Myanmar Reckons With a Muslim Insurgency

9 MINS READDec 21, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
In Myanmar's economically important Rakhine state, a new insurgent group has formed among the Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority. The group staged several attacks against Myanmar's security forces in October and November, provoking intense military backlash.
(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Emboldened by recent attacks, the new Rohingya militant group Harakah al-Yaqin will keep staging assaults, adding to the patchwork of ethnic insurgent groups across Myanmar.
  • The new group could upset the delicate political balance in Rakhine state, potentially disrupting critical economic activities in the area.
  • The ruling National League for Democracy will struggle to address the problem without inciting renewed violence in Rakhine state or jeopardizing its popularity among Myanmar's majority-Buddhist population.

In a country known for ethnic conflict, Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya stand out. The Muslim minority group, concentrated near the Bangladeshi border in Rakhine state, has a long history of marginalization. Its members lack full citizenship in Myanmar, and the leaders of many other minority populations in the country deny that the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group at all, claiming that they are recent Bengali immigrants. Even the name "Rohingya" is controversial; Myanmar's state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, has asked the international community to avoid using the term so as not to inflame ethnic tensions in her country.

Myanmars Rohingya Minority and Rakhine State
The Rohingya have long troubled Myanmar's public image. A substantial number of Rohingya have fled the country and live across the border in Bangladesh or in diaspora communities around the world. Thousands more are still internally displaced. The group has become something of a cause celebre for leaders in the West and in the Muslim world, who have called on Myanmar's government to redress the plight of the Rohingya. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak recently shocked the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and provoked backlash from Myanmar by calling for international intervention in what he described as the Rohingya genocide. Similarly, international jihadists have rallied behind the cause, sparking fear among Southeast Asia's leaders that extremist groups such as the Islamic State could co-opt and radicalize the Rohingya. On Dec. 19, Suu Kyi hosted a one-day retreat in Yangon attended by all but three ASEAN foreign ministers where she briefed them on the situation, agreeing to allow the delivery of aid and access by some journalists to Rohingya areas. Evidence of radicalization has yet to materialize, but the situation has become more complicated in recent months with the emergence of a new Rohingya insurgent movement.

A Return to Arms

Myanmar is no stranger to insurgency. Many of Myanmar's minority groups, which make up around 30 percent of the population, were marginalized under the country's nearly 50-year military dictatorship and formed their own insurgent armies. Since the junta fell in 2010, these ethnic militant groups have struggled to trade their military power for political power. But the Rohingya, lacking official recognition as an ethnic group and under heavy government pressure, have not managed to sustain a substantial militant movement of their own. Even so, they have made sporadic attempts. A mujahid group nearly gained regional autonomy in Rakhine state in the 1950s, and numerous militant organizations sprang up in the 1970s after the Bangladesh war of independence, giving rise to the Rohingya Patriotic Front and later the spinoff Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). Though the RSO gained some notoriety, having been trained by the Taliban, the group had largely waned in influence by the early 2000s. Now, a new group seems to be emerging in its stead.

In a Dec. 15 report based on extensive interviews, the International Crisis Group described a new militant faction, Harakah al-Yaqin, or Faith Movement. So far, the group is making quite a name for itself: Harakah al-Yaqin staged several surprise attacks on Myanmar security forces in October and November. The attacks involved hundreds of local recruits and resulted in the deaths of 17 security forces personnel as well as the capture of a large stock of weapons and ammunition. Initially, authorities blamed the attack on remnants of the RSO, but it soon became clear that the perpetrators were acting on behalf of a new, distinct group. The military launched a wave of retaliatory and counterinsurgency efforts in the wake of Harakah al-Yaqin's attacks. Myanmar forces followed the same strategy, known as "Four Cuts," that it has deployed against other ethnic insurgencies around the country for decades, cutting off the militants' access to food, funding, intelligence and recruits. The operations, which involved helicopter gunships, devastated the local population and leveled Rohingya villages.

A New Kind of Insurgent Group

Even though jihadists around the world have championed the Rohingya cause, Harakah al-Yaqin itself appears to be a garden-variety ethnic insurgency like the dozens of others in the country. Muslim identity in Southeast Asia is most commonly rooted in ethnicity rather than in political Islam. (Islamist movements have gained footholds in some areas, however.) Harakah al-Yaqin has likewise couched its goals in ethnic terms, calling for government recognition and rights equal to those of other minority groups instead of Sharia, revolt or secession. Given the Rohingya's precarious position in Myanmar and the heightened concerns over terrorism in the region, the group is trying to maintain domestic credibility by deliberately avoiding language or propaganda that could be construed as remotely jihadist or Islamist.

But compared with the numerous other ethnic militant groups in Myanmar — most of which are much larger — Harakah al-Yaqin has a broader international reach, thanks to the substantial number of Rohingya living abroad. A group of Rohingya expatriates living in Saudi Arabia founded the movement, and a cadre of 20 militants with experience in overseas guerrilla warfare operations leads its hundreds of local recruits in Myanmar. Harakah al-Yaqin even has a dedicated cleric, Saudi-educated Ziabur Rahman, who has the authority to issue fatwas in support of the group's goals and actions. Beyond its Saudi connections, the group has ties to Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Taiba, much as the RSO did, and its members seem to have received training from Afghans and Pakistanis, along with Rohingya veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan. Though Myanmar's other insurgent movements all have ties beyond the country's borders, they typically extend only to neighboring states and mostly entail arms, narcotics and resources smuggling. Harakah al-Yaqin is a new breed, and it remains to be seen how it will develop.

Trouble Ahead

The rise of this new group does not bode well for Myanmar, even if Harakah al-Yaqin maintains its strict focus on ethnic rights. Rakhine state is an integral part of Myanmar and one with a great deal of economic importance. Though remote from Myanmar's core, Rakhine state has a dense population and allows access to a major portion of the country's offshore natural gas fields, a key source of government revenue. In addition, the state is the site of various joint projects with China, including a natural gas pipeline that runs into Yunnan province and a deep-sea port and special economic zone planned for Kyaukpyu on Rakhine's coast. These projects are far from Harakah al-Yaqin's area of operations, but nonetheless, by threatening Rakhine's political and communal balance, the new insurgent group could pose a threat to its infrastructure and development.

The Rohingya share Rakhine state with the Buddhist ethnic Rakhine people, who account for about 60 percent of the state's population — about twice the Rohingya's proportion. Although the Rakhine, like the Rohingya, have long been subject to government repression, they are well represented in Myanmar by an established political party, the Arakan National Party, as well as numerous civic organizations. The group has been trying to use its political clout to attain greater regional autonomy, but it fears that the Rohingya will interfere with this plan. (The concern is not unfounded; the military government played the two ethnic groups against each other for years to keep their ambitions in check.) Tension between the two groups has erupted in violence over the years, most recently in 2012-13, when riots forced thousands of Rohingya into refugee and displaced persons camps.

A Thorny Conflict

For Suu Kyi, the Rohingya issue is the thorniest among a host of thorny ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. After spending decades as a darling of the West for her opposition to Myanmar's longtime military dictatorship, Suu Kyi has come under international criticism for her administration's inattention to the Rohingya. Furthermore, maintaining stability in Rakhine state — and buy-in from its Buddhist population — is a priority for Myanmar's central government. Unrest in Rakhine threatens not only the country's economic activities but also its core geopolitical imperative to unify its fractured geography. Though Harakah al-Yaqin is tiny compared with many of Myanmar's militant groups — such as the 30,000-member United Wa State Army — its location gives it outsize leverage over the government.

But the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has limited options for managing the new Muslim ethnic conflict. For one thing, the country's autonomous military has much more influence on the ground than its leaders do. For another, the NLD must tread lightly to avoid inciting communal riots or playing into the hands of the Buddhist nationalist movement, a major populist force with enough political clout to run its own party, the National Development Party, in the 2015 elections. The movement is broad and argues that Muslim, Hindu and even Christian groups are not properly a part of Myanmar. Despite the National Development Party's poor performance in the 2015 race, when it could not compete with the NLD's massive appeal and credibility as the longtime opposition group, a successor party could rally massive support in a future election. After all, between 80 and 89 percent of Myanmar's population is Buddhist. The conflict between the Rakhine and Rohingya has long been held up as an example of the threat to Myanmar's Buddhist identity. If the NLD appears to be weak on the issue, then it risks losing political ground.

For now, the new Rohingya militant group is in its early days, and it is unclear how its insurgency will unfold. Past Rohingya insurgent organizations, such as the RSO, have fizzled out under government pressure and international cooperation. Given the group's connections abroad, coordinating with Bangladesh or Pakistan may help the Myanmar government keep the lid on Harakah al-Yaqin. Still, Harakah al-Yakin has the potential to upset the country's delicate balance and make reaching its core economic goals more complex. 


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