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New armed group complicates Rohingya situation in Myanmar

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A Rohingya woman urges the member of Border Guard Bangladesh not to turn them back to Myanmar, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 27 August 2017. Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The United Nations cautioned Myanmar’s government on Tuesday against a heavy-handed response to last week’s attacks by a new Rohingya armed group, which provoked a crackdown that has once again highlighted the plight of the Muslim minority and thrown into question a series of UN recommendations meant to improve their conditions.


Some 6,000 people are held up at the border with Bangladesh as they flee repercussions of last week’s attacks on police outposts in Rakhine state, home to most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya.

“The reports that we’re receiving from our Rohingya sources are that the military offensive against Rohingya areas, targeting villages, is escalating on a bigger scale than the military offensive in October last year,” says Mark Farmaner of the UK-based Burma Campaign.

He was referring to the crackdown that followed the first attacks of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which also claimed responsibility for the much larger assaults on police outposts that left at least 109 people dead late last week.

Myanmar's government calls the ARSA a terrorist group, while activists view it as emerging from long-held frustration.

“They are young angry Rohingya men who expected the international community to solve their problems, but seeing no action, they decided to take up arms,” says Europe-based Rohingya blogger Nay San Lwin, who rejects the terrorist label being applied to the group.

“There is no evidence they have committed any terrorist crime, so the government cannot call a group terrorist just for attacking government troops.”

Rohingya treatment

Despite being in Myanmar for decades or even centuries, the Rohingya have no status as citizens, and the government considers them to be Bengali immigrants.

Mark Farmaner notes the particular way the government has responded to the ARSA’s appearance, contrasting it with armed groups involved in other ethnic conflicts around the country.

“Until last year, the Rohingya were one of the few significant ethnic groups in the country that didn’t have an armed organisation claiming to advocate on their behalf and defend the people,” he notes.

“But while the government is now engaging with most of the armed ethnic organisations and trying to organise a peace process with them, its response to this Rohingya organisation has been completely different. […] There’s an almost hysterical response from the government to whip up anti-Rohingya fever in the country, playing on the prejudice against the Rohingya that already exists there.”

UN recommendations

The ARSA attack came the same day as a commission on the Rohingya situation led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sent the government a list of recommendations that include promoting economic development, ensuring social justice and revisiting the question of citizenship.

“The report was issued the day the attacks happened, and the government welcomed it then,” notes the International Crisis Group’s Asia Programme Director Anagha Neelakantan, who believes the government should find it possible to take at least some of the recommendations on board.

“The commission might have been headed by Kofi Annan, who is very respected, but most of the members were from Myanmar, so this is a national body in some ways,” she says. “It should be in the government’s power to create the conditions in which to implement some of these recommendations.”

Nay San Lwin is less optimistic and doubts the government has any real intention of taking the recommendations to heart.

“The military launched this operation against the ARSA to provoke the situation, and the group claims it has no alternatives, because their bases were attacked by the military,” he argues. “The government is creating this situation so they don’t need to implement the plan.”

In any case, Anagha Neelakantan doubts the appearance of the armed group and crackdown will do anything to help the Rohingya cause.

“None of this is going to create much sympathy in Myanmar, where there’s already not much sympathy among the general public and among many politicians for the Rohingya cause,” she says..

“What it will do especially if the military response is very aggressive and targets civilians – is what the insurgents want, which is to keep international attention focussed on the situation in northern Rakhine and the Rohingyas, but not necessarily in a productive way.”