Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase

What’s the issue?  The response of Myanmar’s military to militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s (ARSA) August attacks has led to one of the most catastrophically fast refugee exoduses in modern times. More than 624,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, creating the world’s largest refugee camp.

  • Why does it matter?  The eviction of the Rohingya community from Myanmar is far from the end of the crisis. The situation is transforming Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations, and potential future cross-border attacks by ARSA militants could increase tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

  • What should be done?  Imposing targeted sanctions can send an important message and potentially deter others from similar actions against minority communities. But they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar. Even as they impose targeted sanctions, the international community should continue to provide humanitarian support for Rohingya refugees and resist pressure to disengage from the country.

Executive Summary

Three months after militant attacks triggered a brutal army operation targeting Rohingya Muslim communities in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, more than 624,000 have fled to Bangladesh, one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times. In addition to unimaginable human suffering, the crisis has transformed Myanmar’s domestic politics and international relations and will have a huge impact on the regional security landscape.

Myanmar is rapidly losing what remains of the enormous international good-will that its political transition had generated. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in particular has been widely criticised for failing to use her moral authority and domestic legitimacy to shift anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar and the government’s current course. Meanwhile, the exodus continues and will likely soon reach its tragic end point: the almost complete depopulation of Rohingya from northern Rakhine State.

As the world struggles to define a response, and as the crisis enters a new, fraught and highly uncertain phase, several important elements need to be borne in mind. First, there needs to be continued insistence on the right of refugees to return in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner. At the same time, the grim reality is that the vast majority of the Rohingya in Bangladesh will not be going home any time soon. This presents the enormous humanitarian challenge of sustaining lives and dignity in the largest refugee camp in the world. It also presents grave political and security risks that need to be addressed, including potential cross-border attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group and possible transnational terrorism.

Second, it is important to recognise that Myanmar’s political direction has been set and will be extremely difficult to change. The strength of the national consensus is hard to overstate: the government, military and almost the entire population of the country are united on this issue as on no other in its modern history. This will make it extraordinarily difficult to move official policy. Any imposition of sanctions thus requires careful deliberation: they can help send a welcome signal that might deter others around the world contemplating similar actions, but they are unlikely to produce positive change in Myanmar and, depending on what precisely is done, could make the situation worse.

This report examines the lead-up to the ARSA attacks on 25 August 2017, revealing new and significant details about the group’s preparations, and the attacks themselves. This is based on research in Myanmar and Bangladesh since October 2016, including interviews with members of ARSA, analysis of WhatsApp messages sent by the group and its supporters, publicly-posted videos and interviews with villagers in Rakhine State and recently-arrived refugees in Bangladesh. Much of the research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the Rohingya language. The report also assesses the impact the crisis will have on Myanmar. Finally, it discusses some possible international policy responses.

Brussels, 7 December 2017

I.Background to the Crisis

While the current crisis is rooted in longstanding discrimination and denial of human rights, the immediate trigger was the emergence of a militant group within the Rohingya population in the north of Rakhine State. This hardened national sentiment toward the Rohingya and shifted the calculus of the security forces.

Harakah al-Yaqin, subsequently rebranded in English as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), first began organising itself after deadly communal violence in 2012. It launched its initial attacks – coordinated assaults on the Border Guard Police (BGP) headquarters and two other bases – on 9 October 2016. Previous armed militant groups had been based in the hills (the Arakan mujahidin in the 1950s), or launched hit-and-run attacks from across the border in Bangladesh (for example the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation in the 1990s). In contrast, ARSA operates from within Rohingya villages, using cells of villagers who have been given some basic training but most of whom do not have access to firearms, only bladed weapons and some improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In response to the October 2016 attacks, the military deployed overwhelming retaliatory force against nearby villages, followed by extensive “clearance operations” – brutal counter-insurgency operations that the military has used for decades in other parts of the country – with the stated purpose of recapturing the dozens of small arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition looted by ARSA.When troops came under attack from militants and villagers and a senior officer was killed, the military further escalated, including the use of helicopter gunships in civilian areas. Over the following weeks, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and security forces burned down several thousand homes. A United Nations (UN) human rights office report found the “very likely commission of crimes against humanity”. A retired senior army officer noted that it would have been more effective to use the police to achieve the operation’s stated purpose of recovering the looted weapons and ammunition (most were not found).

In the months following the October 2016 attacks, ARSA set about consolidating its authority in Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine and preparing for the next round of attacks. It did this through the targeted killings of dozens of Rohingya men with links to the authorities (such as village heads, other local administrators and suspected informers), ramped up training in the hills as well as IED production in safe houses. The authorities were aware of these developments, with the state media reporting many of the killings as well as the discovery of IED factories. For them, the next ARSA attacks were seen as a matter of when, not if.

II.Build-up to the Crisis

In the months before the August 2017 ARSA attacks, a series of incidents suggested an uptick in ARSA training and preparation, putting Rakhine Buddhist villagers and the security forces on edge:

On 4 May, the accidental detonation of an IED during an ARSA explosives training course in Kyaung Taung village tract (north Buthidaung) killed seven men including the instructor, and injured at least five others. According to a reliable source close to the events, the instructor was Pakistani, not Rohingya. He was badly injured and died in Padakar Ywar Thit village tract (Maungdaw) while being carried to Bangladesh for treatment. The people carrying him asked a village head to arrange his burial in a local cemetery but after being informed of the situation, security officials arrested the village head and took the body to Buthidaung hospital. These officials were the source of domestic Myanmar media reports some days later about the death of a foreign militant.On 7 May, security forces investigating the IED detonation discovered the training camp and bomb-making materials. Six days later, the government announced it had found the bodies of five victims buried nearby, which they said included two foreigners. This prompted security forces to undertake violent evictions and clearance operations in the area (particularly around adjacent Tin May village tract), killing several people and prompting some families to flee to Bangladesh in May and June.On June 20-21, the government reported that security forces had killed three men while clearing a likely ARSA training camp in the mountains near Sein Hnyin Pyar village tract (south Buthidaung).On 24 June, four Rakhine Buddhist villagers came across bomb-making material while foraging in Kyun Pauk Pyu Su village tract (north Maungdaw). ARSA members shot two of them dead; the two others, one of whom was injured, fled and alerted authorities. However, ARSA members apparently removed the incriminating material before the security forces reached the spot. This was the first known case of ARSA killing non-Rohingya civilians, and significantly increased anxiety among Rakhine Buddhist villagers; some 200 fled to Maungdaw town, fearing ARSA attacks. On 27 June, security forces in the area were placed on high alert; on 30 June, senior government officials in Naypyitaw discussed the situation at a “special meeting on Rakhine State”.On 1 August, authorities reported that an IED accidentally exploded at an ARSA safe house in Pan Taw Pyin village tract (Maungdaw) and that they found explosives and other bomb-making material at the house. Two days later, eight members of the Mro ethnic group, both men and women, were killed in the hills of Maungdaw township. The government immediately blamed ARSA, although some local villagers say the killings were related to the illicit methamphetamine trade.On 4 August, BGP clashed with a group of villagers in Auk Nan Yar village tract, Rathedaung township, firing a dozen or more shots while trying to disperse a 300-strong crowd angry over the arrest of villagers suspected of being associated with ARSA, including a prominent local imam. During the clash, one of the suspected militants escaped; local villagers reported several injuries from gunshots, including four people taken to Bangladesh for treatment.

There were already significant tensions in the area. On 27 July 2017, a Rakhine villager had gone missing while foraging in nearby Chut Pyin village tract. Three days later, while searching in the surrounding hills, security forces and villagers discovered a stash of tarpaulins and food, including World Food Programme (WPF)-branded energy biscuits (see section V.A below), which they took to be an ARSA camp. Believing militants killed the missing person, Rakhine villagers declared a boycott of Muslims in the area. In the nearby village of Zay Di Pyin, Buddhist villagers blocked all access roads with barbed wire and prevented residents from going to work or accessing the mosque, food markets and water sources. According to various sources, on 27 August, security forces and local vigilantes perpetrated a mass killing of “at least scores” of Rohingya villagers in Chut Pyin.

These events provoked heightened nervousness. On 9 August 2017, the commander-in-chief and other senior military officers met with leaders of the Arakan National Party, the largest party in Rakhine State – a rare meeting between the top brass and a political party. The party expressed concerns about the security situation in northern Rakhine and requested the arming of local Rakhine Buddhist militias. That same day, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi convened a ministerial meeting on the security situation in Rakhine to discuss the recent killings and rising tensions. The following day, the government highlighted its deployment of some 500 troops to northern Rakhine to reassure local non-Muslim villagers and conduct patrols in the mountains between Maungdaw and Buthidaung where militants were suspected of having established training camps.

The escalatory dynamic was well under way. On 16 August, ARSA uploaded a video of its commander, Ata Ullah, flanked by armed fighters and warning the Myanmar military to demilitarise northern Rakhine State and end abuses of Rohingya; he specifically cited the blockade of Rohingya villagers in Zay Di Pyin. He reiterated that the group had no relation with international jihadist groups and said that, contrary to government assertions, it did not target Rakhine civilians.

III.ARSA Attacks and Military Response

A.ARSA Attacks

In the early hours of 25 August 2017, from 1am until dawn, ARSA launched attacks on some 30 BGP posts and an army base. Their human wave attacks in some cases involved hundreds of people, mostly untrained local villagers armed with farm tools as well as some hand-held and remote-detonated IEDs. A small number of further clashes occurred over the next several days. The official death toll was fourteen members of the security forces, one government official and 371 people the government characterised as militants.

ARSA initiated the attacks via a WhatsApp audio message delivered shortly after 8pm on 24 August. It instructed cell leaders to mobilise all male villagers over the age of fifteen, assemble in pre-planned locations with whatever sharp objects were available and attack designated targets. Many ordinary villagers apparently responded to the call, which was often conveyed by respected local Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) who seemingly made up most cell leaders and who enjoy considerable religious and community authority. Many untrained villagers were provided with IEDs for use in the attacks.

The targets were mostly small police posts and checkpoints, except for the army base in Chin Tha Mar village (near Nga Yant Chaung or Taung Bazar), Buthidaung township, though not many villagers appear to have joined this attack, which was quickly overpowered. ARSA members claim they planned to attack additional targets but that some police posts were deserted when militants reached them. Other targets were more heavily defended than expected and the attackers suffered heavy casualties. The security forces assert that they had several hours advance warning; whether accurate or not, they clearly were expecting attacks at some point.

On 25 August, ARSA issued a series of messages apparently intended both to instil confidence and resolve among its members and followers and to promote and glorify martyrdom, the goal being to encourage lightly armed male villagers to participate in highly risky attacks. Some messages falsely claimed that ARSA was taking control of the areas it attacked. Members were also reassured that armed reinforcements had been dispatched; they never arrived.

On 28 August, Ata Ullah issued WhatsApp audio messages instructing his followers to burn down Rakhine Buddhist villages with Molotov cocktails. This was in direct contradiction to the group’s repeatedly stated policy and prior approach, which was to refrain from attacking non-security targets. The reason for this change is not clear, though it may have been because non-Rohingya vigilantes from nearby villages were helping the military burn Rohingya villages during clearance operations. ARSA might have concluded that Rakhine and other non-Rohingya villagers therefore were a fair target. In the event, the order does not appear to have been widely acted upon as only three non-Rohingya villages are known to have been attacked or burned down by Rohingya.

One particularly high-profile case is the alleged massacre by ARSA of dozens of Hindu men and women in Kha Maung Seik (also known as Fakira Bazar) in Maungdaw township. Conflicting accounts of the incident and of who was responsible have surfaced. Survivors who fled to Bangladesh initially told Bangladeshi journalists in late-August that the killers were Rakhine militants; others said later that they wore masks, preventing identification. The first report of the incident by Myanmar media on 5 September 2017 attributed the killings to ARSA, based on interviews with survivors in Myanmar. A more detailed account reaching the same conclusion was posted on Facebook on 13 September by a Rakhine nationalist parliament member who investigated the incident. The security forces reported finding and exhuming a mass grave containing the victims’ bodies on 24 September; these subsequently were cremated. It is not clear what forensic evidence remains.

B.Catastrophic Military Response

A brutal military response that failed to discriminate between militants and the general population, followed by continued insecurity and restrictions that have imperilled livelihoods, has driven more than 624,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. This is one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times and has created the largest refugee camp in the world. A large proportion of Rohingya villages in the area have been systematically reduced to ashes by both troops and local Rakhine vigilante groups th