Sep 14, 2017 | 11:10 GMT

9 mins read

The Tangled Web of Myanmar's Rohingya Crisis

Rohingya refugees walk through a camp in Bangladesh after arriving from Myanmar.
(DAN KITWOOD/Getty Images)
  • Given that Myanmar's current political environment is dominated by the country's military, the Rohingya crisis will likely worsen even if the current military crackdown ends.
  • Buddhist nationalist and ethnic nationalist voices will continue to grow in the country, exacerbating the situation.
  • External condemnation will continue to come from leaders across the Muslim world.

Though the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, it is also home to a variety of Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Christian groups, and the country has long been marked by powerful ethnic divisions. Its most recent conflict centers on the Muslim Rohingya population, a minority that Myanmar does not recognize as a valid ethnic group and whose members are not granted citizenship. After a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked 30 police and military outposts in late August, the military cracked down and violence has run rampant. It is estimated that nearly 400,000 of the country's 1.1 million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the past two weeks alone. This massive exodus has spurred outcries from protesters and politicians across the Muslim world. But even if the current crackdown ends, the Rohingya's precarious position within Myanmar means their plight will not.

Rage Within Rakhine State

The Rohingya's situation in Myanmar has always been fraught. Almost all of the group's members reside in the state of Rakhine, which is shared with another ethnic group known as the Buddhist Rakhine (or Arakanese). Both groups have a long history of insurgencies, and the central government has played them off each other for decades in order to maintain centralized control over the fractured geographic space. Though the Rakhine have legitimized political parties, whereas the Rohingya have arguably no power and have been the subject of government monitoring, the Rakhine are actively working to consolidate their political position. And they see the Rohingya — whose population of 2.4 million within Myanmar and beyond equals that of the Rakhines — as a threat.

After the late August attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgency group formerly known as Harakah al-Yaqin, the Myanmar military cracked down on the ethnic group, and in recent weeks, Rakhine Buddhists have reportedly been burning Rohingya villages. An estimated 2,600 homes have been burned so far, according to reports. The Rohingya insurgents primarily used homemade firearms, sticks, swords and some explosives in their attacks, but the ARSA has no more than 500 fighters — small potatoes compared with other Myanmar insurgencies, such as the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army, which controls an area the size of Belgium on the Chinese border. Despite ARSA's limited capability, both the military and the Rakhine have responded with extreme force.

ARSA's demands are fairly straightforward: They wish for the Rohingya to be legally recognized as an ethnic group and granted citizenship, and for Myanmar to allow the 1.4 million Rohingyas abroad to return to the country if they wish. On Sept. 10, after two weeks of violence and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, the insurgent group declared a unilateral truce and called for humanitarian access to assist civilians. But Myanmar's military has insisted it will not negotiate with the militants and may not abide by the truce.

Managing Muslim-Buddhist Conflict

The chaos within Rakhine state has drawn the attention of Myanmar's Buddhist nationalist activist groups, who believe that Buddhism should be at the core of Myanmar's identity and governance and that Muslims, Hindus and Christians are foreigners who do not properly belong. The nationalists have taken up common cause with local Rakhine Buddhists in rallying against the Rohingya and agree with the Rakhine's claims that the Rohingya are recent Bengali immigrants who deserve no ethnic rights. Recently, a 400-person Buddhist mob formed in Magwe division (300 kilometers away from Rahine) with plans to attack local Muslims. The mob dispersed before attacks began, but it's highly possible that the country will see a repeat of the anti-Muslim riots of 2013.

The tug of war between Myanmar's military and its civilian government has exacerbated the Rohingya conflict. The military, which directly ruled the country for five decades, has often portrayed itself as protecting Buddhists and ethnic minorities from those it refers to as Muslim terrorists. And though the country has recently transitioned to a government closer to a democracy, the military still holds deep institutional and business power, as well as a guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader and onetime human rights icon, has come under fire for failing to be an advocate for the Rohingya. But her ruling National League for Democracy is on unsteady ground. Though the party beat out the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the 2015 elections, rising Buddhist nationalism and stalling peace negotiations with armed ethnic groups nationwide have put it at risk of losing power. If Suu Kyi steps in to defend the Rohingya, she could see a nationalist backlash that would allow the military to translate its institutional power into a greater civilian role.

Defenders of the Faith

Popular outcry over the Rohingya crisis has reverberated across the Muslim world and compelled political leaders to react. In fact, given that the Rohingya crisis is playing out between two minor countries in Southeast Asia, the situation serves as a low-stakes, strategic opportunity for many world leaders to satisfy their domestic bases and tout their credentials to other Muslim heads of state.

In the Middle East, for example, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues his efforts to position Turkey as a pre-eminent benefactor and leader in the Muslim world. He has condemned the Rohingya situation in Myanmar as genocide and vowed to raise it at the U.N. General Assembly during Sept. 12-25. And on Sept. 6, Erdogan's wife and son traveled to Bangladesh alongside Turkey's foreign minister to distribute aid to displaced Rohingya. Iran has also moved to take advantage of the Rohingya's struggle, with its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its paramilitary Basij arm saying they will mobilize all diplomatic means to help the group. Although Iran is a majority Shiite country, it has long worked to present itself as a champion of all Muslims, not a mere sectarian actor, and the Sunni-inflected Rohingya are an ideal target for such rhetoric.

Strong reactions have also come from Muslim representatives in the Asia-Pacific region. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo is fighting to prevent an alliance between a growing movement of hard-line Islamists and his opposition. He has thus been quick to condemn the situation in Myanmar, and he sent his foreign minister to the country in an effort to set up a hospital and provide relief donations. Islamist protests in 2016 led to the defeat of the president's close ally in the Jakarta governor polls, and his government faces both general elections and a presidential vote in 2019, so Jokowi must take a strong stance in support of the Rohingya if he hopes to remain in power.

And Malaysia is already home to 150,000 Rohingya refugees and economic migrants. Prime Minister Najib Razak has recently been reaching out to Islamist allies amid a high-profile scandal. Given that snap elections could happen anytime before June 2018, it is important for the prime minister to maintain the support of these groups by offering to intercede with the Rohingya. On Sept. 7, the country offered to accept Rohingya refugees fleeing the crisis, and Minister of Defense Hishammuddin Hussein has directed the Malaysian military to consider a humanitarian mission in Rakhine state.

But perhaps the most powerful reaction in the Muslim world has come from the Russian Republic of Chechnya. On Sept. 4, about 30,000 Chechens took to the streets of Grozny to protest in solidarity with the Rohingya. At the event, Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov called on Moscow not to support the "crimes" of the Myanmar government and said he was "against Russia's position" on the issue. Russian media was quick to accuse Kadyrov of attempting to become the leader of the wider Muslim world, which is a deep concern for the Kremlin after having fought two wars in Chechnya. Kadyrov earned a reprimand from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Sept. 8 that the United Nations should not pressure Myanmar "using unproven charges of cruelty against Muslims." But smaller protests in support of the Rohingya have continued to break out in Russia, and Kadyrov called for an end to the persecution during a Sept. 10 rally.

In the wake of such strong condemnation from around the world, the United Nations has made its position clear: On Sept. 11, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, called the situation in Myanmar an "ethnic cleansing" by the Rakhine and Myanmar government. The U.N. Security Council is set to discuss the matter.

Nowhere to Turn

Myanmar has had its defenders, mainly because of the role it plays in a number of giant development projects. China, for example, has targeted the country with its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, Rakhine itself plays a key role as the origin point of an oil and natural gas pipeline into Yunnan province and the home of the planned Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone. In the wake of U.N. pressure on Myanmar, Beijing has offered to protect Naypyidaw from censure in the international body. And China is also stepping in to help Myanmar's bid to rein in powerful ethnic insurgencies elsewhere along its borders. India, too, has abstained from condemning the Myanmar government's actions and even doubled down on its plans to expel all Rohingya from India, an issue that overlaps with local Hindu nationalism. New Delhi, after all, has plans to use Rakhine state as part of its Act East initiative.

Though the actions of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya have few supporters abroad and many detractors, the maligned ethnic group is staring at a dark future. Countries such as Bangladesh and India have expressed no interest in welcoming Rohingya refugees, and within Rakhine state, the Rakhine are committed to securing their position of power, which means they will continue to find ways to remove or limit the actions of the Rohingya. The restrictions that Myanmar's military has placed on the country's constitution and government further exacerbate the Rohingya's struggle, because their ideal ally, Suu Kyi, has found herself in a position where she cannot express her support for the group. So, even if the current military crackdown ends, the Rohingya will likely remain in dire straits.

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