What’s Behind the Rohingya Crisis?

In this June 13, 2012, file photo, a Rohingya Muslim man who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape religious violence, cries as he pleads from a boat after he and others were intercepted by Bangladeshi border authorities in Taknaf, Bangladesh. Two recent shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea believed to have taken the lives of as many as 1,300 asylum seekers and migrants has highlighted the escalating flow of people fleeing persecution, war and economic difficulties in their homelands.
Smoke is seen on Myanmar’s side of border as an exhausted Rohingya refugee woman is carried to the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh September 11, 2017.

From Amala Hegelson in Bangkok

[Currently, an ethnic cleansing is taking place in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where thousands of Rohingya people, who belongs to Muslim minority, are simply butchered, their women raped, houses burnt to ashes. They are fleeing the country in droves. They are the most persecuted minority on earth and have become the ‘Nowhere’ people of South Asia. This is a human catastrophe of gigantic proportion.

We are bringing an exclusive analysis on the present crisis. The author works to support ordinary people in South and Southeast Asia to take the lead in creating sustainable ecosystems, communities, and life-worlds.]

“We now estimate that 370,000 stateless Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh since 25 August. The increase in the estimated total is a result of more interagency assessment teams being able to reach more villages, hamlets and pockets where refugees have gathered.”

~ Report of the UNHCR.[i]

From the many reports available, it is clear there has been a massive exodus of Muslim Rohingya from Rakhine State in Myanmar to Bangladesh in a remarkably short period, and that the proximate cause has been brutal violence and a systematic scorched-earth campaign by the Myanmar military.[ii]This article draws from available media reports as well as conversations with a small number of democracy activists in Myanmar to highlight those facts and contexts that may be of most help in interpreting the situation more broadly. It will be suggestive of key directions for inquiry, rather than exhaustive.

  1. Land Grabbing

The article that in my view provides the most overlooked context is by Saskia Sassen, a sociologist now at Columbia University. In brief Sassen argues that the last two decades have seen aggressive land-grabbing around the world on the part of corporate entities for the purposes of mining, agriculture, and extraction of timber and water resources. She argues this is ultimately what is behind the recent flare-up in violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.[iii]

In the case of Myanmar, the military have been grabbing vast stretches of land from smallholders since the 1990s, without compensation, but with threats if they try to fight back. This land grabbing has continued across the decades but has expanded enormously in the last few years. At the time of the 2012 attacks, the land allocated to large projects had increased by 170% between 2010 and 2013. By 2012 the law governing land was changed to favour large corporate acquisitions.[iv]

She goes on to say:

Expelling Rohingya from their land might well be good for future business. In fact, quite recently the government allocated 1,268,077 hectares (3,100,000 acres) in the Rohingya’s area of Myanmar for corporate rural development.[v]

Readers interested in understanding the full story on the Rohingya should read Sassen’s entire article. Key to her argument is that Muslims have not been the only victims; many of the smallholders uprooted by new laws on land and investment in Myanmar have been Buddhists, and Myanmar is not an exception to a worldwide trend. I participated in a meeting of grassroots activists from across Southeast Asia in 2014, and there was an uncanny resemblance in the stories of activists and residents from Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, who testified to rapid changes in land tenure brought about by powerful local politicians in alliance with foreign corporate and/or national entities. These changes were sometimes accompanied by high levels of intimidation and violence.

An article in Frontier Myanmar by Matt Kyaw Tu appears to provide further support for Sassen’s argument. Frontier reports that the Rakhine State Minister for Finance and Planning informed them that Rakhine State had been upgraded from being a “trade zone” to an “economic zone,” and that the state government would sign an agreement at the end of September with a consortium of about seven companies. The consortium appears to have been registered legally only on September 5, 2017.[vi]

  1. Divide and Rule

While the uprooting of smallholders in Myanmar and Southeast Asia provides crucial context, there is no doubt that the Rohingya case is special because the Rohingya are a persecuted ethnic but also religious minority within Myanmar. It is special because it means that Myanmar government can drum up hatred and support for their brutal policies in this case from Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population with relative ease.

Here two considerations are important. The first is that there is reason to believe the Myanmar military have been adept at manipulating sentiment between Buddhists and Muslims when unpopular activities of the military need to be drowned out of public awareness. I once attended a public hearing (in the period before the current government) in which a respected Myanmar writer and activist made a convincing case that every time the Myanmar military needed to draw attention away from an embarrassing or unpopular event or policy, an incident of inter-religious tension appeared in the news. He even argued that there were tried and true channels (involving military, religious leaders, local leaders, and media) that helped to fan the flames of anger about the incident and ensure rioting or violent action against Rohingya Muslims. He and his group had made an effort to track these channels as precisely as they could, so as to be able to counteract the build-up towards violence on the next round.

The second consideration is that divide and rule has clearly been one of the key buttresses for the Myanmar military’s power historically. Myanmar is famously multi-ethnic, providing seemingly endless opportunities for the central government to play one ethnic group against another. However, it is much more than that. Activists have informed me that the Myanmar military has managed to strike peace accords with a number of ethnic armed groups by granting that particular group privileges within the state in question. This means that the government might make an agreement with one Shan group, say, within all the Shan groups, or with one Kachin group out of all the various Kachin subgroups. That armed faction is essentially bought off. In return for money, decision-making power, or other privileges, that group then carries on the military’s preferred policies within the state.

In the case of the Rohingya the military may have concluded that a genuine ethnic cleansing and clearing of land is possible, drawing on the larger dynamic of divide and rule in a situation where many of Myanmar’s majority Buddhists may find it comfortable to ally with the military.

  1. How to View the New Rohingya Armed Faction

Many news sources have commented on the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), formed in October of 2016, as an important new factor in the situation. A couple of points deserve attention here. The emergence of one or more armed groups in Rakhine State was entirely predictable, given the level of discrimination but also brutality the Rohingya have suffered (at the hands of the Myanmarmilitary primarily, but also on occasion at the hands of Buddhist mobs). It is good to remember that such armed factions have emerged repeatedly in Myanmar as a form of resistance on the part of many different ethnic groups. But who are the ARSA specifically, and what are we to think of them? Here many questions remain.

Readers can find diametrically opposed views online. A recent article at the website of the Asian Studies Association of Australia by Trevor Wilson, former Australian Ambassador to Myanmar (2000-2003) and now Visiting Fellow on Myanmar at Australian National University, for example, is very critical of ARSA. Wilson says that ARSA “has declared links with Islamic State” and “uses crude anti-authoritarian propaganda;” he describes their public profile as “utterly opportunistic.”[vii] In my own (admittedly not comprehensive) search of ARSA online sources, I was not able to discover any declarations of links to the Islamic State. In fact, I came across only denials of any such links. It would have been helpful if Wilson could have provided some sources on this important allegation.

Wilson notes that ARSA’s attacks on Myanmar military border outposts appear to have been timed to coincide with the release on August 24th of the first report of the Kofi Annan Commission on Rakhine State, which had been appointed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi a year earlier. Wilson describes the Kofi Annan proposals as reasonable and practical, but also short-term and limited. Were the ARSA attacks designed to take advantage of the international attention on the proposals? Were they designed to scuttle any possibility of implementing the proposals, as some have argued?[viii]

A very sympathetic article on ARSA can be found at Al Jazeera, portraying them as not at all connected to ISIS or Al Qaeda, but simply a natural outgrowth of the need for self-defence.[ix]An Asia Times journalist who interviewed Abdullah, an authorized spokesperson for Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, ARSA’s commander, had this to say:

Abdullah stressed repeatedly that the ARSA’s fight is an ethno-nationalist one. “We are not jihadists. This is clear from ARSA’s modus operandi, the way it operates and is run, and the direction it’s moving in. None of this is in line with the goals of Pakistani or other jihadist groups. We are actually much more like any other (ethnic) armed group in Myanmar.”[x]

While offering very useful details on ARSA, the Asia Times article does not unfortunately provide concrete examples of ARSA’s modus operandi or direction, which would have helped to understand Abdullah’s claim more fully.

A Guardian article cites one Rohingya refugee as saying funding for ARSA is coming in from Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Australia.[xi] This kind of funding network would not seem that surprising, regardless of the nature of ARSA itself. A number of sources talk about funding coming in through the networks created by the Rohingya diaspora over many years, a diaspora that has a strong presence in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.[xii] This could be worrying if the sources turned out to be connected to extremely fundamentalist or jihadist groups. For my reading at this point, however, that would amount to an allegation that is not yet proven.

Finally, the Guardian cited an Observer report that 200 or so Hindu refugees had sought shelter in Bangladesh due to the sounds of nearby fighting and rumours of Muslims killing Hindus in Rakhine State.[xiii] Here too, without further information, we cannot judge yet whether these were merely fears and rumours or a reflection of actual events.

  1. Brief Comment on Aung San Suu Kyi’s Role

Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticized for not speaking out in some form against the military’s operations in Rakhine State. Some writers have highlighted the degree to which Aung San Suu Khi is constrained by the military and the constitution. Sir John Jenkins, for example, has written that:

Suu Kyi’s electoral triumph in 2015 is a fragile one. The 2008 constitution gives the military three key security ministries, a permanent blocking veto in Parliament and freedom from civilian oversight. It also blocked Suu Kyi from becoming president, leaving her as state counsellor and foreign minister. And this is the key to the current situation.[xiv]

Such writers argue that more time is needed for the military to adjust to a Myanmar in which there is a place for civilian power. They put the blame on the ARSA insurgents for disrupting what could have become initiatives, however limited, to rectify the situation of the Rohingya.

While it is important to recognize these constraints, it remains surprising to many that Aung San Suu Kyi has not taken even a minimal stand in support of the Rohingya. I spoke with a Myanmar journalist who expressed frustration at her lack of willingness to challenge the military’s handling of the Rohingya situation. This person argued that were she to take a stronger stand she would find support from among the population of Myanmar, and that individual like the journalist would be emboldened to speak out. Her refusing to take a stronger stand made it very difficult for others to play that role.

Trevor Wilson, while very critical of ARSA, expresses puzzlement at Aung San Suu Kyi’s stand:

Suu Kyi may have her own reasons for continuing cooperation with the Myanmar Army in their current power-sharing arrangement, but why wouldn’t she display some political leadership on behalf of the Rohingya? After all, even if an intervention by her was unsuccessful, she would be given credit for her courage and for her principles.[xv]


The first and second of the four areas I have proposed here as potentially useful frames for interpreting the situation of the Rohingya of Rakhine State are the ones I believe are most often overlooked. The third and fourth have been rightly made into key points of debate by the media.None of these contexts alone provides a clear vantage point for arriving at conclusions or a plan of action for peace and justice for the Rohingya. The present circumstances are far too messy and remain in flux. On many important questions, information is lacking. Perhaps a first constructive step will be to admit the complexity and acknowledge the difficult work required to find solutions.

Editor’s note


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