Ending Burma’s Rohingya Dilemma

Ending Burma’s Rohingya Dilemma
AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
Story Stream
recent articles

French President Charles De Gaulle once famously asked how you can govern a country with 246 kinds of cheese.  He might as well have been thinking of Burma, which recognizes eight races and 135 ethnic groups. 

Diversity is divisive, and Burma’s extreme diversity has led to decades of extreme internal conflict.  Mostly Buddhist since the eleventh century, today it has some forty-seven armed ethnic groups.  About twenty of them are of special security concern. 

The most visible insurgency, and potentially the most dangerous, is the Rohingya Muslim insurgency in western Burma.  It is not the largest, but it has run continuously for the last seventy years and driven out over a million Rohingya refugees.  The latest eruption, precipitated by Muslim insurgent attacks in August 2017, led to a military crackdown that sent over 624,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh in less than three months. 

The Muslim diaspora almost universally supports the Rohingya cause.  The current crisis is becoming a cause celebre for transnational jihadists, and Burma’s counterinsurgency has already led to Muslim terrorist attacks in Egypt and Indonesia.  Unless Burma’s Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine are separated for good, the potential for an explosion of Islamic jihad in Burma—and perhaps more broadly—is real.  


Of Burma’s 2014 population of 51.5 million, 88 percent were Buddhist, six percent Christian, four percent Muslim and two percent Hindu and others.  About half of the Muslim population of 2.2 million were Rohingya living in Rakhine state.  The rest, distributed country-wide, were Indian, Indo-Burmese, Persian, Arab, Panthay and Chinese Hui.   

The Rohingya are widely despised in Burma.  Buddhist nationalists see them as a threat to national sovereignty and Burma’s Buddhist identity, and as foreigners trying to infiltrate the country and undermine the Buddhist faith.  There is a strong belief that if Buddhists in Rakhine had not protected the ’western gate’ of the country from Muslim emigrant pressure, Burma and the rest of southeast Asia would have become Muslim years before.  Buddhism is the dominant religion in much of southeast Asia, including in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.      


Burma’s Muslim insurgency has a long history, dating back at least to 1811.  Bitter cultural tensions have led to waves of communal violence in Rakhine state, the historical frontier between Buddhist and Muslim Asia and ground zero for the conflict.  Rakhine State is about 63 percent Buddhist and 35 percent Muslim.  During World War II, when they took different sides, about 20,000 Buddhists and 5,000 Muslims were killed. 

After Burma’s independence in 1948, Muslim insurgents took over much of the Rakhine area while the government was occupied with other insurgencies elsewhere.  A government counteroffensive took back the mujahidin strongholds in 1954, but fighting continued until 1961.  A new frontier administration was short-lived, and in 1962 a successful coup d’etat started almost five decades of military rule that took a hard line towards minorities.  Subsequent attempts to reestablish the mujahidin movement, however, failed to enlist much local support. 

In 1974, the Rohingya Patriotic Front formed from the remnants of earlier insurgent efforts.  For the next twenty-five years, it split and recoalesced, spawning the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (1986), the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (1998) and other Muslim insurgent groups. 

In 2011 Burma elected a nominally civilian but military-backed government.  Buddhist nationalism surged, and a spasm of rioting erupted in Rakhine stateAbout 200 Rohingya were killed, and tens of thousands fled to Bangladesh.  In 2013 the war spilled over into Malaysia and Indonesia, with deadly attacks involving both Burmese Buddhists and Muslims.


A 2015 election brought Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to power, albeit with major military constraints on her authority, and led to another explosion in Buddhist nationalism.  This time, a new Muslim insurgent group came to the fight—the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which had begun operations in Rakhine state in 2013. 

In October 2016, ARSA carried out a complex and coordinated attack on border police bases in northern Rakhine state.  Seventeen were killed, and large amounts of weapons and ammunition were captured.  Burma responded with a massive counterattack, and 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.  Insurgent recruitment surged in response, and ARSA established cells in dozens of Burmese villages. 

On August 25, 2017, ARSA carried out a coordinated night attack on 25-30 police posts and an army base along a 60-mile front.  Equipped with explosives, small arms and machetes, they killed ten police officers, a soldier and an immigration official.  They also reportedly blew up bridges and mined roads with improvised explosive devices.  About a thousand insurgents were involved, and ARSA’s tactical capabilities had improved dramatically since the 2016 attacks. 

ARSA claimed self-defense, but others say the attacks were intended as provocation.  In any case, Burma’s response was fast and furious.  It declared ARSA a terrorist group and initiated what it calls a legitimate counterinsurgency campaign against extremist Bengali terrorists.  Rakhine Buddhist nationalists actively supported the army. 

Over the next twelve weeks, 624,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.  Some have since crossed back into Burma to fight with ARSA.  Both sides have been accused of burning Rohingya villages and killing civilians—the military to force the Rohingya out of Burma, and the insurgents to ‘drum up global support for their cause.’ 


Members and sympathizers characterize ARSA as a home-grown, garden-variety ethnic insurgent group, out to protect the Rohingya people against state repression.  However, the 2017 attacks provoked ‘the worst crisis for the population probably in history,’ and even some who blame the Burmese army for overreacting agree that that was ARSA’s objective.    

ARSA says it has no links to jihadist groups, and it rejects the terrorist label.  Worried that the refugee camps will become ripe for exploitation by transnational jihadists, some analysts agree.  They argue that ARSA is not ‘pursuing goals congruent with those of global jihadists,’ and urge extreme caution against ‘claims that the current crisis is fueled by militants with transnational jihadist aims.’  

The Rohingya insurgency has deep ties with Islamic terrorism, however, and it has already riveted the attention of transnational terror groups.  As far back as August 2001, the U.S. reported that ninety RSO attended guerrilla training and thirteen trained in explosives and heavy weapons in Libya and Afghanistan.  They also had an ‘active explosives and weapons training exchange with the terrorist group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.’  More recently, in May 2013, an attack against Burma’s embassy in Jakarta was thwarted amid calls for jihad against Burma by Abu Bakar Bashir—the radical cleric who inspired the 2002 Bali bombing. 

Since the August 2017 attacks, Burma’s embassy in Jakarta was hit with a petrol bomb and the Egyptian terrorist group Harakat Sawa’id Masr’s attacked Burma’s Cairo embassy because of Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya.  Indonesian and Malaysian extremists are ‘chomping at the bit to go help their brothers,’ and Hezbollah and the Taliban have threatened to attack Burmese targets at home and abroad. 

ARSA is led by a charismatic Pakistani named Ata Ullah.  Born in Karachi to a middle-class family of Rohingya refugees, his father studied at elite madrassas in Pakistan before moving the family to Saudi Arabia to teach in Riyadh and Ta’if.  Ullah was raised in Saudi Arabia, where he attended madrassas.  He tutored the children of wealthy Saudis, and later became part of their inner circle and an imam at a local mosque.  It was here that ARSA was reportedly founded by Rohingya expatriates.

With the 2012 fighting, Ullah left for Pakistan.  Militants in Karachi said he brought millions of dollars to buy guns, find fighters and train in practical guerrilla warfare with top jihadist groups ‘tied to Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Kashmiri separatist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba.’  He left Pakistan a committed nationalist and trained in Libya before starting insurgent operations in Rakhine state.  This pattern of radicalization and training has been called ‘typical of ARSA’s foreign-born fighters.’ 

ARSA has much broader international reach than other Burmese militant groups.  Analysts agree that ARSA commanders have been trained internationally in guerilla warfare, including by Afghans and Pakistanis.  Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence sources cite ‘intercepted calls between ARSA and Pakistanis’ as evidence that radicalization of the Rohingya is a concrete threat, and ‘assisted and supported by external forces.’  Islamic clerics have issued fatwas legitimizing ARSA, and justifying its use of violence.  It ‘even has a dedicated cleric, Saudi-educated Ziabur Rahman, who has the authority to issue fatwas in support of the group.’


Since Burma’s crackdown, Muslim countries have accused it of persecuting its Muslim population.  Burma, in turn, has criticized some of those countries for supporting the Rohingya.  Muslim countries actively engaged on the issue include Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE.  The Organization of Islamic Cooperation declared Burma’s crackdown ‘ethnic cleansing.’  Turkey described it as ‘genocide aimed at Muslim communities,’ Malaysia called it “the Rohingya genocide,” and Iran compared it to the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000


The regional security implications of the Rohingya crisis are profound.  The biggest risk, as operations wind down in Iraq and Syria, is that ISIS and other transnational terror groups will focus on Rakhine state as a gateway to fomenting jihad both in Burma and beyond.  In addition to Bangladesh, where the biggest fear is refugee recruitment by terror groups, these concerns are especially acute in India, China and Russia. 

Hindu-led India, which also sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, is in legal proceedings to deport them.  It considers its own population of 40,000 Rohingya a serious threat to national security, claiming intelligence data linking the Rohingya to ‘Pakistan-based and other international terror organizations.’   

China ‘understands and supports Burma’s efforts to protect its security.  A Chinese official condemned the ‘violence and terrorist acts,’ and referred to Burma’s response as a “clearing operation.”  Russian President Putin also supports Burma, but Russia’s Sunni Islamic Republic of Chechnya supports the Rohingya.  In early September some 30,000 Chechens protested Putin’s support of Burma in ‘a stark example of inter-ethnic Muslim cooperation.’ 


For three compelling reasons, the international community should move quickly to intervene on the Rohingya problem.  First is to finally end the insurgency, which has churned for seventy years and become a groundhog’s day of Muslim-Buddhist violence.  Right now there is a rare window of opportunity to bring that conflict to a decisive end. 

The second reason is humanitarian.  Seven waves of refugees totaling over 1.3 million people have fled Burma in the last seventy years because of the Rohingya insurgency.  The only way to end these recurring humanitarian crises is to end the insurgency. 

The third reason is to eliminate the risk that Rakhine state will be used by transnational Islamists to foment jihad in Burma.  From the counterterrorism perspective, the biggest current threat is the spread of religious extremism and radicalism in Rakhine state, especially now that thousands of battle-hardened, ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters are seeking new missions.

There are two basic approaches to dealing with the problem. 


Plan A, the standard option from the playbook of the international community, is a ‘safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees’ to Burma.  It is based largely on the report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, whose conclusions are predicated on the notion that the root of the problem is Buddhist intolerance rather than seventy years of Muslim insurgent attacks.  Plan A involves ‘addressing the legitimate grievances of the Rakhine while ensuring freedom of movement, access to services and livelihoods, political participation and citizenship rights for the Rohingya.’

Experience with repatriating Rohingya refugees to Burma has been poor.  Hundreds of thousands have been forcibly returned since 1970, in direct conflict with UN policy, and subsequent waves have returned to Bangladesh.  Before the August 2017 attacks, about 300,000 remained in Bangladesh.  Some want citizenship and basic civil rights in Burma.  Others do not want to return, and still, others remaining in Burma do not want to stay there. 

Regardless, few think they will return anytime soon because of security problems, persecution and discrimination, as well as lack of citizenship, the absence of official papers and the verification process.  Because of this, Amnesty International and others have called for Bangladesh to adopt a policy of non-refoulement—‘the cornerstone of international refugee protection’ that prohibits returning refugees to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of race or religion.  

Plan A has about as much chance of success as a unicorn hunt.  Even if it were realistically implementable, it would neither end the seventy-year Muslim insurgency, nor resolve the recurrent humanitarian problem, nor close off Rakhine state as a gateway for jihad.  It would be neither peaceful, nor permanent, nor sustainable.  Instead, it would perpetuate the Muslim-Buddhist violence and ripen Rakhine state as a target for transnational terrorists.      


Under Plan B, the international community would actively facilitate the expatriation of Rohingya refugees now trying to get into Bangladesh and help peacefully remove and resettle those Rohingya remaining in Burma.  About 300,000 remain there, ‘up to two-thirds of which will join the exodus to Bangladesh in the coming months.’  The best destinations for Rohingya refugees are Muslim countries that already host large Rohingya populations—Bangladesh (1,000,000), Pakistan (350,000), Saudi Arabia (200,000), Malaysia (50,000), the UAE (10,000) and Indonesia (1,000). 

Human Rights Watch calls resettlement ‘an appropriate strategy for refugees’ where they are unable or unwilling to return home, and states that “governments should consider resettlement options for Rohingya refugees who are unable or unwilling to return to Burma.”   

Plan B would end the seventy-year Muslim insurgency by removing the Rohingya from the conflict zone, and it would end the recurring humanitarian crises that come with each new insurgent eruption.  Along with strong border controls to keep the two cultures apart, it would also close off Rakhine state as a gateway for Islamic jihad. 


Geography may be destiny, but culture is the medium through which human events unfold.  As they do, there are times when irreconcilable differences require weighing cultural separation against forced cohabitation. 

Separation is not a realistic strategy in most cultural insurgencies, but it can be a viable option where the populations involved are grossly disproportionate in size and capability, where the cultures are highly incompatible, where violence is both protracted and severe, and where there is no realistic alternative.  This precisely defines the situation in Rakhine state.   

No one expects sclerotic institutions like the United Nations to lead in ending the Rohingya insurgency, but visionary national leaders could.  All that’s needed is for the international community to help peacefully remove and resettle those Rohingya remaining in Burma.  

In the absence of that, and separation of these two cultures for good, the Rohingya insurgency could well churn for another seventy years. 

Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer.  In 29 years with the U.S. Agency for International Development, he worked on the ground in 49 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East.  The opinions in this article are his alone.

Show commentsHide Comments