The Security Challenges of the Intractable Rohingya Crisis
Following a series of small attacks on police outposts in 2017 by a small, and trained insurgent group, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, launched a scorched earth campaign against the Rohingya population. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group that the government of Myanmar has labeled illegal Bengali migrants and denied citizenship to. Over 10,000 civilians were killed, nearly 400 villages destroyed, and 800,000 civilians fled across the border into Bangladesh in what U.N. investigators described as a ”textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” An independent fact-finding mission described Myanmar’s government as having ”genocidal intent.”
In the past two years, nearly a million Rohingya have been confined to Bangladeshi refugee camps, some taking to human traffickers, as support from the international community has waned. The refugee crisis is looking intractable, and this has regional security implications. While the majority of the Rohingya population is simply trying to survive, the community is ripe for radicalization.
The reality is that Myanmar has withstood the worst of the diplomatic opprobrium and sanctions. While they will continue, de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has proven that she is willing to besmirch her gilded legacy. Myanmar seems happy to retreat back into the diplomatic and political embrace of the People’s Republic of China. While diplomatic pressure will continue, it will be insufficient to alter Naypyidaw’s behavior, especially in the run-up to the 2020 elections. Fanning the flames of hyper-Buddhist nationalism against the Muslim Rohingya is good politics in Myanmar.
Although the Myanmarese government has held talks with the Bangladeshi government about the return of the Rohingya, to date no refugees have been willing to return without legal protections, including guarantees of citizenship. None of these protections are forthcoming. The Myanmar government drags its feet on the implementation of the November 2018 bilateral repatriation agreement, while the security forces continue to harden the border.
Using satellite data, researchers at Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute have concluded that Myanmar’s government continues to raze Rohingya villages, often building army or police bases on them, and in a few cases building what can only be described as concentration camps to house those that they allow to return. Moreover, changes in Myanmar’s land law relinquish rights for abandoned land; even if Rohingya do return, it is likely that they will have lost their property rights.
International support for the refugee camps, which house over 900,000 refugees, is running out of money. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees did not meet its funding needs in 2018, and international awareness and concern continue to decline. In 2018, only 69 percent of funding needs were met by the international community, placing an unsustainable burden on the Bangladeshi government. The United Nations has appealed for $920 million in 2019. Camp conditions are squalid and worsening, with growing public health challenges.
Into the void have stepped Islamist civil society organizations that are now providing education, medical assistance, and food for the refugees. Bangladeshi Islamist groups, including hardline militant groups like Hefazat-e-Islam that have engaged in violence, have established over 1000 madrassas in the camps. An intractable refugee crisis, like those seen in Palestine or Syria, bodes poorly for a community that has traditionally been moderate.
Diplomatically, there is little pressure on Myanmar from the region. The Rohingya issue remains amongst the most divisive issues within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Only Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, are pushing for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Myanmar has taken succor from support from Thailand, Vietnam, and even the Philippines.
Malaysia continues to take Rohingya refugees. It has 176,000 registered refugees, and an unknown number of people who were trafficked into the country. The government is trying to help them become legally eligible to join the formal sector of the economy, but the programs put into place since 2017 have had only minimal success; mainly because many Rohingya do not want to work in Malaysia’s sprawling plantation sector, which needs the cheap labor.
The Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Organization (ARSA) is continuing to consolidate its authority within the sprawling refugee camps. By July 2018, ARSA was suspected of the assassination of 22 political rivals or those who condemned their actions that led to the Tatmadaw’s ethnic cleansing. Their rate of recruitment is on the rise.
Though Bangladeshi security forces did try to crack down on them, the reality is that their relationship with ARSA is filled with contradictions: when administering the camps, it is often useful to be able to work with one organization with a semblance of an authority structure, but publicly acknowledging ARSA’s presence and operations within the camps could lead to the loss of international aid and assistance. Acknowledging the presence of ARSA would also undermine the talks with Myanmar about the return of the refugees, Dhaka’s primary objective. Yet, giving ARSA a degree of space to train and organize (or even allowing the provision of covert assistance to them) is one of the only points of leverage that Dhaka has over Naypyidaw.
ARSA’s control over the refugee camps not only gives them power and control over resources there, but also gives them additional pressure when they ”fundraise” amongst diaspora communities. For example, one ARSA member extorted $20,000 from refugees in Malaysia, in large part by threatening to be able to ”reach back and touch someone” in the camps. As the head of counter-terrorism at Malaysia’s Special Branch put it: “Many [Rohingyas] give money to ARSA because they have been threatened. They still have families in Rakhine state in Myanmar and ARSA has threatened to hurt their families there.”
ARSA remains a poorly equipped and trained force, able to do little in the way of waging a sustained campaign against the Myanmarese security forces; their primary goal is to consolidate power within the camps. This is in stark contrast with the Buddhist Arakan Army, which has put sustained pressure on the Tatmadaw and other security forces, also in Rakhine state. Some 35,000 people are believed to be displaced from that fighting, although it is hard to tell: international monitors and journalists have been banned, while the government has shut down the internet in Rakhine state.
While the flows of boat people into Southeast Asia declined in 2018, there is concern that numbers will increase after a more severe monsoon season in 2019. Already the refugee camps are experiencing flooding, which has displaced an estimated 60,000 people. Recent arrests in Thailand suggest that the human trafficking networks remain robust.
While the threat posed by ARSA is low, the greater concern remains the radicalization of members of the diaspora by other militant organizations. ARSA membership or support for the group may be a factor in their radicalization, but the real concern is recruitment by transnational jihadist organizations.
ARSA continues to deny any support from groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State. ARSA, which renamed itself from the Harakat al-Yaqin, tries to present a more moderate face to the public, but within the camps it has imposed a fairly harsh Islamist ideology.
To date, transnational jihadi groups have only given the Rohingya pro forma pledges of support. Al-Qaeda threatened revenge against the Myanmar government in a September 2017 statement:
The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers in Arakan by the government of Myanmar under the guise of ‘fighting rebels’… shall not pass without punishment and the government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted in Arakan.
Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the leader of an vowed in an interview with Dabiq, an Islamic State magazine, to “begin launching operations within Burma once we’ve reached the capability to do so.” India has arrested suspected al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent members recruiting Rohingya, while the Pakistani-based Jaish e-Mohammed’s Masood Azhar has called for an active campaign of support for the Rohingya. IS-leader al-Baghdadi referenced the Rohingya in a July 2014 speech, but has said little since then.
The low level of support and advocacy is somewhat surprising, as ”defense of religion” and fears that Islam is ”under attack” remain one of the most salient points of radicalization and recruitment for any jihadist organization. But racism and condescension by the Arab-dominated jihadist organizations towards South and Southeast Asian Muslims has always been evident. Any support for the Rohingya will be opportunistic.
There have been a number of arrests of radicalized Rohingya in Malaysia, going back to 2017. This year alone, we have seen the arrest of four Rohingya militants in Malaysia radicalized to violence.
In May, two Rohingya were arrested along with a Malaysian and an Indonesian. The four had pledged allegiance (bai’at) to the Islamic State and were planning a wave of attacks against entertainment venues and Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist places of worship, as well the assassination of political figures. They also plotted to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Police seized six small improvised explosive devices , which were sourced from militants in southern Thailand, and a pistol. Three other members of the cell remain at large.
In June, Malaysian police arrested an ARSA and Islamic State supporter who had issued a death threat against Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a video uploaded on social media. The fourth was an imam in a madrassa in Malaysia’s Kedah state, which is home to a large number of Rohingya plantation workers.
Malaysian Defense Minister Mat Sabu has also raised the specter of recruitment and radicalization of the Rohingya community as the conflict draws out: ”We are very concerned that these Rohingyas could be manipulated to become suicide bombers or recruited into terrorist cells in this region.”
For the most part, Rohingya civil society organizations in Malaysia have helped to keep a lid on radicalization, convincing the community of the deleterious effect that militancy would have on the entire Rohingya community in Malaysia, and the impact that it would have on further migration.
As an official who works closely with the Rohingya community in countering violent extremism told me: “We have been very generous to them and they know it.” He also spoke of a “culture of submissiveness” with very little will to fight, as they are so traumatized by what they have endured in the past few years.
But it only takes a small number of radicalized individuals. As the official said to me: “The ecosystem is there, the trigger is not.”
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College, where he specializes in Southeast Asian Security issues. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the opinions of the National War College or Department of Defense.
Image: CC, Captain Raju