Major military offensives in northern Rakhine State will not provoke significant Rohingya militancy in Yangon and central areas for now
The Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), a militant group drawing recruits from the Rohingya Muslim minority, attacked security personnel with knives and home-made bombs in Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine State on 25 August, killing twelve. This was the most significant militant operation in Rakhine in several decades. The military responded by deploying large numbers and launching “clearance operations”, which human rights groups said have indiscriminately targeted both ARSA militants and civilians. Refugees also claimed that the Army has carried out extrajudicial assassinations, gang rapes and mass killings, as it did in response to ARSA attacks on 9 October 2016. To date, the Government has said that 371 militants, fifteen security officials, three civil servants and at least 26 civilians have been killed. 120,000 Rohingya have also reportedly fled into neighbouring Bangladesh.
The area remains largely closed to journalists and aid workers, and reports from inside Maungdaw have been confused and often contradictory. Indeed, the security forces and ARSA have accused one another of attacking civilians and there are further claims that both Buddhist Rakhine and Rohingya civilians have participated in mob attacks. 4,000 non-Rohingya residents have been evacuated to safe zones, and so far the unrest has remained limited to the northernmost Rohingya-majority townships in Rakhine and has not spread south. Nonetheless, the past two weeks have been the most violent in Rakhine since 2012, and the number of refugees, reports from Bangladesh and satellite images of villages suggest the death toll is likely to be substantially higher than the Government has claimed.
The National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government’s response to the crisis has been uncompromising, framing the Army’s operations as necessary to protect the state and labelling ARSA as “extremist terrorists”. Ministers have also threatened to prosecute news organisations who call ARSA “insurgents” and accused international sources of “misinformation”. Further, the Government has, without providing evidence, suggested that international NGOs have provided assistance to ARSA – a claim that has prompted outrage in humanitarian and diplomatic circles in the country.
The Government’s public support for the Army, along with the scale and coordination of ARSA’s initial attacks and the military’s often indiscriminate response, means that the violence in Rakhine will persist for the coming weeks and is most likely to escalate further. The mass displacement will cause widespread disruption in both northern Rakhine and Bangladesh, requiring a considerable humanitarian response. It will also fuel anti-foreigner sentiment in Rakhine due to the widespread perception that foreigners are generally supportive of the Rohingya, and as a result international groups and firms operating in the state are at risk of being targeted by mobs.
Heightened feeling over the Rakhine issue, stoked by nationalist sentiment, will also pose a small risk to foreigners in other parts of the country. However, no related incidents have been reported so far and this will remain only a limited threat. The Rohingya militant response is also likely to be contained to Rakhine; Government claims on 5 September that it had information on plots to target civilians in major cities are likely to have been exaggerated in order to justify the military’s operations.
Myanmar has also sought to portray ARSA as supportive of the global jihadist movement in order to justify its crackdown on the Rohingya, exploiting attempts by extremist groups in Chechnya, Yemen and Indonesia to use the Rohingya cause to boost their own support (see today’s Indonesia Report). However, actual links between the militants and international jihadists are likely to be minimal. Indeed, the threat of an attack in Yangon or other major cities remains extremely low given ARSA’s limited capabilities, though this could gradually change as violence in Rakhine intensifies and the crisis inflames Islamist sentiment worldwide.