The tale of violence in the Rakhine State of Myanmar just does not seem to end. While the violence surely has multiple actors the most troubled are the Muslim residents who identify themselves as “Rohingyas.” According to United Nations estimates over 65,000 Rohingyas have fled since the outbreak of violence, which ironically was triggered by their kin on October 9 last. Armed Rohingya men attacked a police outpost in Pyaungpit village, in Maungdaw Township of Rakhine State that left nine policemen dead followed by a trail of violence and a fast emerging spectre of terror looming large.
Since the attack the Burmese military has carried out an unrelenting backlash on what they claim are against armed groups, but without providing sufficient answers for the collateral damage that it has caused. The government has denied reports of any large-scale atrocities by the military against the Muslims, who it terms as “Bengalis.” The near total closure of the affected areas such as Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships for journalists and international media or even humanitarian aid workers has aroused suspicion of continuous foul play by the Burmese military.
The situation has become extremely complex with claims and counter claims by both the Muslim community and the government on the prevailing ground situation. Fake reports and manipulated videos and photographs showing mass atrocities against “Rohingya” men, women and children which are circulating in the social media, allegedly the handiwork of some vested interests, have had damaging impacts on real and authentic reports in the media about atrocities and abuses against women and children perpetrated by the men in military uniform.
In all of this what has also been a cause of worry for not just the Burmese government but neighbouring countries like India and even Bangladesh are reports of fundamentalists groups infusing mayhem to the crisis. A number of sources including international security agencies and international NGOs working on security issues have all raised fears of Islamic fundamentalist groups having infiltrated into the Rakhine State.
The Malaysian police had recently arrested an Indonesian citizen who was apparently headed to Myanmar with an ulterior motive to carry out a jihad. The Malaysian counter-terrorism agency identified the arrested Indonesian resident as an “Islamic State (IS) militant.” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the head of the Malaysian police counter-terrorism division has been quoted in the media as saying that “Myanmar faces a growing danger of attacks by the foreign IS supporters recruited from Southeast Asian networks in support of persecuted Muslim Rohingyas.”
The report corroborates what Bertil Litner a well know journalist who has extensively traveled the length and breadth of Myanmar has said about the possible growth of Islamic terrorism and militancy in Rakhine and its fallout in the entire region. The author aptly describes the situation in Rakhine when he says that the ongoing violence “has captured the attention of the outside world in a way that no other ethnic conflict in Burma has ever done.” The Muslims of Rakhine have been forced to either flee by boats to Malaysia, Indonesia or to other far off countries or continue to wage their battle for survival staying in Rakhine. Many are stuck in camps across the Naf River in Bangladesh as the latter too refuses to take them in. Over 300,000 Myanmar nationals, mostly Muslims have been living in these camps in Bangladesh as refugees for years.
The growing uncertainty over the future of the Stateless Muslims (Rohingyas) have only compounded fears among various sections of the Burmese and the international community of creation of fertile grounds for breeding “the world’s newest Muslim insurgency.” The International Crisis Group (ICG) to provided similar suggestions in one of its report recently.
Soon after the October 9 incident videos of fundamentalist Muslims groups urging Rohingyas and other Muslims in Rakhine to turn jihadists and “save” their home, children and women,” had gone viral across social media and there’s a strong outpour of varied emotions from across the Burmese society. Undoubtedly the videos are alarming sending the government and intelligence agencies into a tizzy. This could perhaps be the start of a dangerous trend which not only makes the situation more hostile but turn Rakhine into a complex theatre of violence.
The group that has been seen in the videos calling itself the Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is said to be masterminded by a group based in Saudi Arabia with a ground command structure led by internationally guerilla warfare trained Rohingya men. Several reports in the media and also published by the ICG talks of the “considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits,” for this group and its operatives.
Something surely needs to be done and fast as otherwise the deep seated sectarian friction will quickly intersperse with fundamentalism making it extremely dangerous. This will give rise to a form of militancy which could raise its ugly head every time there’s unrest or even trigger a conflict to overshadow everything else. But the question that lingers on every mind is: Are we taking the right steps to prevent this from happening? Since the fresh spate of violence that broke out in northern Rakhine on October 9 last and the tinderbox like situation that prevails, the reaction of the state security machinery has been somewhat knee jerk. Not farsighted to say the least.
All that the police chief Maj Gen Zaw Win has done so far is admit that security measures along the 271 kms long riverine and land border with Bangladesh is weak. Assurances of deploying forces and use of helicopters as was mentioned by the police chief is certainly not enough or not the best approach to tackle a form of uprising (“terrorism”) that the Burmese armed forces is not equipped to tackle.
We don’t need to look far to see the fallout of such situations. The social unrest, communal strike and cross border terrorism in neighbouring India—North Eastern States and Kashmir are glaring examples of the complexities and the long drawn struggles to contain the problem. North east India States like Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and a few others have had to bear brunt of a steady migration of people from across Bangladesh starting with communal unrest, long draw agitations against Bangladeshi migrants followed by various shades of militancy.
Sectarian violence in Rakhine, much of which occurred in 2012 had left over 100 or more people killed and tens of thousands displaced. The situation continues to be volatile since then threatening to spiral into a new more thorny and dangerous conflict where the spectre of terrorism looms large.
The October 9 attack on the police in Pyaungpit village by hundreds of wielding pistols and swords is certainly not how a terror group would operate. Moreover, violence in the nearby Taung Paing Nyar village where seven dead bodies of men with rudimentary weapons were found is also an indication perhaps of the communal loathing that continues to prevail in Rakhine.
This has given rise to a different form of apprehension among the residents of Rakhine’s capital city Sittwe and other towns. “We fear a repeat of 2012 and also feel that it would be more devastating with terror groups getting a foothold in Rakhine,” says Tin Aung a resident of Sittwe while reflecting on the current situation.
Indeed if what is shown in the videos—terror groups armed to the hilt calling out to people to join a war (jihad) against the ‘kafirs”--is anything close to being true, the fallout of another communal strife like in 2012 could be beyond repair. In one of the video a man is seen saying, “we have to save Islam…let us issue a fatwa and start jihad,” (translated from the spoken Chittagong dialect in the video). There’s another one where a cleric is seen asserting that the new government of Aung San Kyi had made promises “to protect the Muslims but that is not to be and we have to protect ourselves. We do not have to be afraid and should pick up the gun and save ourselves.”
Given this backdrop the question to ask is: Will a military led offensive against any terror group work? Let us not forget that Rakhine is already heavily militarized and mostly the residents of northern Rakhine have been facing the brunt. Deployment of more government armed forces there will only make the situation worse. The killing of the nine police officers by armed terrorists in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships and the curfew that followed certainly has immense similarities to what’s happening in India’s northern borders with Pakistan but the response from the governments need not be the same.
So for now perhaps one has to be content with what U Kyaw Tin, the deputy minister of foreign affairs has said. He said an investigation was underway to see if the assailants had links in Bangladesh. Since then State Counsellor Aung san Suu Kyi had said that the violence in Rakhine would be dealt “within the law,” but such has been the intensity of the recent violence and its impact on the Burmese Government that she has had to send State Minister for Foreign Affairs U Kyaw Tin to Dhaka on January 10 to discuss the problem, in particular the growing number of Muslim refugees from northern Rakhine taking shelter in Bangladesh. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government since coming to power in November 2015 has been under rising international pressure to solve the “Rohingya crisis.”
Before the recent outbreak of violence Suu Kyi had instituted an Advisory Commission under former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan to get to the core of the conflict in Rakhine in order to find a lasting solution. It may be easier said than done given the recent developments in Rakhine, but then as always let us give her the benefit of the doubt and hope that Rakhine does not become a Kashmir or a southern Thailand where violence and terror dots the socio-political landscape.