Burma: The Rohingya Conundrum And Regional Implications – Analysis


By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

On the night of August 24, Rohingyan militants staged a coordinated attack on 30 Police posts that cover more than 24 villages around Maungdaw. They also tried unsuccessfully to storm an Army Base. The attackers held only a few small arms, machetes and home made explosive bombs but no sophisticated weapons.

Ten Policemen were killed in the attack, most of them brutally hacked with sharp weapons. One Army soldier was killed in the attempt on the Army camp. In all, over 110 have been killed that included 21 of the intruders and another 38 suspected militants. One militant was reportedly captured. Operations against the Rohingyan militants are continuing resulting in the exodus of over 40,000 civilians. This was to be expected.

Location of Rakhine State in Myanmar. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Location of Rakhine State in Burma / Myanmar. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

This attack was similar to the one staged on October 9 last year by the same group when they made coordinated attacks on three border Police posts resulting in the death of over 9 Policemen. In the resulting Army operations last year some 87,000 Rohingyas were said to have fled northern Rakhine state.

The present attack was owned up by an outfit that called itself “The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The same outfit was previously known as Harakah-al-Yaqin or “Faith Movement” that instigated the previous October attacks. Perhaps to give a local colour the outfit had shed its arab name.

As expected, the Army sent reinforcements and started clearance operations that resulted in a large number of people running towards Bangladesh border. Except for a few, all the rest were not allowed to enter Bangladesh. The international media, particularly the Al Jazeera has been showing the hapless refugees stranded at the border.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) was quick to warn within three days that disproportionate military/government response without overarching political strategy will play directly into the hands of the ARSA whose aim is to further alienate the Rohingya communities, drive support for them and place the spotlight of the World back on military abuses. This has already happened.

Kofi Annan whose eleven member commission submitted its final report on the situation in the northern Rakhine State just a day prior to the attack had also pointed that a highly militarized response is “unlikely to bring peace to the area.” Instead it had recommended a nuanced, comprehensive response to “ensure that violence does not escalate and inter-communal tensions are kept under control.” Easily said- weighty words but not easy to implement in a complicated situation like that obtained on the ground.

Other points included in the report were “to accelerate the citizenship verification of qualified Rohingya followed by socio economic development coupled with freedom of movement and community participation and representation.

Thus, the Myanmar administration has been put under tremendous pressure internationally to resolve the Rohingya crisis. Knowing fully well the international repercussions on the incident ( even the Security Council met on this issue on 30th August), Aung San Suu Kyi held an urgent meeting on the same day (25th) with the Union ministers of Defence, Home affairs as well as the national Security Adviser.

The developing situation in the Rakhine State was also discussed in the Parliament when the military MPS and the Arakenese politicians joined hands to demand that administrative and security measures be intensified. The Army’s representative pointed out that security measures should be prioritized for protecting national sovereignty against terrorists instead of “feeling fear of international fear.” There was a point in what he said.

The UN Human rights chief was also quick to point out on August 30 that decades of systematic abuses against the Rohingya community were largely to blame for the spiraling violence. In other words he was willing to justify the brutal violence of the attackers on the poor police men and the aim was exactly what the attackers wanted to see. Except for some generalization no positive suggestions to make either to bring peace and harmony to the distressed region were made by the UN Chief. !

Suu Kyi’s office made a quick response to the final report of the commission and announced various steps the government had taken on the issue. These were 1. A new Ministerial-led committee responsible for the implementation of the recommendations will be established. 2. The new committee will be assisted by an Advisory Board on Rakhine 3. Healthcare has been improved in the region and schools and vocational and technical training programmes have begun 4. Hundreds of new jobs have been created for local people in Rakhine State. 5. Electrification has been expanded and opening anew SEZ is being considered. 6. Promoting religious harmony and communal relations by engaging inter faith groups 7. Most importantly a strategy and time line to move forward the National Verification Process as well as a strategy to close IDP camps in Rakhine State. New Houses are being built.

This fresh attack by the militants who appear to have international empathy has placed the armed forces in a dilemma. They are aware that international condemnation would immediately arise with an increase in operations that would inevitably be bringing accusations of human rights abuses and excessive force. The Army looks at it as a pure law and order issue affecting the nation’s sovereignty whereas the civilian government looks at it as a social/civil issue that needs a holistic approach.

It is said that the Army had earlier proposed martial law in the northern Rakhine State even before the present attack. A suggestion to convene the National Defence and Security Council by the Army where it has a majority of one has not been responded to by the President.

The Army is therefore stuck in a dilemma as any long term approach to solve the issue should be coordinated both by the Army and the Civilian government.

It was not a coincidence that the attacks took place a day after the Kofi Annan’s nine member Commission submitted it final report to both the State Counsellor and the Army Chief. It just shows total disregard of the extremist Rohingyan elements to reach any peaceful solution. They do not realise that their attacks would only further bring in more hardship to their community who given a choice would prefer to live in harmony with other communities. The insurgents only wanted to have a strong military response and they got it.

One cannot but agree with the editorial in Irrawady of 31st August that violence is not the solution to the issues to Rakhine State and that the danger Myanmar faces is real and will have serious long term consequences within the country and beyond its borders.

To conclude:

  • The present attack which simultaneous and well coordinated over a large was not a spontaneous one, but well planned and executed by people who were well trained in this kind of attacks.
  • Judging from the weapons used, it looks that it was not a trans national operation though the inspiration may have come from far. Yet there is a likelihood of attacks being repeated with more sophistication and deadly weapons and getting internationalised. The ISIS has already shown its interest in Rohingya issue.
  • The security forces were well spread out in the region and attacks were expected. Yet the forces were surprised and shocked by the simultaneous and well-coordinated attacks. It shows that specific intelligence was lacking or that the security forces were overconfident. The Irrawady has suggested that the security forces could perhaps tie up and get trained in counter terrorist operations with India or Indonesia. This appears unnecessary as the Burmese forces are well experienced and trained for undertaking counter insurgency/terror operations in Rakhine State though some may question its brutal methods. Counter insurgency is a dirty war resulting sometimes in use of disproportionate force.
  • Two countries that are directly affected by the attacks are Bangladesh and India. It is officially admitted in India that over 40,000 Rohingyans have illegally settled with most of them in Jammu and Kashmir. J &K is a sensitive area already affected by insurgent activities and the illegals could become a potential recruiting ground. Orders to evict them have brought strong opposition from Human Rights entities and a case has also been filed in the court. I wish the human rights representatives coordinate with their counter parts in West Asia and try to settle them there! Bangladesh has already had a large number of refugees and cannot take any more. Their efforts to stop the refugees at the border will have to be understood. The UN should step in and find alternatives.
  • Lastly, the international entities are not helping the Suu Kyi administration or Suu Kyi herself by cautioning the administration as to what it should do. Suu Kyi it appears is well aware of her constraints both internally and internationally the repercussions if the Rohingya problem intensifies. She would need time and she should be left alone to decide on the modalities of solving the issue.
  • Surprising that no one seems to have condemned in strongest terms the ARSA that started this violent cycle.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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