Written by Paul Staniland.
A massive refugee crisis has emerged along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing violence in northern Rakhine State. The Myanmar military has engaged in brutal counterinsurgency, and communal violence has surged, in the wake of attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) against security outposts on August 25, following an earlier wave of attacks in October 2016. How does research on political violence make sense of this tragic conflict?
The ARSA attacks appear to have created a motive and opportunity for the military to try to eliminate the “Bengali” problem once and for all, by expelling as many as possible into Bangladesh and terrorising the rest.
ARSA’s rise, and the Burma Army’s response, are, unfortunately, of little surprise. The Rakhine context is a worst-case scenario for the onset of a civil war. Research on the origins of ethnic insurgency suggests that political exclusion can be a powerful spur to rebellion. The long-running marginalisation of the Rohingya, including their disenfranchisement in the 2015 election, left the group with little path forward in mainstream politics. While the ARSA’s attacks have proven massively counterproductive, the kindling for ethnic revolt has been firmly in place in Rakhine.
The emergence of the insurgency is consistent with other findings on how civil wars begin. Previous civil conflicts and state weakness in peripheral areas can contribute to the eruption of insurgencies, and Rakhine has both – a long history of past insurgencies by Muslim and Buddhist actors, and a Myanmar state that combines brutality with an inability to consistently reach into and govern substantial areas of the country’s peripheries. The motivation for revolt created by political exclusion has combined with the opportunities created by geography and lack of governance. In this case, transnational sanctuaries for organising are further added to the mix as a contributing factor.
Yet, the situation in Rakhine is even more volatile than these factors already suggest. Growing communal polarisation between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists, most notably following the violence of 2012, makes matters more complex. Many Rakhine Buddhists view themselves as indigenous “sons of the soil” being overrun by foreign “Bengalis” (as the Rohingya are widely known in Myanmar). While also becoming displaced in significant numbers, Buddhists appear to have targeted Rohingyas and Rohingya villages in collaboration with government security forces. These sons of the soil conflicts can be particularly tenacious, with deep battles over who “owns” the land by virtue of being the “authentic” inhabitant, and how power should be shared between communities. Loss of status can be a powerful force driving ethnic violence.
The strategies of the warring armed actors can also be understood through research on political violence. The structure of ARSA’s insurgency appears to be what I have termed in my book a “vanguard” group. Drawing heavily on diaspora Rohingya, the ARSA leadership did not arise from within specific localities. Instead, they have sought to mobilise and bind together the constituencies from outside. The vulnerability of such vanguard groups is that leadership decapitation can wipe them out before they can build strong links to local communities.
But as I noted in my book, indiscriminate state violence and a clever insurgency able to exploit local grievances can lead to “local embedding,” allowing vanguards to transition into more fully integrated and resilient organisations. From this perspective, ARSA’s attacks appear aimed at polarising the Rohingya community against the state and making ARSA seem like a credible force able to impose costs on the military.
Yet this aspiration has met the unyielding Myanmar military, with a long tradition of no-holds-barred, brutal counterinsurgency. Well over four hundred thousand refugees have been driven into Bangladesh, and credible reports abound of assassinations, torture, and the burning of villages. Given the international outcry this strategy has created, and the possibility that it will strengthen ARSA among those left behind, why did the military pursue it?
Scott Straus’ work on ethnic cleansing in Africa provides important insight into what we are seeing in Myanmar. He argues that ethnic cleansing is most likely when two conditions align: first, violence and conflict already exist in ways that heighten government threat perceptions and, second, the target ethnic group is viewed as outside the rightful boundaries of the nation. Nationalist ideologies are one important way in which the demands of armed groups are perceived; with outsiders, there is little political space for accommodation.
Both conditions apply in the Rohingya context. The insurgent attacks in 2016 and 2017 created a tense environment in which the military was directly attacked and feels threatened. This escalation occurred in a deeper historical context of the Rohingya being seen as aliens and migrants, rather than citizens of the state. This stands in contrast to many of the other insurgent conflicts in Myanmar, where the military seeks to hold onto and rule (on its own terms) ethnic minorities, rather than driving them out of the country.
The ARSA attacks appear to have created a motive and opportunity for the military to try to eliminate the “Bengali” problem once and for all, by expelling as many as possible into Bangladesh and terrorising the rest. If successful, this will avoid the problem of indiscriminate violence letting ARSA move from a vanguard group toward deeper integration with local communities. If those communities do not exist anymore, are too afraid of immediate retribution to collaborate with ARSA, or resent ARSA for bringing down the wrath of the state, then the group will wither on the vine or be forced back into an exile existence.
This military strategy is risky and incredibly violent. It may in fact “work,” but if it doesn’t, ARSA will emerge stronger over the long run. Moreover, this approach, even if it does militarily break ARSA, also makes it far more difficult to solve deep problems of political exclusion and communal relations.
But there is a grim logic underpinning the military’s behaviour: the pretext for mass displacement is now in place, and the tatmadaw [Myanmar armed forces] has fused propaganda, ARSA’s own attacks, and deep-seated existing dislike for the Rohingya in Myanmar to frame itself as a bulwark against the rise of Islamist terrorism. Aung San Suu Kyi has echoed this narrative. The international community’s perspective on the Rohingya is fundamentally different than that dominant within much of Myanmar, making military actions seem much more justifiable to the Myanmar public than to outsiders. This narrative has also found some resonance in India and China, key regional powers with a deep interest in Myanmar.
This all means that the stage is set for an enduring insurgency in Rakhine and a further collapse of Rakhine Buddhist-Rohingya relations. It is possible that ARSA will be wiped out or, less likely, that the government will implement major political reforms in the state that temper the revolt. But the most likely trajectory is of ongoing displacement and violence. Myanmar’s periphery is dotted with insurgencies. It seems tragically likely to add another.
Paul Staniland (@pstanpolitics) is an Associate Professor of political science at the University of Chicago, where he co-directs the Program on International Security Policy and the Program on Political Violence; he recently became the Chair of the Committee on International Relations. His research focuses on political violence, international security, and state formation, primarily in South and Southeast Asia. His book, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse, was published by Cornell University Press in 2014 and he is currently writing a book about armed politics and the state in southern Asia. Image credit: CC by Staffan Scherz/Flickr.