “boots on the ground” role in the insurgency or counterinsurgency. A significant number of intergovernmental organizations (IGO’s), specifically the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union (EU), and the United Nations (UN), have interests in the Myanmar government democratizing, protecting human rights, and addressing the fundamental social, economic, and political concerns of its ethnic groups. ASEAN has utilized a “constructive engagement” approach to support the Myanmar government and military in order for them to fully democratize and protect human rights. This approach is based on ASEAN’s belief in protecting sovereignty and the status quo of its member states but has experienced limited success due to the lack of support it has provided and pressure it has placed on the Myanmar government to actually democratize and discuss human rights.[xxxii] Many nations, such as the United States, have criticized ASEAN’s approach stating it provides too much support for a government that has no immediate plans to enact change. The EU approach to Myanmar has been to issue targeted sanctions against the government to similarly encourage government and military officials to democratize and respect human rights. The sanctions approach has limited success due to the already poor economic progress of Myanmar as a democratizing nation and the threat Myanmar’s neighbors, China and India who both have economic investments in the Myanmar government, pose in engaging with the economically isolated regime.[xxxiii] The UN approach provides support to the government and civil society to implement reforms focused on “four main pillars: socio-economic development, peacebuilding, humanitarian action and human rights.”[xxxiv] The involvement of IGOs, which tend to support the validity of Myanmar as a sovereign government in this counterinsurgency effort, has placed pressure on the Myanmar government but has not led to any significant reforms, policy changes, or discussion of human rights concerns in relation to the Rohingya Muslims.

 

Access into the bordering country of Bangladesh is a significant factor in ARSA’s so far successful insurgency. The border between Myanmar and Bangladesh has remained rather permeable for decades, providing the insurgents sanctuary in the hills and dense forests as well as in the refugee camps for displaced Rohingya Muslims. Bangladesh now holds over 650,000 Rohingya refugees in various refugee settlement camps and the Myanmar as well as the Bangladeshi governments, so far have no significant plan for their repatriation back into either society.[xxxv] Bangladesh’s inaction has, thus far, supported the actions of the insurgents, but they could very swiftly and easily decide to support the counterinsurgency efforts of the Myanmar government and military by denying sanctuary for the ARSA insurgents and by denying displaced persons refuge across their border.

 

Additional external actors consist of Islamic extremist organizations from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, specifically the Islamic State, Tehreek-e-Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and al-Qaeda, who have declared support for the ARSA insurgency and have called for volunteers to travel to Myanmar to provide additional resources and support. Al Qaeda specifically has called on supporters to travel to Myanmar and support ARSA “financially, militarily, and physically” and released statements saying, “The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers in Arakan by the government of Myanmar…shall not pass without punishment.”[xxxvi] ARSA founder Ata Ullah grew up in Saudi Arabia and is one of the ARSA insurgents who allegedly trained with the Taliban in Pakistan prior to recruiting members into Harakah al-Yaqin.[xxxvii] Ties to international terrorist organizations have not been officially confirmed, but ARSA insurgents have become more militant, extreme, and pervasive since 2016.

 

Strengths of the Insurgents

 

Some of the main strengths of the ARSA insurgents are their knowledge of the terrain such as the forests, hills, and coastal flatlands in the Rakhine State, and their access to sanctuary in bordering Bangladesh. The porous border along Bangladesh not only provides sanctuary for insurgents and refugees, but allows for the smuggling of people, weapons, food, and resources past the Border Guard Police and into the Rakhine State. The Bangladeshi government has permitted Rohingya refugees to reside within their borders, which provides insurgents with direct access to the Rohingya civilian population to aid in their recruiting efforts. Bangladesh has also spoken out against the Myanmar government for its human rights abuses against ethnic and religious minorities such as the Rohingya Muslims and provides no indication that their position will switch in support of the government.

 

The insurgents’ knowledge of the terrain also allows them to blend in among the forested areas or hide within civilian populations to avoid counterinsurgent Rakhine State Police and Tatmadaw forces. ARSA forces maintain the support of the nearly 30,000 Rohingya Muslim civilians, which make up the ethnic and religious majority within the Rakhine State.[xxxviii] Along with this highly specific civilian base of support, ARSA has the alleged support, largely in the form of money, recruits, training and weapons, of other international terrorist, extremist and/or jihadist groups, although ARSA has frequently denied these connections. ARSA also has the attention of the international community through the recent increase in media coverage showing the human rights abuses, including the high rates of death, rape, and destruction of thousands of homes and buildings, carried out against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.[xxxix] The UN, ASEAN, EU and even countries such as the United States have actively spoken out against the actions of the Myanmar government and Rohingya State Police forces, and have pressured the Myanmar government to provide protection for the Rohingya Muslim minority. These governments and intergovernmental organizations have not voiced support for the guerilla attacks and violence carried out by ARSA, but the alignment of interests provides ARSA with more international legitimacy, support, and a broader base of potential recruits.

 

ARSA also maintains significant advantages in branding their mission due to the statelessness and lack of political agency the Rohingya Muslims continue to encounter. Since the Rohingya Muslims have no political options such as voting or lobbying for social, economic, and political equality in Myanmar, their uprising and use of violence may seem more legitimate to the international community, which so far does not outwardly condone but does not necessarily support the counterinsurgency.

 

Weaknesses of the Insurgents

 

Although the ARSA insurgents’ cause maintains some credibility in the international community, their methods have become more violent not only towards the Tatmadaw, Border Guard Police, and Rakhine State Police, but also against the Buddhist minority within the Rakhine State. This rapid increase in violence since 2016 and the alleged ties to international extremist groups have led the Myanmar government to label ARSA as a group of “extremist militant terrorists” providing the state with more legitimacy and support in their counterinsurgency efforts.[xl]

 

The ARSA insurgency also lacks clear leadership and membership. Ata Ullah was the founder of Harakah al-Yaqin in 2016 prior to this group becoming the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army but has not been a vocal leader in promoting the ARSA cause. It is unclear whether Ullah is still the leader of the insurgency, which may benefit ARSA in blending with the civilian population but may also decrease morale and deter coordinated insurgent attacks among ARSA members. Additionally, there are no definitive reports on the number of ARSA insurgents that exist in Southeast Asia and globally. It is unclear whether this factor will become an advantage or disadvantage to the ARSA insurgency. For now, the Myanmar government assumes that any Rohingya Muslim in the Rakhine State is very likely to be an ARSA insurgent or civilian supporter.

 

Strengths of the Counterinsurgents

 

The most significant strength of the Myanmar counterinsurgent forces is their ability and success in providing security to the country of Myanmar. The Tatmadaw Armed Forces, which have existed since independence in 1948, are extremely effective at carrying out conventional and unconventional military tactics in reaction to insurgent movements. Myanmar has experienced a significant amount of sectarian violence among various ethnic and religious groups and the Tatmadaw have trained the Border Guard Police and the fourteen units of State Police to respond swiftly and harshly. The Myanmar government is countering multiple insurgencies and separatist movements in Myanmar and has rejected accusations that local and national forces have abused their powers, committed human rights violations, or targeted specific ethnic and/or religious groups.[xli] These counterinsurgency forces have the full support of the supposedly democratizing central government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the first State Counsellor of Myanmar and leader of the National League for Democracy, who stated, “You must not forget there have been human rights violations on both sides of the communal divide. It’s not a matter of condemning one community or the other. I condemn all human rights violations.”[xlii]

 

The Tatmadaw, BGP and Rakhine State Police have utilized joint “area clearance operations”, which forcibly relocate Rohingya Muslims in suspected insurgency areas, destroy entire villages, and allow counterinsurgent forces to confiscate resources such as food and firearms. This has successfully cleared regions of the Rakhine State thought to be in possession of ARSA insurgents and has resettled a significant portion of the Rohingya Muslims in refugee camps though this displacement. The counterinsurgent forces have isolated the conflict area to the Rakhine State border along Bangladesh and have the support of the Rohingya Buddhist civilians living in the Rakhine State as well as the majority Buddhist population throughout Myanmar.

 

Although Myanmar is criticized for its delayed democratization efforts, the government still maintains sovereign legitimacy and influence within the international community. Myanmar has faced ASEAN and UN criticisms and pressures, and EU sanctions, but still maintains strong economic ties to India and China who have yet to dedicate troops or resources to aid Myanmar’s counterinsurgency effort. The potential involvement of India and/or China provides the Myanmar government with additional legitimacy and potential power. The Myanmar government has consistently maintained the argument that Rohingya Muslims are not Myanmar citizens and are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which denies them status as citizens who can seek protection and rights from their government. The government has also portrayed ARSA insurgents as terrorists and radicals in the media and have turned domestic opinion and some international opinion against ARSA operations due to their recent increase in violence.

 

Weaknesses of the Counterinsurgents

 

The most significant weakness of the counterinsurgency efforts is that the Myanmar government has not addressed any of the root causes driving the ARSA insurgency. The Rohingya Muslims continue to be classified as stateless people due their lack of citizenship within Myanmar and the limited and nearly impossible methods for seeking naturalization or repatriation. Since the passage of the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law, the Myanmar government has taken a clear stance on their classification of Rohingya Muslims, many of whom are now refugees, as “illegal immigrants and fugitives from the law.”[xliii] Denial of citizenship causes economic exclusion, increases in poverty, a lack of advocacy for change, and, therefore, an increase in violence to advocate for rights within the ARSA insurgency. This insurgency movement has existed in some form since the 1940s because of this unwillingness to compromise and negotiate on these avenues towards citizenship.

 

The counterinsurgency efforts of the Myanmar government have also targeted ARSA based on racial and ethnic tensions in order to eliminate the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar; many Rohingya Muslims and members of the international community are referring to these actions as “ethnic cleansing.”[xliv] Much of this conflict can be attributed to the government’s inability to fully democratize and represent the views of the 135 ethnic groups equally and fairly in a stable government system. Many religious and ethnic minorities are excluded economically, socially, and politically within Myanmar, and the creation of insurgency groups such as ARSA is perceived as the only option for these stateless individuals. The Myanmar government has not only failed to address the most significant root cause of the insurgency but has yet to offer amnesty to the insurgents in ARSA in order to provide them with a path to re-enter society peacefully. Amnesty is not possible without citizenship and the democratizing Myanmar government has no desire for Rohingya Muslims to become citizens.

 

The Tatmadaw, Border Guard Police and Rakhine State Police have failed militarily to secure the border along Bangladesh where ARSA insurgents smuggle people, food, weapons and other resources into Myanmar. ARSA’s access to sanctuary is perhaps the key to their continued success in carrying out coordinated attacks in the Rakhine State. These military and local police forces have not only responded to ARSA attacks with significant brutality, but they have destroyed the villages, infrastructure, livelihoods of Rohingya Muslim civilians. The retaliatory methods the decentralized police forces in a democratizing Myanmar have also led to alleged human rights abuses carried out against Rohingya Muslims civilians. These actions bring into question the methods and integrity of the Myanmar counterinsurgency effort, and although the majority of Myanmar citizens still support the efforts, the international community and the Rohingya Muslim minority has responded with disapproval.

 

Conclusions

 

The current counterinsurgency effort in Myanmar against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is failing in the long run. Unless the Myanmar government addresses the root causes of the insurgency by extending a pathway to citizenship and by protecting the ethnic and religious rights of the Rohingya Muslims living in the Rakhine State, this conflict could persist indefinitely. Myanmar’s history throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has proven the persistence of these identity-related conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists and these trends will continue without new policy approaches taken by the Myanmar government. The Myanmar government should consider some possible solutions to end the insurgency: accept support and humanitarian aid from international organizations, improve local police forces by providing adequate training for confronting ethnic and religious issues, promote conflict resolution methods within the bureaucracy, improve relationships and connectivity between ethnic minorities and majorities within Myanmar society, promote economic opportunities the expand development to all states within Myanmar, expand citizenship rights to Rohingya Muslims, and provide a path to amnesty for ARSA and other insurgent fighters within Myanmar.[xlv] If the Myanmar government fails to recognize and/or pursue these administrative goals, the ARSA insurgency will persist and other conflicts will most likely arise.

 

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Shakeeb Asrar, “Rohingya crisis explained in maps,” Al Jazeera (28 October 2017). Accessed on 16 July 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/09/rohingya-crisis-explained-maps-170910140906580.html.

 

“The World Factbook: Burma,” Central Intelligence Agency (12 July 2018). Accessed on 16 July 2018. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html.

 

“United Nations in Myanmar: What We Do,” United Nations. Accessed on 16 July 2018. http://mm.one.un.org/content/unct/myanmar/en/home/what-we-do.html.

 

End Notes

 

[i] Maxwell B. Markusen, “Myanmar and its Rohingya Muslim Insurgency,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (7 September 2017). Accessed on 12 July 2018. https://www.csis.org/analysis/myanmar-and-its-rohingya-muslim-insurgency.

[ii] Nehginpao Kipgen, “Conflict in the Rakhine State in Myanmar,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs Vol. 33, No. 2 (2013), pp. 300-301.

[iii] John Gordon, “Modern Counterinsurgency Theory and Practice,” PUBP 766 Modern Counterinsurgency PowerPoint, 4 June 2018, Slide 10.

[iv] Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, “ARSA Categorically Denies Unjustifiable and Careless Serious Criminal Accusations Made by Amnesty International (AI),” Press Statement (25 May 2018).

[v] “Geography and political Status,” Arakan Human Rights and Development Organisation (2013). Accessed on 16 July 2018. http://www.arakanhrdo.org/geography-and-political-status/arakan/geography-and-political-status.

[vi] Martin Smith, “The Muslim Rohingya of Burma,” Conference of Burma Centrum Nederland (11 December 1995).

[vii] Rawan Gharib, “Wordframes: Taking Sides on Rohingya ‘Insurgents’ or ‘Terrorists’,” Global Voices NewsFrames (14 May 2018). Accessed on 16 July 2018. https://newsframes.globalvoices.org/2018/05/14/wordframes-taking-sides-on-rohingya-insurgents-or-terrorists/

[viii] Smith, “The Muslim Rohingya of Burma,” p. 7.

[ix] Smith, “The Muslim Rohingya of Burma,” p. 9.

[x] Smith, “The Muslim Rohingya of Burma,” p. 13.

[xi] Elliot Brennan & Christopher O’Hara, “The Rohingya and Islamic Extremism: A Convenient Myth,” Institute for Security and Development Policy, Policy Brief No. 181 (15 June 2015).

[xii] Smith, “The Muslim Rohingya of Burma,” p. 10.

[xiii] Jane M. Ferguson, “The scramble for the Waste Lands: Tracking colonial legacies, counterinsurgency and international investment through the lends of land laws in Burma/Myanmar,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography vol. 35 (2014) pp. 291-311.

[xiv] Smith, “The Muslim Rohingya of Burma,” p. 10.

[xv] Brennan & O’Hara, “The Rohingya and Islamic Extremism: A Convenient Myth”

[xvi] Smith, “The Muslim Rohingya of Burma,” p. 13.

[xvii] Brennan & O’Hara, “The Rohingya and Islamic Extremism: A Convenient Myth”

[xviii] Jared Ferrie, “The roots and risks of Myanmar’s new Rohingya insurgency,” IRIN News (2 January 2017). Accessed on 16 July 2018. https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2017/01/03/roots-and-risks-myanmar%E2%80%99s-new-rohingya-insurgency.

[xix] Jared Ferrie, “The roots and risks of Myanmar’s new Rohingya insurgency,” IRIN News (2 January 2017).

[xx] Nehginpao Kipgen, “Conflict in the Rakhine State in Myanmar,” p. 300.

[xxi] “The World Factbook: Burma,” Central Intelligence Agency (12 July 2018). Transnational Issues.

[xxii] Rawan Gharib, “Wordframes: Taking Sides on Rohingya ‘Insurgents’ or ‘Terrorists’,” Global Voices NewsFrames (14 May 2018).

[xxiii] Maxwell B. Markuson, “Myanmar and its Rohingya Muslim Insurgency,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (7 September 2017). Accessed on 16 July 2018. https://www.csis.org/analysis/myanmar-and-its-rohingya-muslim-insurgency

[xxiv] Rawan Gharib, “Wordframes: Taking Sides on Rohingya ‘Insurgents’ or ‘Terrorists’,” Global Voices NewsFrames (14 May 2018).

[xxv] Imtiaz Ahmed, “Globalization, Low-Intensity Conflict & Protracted Statelessness/Refugeehood: The Plight of the Rohingyas, Program on Global Security and Cooperation, Social Science Research Council Vol. 13 (Summer/Fall 2004) pp. 8-11.

[xxvi] Maxwell B. Markuson, “Myanmar and its Rohingya Muslim Insurgency,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (7 September 2017).

[xxvii] “The World Factbook: Burma,” Central Intelligence Agency (12 July 2018). Introduction.

[xxviii] “The World Factbook: Burma,” Central Intelligence Agency (12 July 2018). Introduction.

[xxix] “Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,” International Crisis Group Report No. 283 (15 December 2016). Accessed on 16 July 2018. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/283-myanmar-new-muslim-insurgency-rakhine-state.

[xxx] “Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,” International Crisis Group (15 December 2016).

[xxxi] Lionel Beehner, “State-building, Military Modernization and Cross-border Ethnic Violence in Myanmar,” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs vol. 5 no.1 (2018) pp.1-30.

[xxxii] Alistair D. B. Cook, “Positions of responsibility: A comparison of ASEAN and EU approaches towards Myanmar,” RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies vol. 47 (2010) pp. 434-435.

[xxxiii] Alistair D. B. Cook, “Positions of responsibility: A comparison of ASEAN and EU approaches towards Myanmar,” RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies vol. 47 (2010) pp. 434-435.

[xxxiv] “United Nations in Myanmar: What We Do,” United Nations. Accessed on 16 July 2018. http://mm.one.un.org/content/unct/myanmar/en/home/what-we-do.html.

[xxxv] Rawan Gharib, “Wordframes: Taking Sides on Rohingya ‘Insurgents’ or ‘Terrorists’,” Global Voices NewsFrames (14 May 2018).

[xxxvi] James Hookway, “World News: Myanmar Faces Outcry Over Crackdown – Military push to drive Rohingya out draws international scrutiny and militant call to arms,” Wall Street Journal (14 September 2017). Accessed on 16 July 2018. http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/print/WSJ_-A006-20170914.pdf.

[xxxvii] James Hookway, “World News: Myanmar Faces Outcry Over Crackdown – Military push to drive Rohingya out draws international scrutiny and militant call to arms,” Wall Street Journal (14 September 2017).

[xxxviii] “The World Factbook: Burma,” Central Intelligence Agency (12 July 2018). Transnational Issues.

[xxxix] Maxwell B. Markuson, “Myanmar and its Rohingya Muslim Insurgency,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (7 September 2017).

[xl] James Hookway, “World News: Myanmar Faces Outcry Over Crackdown – Military push to drive Rohingya out draws international scrutiny and militant call to arms,” Wall Street Journal (14 September 2017).

[xli] Nehginpao Kipgen, “Conflict in the Rakhine State in Myanmar,” p. 303.

[xlii] Nehginpao Kipgen, “Conflict in the Rakhine State in Myanmar,” p. 306.

[xliii] Nehginpao Kipgen, “Conflict in the Rakhine State in Myanmar,” p. 300.

[xliv] Nehginpao Kipgen, “Conflict in the Rakhine State in Myanmar,” p. 299.

[xlv] Nehginpao Kipgen, “Conflict in the Rakhine State in Myanmar,” p. 307.

Categories: Myanmar - counterinsurgency - COIN

About the Author(s)

Sarah Rowland is a graduate student at George Mason University and is completing a degree in Political Science with a specialization in International Relations. The Rohingya Crisis: A Failing Counterinsurgency is a final paper written for Professor John Gordon’s Modern Counterinsurgency course.

Comments

I doubt this. The Rohingya will mostly return to Rakhine in due course as they did after the exoduses of 1978 and 1991, so the same problems will remain.  I broadly support the author's conclusions.

I am surprised to learn that the "British Commonwealth" had colonies. I thought they were an association of independent countries - Australia, Canada and New Zealand included - which became the "Commonwealth" in 1949.

As for the Rohingya, the 2014 Census estimated the number of Muslims in the whole of Myanmar at roughly 4.3% of the total population, of whom only some 1,090,000 - or about 47% - were what the British used to know as Chittagonians, some quasi-indigenous (origins pre-1823) but mostly descended from legal migrants from Bengal from 1870 onwards, and who now say they want to be known as Rohingya. The term was unknown to the British, and until the 1990s  they were generally known inside and outside Burma as "Arakan Chittagonians". The term "Rohingya" is not to be found in any Burmese legal instrument, but they are today generally accepted internationally as an emerging ethnicity, a post-1960 coalescence of various quote separate historical Muslim ethnic groups tabulated in the 1973 Census as Myedu, Yakhain-kala, Zerbaidi, Arakan-Chittagonian, Burmese Muslim etc.etc., designations which they later discarded under pressure from their political and religious leaders in favor of Rohingya - and which the authorities also withdrew in 1990 when the number of national races was cut from 144 to 135.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I seriously question Rowland's conclusions.  

 

Firstly, by what measure is the campaign in Rakhine State "failing"?  In less than three years, Myanmar has expelled roughly two-thirds of its Rohingya population, which is a core objective. 

 

Secondly, Myanmar it has lost less than 100 combatants to ARSA, and has killed or captured 10X this number.  Of course these statistics are open to questioning and criticism, but Rowland has provided no alternative estimates.

 

Thirdly, Myanmar's security forces have fought various civil wars and waged counterinsurgency for some 70 years.  Certainly these conflicts can "persist indefinitely", but so too can Myanmar's willingness to fight.    

 

 

Lastly, Rowland's recommendations to the Myanmar government seem to fundamentally misunderstand that government's intentions and actions.  Myanmar does not perceive ARSA to be an existential threat; by comparison, Myanmar's security forces have proved themselves to be an existential threat to the Rohingya.