Cycles of Violence in Myanmar: Is There Anything the International Community Can Do?

By: Mei Lim, Columnist

Photo by: VOA

Despite international opprobrium heaped on the Myanmar government for its treatment of the ethnic Rohingya minority in the country’s northern Rakhine state, cycles of violence in the region are likely to continue.

The violence in the Rakhine state has largely been carried out by Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw – in what it claims is a response to attacks by “Bengali terrorists”. In truth, the crackdowns by the Tatmadaw have been less focused on counter-terrorism than the systematic destruction of Rohingya villages. Since October 2016, the Tatmadaw has killed, razed, and raped its way through Rakhine in what the UN has called a “textbook” ethnic cleansing campaign.[1] Over half of Myanmar’s Rohingya population has fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape the violence.[2]

The “Bengali terrorists” are in fact a budding insurgency group seeking redress for the suffering of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the group was founded by overseas Rohingya diaspora. Despite its Islamic character, ARSA cannot in any way be considered part of the transnational jihadist movement.[3] Rather than declaring a desire for Sharia law or a complete overthrow of the Myanmar government, its goals are focused on citizenship for the Rohingya, who the government currently writes off as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and an end to their persecution. ARSA has actively disavowed any links to AQ and ISIS.[4]

The status quo of minor ARSA attacks followed by disproportionate and brutal Tatmadaw crackdowns will persist unless the Myanmar government addresses the grievances of the Rohingya people. ARSA is likely to continue using violent attacks as a tool to draw international attention and pressure Myanmar’s government into acquiescing to its demands, despite the setback of heavy losses in the Rohingya population. In 2016, for example, ARSA executed an attack on police stations in Rakhine even though its recruits were under-equipped, a move some Rohingya have criticized as being poorly-executed and suicidal.[5] In 2017, it carried out another similarly poorly-equipped attack on military posts despite the brutal crackdowns that resulted from its attack the year prior.[6] The Myanmar government has clearly demonstrated that it will continue to use these attacks as an excuse for disproportionate abuse of the Rohingya population at large.

Nor is the Myanmar government likely to take the first step in bettering its treatment of the Rohingya. The heart of the problem lies in ethnic and religious resentment against Muslims in the majority Buddhist country. Bamar and other Buddhist ethnic groups in Myanmar consider the Rohingya to be Bengali immigrants who unfairly benefitted from British rule. (The exact provenance of the modern Rohingya is complicated; most are probably a mix of Muslims who migrated into British Burma from other parts of the empire, as well as descendants of Muslim traders who settled in the region in the 9th century.)[7] Historical precedent for the ongoing crisis can be found in 1977 and 1991, when Tatmadaw operations bearing frightening resemblance to those of 2016 and 2017 resulted in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. In both cases, return arrangements were eventually reached and the Rohingya refugees were moved back into the Rakhine state over several years.[8] Bangladesh is again negotiating return arrangements with the Myanmar government.[9]

The international community is also unlikely to be able or willing to intervene to force the Myanmar government to change its approach. A military intervention is a non-starter for at least the next few years. With the U.S. and the UK in the grip of inward-looking politics, they are unlikely to have political capital to pursue any military action on purely humanitarian grounds. Widespread sanctions on non-essential goods might serve to send a useful signal to the Myanmar government, the Tatmadaw, and Myanmar’s Buddhist majority that there are costs to mistreating minorities, but a multilateral sanctions regime would be almost impossible to secure. Such sanctions are unlikely to obtain the support they would need to work from China and India, Asia’s economic giants and two of Myanmar’s most significant trading partners. With major investments in ports and oil-gas pipelines in the Rakhine state, the governments of China and India likely calculate that they would be better served by a strong Myanmar government and a Tatmadaw which can handle any security threats in the area.[10]

More targeted, unilateral sanctions are far more achievable but similarly unlikely to yield a positive outcome. After the United States imposed its latest sanctions against Maung Maung Soe, the general who oversaw the most recent ethnic cleansing in late 2017, the Tatmadaw simply replaced Maung Maung Soe while maintaining its position that no human rights violations had been committed. The UN has since reported that the Tatmadaw has continued with its ethnic cleansing program as recently as early March 2018.[11],[12]

Nonetheless, there is still an additional role the international community can play: reaching out to ARSA to try to convince it to turn away from violence. Although a cessation of attacks from ARSA will in no way guarantee the halt of violence by the Tatmadaw, or a change in the Myanmar government’s policy towards the Rohingya, it might at least help prevent violence in the Rakhine from escalating.

Ultimately, however, the international community is unlikely to be able force a resolution to Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis. While this is upsetting to external observers who see the suffering of the Rohingya and long for a humane resolution, only deeper changes to Myanmar’s government and its sociopolitical views towards ethnic and religious minorities can create a lasting peace. Without that change, the international community can at best ameliorate, but never end, the cycles of violence inflicted upon Myanmar’s Rohingya.






[1] U.N. brands Myanmar violence a ‘textbook’ example of ethnic cleansing. Nebehay, Stephanie & Lewis, Simon. Reuters. September 11, 2017. Accessed 09 March 2018

[2] Abuza, Zachary. Myanmar’s Tatmadaw and the Making of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 21. November 10, 2017. Accessed 06 March 2018.

[3] Myanmar: Who are the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army? BBC. September 6, 2017. Accessed 06 March 2018

[4] Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State. International Crisis Group. Report No. 283. December 15, 2016. Accessed 06 March 2018.

[5] Sullivan, Michael. Rohingya Refugees Pour Into Bangladesh, And Many Question A Militant Group’s Actions. NPR. October 17, 2017. Accessed 07 March 2018.

[6] Lone, Wa & Slodkowski, Antoni. September 6, 2017. Reuters. ‘And then the exploded’: How Rohingya insurgents built support for assault. Accessed 20 March 2018

[7] Dewan, Angela. Who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing? September 13, 2017. CNN. Accessed 20 March 2018

[8] Al-Mahmood, Syed Zain. Timeline: A Short History of Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority. December 23, 2016. Wall Street Journal Blogs. Accessed 20 March 2018

[9] Myanmar And Bangladesh Agree To 2-Year Timeframe For Rohingya Return. NPR. January 16, 2018. Accessed 09 March 2018

[10] Bhaumik, Subir. Why Do China, India Back Myanmar Over the Rohingya Crisis? October 18, 2017. South China Morning Post. Accessed 13 March 2018

[11] Lone, Wa. Myanmar military denies atrocities against Rohingya, replaces general. Reuters. November 13, 2017. Accessed 20 March 2018.

[12] Lewis, Simon & Aung, Thu Thu. Myanmar’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Rohingya continues, UN rights official says. Reuters. March 6, 2018. Accessed 20 March 2018.

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