The recent violence that has swept the northern townships of Myanmar’s Rakhine state driving an exodus of over half a million Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh in little more than one month has created a humanitarian catastrophe of daunting proportions. Unfolding on the religious and cultural fault-line between South and Southeast Asia, it is a crisis that will also have significant repercussions on regional security.
Unsurprisingly in the international climate of late 2017, concern has focused immediately on the potential danger posed by the intervention of transnational jihadist militancy and its terrorist offshoots. The prospect of wider conflict in Rakhine state attracting numbers of Islamist militants from Southeast Asia has raised predictable fears of fighters and terrorists returning to the region not only from the battlefields of the Middle East and Mindanao but now from a new training ground in Myanmar.
It is early to be making assessments with any degree of confidence about events still in flux amid a range of diplomatic interactions at regional and global levels. That said, at Access Asia we believe the threat of jihadist militancy and terrorism emanating from the Rakhine conflict to be largely inflated.
This assessment is based on two important reasons.
First, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the group responsible for the 25 August attacks that triggered the current crisis, is not known to espouse salafist jihadist ideology or objectives. Both through its own Twitter account and in limited meetings with foreign interlocutors, its leadership has stressed that it is not a jihadist organization and has no links to transnational jihadist organizations such the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (AQ), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or others. Describing itself specifically as an ethno-nationalist organization, the ARSA has even offered in one Twitter post in September “to work with security agencies… to prevent the infiltration of terrorist groups.”
If the group can be taken at its word – and it is difficult to see why it would seek to conceal its identity — this would place the ARSA in ideological space occupied by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines, or the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani-Melayu (BRN) in southern Thailand. While both are armed groups committed to the defence of a Muslim homeland against the perceived inroads of non-Muslim governments, they reject organizational linkages with transnational salafist jihadism as detrimental to their objectives and have no interest in supporting international Islamist militancy.
Notwithstanding the presence in its ranks of a small number of volunteers from various Muslim countries, ARSA’s political strategy appears broadly aimed at drawing international attention to the plight of Myanmar’s disenfranchised Rohingya community. While developing a limited military capacity, the group appears to be hoping that international diplomatic pressure will act to force the Naypyidaw government to address Rohingya demands for recognition as an ethnic community within Myanmar.
Secondly, there is at present little prospect of the crisis developing into a full-blown insurgency of the type seen in southern Philippines where a range of well-equipped militant factions have been operating for years over wide swaths of territory. By contrast, in northern Rakhine state stark disparities of forces and firepower in a relatively small theatre of operations militate against any significant expansion of hostilities.
Both in October 2016 when ARSA launched its first operation against police posts and even more clearly in August this year, the group’s attacks have revealed a relatively small force that has relied heavily on mobilizing village supporters armed with knives, machetes and crude petrol bombs.
Based on information from several sources in contact with both the ARSA and the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw), we assess the insurgents to number between 500 -800 combatants with some degree of training not all of whom are equipped with modern firearms. The group is not known to field any support weapons such as machine guns or rocket-propelled grenades. In many areas now depopulated by the Tatmadaw’s scorched-earth campaign, it has now been deprived of civilian support that might have provided food, information and sanctuary.
By contrast recent weeks have seen a rapid build-up of security forces which began even before the insurgent attacks of 25 August. An estimated 10,000 army forces including battalions from the elite 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions supported by light artillery and helicopters are currently deployed in northern Rakhine reinforcing border guard police.
Minor clashes are entirely likely in the coming months. However, we believe that for the rest of this year at least the ARSA will be focusing its efforts primarily on reinforcing its presence in the refugee camps now being established close to the border. If through a blend of genuine support and hard-knuckle intimidation the group is able to assert a measure of political control over the camps, it will be well placed to recruit and organize in a manner that Bangladesh’s already overstretched authorities will be ill-equipped to prevent. Indeed, if at that point the ARSA is both able and willing to make good on its promises to check foreign militant Islamist infiltration, it may well be that the Bangladeshi authorities will find it advisable to extend the group a measure of tacit recognition.
Prospects over the coming six to twelve months will hinge importantly on whether or not an internationally supervised process of refugee repatriation can be negotiated. However, having successfully achieved the expulsion of a large proportion of the ‘Bengali’ population not recognized as Myanmar citizens, Myanmar’s military – entirely autonomous in matters of state security –will certainly be loath to see their return. The Tatmadaw will likely obstruct and delay anything more than a token repatriation process while at the same time working quietly to resettle ethnic Rakhine and Burman (Bamar) Buddhists in villages abandoned by Rohingyas.
Such an outcome will leave Bangladesh with a massive and open-ended humanitarian burden with significant domestic political repercussions. Under these circumstances, it is not inconceivable that Bangladesh’s military may find it expedient to provide limited support to ARSA guerrillas operating out of the border camps while at the same time counting on the ARSA to stem any attempts at infiltration by local or external jihadist elements.
From the Southeast Asian security perspective, the crisis currently poses two potential dangers. First, and most immediately, there is an elevated possibility of attacks on targets associated with the Myanmar state or Myanmar commercial interests more broadly. On 3 September a petrol bomb was thrown at the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta but caused no casualties.
Such attacks are far more likely to be undertaken by local extremist groups acting in solidarity with their Rohingya co-religionists rather than by elements from the Rohingya diaspora in the region. (The diaspora is concentrated notably in Malaysia, where well over 100,000 Rohingyas, registered and unregistered, have settled; but also extends to Indonesia and Thailand.)
That said, the risk of further, better organized attacks is substantially mitigated by the fact that security and intelligence services in the region are entirely alert to the threat and have increased preventive measures around a relatively small number of potential targets. The possibility of random attacks on individual Buddhist migrant workers from Myanmar remains, however.
A second, broader concern is the manner in which atrocities reportedly committed by the Tatmadaw against Rohingya civilians will impact domestic politics. At one level, the narrative of ‘genocide’ will undoubtedly provide grist to the mills of Islamist parties and civil society organizations in Malaysia and Indonesia, fanning an Islamisation of mainstream politics and society that is already in train. At another level, extremist organizations with jihadist ambitions will also undoubtedly exploit this narrative as a recruitment tool and evidence that governments are unwilling diplomatically to defend Muslim rights.