How Militants Blew Chance To Improve Rights of Rohingya Muslims

Rohingya Muslims, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Aung San Suu Kyi militants
Rohingya Muslims escape the latest bout of violence in Rakhine state, fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh.

Amid the chaos and appalling human rights abuses faced by Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims today, it is worth remembering that this week, Myanmar’s government ought to have been considering how best to implement the recommendations of ex-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

Rakhine, in western Myanmar, is home to around 1.1 million Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority that claims centuries of heritage in Myanmar but has found itself unrecognized by the authorities, treated as illegal migrants, and worse. Denied Myanmar citizenship, the stateless Rohingya have long been victims of human rights abuses including official restrictions on movement, education, healthcare, the right to work and ability to marry. More than 100,000 Rohingya remain confined to the displacement camps they have been forced to live in since 2012.

The Annan commission report urges Myanmar to take concrete steps to ensure full humanitarian access to Rakhine, to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, end restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement and the forced separation of Buddhist and Muslim populations, and to tackle Rohingya statelessness by revisiting Myanmar’s controversial Citizenship Law. These recommendations to the Myanmar government from a commission headed by a figure with Mr. Annan’s international standing and political clout should have been music to the ears of the country’s Rohingya. But it is doubtful many would have heard the news before a new Muslim militant group launched a series of violent attacks on security posts and government offices, precipitating an aggressive military crackdown.

Credible evidence that Myanmar’s military fired mortars and machine guns at civilians fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh has emerged. By today, upwards of 20,000 people have been displaced, with almost 9,000 already registered as refugees in Bangladesh according to the U.N. There can be no legitimate justification for the appalling mistreatment of civilians by Myanmar’s military. However, while the endgame of Rohingya militants is unclear, they ought to have been fully aware that the militants were inviting an aggressive Myanmar military to engage with them in communities which they had no hope of defending.

This is the second major campaign by this Rohingya militant group described by the authorities as terrorists and known variously as Harakah al-Yaqin/Faith Movement/Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (HaY/ARSA). The first, from the previously unknown group, in October 2016, killed 9 security personnel and brought a brutal crackdown from Myanmar’s military. The military’s response was characterized by what Amnesty International described as “collective punishment” of the civilian population, and included beatings, rapes, burning of villages, and the arbitrary detention of hundreds. In the wake of what the military described as a “clearance operation” close to 90,000 Rohingya fled to nearby Bangladesh, prompting a U.N. official to describe the military’s approach as “ethnic cleansing”.

The Rohingya’s circumstances have for decades been appalling, yet their mainstream leadership stuck fast to a strategy that rejected political violence. Violence, they believed, would run counter to their people’s interests by inviting an aggressive military response and hardening nation-wide public opinion against them in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country.

Instead, they hoped Myanmar’s democratic transition might present a way forward. The appointment of Mr. Annan to lead a commission tasked with finding solutions to their problems undoubtedly presented some hope that positive change might come in the near future. However, the timing of these most recent attacks by Rohingya militants, and the military response they precipitated, now ensures the commission’s suggestions for change will be cast aside for the near future.

This is a dreadfully bad outcome for ordinary Rohingya who have already waited far too long for improvements to their situation. That it is a vindication of the long-term strategy of non-violence will be of little comfort to the Rohingya’s mainstream leadership. Implementing the Annan recommendations would have been a genuinely positive step for the Rohingya, and supporting his commission would have been a politically smart move. The aggressive actions of Myanmar’s military are indefensible but it is nonetheless now clear that Rohingya militancy, with its unclear end goal, is the greatest hurdle to achieving an enduring political settlement that can deliver the Rohingya improved rights.