Myanmar is in the middle of the latest episode of violence targeting the Rohingya, the country’s largest Muslim minority. This comes as the country’s military dominated regime is allowing limited civilian influence in the state and Naypyidaw is hoping to rejoin the international fold after decades of self-imposed isolation. So far, the international community’s response to the violence has been muted. Western leaders are hoping things will get better, though there is little evidence to suggest things will improve; for many Western countries, interest in Myanmar is limited to the pursuit of economic benefits if the country’s economy opens to the global markets. With the exception of Bangladesh and Indonesia, Myanmar’s regional neighbors have been unable or unwilling to exert pressure on the government. Other countries, such as China, have been characteristically quiet throughout this humanitarian crisis. Yet quelling the violence is in the international community’s best interest, because the resulting refugee situation has created fertile ground for Islamist radicalization in not just the country, but the wider South and Southeast Asian region.
The campaign of violence – tantamount to ethnic cleansing – against the Rohingya minority goes back decades, to the country’s independence from the United Kingdom after World War II. This latest round of violence erupted after a little-known insurgent group launched an attack on Myanmar army positions in Rakhine state on August 24. A group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), formerly known as Harakatul Yakeen, has claimed responsibility for the attack and is claiming to have launched an armed resistance movement against the Myanmar military.
Rohingya militants’ use of guns and explosives marks a new phase in the conflict. Unlike other border minorities in Myanmar, such as the Shan, the Rohingya had never before mounted an armed insurrection against the country’s military, despite suffering decades of systemic abuse. Violence against the Rohingya from 2012 until October of last year largely did not involve federal security forces. Ultra-nationalist Rakhine and extremist Theravada Buddhist groups local to Rakhine state led most of those attacks. But now, the conflict has escalated into a war between an aspiring local insurgency and the Myanmar military and could escalate into unprecedented violence.
The military has responded with devastating force – not against just the militants who attacked their positions, or just the Rohingya men of fighting age who might be suspected of violence, but against the entire Rohingya population. Hundreds are already thought to have been killed since August 24. Satellite imagery shows that more than a dozen Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground. In addition to the growing casualty count, the number of Rohingya civilians fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh since this latest round of violence has reached 150,000, of which 80 percent are women and children. The refugees, flowing en masse over the border, describe indiscriminate killing and deliberate targeting of fleeing civilians by the army as they were sacking the villages.
The current situation looks intractable. So long as ARSA is able to ambush and kill a handful of army soldiers, the army will likely continue with attacks of a similar scale and ferocity against the entire Rohingya population throughout the country. Considering how many Rohingya have already been displaced by decades of violence, there are potentially as few as 800,000 members of the minority group left in Myanmar. With one-eighth of that number anticipated to flee to Bangladesh, Myanmar – whether by design or not – is well on its way to completely “cleansing” this ethnic group from Rakhine state.
U.N. humanitarian agencies and other NGOs and observers have long regarded the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Since 1982, Burma/Myanmar’s law excluded almost the entire Rohingya population from the right to citizenship, rendering them stateless in their country of birth, against the prescriptions of international law on citizenship and statelessness. Alongside this have come restrictions on access to education and health care, ethnic and religious restrictions on marriage, restrictions on movement within the country, and even restrictions on the number of children Rohingya couples were allowed to have – all gross violations of international law.
What is more, the imposition of these restraints on the Rohingya is widely popular among Myanmar’s majority Buddhist Burmese population. For many, the Rohingya are reviled both as a dark-skinned, visibly different minority, and as Muslims. These prevailing attitudes are rooted in decades of propaganda and revisionist history pushed by the erstwhile military juntas who have ruled the country for most of its post-independence history. That propaganda seems to have been fully absorbed into the national political discourse, and the country’s wider society is overtly hostile to the group. Many in Myanmar openly and explicitly advocate the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. Many more, even in the highest political offices, are sympathetic to those views, even if they have not explicitly advocated them themselves.
Implications for Regional Geopolitics
China, as the biggest current investor in Myanmar, has a large part to play in the geopolitics of the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar is likely to be crucial to Beijing’s new “Silk Road” initiatives. If China were able to establish itself in the country, it would gain easy access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, bypassing strategically difficult routes through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
This would significantly reconfigure the power calculus in the Asia-Pacific region, which involves other major players such as Japan and the United States. Under President Barack Obama, the United States went further than any other world power in pushing for a resolution of the Rohingya crisis. However, under the Trump administration, the United States currently is more concerned about Myanmar falling under China’s influence than it is about the humanitarian crisis.
The other Western countries with economic interests in Myanmar’s substantial natural resources never made much effort to resolve the Rohingya crisis in the past. Now, many of them have abandoned humanitarian concerns altogether as the race to win favor with the government and the main economic interests in Myanmar intensifies. The Myanmar military is deeply embedded in both the governance structures and the key economic sectors of the country, so military leaders expect little meaningful censure for their heavy-handed approach to the conflict in Rakhine state. Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi has offered little more than denial and obfuscation of the situation, laying shame to her Nobel Peace Prize. Clearly her position of power is more important to her than the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
The only countries that have expressed robust criticism of Myanmar for the ongoing crisis are those directly affected by the refugee overflows: Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. In contrast, India, the South Asian powerhouse (whose prime minister, Narendra Modi, is currently visiting Myanmar), has aligned itself with the regime. The only notable exception in the sense of a non-regional actor is Turkey. Under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, Ankara sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world. Turkish motivations to get involved in this crisis are driven clearly by the country’s strategic interests.
Though Myanmar’s regional neighbors, other Muslim countries, Turkey non-governmental organizations, as well as the humanitarian agencies in the United Nations are becoming increasingly determined in their criticism of Myanmar, these parties have relatively little power to affect matters in the country. Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand could work together to isolate Myanmar within the region, but China and the West will both woo Myanmar, making regional isolation of little consequence economically and politically. So long as Myanmar’s generals can play China and the West against each other, they can maintain a huge amount of autonomy and continue attacking the Rohingya with impunity.
Nevertheless, it is in the interest of the United States and its allies to intervene vigorously to stop the humanitarian abuses in Rakhine state; otherwise, this is another crisis that transnational jihadist forces such as ISIS and al Qaeda can exploit. The spillover of refugees in Southeast Asia is wreaking havoc on stability in the region, including U.S. allies such as Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia –all of which could serve as buffers against Chinese expansion. Bangladesh is feeling the effects more than Myanmar’s other neighbors: before this recent crisis broke out, as many as 400,000 Rohingya refugees are thought to be packed in the country’s poorly provisioned refugee camps. Bangladesh itself is far from a rich country, and it is struggling to provide for all the refugees when so many of its own citizens live in systemic poverty.
Moreover, the Rohingya refugee camps – especially in Bangladesh but also in other countries – are becoming fertile soil for Islamist radicalization. Deprived of any other economic opportunities, there is little else for young Rohingya men to do than to sign up with some radical group or other. ARSA is an example of this; it is believed to have originated from Rohingya refugees who had gone to Saudi Arabia and managed to get training and financing from the kingdom’s plentiful radical networks. As of now, there is no evidence of coordination between ARSA and other Islamist groups in Southeast Asia, and certainly no link to al Qaeda or ISIS. However, allowing the humanitarian crisis to fester, allowing the refugee camps to grow, allowing the Rohingya to become more and more removed from the hope of a normal, peaceful life is tempting fate. Today’s mass of downtrodden refugees could easily become tomorrow’s pool of jihadist recruits.
If we are to avoid this outcome, and if we are to avoid the critical destabilization of Bangladesh and of the wider region, the United States needs to take committed and immediate action to push the government of Myanmar toward ameliorating the situation in Rakhine state. The United Nations’ commission to Myanmar, led by Kofi Annan, put forward an initial set of recommendations for quelling the violence just last month. What has been lacking is any meaningful pressure from the geopolitical actors who matter to the government of Myanmar. It is time for the Trump Administration to take note of the situation and assume leadership on the Rohingya crisis, lest it loses more allies and find itself dragged into yet another counter-insurgency war it cannot win.
To do this, the United States with the leadership of Myanmar, should consider seeking assistance from China. Though China and the United States have had tensions in the region, with China refusing to comment on other countries’ human rights issues as a matter of policy, both have an interest in maintaining stability. Certainly, the Chinese can see eye to eye with the Americans over the need to prevent the emergence of yet another jihadist arena. In fact, Beijing will be motivated to cooperate with Washington given that the instability spilling over from Myanmar is in China’s backyard. Moreover, China is just as keen on stability along its Silk Road routes as it is in the Korean Peninsula. In recent months, the threat of instability in the region has forced China to re-evaluate its stance and consider the possibility of cooperation. The Rohingya situation presents an opportunity for the United States and China to work together for stability in the region and to resolve one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises. Should the United States remain on the sidelines, it does so at its own peril, leaving open another arena for transnational jihadists to exploit.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. Views expressed herein are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.