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Smouldering debris of burned houses is seen in Warpait village, a Muslim village in Maungdaw located in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 14 October, 2016. AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Report 283 / Asia

Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

Recent attacks by an émigré-led force of trained Rohingya fighters mark a dangerous turn. To remove a main root of the violence – Rohingya despair – the government must reverse longstanding discrimination against the Muslim minority, moderate its military tactics, and reach out to Myanmar’s Muslim allies.

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Executive Summary

The deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) bases in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State on 9 October 2016 and the days following, and a serious escalation on 12 November when a senior army officer was killed, signify the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency there. The current violence is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades, seriously threatens the prospects of stability and development in the state and has serious implications for Myanmar as a whole. The government faces a huge challenge in calibrating and integrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are kept under control. It requires also taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.

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Failure to get this right would carry enormous risks. While the government has a clear duty to maintain security and take action against the attackers, it needs, if its response is to be effective, to make more judicious use of force and focus on a political and policy approach that addresses the sense of hopelessness and despair underlying the anger of many Muslims in Rakhine State. Complicating this is that Aung San Suu Kyi has some influence, but under the constitution no direct control over the military.

The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this well-organised, apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine State, which include longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, denial of rights and lack of citizenship. The current use of disproportionate military force in response to the attacks, which fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, together with denial of humanitarian assistance to an extremely vulnerable population and the lack of an overarching political strategy that would offer them some hope for the future, is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence and potential mass displacement.

HaY would not have been able to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local leaders and communities. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population, and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years rather than any sort of inevitability.

A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive.

It is important for the government’s response to start from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some Muslims in Rakhine State has emerged. The population has seen its rights progressively eroded, its gradual marginalisation from social and political life, and rights abuses. This has become particularly acute since the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. Disenfranchisement prior to the 2015 elections severed the last link with politics and means of influence. At the same time, the disruption of maritime migration routes to Malaysia closed a vital escape valve, particularly for young men whose only tangible hope for the future was dashed. An increasing sense of despair has driven more people to consider a violent response, but it is not too late for the government to reverse the trend.

It requires recognising first that these people have lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so. Ways must be found to give them a place in the nation’s life. A heavy-handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction is not only in violation of international norms; it is also deeply counterproductive. It will likely create further despair and animosity, increasing support for HaY and further entrenching violence. International experience strongly suggests that an aggressive military response, particularly if not embedded in a broader policy framework, will be ineffective against the armed group and has the potential to considerably aggravate matters.

So far, though there are indications of some training and solidarity, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. But there are risks that if the government mishandles the situation, including by continued use of disproportionate force that has driven tens of thousands from their homes or across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for further radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit to pursue their own agendas in the country. To avoid that requires subordinating the security response and integrating it into a well-crafted, overarching political strategy – building stronger, more positive relations between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

I. Introduction

This report examines the emergence of a new form of organised violent resistance in the Muslim-majority northern parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.[fn]For recent Crisis Group reporting on Myanmar, see Asia Briefings N°s 147, The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications, 9 December 2015; 146, Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Nationwide Ceasefire Remains Elusive, 16 September 2015; 144, Counting the Costs: Myanmar’s Problematic Census, 15 May 2014; 143, Myanmar’s Military: Back to the Barracks?, 22 April 2014; also Asia Reports N°s 282, Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?, 29 July 2016; 266, Myanmar’s Electoral Landscape, 28 April 2015; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote It follows up Crisis Group’s detailed examination in 2014 of Rakhine politics, which should be referred to for a broader analysis of the dynamics in the state as a whole. It is important to know and acknowledge the perspectives of Rakhine Buddhists and their strongly-felt grievances.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote The current violence, however, is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades and has fundamental implications for the situation in the troubled state and potentially for Myanmar’s transition as a whole.

The report looks at the establishment of a new armed group, its objectives and international links; the response of the government and security forces; and the implications for the people of Rakhine State and the country. It is based on extensive research and interviews in Yangon; interviews with several members of the armed group in northern Rakhine State and villagers and key sources in the area; interviews with other sources connected to the group living outside Myanmar; interviews with members of the Rohingya diaspora, including in the Middle East; interviews with recent arrivals in Bangladesh who have fled Rakhine; and analysis of conversations on messaging applications such as WhatsApp over the last six months. Much research has been done by experienced personnel fluent in the local dialect spoken by Muslims in northern Rakhine State. In cases of particularly sensitive information and to protect the identities of interviewees and researchers, details of locations and dates have been withheld, replaced by a general description of the sourcing for a paragraph or section.

The term “Rohingya” is highly contested within Myanmar, because it is perceived as a claim of indigenous ethnic status by a community most Rakhine Buddhists, indeed most people in Myanmar, regard as immigrants from Bangladesh, and whom they therefore prefer to refer to as “Bengali”.[fn]Ibid, Section V.C, including for more detailed discussion of the term’s sensitivity.Hide Footnote The government has asked its officials and the international community to refrain from either term. “Rohingya” is used in this report not to imply endorsement of any particular historical narrative or political claim but because it is the term that community overwhelmingly refers to itself by, and because other terms such as “Muslims from Rakhine State” are less precise: several Muslim communities in the state do not identify as “Rohingya”, including (but not only) the Kaman, a recognised indigenous Muslim group. It is Muslims in the northern parts of Rakhine State that most strongly identify as “Rohingya”; those in the diaspora who so identify are overwhelmingly from this area, rather than central or southern parts of the state.[fn]For detailed discussion of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, see ibid.Hide Footnote

II. Previous Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State

During the Second World War, Rakhine was the front line between the Japanese invaders and allied forces. Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were on opposing sides; most of the former remained pro-British, while the latter supported the Japanese until a last-minute switch enabled the eventual allied reoccupation of Rakhine. Both communities formed armed units and attacked the other, with accounts of massacres on both sides in 1942-1943. Muslims fled to the north, where they were the majority, and Rakhine Buddhists moved south.[fn]Mary Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma (Ithaca, 2003), chapter 2; Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group (Wiesbaden, 1972).Hide Footnote

A mujahidin rebellion erupted in April 1948, a few months after independence. The rebels initially explored the possibility of annexing northern Rakhine State to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), but Pakistan rejected this. They then sought the right of the population to live as full citizens in an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the state and an end to what they saw as discrimination by the Rakhine Buddhist officials who replaced the colonial administrators. The immigration authorities placed restrictions on the movement of Muslims from northern Rakhine to Sittwe, the state capital. Some 13,000 Muslims who fled during the war and were living in refugee camps in India and East Pakistan were not permitted to return; those who did were considered illegal immigrants.[fn]Yegar, op. cit. On the eve of independence some Rakhine intellectuals led by barrister Hla Tun Pru were demanding an independent “Arakanistan” for the Rakhine people. See Aye Chan, “The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan State of Burma (Myanmar)”, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, vol. 3, no. 2 (2005), p. 410.Hide Footnote

The rebels targeted Rakhine Buddhist interests as well as the government, quickly seizing control of large parts of the north and expelling many Buddhist villagers. Law and order almost completely broke down, with two communist insurgencies (Red Flag and White Flag) in addition to the mujahidin, as well as Rakhine nationalist groups, including the (Marxist) Arakan People’s Liberation Party, in the south of the state.[fn]Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd ed. (London, 1999), p. 28.Hide Footnote An embattled Burmese army, facing ethnic insurgencies across the country, controlled little of Rakhine other than Sittwe. In the violence and chaos, relations between Buddhist and Muslim communities deteriorated further. Many moderate Rakhine Muslim leaders rejected the mujahidin insurgency, even vainly asking the government for arms to fight back.

It was not until 1954 that the army launched a massive offensive, Operation Monsoon, that captured most of the mujahidin mountain strongholds on the East Pakistan border. The rebellion was eventually ended through ceasefires in 1961 and defeat of remaining groups, leaving only small-scale armed resistance and banditry. Partly in response to mujahidin demands, partly for electoral reasons, in 1961 the government established a Mayu Frontier Administration in northern Rakhine, administered by army officers rather than Rakhine officials.[fn]Martin Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, unpublished article, 1995. Yegar, op. cit.Hide Footnote But the 1962 military coup led to a more hardline stance toward minorities, and the Mayu Frontier Administration was dissolved. This prompted attempts to re-form the mujahidin movement that failed to gain significant local support.

In 1974, inspired by the rise of pan-Islamist movements in the world, the Rohingya Patriotic Front armed group was formed from remnants of earlier failures. It split into several factions, one of the more radical of which became the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) armed group in 1982. The RSO split in 1986, giving rise to the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) splinter; in 1998, the two groups formed a loose alliance, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the RSO had small bases in remote parts of Bangladesh near the Myanmar border but was not thought to have any inside Myanmar. In its highest-profile attack, in April 1994, several dozen fighters entered Maungdaw from Bangladesh, including a group landed by boat in Myin Hlut village-tract, south Maungdaw. On 28 April, bombs they planted in Maungdaw town caused damage and several civilian injuries, and fighters followed up with attacks on the town’s outskirts. The group did not receive strong local support, and security forces, alerted by informants, quickly defeated them.[fn]Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Regional security analysts viewed the RSO as essentially defunct as an armed group by the end of the 1990s, though it kept an organisational structure in Bangladesh and did training and occasional small attacks on Myanmar security forces into the early 2000s. A Myanmar military intelligence report, cited in a U.S. diplomatic cable in 2002, made the “generally plausible” claim that 90 RSO/ARIF members attended a guerrilla war course, and thirteen also participated in explosives and heavy weapons courses in Libya and Afghanistan in August 2001. Also in the early 2000s, the RSO had an active weapons and explosives training exchange with the militant group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, regional security analysts, Dhaka, July-August 2014, November 2016. “Arakan Rohingya National Organization contacts with Al Qaeda and with Burmese insurgent groups on the Thai border”, U.S. embassy Rangoon cable, 10 October 2002, as made public by WikiLeaks. Crisis Group Asia Report N°187, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, 1 March 2010.Hide Footnote

More recently, the authorities have continued to blame the RSO for occasional attacks on security forces in northern Rakhine State, for example deadly attacks on Border Guard Police (BGP) patrols in northern Maungdaw in February and May 2014, including one on 17 May that killed four officers.[fn]Internal UN security management team note, Bangladesh, June 2014. See also, “All not quiet on the Burmese front”, Probe Weekly, 6 June 2014.Hide Footnote However, there is no evidence that it retained operational capability after the early-2000s, and armed criminal gangs operate on the border, smuggling drugs and other contraband. The RSO has also become something of a Rohingya militant brand that anyone can use, regardless of connections to the original organisation.

III. Deepening Despair

The anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine State in June and October 2012, though it did not primarily affect the north of the state, seriously strained intercommunal relations.[fn]For analysis, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 238, Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, 12 November 2012; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013.Hide Footnote It generated feelings of insecurity in Buddhist and Muslim communities but had the biggest impact on the latter. It also hardened anti-Muslim sentiment and led to increases in Buddhist nationalist hate speech. There were multiple cases of serious anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar the following year, as well as nationalist lobbying for a package of “protection of race and religion” laws widely seen as targeting Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Dark Side of Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote

These were in addition to longstanding restrictions on access to citizenship for most Muslims in Rakhine State. This has led to serious discrimination against these communities, particularly the Rohingya. Permission to marry must be obtained from the authorities, and there are also severe restrictions on freedom of movement outside the village-tract or between townships, limiting work opportunities and access to government services.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In the lead-up to the 2015 elections, the Muslim population in Rakhine State without citizenship cards – nearly all other than some Kaman – was disenfranchised, severing its last connection to politics and peaceful influence. Even those without citizenship cards had voted in previous elections. Crisis Group warned in advance that this risked organised violence.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Compounding the sense among many Rohingya that politics had failed them was that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) did not take a strong stand on minority religious rights in general or the Rohingya’s specific plight in the campaign. After coming to power, she did make it a top government priority, chairing a committee on Rakhine State and appointing former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head an advisory commission, but some Rohingya had already concluded there was little hope the new administration would address their demands.[fn]Myanmar election: Aung San Suu Kyi campaigns in contentious Rakhine state”, The Guardian, 16 October 2015; “Burma elections: Aung San Suu Kyi steers clear of ‘stateless’ minority the Rohingya”, The Independent, 17 October 2015; “After Myanmar election, few signs of a better life for Muslims”, The New York Times, 18 November 2015; “Aung San Suu Kyi aide: Rohingya are not our priority”, The Telegraph, 19 November 2015. Crisis Group interviews, analysts specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November-December 2015.Hide Footnote

In May 2015, a maritime migration crisis escalated in the Andaman Sea, after a Thai crackdown disrupted people smuggling networks, causing smugglers and crew to abandon boats laden with migrants from Myanmar (mostly Rohingya) and Bangladesh; hundreds were feared to have died. This shut down smuggling routes to Malaysia. When these routes had not reopened by the start of the post-monsoon sailing season in September, it meant a critical escape valve for Rohingya had closed and caused despair among young men who saw migration as their only chance of a better future.[fn]“Mixed maritime movements, April-June 2015”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Office for South-East Asia. Crisis Group interviews, analysts, Yangon, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Emergence of a New Organised Violent Resistance

A. The 9 October Attacks

In the early hours of 9 October, several hundred local Muslim men, armed mostly with knives and slingshots and about 30 firearms, launched simultaneous attacks on three BGP posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships near the north-western border with Bangladesh. According to the authorities, nine police were killed; and the attackers, eight of whom were killed and two captured, made off with 62 firearms and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition.[fn]Government press conference, Naypyitaw, 9 October, reported in Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM), 10 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote

One of the targets was BGP headquarters, a major installation in Kyee Kan Pyin (just north of Maungdaw town) that was overrun in a multi-phase attack, and from where the majority of weapons were looted. In another indication of the preparation level, the group planted an improvised explosive device (IED) and set an ambush on the approach road to the headquarters, delaying reinforcements and damaging vehicles. The two other targets were a BGP sector headquarters at Nga Khu Ya in north Maungdaw and a BGP outpost at Koe Dan Kauk in Rathedaung, just south of Maungdaw township. The government estimated the total attackers at 400.[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016. See also “Operation Backdoor”, Yehtun Blog, 20 October 2010.Hide Footnote Several further clashes occurred 10-12 October, including one on 11 October in which four soldiers were killed.[fn]Troops fight back violent armed attackers, kill four”, GNLM, 11 October 2016, p. 1; “Tatmadaw attacked by 300 armed men, four soldiers killed”, GNLM, 12 October 2016, p. 1; “Troops kill 10 violent armed attackers in area clearance operation in Maungdaw tsp” and “Armed men violently attack Kyikanpyin border outpost, set fire to 25 houses in Warpaik Village”, GNLM, 13 October 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote Two attacks on 3 November that state media reported as linked to the attackers are more uncertain.[fn]As reported in GNLM, 5 November 2016, p. 2, the incidents occurred in south rather than north Maungdaw where the other attacks and subsequent clashes took place. One was the burning down of a disused BGP post, the other allegedly on a BGP base. There are competing narratives about the latter incident: village sources said it was a shooting between two police officers, not an attack. Crisis Group interviews, November 2016, and information from a non-government source with contacts in the area.Hide Footnote

The attacks marked a major escalation of violence in Rakhine and reflected an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that had seen little organised violent resistance from the Muslim population. They caused widespread fear in both communities, particularly among Buddhist Rakhine villagers, who are the minority in the northern part of the state; some 3,000 of them fled to towns.[fn]Myanmar - New displacement in Rakhine State”, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, Daily Flash, 21 October 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Response from Government and Security Forces

The military and BGP launched a major operation aimed at recovering the looted weapons, capturing those involved and arresting their helpers. Its intensity likely reflected both the exigencies of the security situation and that the initial attacks and subsequent deadly clashes were seen as a major affront to security forces’ dignity. The BGP commander, Police Brigadier-General Maung Maung Khaing, was removed for “poor performance”, probably due to both intelligence failures (see Section IV.C) and losing his headquarters and its armoury during the attacks; his replacement is a brigadier-general transferred from the regular police.[fn]Government press conference, 17 October, reported in GNLM, 18 October 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote

The Myanmar authorities have consistently referred to “joint operations”, usually indicating that the military is supporting BGP operations. This language began to be used in particular following a “special meeting on national defence and security” on 14 October that brought together the president, Aung San Suu Kyi, the commander-in-chief and others. The normal constitutional mechanism for activating military involvement in such a situation would be declaration of a state of emergency by the president, with National Defence and Security Council approval, as happened three times under the Thein Sein administration. However, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to regard the Council as politically illegitimate, and it has not met under her government, so no state of emergency can be declared.[fn]Ibid; see also “Special meeting on national defence and security”, GNLM, 15 October 2016, p. 1. Under Section 413(a) of the constitution, a state of emergency in a state/region empowers local civilian authorities and civil service bodies to obtain military help in carrying out their duties. The reason for Suu Kyi’s view is that the military has the majority of the Council’s eleven seats (five uniformed officers plus the military-nominated vice president, a retired senior officer), so can outvote civilian government representatives. She may also have protocol concerns: it is chaired by the president; her membership is as foreign minister, not state counsellor.Hide Footnote In practice, though joint BGP-army patrols take place, the army has authority over the security response, under its western commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the response, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The military has indicated it is conducting “area clearance operations” across a section of northern Maungdaw township, which it has sealed off. On the basis of reports from the authorities and non-government sources, it appears to be using something akin to its standard counter-insurgency “four cuts” strategy developed in the 1960s to cut off rebel forces from their four main support sources (food, funds, intelligence, recruits) and largely unchanged since. It involves cordoning off territory for concentrated operations, a “calculated policy of terror” to force populations to move, destruction of villages in sensitive areas and confiscation or destruction of food stocks that could support insurgents.[fn]For details, see Smith, Insurgency, op. cit. p. 288 ff.; Andrew Selth, Burma’s Armed Forces (Norwalk, 2001), pp. 91-91; and Maung Aung Myoe, “Military Doctrine and Strategy in Myanmar” Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, working paper 339, 1999, p. 10.Hide Footnote

 

Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers … as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security.

Operations in the sealed-off area bear many hallmarks of that strategy. After the 9 October attacks, there were multiple reports of suspects shot on sight, burning of many houses, looting of property and seizure or destruction of food stocks – as well as of women and girls raped.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, villagers and community leaders in the operations area, October 2016. Also, Arakan Project, internal notes nos. 1 and 2, October and November 2016.Hide Footnote Humanitarian agencies have been denied access to some 30,000 people in the sealed-off area, displaced as a result of the attacks and their aftermath, as well as 130,000 previously receiving life-saving aid, with the exception of a one-time food delivery to four villages (6,500 people) on 6 November and the following days by the World Food Programme (WFP); and a food delivery by the government on 18 November to an IDP camp that had formed spontaneously in Thu U Lar village-tract.[fn]Situation in northern Rakhine State”, WFP, Situation Report no. 3, November 2016; “Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 12 December 2016; Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, December 2016; “Food provided to residents of Maungtaw”, GNLM, 21 November 2016, p. 3. Government permission for WFP to deliver a two-week supply of rations was granted following a government-led visit to the affected area by the UN Resident Coordinator and nine ambassadors on 2-3 November.Hide Footnote

Another common element of counter-insurgency operations in other parts of Myanmar is army establishment of local militias. Rakhine nationalists and Buddhist villagers in the north have long urged the government to arm the villagers, particularly since the 2012 violence, as they are greatly outnumbered by Muslims and fear for their security. This is particularly serious in the current context, because arming Buddhist villagers could lead the Muslim armed group, which has avoided attacking Buddhist civilians, to view them as combatant targets.

That would be a major escalation. Worryingly, the security forces have been contemplating the initiative. They have recruited some 120 local non-Muslims in what was initially presented to the Rakhine community and so likely interpreted by local Muslims as raising a BGP militia. The government has clarified that it is an accelerated BGP training program with loosened admission criteria, and trainees will be deployed as regular BGP.[fn]Militia call a shot in the arm for Rakhine armies”, Myanmar Times, 12 May 2014. “Myanmar police to arm and train non-Muslims in conflict-torn Rakhine region”, Reuters, 3 November 2016. “Myanmar's training for non-Muslim police stokes fear in Rakhine”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote But a significant risk remains of blurring lines between civilian villagers and security personnel, even if only in perception. One Rakhine armed group, the Arakan Liberation Army, has been attempting to increase its armed strength in the area to counter a perceived Muslim threat.[fn]Authorities seize cache of weapons and ammunition in Hpa-an bust”, The Irrawaddy, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The government denies allegations of human rights violations.[fn]See, for example, “False allegations on violating human rights exposed to the world”, GNLM, 3 November 2016, p. 1; “Local residents’ accounts differ from fabricated media stories”, GNLM, 7 November 2016, p. 1; “Military’s information team refutes fabrication about massive destruction in Rakhine”, GNLM, 15 November 2016, p. 3; “Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2o16, p. 1; “Reports of hundreds fleeing Myanmar being pushed back by Bangladesh said to be false” and “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote Lack of media and other independent access makes verification hard, but blanket denials, even of factual claims based on satellite imagery or international media reports from the ground of flight to Bangladesh, are not plausible and undermine the credibility of its other claims.[fn]Credible evidence that has been denied includes: “Satellite-based damage assessment of affected villages in Maungdaw District”, Human Rights Watch, 10 November 2016; an updated damage assessment, 18 November 2016; and “Hundreds of Rohingya flee Myanmar army crackdown to Bangladesh – sources”, Reuters, 18 November 2016.Hide Footnote Some counter-narratives clash with satellite data, for example that local Muslim villagers are torching their own homes to get international sympathy or that it is the armed group’s arson. Analysis of that data shows destruction of at least 1,500 buildings.[fn]Burma: Military burned villages in Rakhine State”, Human Rights Watch, 13 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Some villages were systematically destroyed over days, rather than isolated, geographically dispersed events as would be expected from individuals or small-group hit-and-run attacks. Moreover, much arson took place during military operations when many troops were present – not only at the time of attacks, but also over subsequent days. Troops also have security motivation (denial of access to villages in insecure areas is a standard counter-insurgency tactic, often achieved in the past in other parts of Myanmar by burning villages), while the armed group is reliant on at least some local civilian support.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Human Rights Watch staffer, November 2016. Selth, op. cit., p. 163.Hide Footnote

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working ‘hand in glove’ with the attackers.

Journalists questioning the official narrative have been accused in the state media of working “hand in glove” with the attackers. The government reportedly interceded with the Myanmar Times when one of its experienced foreign journalists reported on allegations of rapes by military personnel. She was fired shortly thereafter, and the paper’s owner put a moratorium on reporting on the Rakhine State conflict. An opinion piece in state media called the reporting “an act of gross unethical journalism” but added that “credit should be given to the media group for … immediately firing that journalist”.[fn]Fourth estate must abide by ‘code of ethics’: minister for information”, Myanmar Times, 9 November 2016. “Myanmar journalist says she was fired over story on military rape allegations”, The Guardian, 4 November 2016; “Reporter’s sacking followed MoI [Ministry of Information] phone call, sparking press freedom fears”, Frontier Myanmar, 4 November 2016. “Myanmar press under pressure as paper bans Rakhine reports”, Agence France-Presse, 8 November 2016. Khin Maung Myint, “Morality and ethics”, GNLM, 24 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote Such intimidation has a chilling effect on reporting by other journalists and publications. For example, a reporter from a prominent local English-language publication interviewed a member of the BGP who admitted burning down Muslim homes in the operations area but self-censored the account.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual with direct knowledge of the incident, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Potentially even more serious is that the repeated blanket government denials, widely disseminated via the state media in English and Burmese, reinforce a climate of impunity for troops that is particularly dangerous in a context of widespread negative sentiments toward the Muslim population at all levels of the military and in society as a whole. The state media has published disturbing opinion pieces, for example one that referred to the Rakhine State situation as caused by “detestable human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench”.[fn]A flea cannot make a whirl of dust, but …”, GNLM, 27 November 2016, p. 8.Hide Footnote

C. A Spiral of Violence

A further serious escalation on 12 November made clear that the attacks on security forces were not one-off and that the armed group was still operational despite a month of intensive military operations.

Government accounts and Crisis Group interviews with villagers, other local sources and members of the armed group paint a broadly consistent picture.[fn]A government account is given in “One officer, one soldier dead, several injured [as] fighting continuously erupts in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote At 6:45am, an army column clashed with some 60 members of the armed group in a valley near Pwint Hpyu Chaung village; one soldier died and several were wounded; six attackers were reportedly killed. There were several other skirmishes as the attackers retreated to Gwa Son village. When troops approached the village, the armed group shot at them. Several hundred villagers, armed with whatever they had to hand (knives and farming implements), supported the attackers, seemingly spontaneously. A lieutenant-colonel was shot dead, and the troops retreated, calling in air support from two attack helicopters with mounted machine guns.[fn]Government refutes rights group report on Rakhine”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p.1.Hide Footnote The helicopters allegedly fired indiscriminately, including at villagers fleeing across paddy fields; videos taken by villagers show several bodies in fields, including women and children.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The same day, there were at least two IED attacks on government forces in the area. A BGP convoy was struck as it crossed a bridge, then came under attack by armed combatants; the authorities report the attackers were repelled and that there were no casualties. In the second incident, an army column was struck by an IED, reportedly damaging a vehicle but without casualties.[fn]Violent armed attackers ambush convoy of border guards and government staffs, explode a bridge in Rakhine”, GNLM, 13 November 2016, p. 1. “Government troops attacked with improvised mines in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 14 November 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote The authorities have reported several other IED incidents and said that explosives/IEDs were also used tactically in the initial attack on the BGP headquarters.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst specialising on Rakhine State, Yangon, November 2016; also, for example, “IED discovered on village road in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 17 November 2016, p. 1.Hide Footnote

Following the 12 November clashes, the military considerably stepped up its operations. In addition to using attack helicopters in areas with many civilian non-combatants, ground troops became much more aggressive. Troops entered Gwa Son and surrounding villages on 13 November, shooting at villagers who fled. Videos taken by villagers show several charred bodies discovered the next day in the remains of a house, in circumstances that remain unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Arakan Project researcher, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote Many villages were also partially or completely destroyed by arson.

The impact of a “four cuts” operation on civilians is far greater in Maungdaw than in the mountains of the eastern border, where it has been used in the past. Those areas are sparsely populated, communities often have decades of conflict experience, well-developed coping mechanisms and generally better food security. Even there, the toll is heavy. But Maungdaw is densely populated predominantly lowland, communities have almost no experience of armed conflict, and there is pre-existing malnutrition and food insecurity well above critical emergency thresholds.[fn]According to UN 2015 data, the global acute malnutrition rate (measured in children under five) in Maungdaw is 19 per cent, by far the worst in Myanmar and well above the World Health Organisation’s emergency critical threshold of 15 per cent. See also “Myanmar aid curbs hit children in Muslim-majority region: U.N.”, Reuters, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote The population was already living on the edge; fear of conflict and abuses combined with a serious livelihoods shock – humanitarian support is almost completely blocked, and food imports from Bangladesh have been disrupted – have led many to flee across the border. At least 27,000 are known to have done so in recent weeks; it would not take much for this to become a mass exodus like 1978 (200,000) or 1991 (250,000).[fn]Asia and the Pacific: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot”, UNOCHA, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Violence and abuses are likely to boost support for the armed group. People pushed to desperation and anger, with no hope for the future, are more likely to embrace extremist responses, however counterproductive. With an armed militant group in place and ready to capitalise, the current security response is likely to drive a dangerous spiral of attacks, military responses and increased popular radicalisation. This would also seriously impact the Rakhine and Burman Buddhist communities’ security and livelihoods in northern Rakhine State, where they have long felt themselves an embattled and fearful minority.

V. The Armed Group and its Motivations

A. The Group and its Objectives

Crisis Group has interviewed six persons linked to the armed group: four members in northern Maungdaw and two outside Myanmar. Separate discussions with them, as well as others involved in chat groups on secure messaging applications and analysis of videos released by the group have revealed a partial picture of its origins, structure and objectives.

The group refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY, “Faith Movement” in Arabic). The government calls it Aqa Mul Mujahidin, a generic Arabic phrase meaning “communities of fighters” that it gleaned from interrogations of suspects. Prior to the attacks, even members and supporters at village level were not aware of the real name and referred to it by this generic phrase (and perhaps also “RSO”, which may be why the government claimed that old group’s involvement). After the 9 October attacks, Rohingya communities in Saudi Arabia, other Middle Eastern countries and Malaysia began to ask who carried them out. According to HaY, people associated with the RSO began to falsely claim responsibility and to collect donations on this basis from the Rohingya diaspora and large private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. This, they say, was what prompted the group to reveal its name, show some of its faces on camera and prove that it was on the ground.

The first video, circulated to Rohingya networks on 11 October and leaked on YouTube the next day, has the name Harakah al-Yaqin overlaid in Arabic script. In the second, uploaded to YouTube on 14 October, the group used this name and warned donors not to trust other groups claiming to be behind the attacks, saying that “some people tried to sell our movement and our community”, a reference to the RSO. Further videos were subsequently released, showing their continued actions in north Maungdaw and stating their demands.[fn]The first video is James MMT. “Islamic terrorist asked Rohingya to join them for jihad to Myanmar Burma Rakhine Arakan”. 12 October 2016. YouTube: Harlz Erdogan. “Rohginya mujahideen call for weapons”. 14 October 2016. YouTube. There have been nine so far, the latest filmed after the 12 November escalation and uploaded to YouTube 20 November.Hide Footnote

HaY was established and is overseen by a committee of some twenty senior leaders headquartered in Mecca, with at least one member based in Medina. All are Rohingya émigrés or have Rohingya heritage. They are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and possibly India. Some or all have visited Bangladesh and northern Rakhine State at different times in the last two years.

… the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise.

The main speaker in the videos is Ata Ullah (alias Ameer Abu Amar, and, within the armed group, Abu Amar Jununi, the name mentioned in a number of the videos); the government identifies him as Hafiz Tohar, presumably another alias. His father, a Muslim from northern Rakhine State, went to Karachi, where Ata Ullah was born. The family then moved to Saudi Arabia, and he grew up in Mecca, receiving a Madrassa education. This is consistent with the fact that on the videos he shows fluent command of both the Bengali dialect spoken in northern Rakhine State and Peninsular Arabic. He disappeared from Saudi Arabia in 2012 shortly after violence erupted in Rakhine State. Though not confirmed, there are indications he went to Pakistan and possibly elsewhere, and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare.[fn]In Arabic, Abu Amar Jununi means “mad father of Amar”, perhaps an indication his eldest son is named Amar. The government spells Hafiz Tohar as Havistoohar. It said he attended a six-month Taliban training course in Pakistan (government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3); In Crisis Group interviews, HaY members suggested he went from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and from there to other countries (possibly including Libya) for training, but no further details or confirmation were obtained.Hide Footnote Some twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia (separate from the leadership committee), including Ata Ullah, are leading operations on the ground. Like him, they are thought to have experience from other conflicts, possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Rohingya returned from the camps (official and informal) in Bangladesh before 9 October to join the group. A registered refugee from Nayapara camp in Bangladesh stood beside Ata Ullah in the first video; he disappeared from the camp the night of a 13 May attack on its guard post in which a commander was killed and eleven weapons stolen.[fn]Attackers kill guard at Bangladesh Rohingya refugee camp”, Agence France-Presse, 13 May 2016.Hide Footnote Since 9 October, several hundred young Rohingya men from Bangladesh have joined the fight. However, the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise. These are mostly led by young Islamic clerics (known as “Mullahs” or “Maulvis”) or scholars (“Hafiz”) from those villages.

Though it does not appear to have religious motivations, HaY has sought religious legitimacy for its attacks. At its prompting, senior Rohingya clerics and several foreign clerics have ruled that, given the persecution Muslim communities face in Rakhine State, the campaign against the security forces is legal in Islam, and anyone opposing it is in opposition to Islam. Fatwas (religious rulings) to this effect were apparently obtained shortly after 9 October in several countries with a significant Rohingya diaspora, including Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. These have significantly influenced many Muslim religious leaders in northern Rakhine State to endorse HaY despite earlier feeling violence to be  counterproductive. The group also has a senior Islamic scholar with it in Maungdaw, a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, Mufti Ziabur Rahman, who brings religious legitimacy to operations and has authority to issue fatwas.[fn]The foreign clerics are from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other places. The mufti is the main speaker in the third video and identifies himself: “Islamic terrorist Rohingya act like villagers”. 12 October 2016. YouTube.Hide Footnote

Information from members and analysis of its methods indicate that its approach and objective are not transnational jihadist terrorism.[fn]This report uses “international jihadist” to refer to groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and their affiliates. The Arabic root of “jihad” refers to striving in God’s service. Many Muslims find its use in the political violence context imprecise and offensive, reducing a complex religious concept, which over centuries has had many, often peaceful forms, to war-making. Even when used in the organised violence context, it can refer to insurgency and guerrilla war, not only terrorism. For the vast majority of Muslims, today’s “jihadists” pervert Islam’s tenets. But it is hard to escape the term. Groups such as al-Qaeda and IS self-identify as “jihadist”; and while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent “jihadist” ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this; ideologues borrow from other traditions and at times show frustration with Salafi doctrinal rigidity that could constrain fighting tactics. Though big differences exist, “jihadist” groups share some tenets: fighting to return society to a purer Islam; violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives as they understand them; and belief in duty to use violence if Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. This report’s use of “jihadist” is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations. It uses “terrorism” and “terrorist” only to describe non-state actors’ attempt to use violence or intimidation, especially of civilians, to achieve political goals by manipulating fear. See Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote It has only attacked security forces (and perceived threats in its own community), not religious targets, Buddhist villagers or civilians and family members at the BGP bases it hit on 9 October. It has called for jihad in some videos, but there are no indications this means terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the attacks, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Unlike all previous such insurgent groups (see above) and for unclear reasons, it does not include “Rohingya” in its name. Its stated aim is not to impose Sharia (Islamic law), but rather to stop persecution of Rohingya and secure their rights and greater autonomy as Myanmar citizens, notwithstanding that its approach is likely to harden attitudes in the country and seriously set back those goals. It is possible, however, that its objectives could evolve, given its appeals to religious legitimacy and links to international jihadist groups, so it is essential that government efforts do not focus only or primarily on military approaches, but also address underlying community grievances and suffering.

HaY’s modus operandi is similar to the now-defunct RSO as well as many ethnic armed groups in Myanmar – but it faces much greater hurdles than the latter given rejection of Rohingya identity by the government and most of the country. Though the government has claimed close links with RSO, it is a distinct group that is more a reaction to perceived RSO failures than an evolution of that group (see Section IV.C below) – hence Ata Ullah’s RSO criticism in the second video. As the RSO has become something of a brand associated with Rohingya militancy by both Muslims and the authorities, it is not surprising that the government has identified the attackers as linked to it.[fn]Government press release, Naypyitaw, 14 October 2016, reproduced in GNLM, 15 October 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote But institutional ties do not appear to exist, though there are some efforts to recruit around 200 Rohingya in Bangladesh trained since 2012 by an ex-RSO military commander, but never deployed due to lack of an organisational structure that HaY may potentially now offer.[fn]There is also information that some former RSO members acting on their own have been providing very basic training to Rohingya refugees interested in joining HaY. This started only after the first attacks. All indications are it is not linked institutionally to either the RSO or HaY. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh), November 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Communications and Social Media Environment

Much of HaY’s communications and planning was over encrypted messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Viber, as well as WeChat (which does not have end-to-end encryption).[fn]Crisis Group observation of Rohingya WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. On Viber use, see “Sender of fake news in Rakhine linked to int’l extremist groups”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, pp. 1, 3. A Myanmar Muslim has been warning members of the diplomatic and aid communities about the use of WeChat to promote extremism in the country since the 9 October attacks. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Yangon, October 2016.Hide Footnote Use of these has become widespread across Myanmar over the last few years, as mobile voice and data connectivity have been rolled out along with $20 smartphones (people close to the border have had access to these opportunities for much longer, by connecting to Bangladeshi networks). Myanmar is one of the only countries where Viber is the dominant messaging app: the company claims 25 million unique users as of October 2016, out of a 51.5 million population. Such tools have significantly lowered communication and organisation barriers for communities in northern Rakhine State, something that the draconian movement restrictions in place for decades can no longer prevent.[fn]Buddhist nationalists also use messaging applications to organise and disseminate views; Viber has long been their preferred application, but recently WhatsApp has been gaining popularity. Crisis Group interview, technology industry source, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The preferred messaging app among Rohingya is WhatsApp. This is probably due to its much greater popularity internationally and the fact that Rohingya use these apps to keep in touch with family overseas and the diaspora more generally. Crisis Group identified more than 50 WhatsApp groups in use in northern Rakhine State, each with as many as 250 members, and including diaspora Rohingya around the world. These are mainly used for social interaction and information sharing, not nefarious purposes. Some individuals are members of ten to twenty WhatsApp groups and can also easily share information from group chats with their individual contacts. In the wake of the 9 October attacks, these have been used to quickly disseminate information about security threats and other urgent issues. They are likely also an important source of HaY operational intelligence.

Since the Rohingya dialect of Bengali does not have a written form, much of the communication over these applications uses audio files or voice messages.

C. Planning and Operational Strategy for the Attacks

Crisis Group interviews with HaY members and other well-informed sources in Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Middle East, cross-referenced with additional information, including Myanmar government reports based on interrogations of captured HaY and from regional diplomats and security analysts, have revealed a fairly detailed picture of the planning and operational strategy behind the attacks.

HaY’s formation and planning for operations were initiated in the wake of the 2012 violence. Active recruitment of local leaders began in 2013, then training of hundreds of villagers they recruited, mainly from Maungdaw township, since 2014, initially in Bangladesh and then more intensively in northern Rakhine State. Training was in small batches to avoid attention, a village at a time, so members would not know the identities of other trainees, and primarily in the hills of the Mayu range along the border of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, as well as possibly in the compounds of some large houses in villages. It included weapons use, guerrilla tactics and, HaY members and trainees report, a particular focus on explosives and IEDs. It was given by Rohingya veterans and Pakistanis or Afghans with experience of recent operations in those countries and possibly elsewhere and took more than two years to complete.[fn]For a map with village tracts in Maungdaw township, see “Village Tracts of Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State”, Myanmar Information Management Unit, 22 November 2011. Some RSO veterans have explosives expertise, from training by Bangladeshi militants in the early 2000s in an exchange program. Crisis Group Report, The Threat from Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

During this period, the group apparently killed several informers among the Muslim villages of north and south Maungdaw and others they feared might reveal their plans. It also paid significant hush money to potential informers. Following the training, two Saudi-based senior leaders spent a month in northern Rakhine State, around August 2016, selecting targets and determining how and when the attacks would take place.[fn]A different source claims that only one of the men was a Rohingya from Saudi Arabia, and the other was a foreigner.Hide Footnote Once they left, the intention was to obtain weapons and ammunition for the hundreds of trainees. Plans were also made to deploy at least four experienced doctors with medicines and supplies and to train locals as medics to assist them. From roughly late August, there was an increase in the killing of known informers within the Rohingya community.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights monitor, Bangladesh, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The claimed objective of the operation was to take complete control of Maungdaw township, cut off communications with Buthidaung to the east and establish military posts on the ridges of the Mayu range between Maungdaw and Buthidaung, creating a defendable liberated area in the same manner as the larger ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s eastern borderlands. After this, the intent was to attack the northern part of Buthidaung – a very ambitious plan that would give complete control of the Bangladesh border – as well as parts of Rathedaung.

Now that it [HaY] has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints.

This plan had to be changed. In early September, after the two senior leaders left, two informers in U Shey Kya village-tract, close to Nga Khu Ya where one of the 9 October attacks occurred, revealed the identities of eight local HaY members to the BGP, which arrested them on 12 September. They were interrogated and allegedly tortured (including electric shocks and denailing). HaY arranged a bribe to the BGP of 3 million kyat (about $2,300), and five were released on 16 September. The remaining three were freed on 28 September, after a bribe of more than 40 million kyat (over $30,000).[fn]This is the highest known bribe ever paid to the BGP to release a detainee. Crisis Group interviews, local researcher, well-informed locals, Maungdaw, September-November 2016.Hide Footnote On 30 September, HaY reportedly killed the two informants, leading to BGP night raids and arrests in the area that prompted several families to flee to Bangladesh. The authorities subsequently began large payments to informers in north Maungdaw to draw up lists of villagers in their area engaged in illegal activity, some of whom fled.

Additionally, local people say, an IED that accidentally exploded in Ngar Sar Kyu village-tract around 7 October while it was being prepared drew the attention of the security forces. According to members of the group, HaY saw that the net was closing and decided that though its preparations were not yet complete, it had to make an emergency plan and launch its operation on 9 October, ahead of schedule.

Though done hastily, the attacks showed some sophistication, including diversionary tactics; blocking reinforcements with a complex attack (IEDs plus armed assault) on a convoy some distance away; and felling of trees across roads to halt military vehicles. It is unclear where the explosives came from, but a foreign expert described the IEDs as crude but not completely amateurish.[fn]Crisis Group interview, individual briefed on the matter, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The group was able to organise widely, pay numerous potential informers in northern Rakhine State prior to the attacks to keep them quiet and large bribes to the security forces to free detained militants. Now that it has established its legitimacy and capability with attacks, it is unlikely to face funding constraints. It seems to be receiving funds from the Rohingya diaspora and major private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the group and sources in the Rohingya diaspora, October-November 2016.Hide Footnote It may also attract the attention of international groups interested in more than funding (see Section IV.E below).

D. Level of Local Support

It would not have been possible for HaY to establish itself and make detailed preparations without the buy-in of some local, particularly religious leaders and local communities in northern Rakhine State. Yet, this has never been a radicalised population; that some now embrace violence reflects deep policy failures over many years.

The community follows a conservative Islam, but not in general a radicalised one, and even as people saw their rights, livelihoods and hopes eroded, the vast majority of religious leaders and the population as a whole continued to eschew violence, which they considered likely to prompt further discrimination and undermine the objective of achieving recognition and rights within Myanmar. But in the wake of the 2012 violence, a segment of the population began more active consideration of organised violent responses. While a minority view, it was driven by influential individuals, including some of the younger generation of religious leaders in northern Rakhine State, who began to break with the views of community elders and older clerics. It was these people and their followers who started the organisational and training activities on the ground that were well under way by mid-2014.[fn]See Crisis Group report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A.Hide Footnote

With the 9 October attacks, views began to shift. Initially, there were intense debates within the community, which played out on WhatsApp group chats. Some felt they were “dying slowly day by day”, and that after years of desperation and hopelessness, someone was standing up for them.[fn]The group chats were monitored by Crisis Group researchers since mid-2016. Crisis Group interview, villager in Maungdaw, October 2016.Hide Footnote But there was considerable criticism of the group in WhatsApp for not consulting or warning the community before the attacks and not considering the very serious consequences. It appears to have been the issuance of fatwas shortly after the attacks that was decisive in convincing many throughout Maungdaw to support HaY’s approach.

Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

HaY leaders also seem to have been effective in this regard. The local commanders, about twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia including Ata Ullah, had been working on the ground with the trainees and local leaders for a long time, living with local people unlike the leaders of Rohingya armed groups in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, villagers in several villages in north and south Maungdaw, recent arrivals in Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh) and observation of discussions on WhatsApp groups, October-November 2016. These are not the same twenty as the approximately twenty-member leadership committee based in Mecca, mentioned in Section IV.A above.Hide Footnote Several village leaders who have observed the activities of HaY’s leaders say they were impressed by their dedication, sincerity and strong commitment to their cause; as a result, they gained increasing trust and support from villagers. Following the success of the attacks, some youths take the view that the group has achieved what their fathers and grandfathers could not.

An important part of HaY’s success, local community members say, is that these twenty or so leaders had good, secure lives in Saudi Arabia, the dream of many Rohingya, but were seen to have sacrificed comfort and prosperity to live beside impoverished villagers, without wearing shoes or good clothes and eating the same meagre food. That persons with so many other options were willing to take such risks convinced many locals the group was sincere and committed. This overcame doubts about joining or supporting an armed insurgency. Now, after two rounds of attacks and a brutal security response, it appears that a sizeable proportion of the area’s Muslim population and the diaspora support or are sympathetic to HaY, even if the ferocity of the military’s response causes some to flee.

At the same time, HaY also relied on threats and intimidation to ensure its survival. It has killed some suspected informers and drawn up a hit list of others. In addition to the killings in the lead up to the 9 October attacks, a Muslim man who used to work as a BGP cook was abducted by fellow villagers in Laungdon village-tract and found in a paddy field on 31 October with his throat cut; on 3 November, a former U Shey Kya village administrator was similarly found dead, as was a 100-household leader in south Maungdaw on 17 November.[fn]Arakan Project, internal note no. 2, op. cit.; “54-year old man found dead in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 6 November 2016, p. 2; and “Elder village leader murdered in Maungtaw”, GNLM, 19 November 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote These killings were done in the same gruesome way, presumably to inspire fear, while there have been no attacks on Buddhist civilians.

E. Links with International Jihadist Groups

There is some limited information on links between HaY and international jihadist groups. It is not surprising that such links exist, given the recruitment over several decades of vulnerable and marginalised Rohingya refugees and migrants by militant groups, initially mostly in Bangladesh, for deployment there and elsewhere.[fn]For example, it is known that Muslims from Myanmar were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, 1999-2001, Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A; that Rohingya fighters have been operating, and one was killed, in Indian Kashmir, “Killing of Burmese militant ups ante of intelligence agencies”, The Tribune, 13 November 2015; and that there is information ISIS has been recruiting among the Rohingya diaspora for Iraq and Syria, “ISIS look to recruit Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar”, Newsweek, 6 February 2015.Hide Footnote However, HaY’s public statements and modus operandi, as well as interviews with its members, all point to this being an insurgent group targeting Myanmar security forces and aiming – albeit in a way likely to be counterproductive – to obtain rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar, along the lines of previous mujahidin groups in Myanmar (see Section II above).

With that important caveat, the information on connections with international groups is as follows. First, members of HaY say Ata Ullah and the non-local fighters with him are well trained and experienced in guerrilla warfare; their tactics and operational success appear to confirm this, particularly their use of asymmetric methods and weapons such as IEDs, albeit crude ones. Such training and experience imply at least some links with international extremist groups. HaY members confirm that their leaders are well connected in Bangladesh, Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, India; the Myanmar government says its interrogations reveal that training was provided in Bangladesh and Pakistan. HaY recruits have also been instructed in Rakhine State by both Rohingya and Pakistani or Afghan trainers, according to members of the group and local people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and Myanmar government press release, 14 October 2016, op. cit. There are unconfirmed indications that the group may have a leader in Syria. Based on the profiles of other leaders and their connections, if this is true it might be a Rohingya fighter with a jihadist group rather than implying non-Rohingya leadership. Others have noted the raised index finger gesture, commonly associated with IS, displayed by Ata Ullah and some other fighters in several videos; however, this is a common gesture in South Asia and does not in itself imply any such links. See Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Conflict: Foreign Jihadi Brewing”, RSIS Commentary no. 259, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Secondly, the Rohingya cause has been used propagandistically by international jihadist groups for several years. Examples include threats against Myanmar by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (2012); calls by an Indonesian extremist leader for Muslims to wage jihad in Myanmar (2013); threats by the IS leader to take revenge on Myanmar and several other countries for abuses against their Muslims; promises to rescue Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere from “injustice and oppression” in the formation announcement of “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”; frequent citations in speeches as recently as 2015 by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, to the “atrocities on Rohingya Muslims” and calls for revenge; offers of resources and training facilities by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in June 2015 to help Myanmar Muslims “take up the sword”; and a call in the April 2016 issue of IS’s Dabiq magazine by Bangladeshi militant Abu Ibrahim to help oppressed Muslims in Myanmar in every possible way, but stating that it was not a current operational focus.[fn]Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan threaten Myanmar over Rohingya”, Agence France-Presse, 26 July 2012; a 23 April 2013 call by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir from his prison cell in Indonesia, mentioned in Crisis Group interview, security analyst, Jakarta, July 2014; “ISIS leader calls on Muslims to ‘build Islamic state’”, BBC, 1 July 2014; “Pakistani terror group active on Myanmar-Bangladesh border”, Mizzima News, 28 July 2015; “Pakistani Taliban attempts to recruit Rohingyas to kill Myanmar's rulers”, Agence France-Presse, 9 June 2015; and Dabiq Magazine (English edition), issue 14, April 2016, p. 62.Hide Footnote

Beyond these statements of solidarity and calls for support, there has been little evidence that Myanmar is an operational priority for such groups. There appear to be some other forms of cooperation or assistance, including training (discussed above) and funding, as well, potentially, as provision of weapons and explosives, which HaY currently seeks in Bangladesh. According to security analysts, small arms and military-grade explosives are available there, and procuring them should not be too difficult if the group has connections with regional arms traffickers or Bangladeshi or regional militant entities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, HaY members, November 2016; security analysts, Yangon, Dhaka, November 2016. Illegal shipments of small arms are regularly intercepted in Bangladesh; their use in domestic crimes has increased markedly in recent years. “Use of illegal firearms on rise”, Dhaka Tribune, 13 November 2016; and “New JMB planned big attack for Dhaka”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote There are no indications of any significant presence of non-Rohingya fighters.[fn]There is unconfirmed information from a credible source that about a dozen Patani Malays went to Maungdaw before 9 October to fight with HaY, apparently in solidarity and on their own initiative. Crisis Group correspondence, analyst, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Such links appear driven by umma (Islamic community) solidarity and do not imply convergence between HaY and international jihadist groups on ideology, strategy or tactics. HaY’s objectives and tactics and its focus on security targets suggest that it is Rohingya rather than transnationally focused. It is necessary to be careful not to over-interpret the significance of the international links noted above or leave unchallenged efforts by some Myanmar officials, politicians and other leaders to portray HaY as part of the global jihadist movement. Nevertheless, the longer violence continues, the greater the risks become of such links deepening and potentially becoming operational.

Recent minor explosions in Yangon do not appear directly linked to Rakhine State. Crude homemade devices were set off on 17, 20, 24 and 26 November at two shopping centres and two immigration offices, one inside the fairly secure regional government office. There were no casualties, only minor damage. The location of the devices in bins and toilets and the timing of blasts (after work hours or on public holidays) appeared designed to avoid casualties. Police arrested several suspects said to be Muslims on 26 November, but no further details have been released.[fn]Mayangone bomb intended to scare, not hurt, say police”, Frontier Myanmar, 21 November 2016; “Myanmar police arrest Muslims over Yangon bombings”, Agence France-Presse, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote Targeting of immigration offices, which are also responsible for citizenship verification, suggests a possible link to the Rakhine situation. If so, however, it more plausibly was an unsolicited expression of solidarity or anger at the security response than a direct attack, which might be expected to have been more dramatic. However, it does perhaps indicate existence of individuals with an intent and capability to access (semi-)secure locations that potentially could be utilised by those with the technical expertise and materials for a major attack.

VI. How Should the Government Respond?

Emergence of a new Muslim armed group in Rakhine State is a serious threat to prospects for stability and development there. The government faces a big challenge in calibrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and intercommunal tensions are not inflamed. It also requires taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section IV. See also Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments in “Focus on resolving difficulties in Rakhine rather than exaggerating them, says Suu Kyi”, Channel NewsAsia, 2 December 2016. As regards the risk of intercommunal violence, monitors report a significant increase in hate speech posts after 9 October and their spread to pages and networks where that had not previously been observed. Crisis Group interview, Yangon, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Failure to get this right carries enormous risks, so it is important that any response starts from an appreciation of why a violent reaction from some in the Muslim population of Rakhine State has emerged now. For many years, this population has seen its rights eroded and its progressive marginalisation from social and political life. This became particularly acute at the time of the 2012 anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine. In the wake of that violence, and seeing no likelihood of improvement, some Rohingya in northern Rakhine State and the diaspora began contemplating taking up arms and made initial preparations to launch a new insurgency (see Section IV.C above). A leader of this initiative with whom Crisis Group met in Bangladesh in 2014 described the group’s plans and made clear the objective was for the community to live as Myanmar citizens with rights respected by the state, and was not separatist, anti-Buddhist or transnational jihadist.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics of Rakhine State, op. cit., Section VI.A. At the time, he described the group as a “new RSO”, with a generation of younger leaders based in Rakhine State. It is now clear that he was describing HaY.Hide Footnote

Three key developments in 2015 are likely to have cemented the group’s resolve to launch an insurgency and created a much more fertile recruiting ground for it: disenfranchisement of Muslim voters, lack of hope of a political solution and the shutting down of migration routes to Malaysia (see Section III above). The authorities have a responsibility to respond to the deadly attacks on BGP bases. At the same time, an effective security response must be set within an overarching policy that addresses the sense of hopelessness of Muslims in Rakhine State. This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive. While increasing despair has driven more to consider violence, it is not too late for the government to reverse this if it recognises that the population has lived in the area for generations and will continue to do so and resolves to give them a place in the nation’s life.

This is not yet a radicalised population; community members, elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive.

All indications are that HaY is preparing further attacks on security forces and retains the capability to do so. Heavy-handed security measures would directly contradict the above objectives, likely creating more despair and animosity among local Muslims, increasing support for HaY and provoking a deepening cycle of violence. There is likewise a very real prospect of even larger population displacements to Bangladesh. In this respect, it is also vital to open up the conflict-affected part of north Maungdaw for aid workers and independent media.

Experience from other countries strongly suggests an aggressive military response not embedded in a broader policy framework would also be ineffective against the armed group and risk greater attention from international jihadist groups.[fn]For experiences elsewhere, see, for example, Crisis Group Europe & Central Asia Briefing N°77, A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks, 17 December 2015; Middle East & North Africa Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009; and Special Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., Section V.A.Hide Footnote The presence of a well-organised, effective, internationally connected insurgency in Rakhine State could then provide channels that did not previously exist for terrorism. This does not appear to be the HaY’s objective, but the situation could give international jihadists opportunities to insert their own agendas, for example by recruiting Rohingya (particularly in Bangladesh) to carry out such actions on Myanmar soil, or attracting foreign fighters, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent who could blend in easily, to do so.

It is also possible that the spotlight on the Rohingya’s plight might prompt foreign groups unconnected with HaY to conduct a terrorist attack; there has been a foiled attempt to bomb Myanmar’s Jakarta embassy, and the individual who carried out the recent attack at Ohio State University in the U.S. claimed to have been inspired at least in part by oppression of the Rohingya.[fn]See “Indonesia foil plan to attack embassy”, Agence France-Presse, 27 November 2016; “‘I can’t take it anymore’: Ohio State attacker said abuses of Burma’s Muslims led to ‘boiling point’”, The Washington Post, 29 November 2016.Hide Footnote To mitigate these risks requires political, not military responses: building stronger, more positive ties between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state and improving cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional countries.

Such cooperation is essential to ensure security and effectively address potential transnational jihadist threats. On the western border in particular, arms, narcotics and human smuggling networks are intertwined and could be used by insurgent and jihadist groups to transport weapons, materiel and personnel. The current security operation has strained relations with countries that have large Muslim populations and with which there are practical needs for close ties. There have been big protest demonstrations in Bangladesh (including by Islamist parties) as well as in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and Indonesia. Deep concerns have been expressed by the Bangladeshi and Malaysian governments. Western countries are also alarmed at the Rakhine State situation and the lacklustre government response.[fn]Malaysia to summon Burmese ambassador as protests mount over treatment of Rohingya”, Reuters, 25 November 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis stirs regional protests”, Nikkei Asian Review, 26 November 2016; “Malaysia says Myanmar violence against Muslim Rohingya ‘ethnic cleansing’”, Reuters, 2 December 2016; “Myanmar’s Rohingya issue a ‘humanitarian crisis’: Malaysia”, Channel NewsAsia, 3 December 2016; “Malaysian PM urges intervention to stop ‘genocide’ of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims” Reuters, 4 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Yangon, December 2016. “Regional criticism of Myanmar's Rohingya policy risks ASEAN split”, Nikkei Asian Review, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State.

In the Malaysian case, this became a public spat after Prime Minister Najib Razak indicated he would join a major protest in Kuala Lumpur. Myanmar accused him of violating ASEAN non-interference principles and using the issue for domestic politics; Malaysia retorted that Myanmar was pursuing “ethnic cleansing” and destabilising South East Asia. At the 4 December demonstration, Najib called for international intervention to stop “genocide”, directly criticised Suu Kyi and said “enough is enough”.

While this was seen in many quarters as having a primarily domestic political objective for Najib, the anger against Myanmar in much of the Muslim world is real. ASEAN, in particular Indonesia, has a potentially important role in helping to de-escalate the situation. This would be of great benefit to Myanmar; it would also be in the interests of ASEAN, which has long carried the burden of large numbers of Rohingya refugees and migrants, a flow that will increase if the violence continues and lead to radicalisation risks for the region. There is also fear that the issue could be destabilising for ASEAN as a whole.[fn]Surin Pitsuwan, “Asia’s moral duty to the Rohingya”, The Wall Street Journal, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote In response to regional concerns, Myanmar has called a special retreat for ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon on 19 December, so Aung San Suu Kyi can brief them on the situation.[fn]Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Myanmar to brief ASEAN amid alarm over Rakhine”, Nikkei Asian Review, 12 December 2016.Hide Footnote Myanmar should use this opportunity to set out a credible political strategy for addressing the violence.

Suu Kyi’s flagship initiative for addressing the situation, the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission established in August, faces major further challenges after the 9 October attacks.[fn]Press release, Office of the State Counsellor, reproduced in GNLM, 24 August 2016, pp. 1, 3.Hide Footnote Political space has considerably narrowed for policy responses to the underlying issues of discrimination, citizenship and freedom of movement of Muslims in Rakhine State. The commission lacks the composition, expert staff and mandate to address the current crisis. On 1 December, the government announced another (national) commission to investigate the attacks and security forces’ response and consider measures to prevent new incidents. It is chaired by the military’s pick for vice president, Myint Swe, a retired army lieutenant-general and former military intelligence chief, widely regarded as a hardliner. That its membership is mainly serving or retired government officials suggests it is unlikely to challenge or contradict government and military narratives.[fn]Formation of Investigation Commission”, President’s Office, notification 89/2016, 1 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and observers, Yangon, December 2016.Hide Footnote How it will work or liaise with the Annan commission is unclear.

VII. Conclusion

The violent attacks on BGP bases on 9 October 2016, and further clashes in the next days and on 12 November, when a senior army officer was killed, represent the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency in northern Rakhine State. The HaY group is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and commanded on the ground by other Rohingya, who have international training and experience in modern guerrilla tactics, the legitimacy of supportive local and international fatwas and considerable sympathy and backing from the local Muslim population, including several hundred locally trained recruits.

The emergence of this organised, well-funded group is a game changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address Rakhine State’s complex challenges, including longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population, with denial of rights and citizenship status. The government’s response to the attacks – injudicious use of military force that fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians, denial of humanitarian aid to an extremely vulnerable population and lack of an overarching political strategy that offers it some hope – is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence.

Though there are indications of some training and support links, HaY does not appear to have a transnational jihadist or terrorist agenda. If the government mishandles the situation, however, including by continued use of disproportionate military force that has driven thousands across the border to Bangladesh, it could create conditions for radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that jihadist groups might exploit for their own agendas. To avoid that risk requires a moderated military response, well-crafted political strategy and closer cooperation and intelligence sharing with Myanmar’s neighbours and the ASEAN bloc.

Yangon/Brussels, 15 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Myanmar

Crisis Group. Based on UN map 4168, rev. 3, June 2012.
With a population of over 630000, Kutupalong “megacamp”, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, is today the largest refugee camp in the world. CRISISGROUP
Report 303 / Asia

A Sustainable Policy for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees who have little hope of going home any time soon. The government should move to improve camp living conditions, in particular by lifting the education ban and fighting crime. Donors should support such steps. 

What’s new? Two years after atrocities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State drove a wave of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, prospects for repatriation remain dim. Frustrated Bangladeshi authorities refuse to plan for the long term, have introduced stringent security measures at refugee camps, and may move some refugees to a remote island, Bhasan Char.

Why did it happen? The Bangladeshi government is struggling with growing security challenges near the refugee camps and domestic political pressure to resolve the crisis. It is also irritated by the lack of progress in repatriating any of the estimated one million Rohingya refugees on its soil.

Why does it matter? Dhaka’s restrictions on aid activities prohibit its partners from building safe housing in the Rohingya camps or developing programs that cultivate refugee self-reliance. Combined with heavy-handed security measures, this approach risks alienating refugees and setting the stage for greater insecurity and conflict in southern Bangladesh.

What should be done? While pressing for eventual repatriation, Bangladesh and external partners should move past short-term planning and work together to build safe housing, improve refugees’ educational and livelihood opportunities, and support refugee-hosting communities. Dhaka should also roll back its counterproductive security measures and plans for relocations to Bhasan Char.

Executive Summary

Bangladesh is host to roughly one million Rohingya refugees, most of whom fled over the border following a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State that began in August 2017. While generously providing safe haven to this enormous population, Bangladesh has sought to treat the displacement crisis as a short-term challenge, focusing on the importance of repatriation and refusing to engage in multi-year planning. This approach has not succeeded. Repatriation efforts have stalled, crime and violence in the Rohingya camps and around them in southern Bangladesh appear to be on the rise, and Dhaka has reacted increasingly sharply. In August, it began rolling out stringent restrictions on refugees and NGOs that are interfering with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the camps and alienating refugees, thus potentially aggravating local insecurity. Bangladesh should reverse the counterproductive measures it has imposed, publicly acknowledge the long-term nature of the crisis it is facing and begin working with external partners and refugees to mobilise the resources needed to meet it.

In late 2017, after the number of Rohingya refugees crossing the border began to diminish, Bangladesh and Myanmar moved quickly to put in place a repatriation mechanism, but so far no refugees have returned through these formal channels. Myanmar appears unwilling to create the conditions needed to encourage refugees to return, while Bangladesh and its foreign partners generally appear to lack the leverage to push Myanmar to address key issues such as citizenship and security for the Rohingya. China, Naypyitaw’s most important regional partner, appears reluctant to throw its full weight behind this push, and even if it did, it is unclear whether its weight would be sufficient.

The country’s policy toward the Rohingya remains focused on near-term repatriation.

Although Bangladeshi officials privately acknowledge that the refugees are unlikely to return in the near or even medium term, the country’s policy toward the Rohingya remains focused on near-term repatriation. Dhaka worries that by publicly acknowledging that Bangladesh will be hosting these refugees for years to come, it will reduce pressure on Myanmar to make the changes needed to enable repatriation, and could create a pull factor that draws yet more Rohingya over the border. As a result, it is restricting the humanitarian response to meeting the refugees’ immediate needs, rather than addressing long-term challenges such as building durable shelters to withstand the region’s harsh monsoons, developing programs to help refugees become more self-reliant through education and the creation of livelihood opportunities, or helping host communities absorb the impact of the refugees on the local economy. These are the kinds of programs and resources that will over time become increasingly important to Dhaka’s successful management of the crisis.

Recently, Bangladesh has begun moving in the opposite direction by clamping down on refugees and humanitarian activities. In August – amid rising concern about insecurity in southern Bangladesh – Dhaka began rolling out new restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement and access to mobile phones, as well as on NGO operations in the camps. It has begun fencing some of the camps and says it will build watchtowers and instal surveillance cameras. Although plans are not firm, it has also announced that it will press ahead with relocating some refugees to a silt island in the Bay of Bengal that is vulnerable to severe weather.

Dhaka’s response to the Rohingya displacement crisis is at an inflection point. If the Bangladeshi government continues to look at the situation through a short-term lens and falls into a pattern of heavy-handed responses to security challenges, the situation could become more fraught and dangerous for all concerned. In the absence of prospects for repatriation and longer-term planning, such a crackdown will only increase the refugees’ desperation. It could even make them more susceptible to recruitment into criminal or extremist networks, which would add to the security challenges Bangladesh faces.

There is another way forward. Rather than implementing the full suite of security measures it has proposed, it could scale back the most draconian, and instead focus on promoting genuine camp security by increasing a law enforcement presence and ensuring accountability for offenders. Rather than treating the Rohingya displacement crisis as a year-to-year problem, it could shift to a longer-term perspective and loosen restrictions on the activities that donors and humanitarian partners can undertake. Working together, Dhaka and its partners could mobilise resources and develop programs to build safer facilities, help refugees work toward a better future through education and livelihood opportunities, and support host communities. For their part, external partners can make clear to Bangladesh that if it makes this pivot, they will both continue to press Myanmar on repatriation – an essential goal that Dhaka’s domestic constituents want to continue seeing at the top of the agenda – and provide the funding and resources required to allow this approach to succeed.

Whether or not Dhaka publicly acknowledges it, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are likely to remain in Bangladesh for years to come. While the Bangladeshi government must consider the political implications of expressly recognising this probability, it should also consider the practical implications of failing to do so. The most promising path for responsibly managing the Rohingya displacement crisis requires the government to shift its sights to planning for the long term and looking to external partners for support in making those plans succeed. That is the path it should now take.

Yangon/Brussels, 27 December 2019

Kutupalong “megacamp”, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, is today the largest refugee camp in the world. CRISISGROUP

I. Introduction

For the past four decades, Bangladesh has provided safe haven for Muslim Rohingya facing violence and persecution in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State. In 1978, around 200,000 Rohingya civilians crossed into Bangladesh to escape a violent Myanmar government operation aimed at rooting out illegal immigrants. In the early 1990s, roughly a quarter-million refugees arrived in Bangladesh after the Myanmar military unleashed another wave of abuses. Most of the Rohingya who left Rakhine State during these episodes eventually went home, though some stayed behind in the country that gave them shelter.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote

The number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh increased dramatically after late August 2017, when Myanmar security forces embarked on a campaign of terror in response to attacks by a militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), on Border Guard Police posts. In the space of several months nearly 750,000 Rohingya fled over the border, joining those who had sought refuge there during previous crises. Bangladesh’s southern Cox’s Bazar district now hosts around one million Rohingya, some 600,000 of whom live in the Kutupalong “mega-camp”, the largest refugee settlement in the world.[fn]Only 34,000 of these people are officially registered as refugees with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Bangladesh, which is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refers to the rest as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals”. This report, along with most international actors, such as the UN, uses the term refugees.Hide Footnote Hosting a refugee population of this size would be an extraordinary burden for any country, but for a developing country like Bangladesh that has faced periodic political instability and conflict – including a two-decade insurgency in the Chittagong Hills Tracts region at the end of the last century – the strain is especially pronounced.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladeshi government and UN officials, Dhaka and Yangon, June and August 2019.Hide Footnote

This report looks at the Bangladeshi government’s efforts to grapple with this new and greatly expanded Rohingya refugee crisis. In any such crisis, repatriation is the first and preferred option – but, for reasons laid out here, the current cohort of Rohingya refugees is unlikely to return to Myanmar any time soon. The report therefore suggests some ways in which the government can improve its crisis response in order to sustainably accommodate large numbers of Rohingya for some years to come. It builds upon earlier Crisis Group reports and briefings published since the Rohingya’s mass flight around August 2017.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; Crisis Group Asia Report N°296, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 16 May 2018; and Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°155, Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, 25 April 2019.Hide Footnote It is based upon fieldwork in Bangladesh and Myanmar, including interviews with refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps, UN and non-governmental organisation officials, donors and diplomats, Bangladeshi and Myanmar government officials, and independent experts.

II. Stalled Repatriation, Rising Frustration, New Restrictions

A. The Displacement Crisis Drags On

During the refugee crises of the 1970s and 1990s, the Bangladeshi government provided sanctuary to Rohingya fleeing military operations in northern Rakhine State. In both instances the majority of refugees returned home within a few years, but this is unlikely to be the case for the present crisis, which also involves significantly larger numbers of people. In past decades, Bangladesh’s response to successive inflows of Rohingya refugees has been to focus almost exclusively on repatriation. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya returned to Rakhine State following forced migrations in 1978 and the early 1990s, and Dhaka hoped in 2017 that it could broker a mass return once more. As soon as the number of new arrivals began to subside that October, Bangladesh opened formal negotiations with Myanmar on a process for repatriation. The following month, the neighbours signed a memorandum of understanding, and in December 2017, they set up a Joint Working Group to coordinate repatriation in what both sides committed would be a safe, voluntary and dignified manner.[fn]“Myanmar signs pact with Bangladesh over Rohingya repatriation”, The Guardian, 23 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The majority of refugees are reluctant to return to Myanmar until the authorities remedy the institutionalised discrimination and systemic persecution that underpins recurrent violence toward the Rohingya.

The two countries have made little progress since then, however. Two attempts at repatriation, in November 2018 and August 2019, ended without a single refugee who had been cleared return agreeing to go back. The problem is the conditions back home. Although the majority of refugees express their wish to repatriate, they are reluctant to return to Myanmar until the authorities remedy the institutionalised discrimination and systemic persecution that underpins recurrent violence toward the Rohingya and that Rohingya who remain in Myanmar continue to face. Rohingya leaders have drawn up a set of prerequisites for repatriation, including recognition of the Rohingya as an official Myanmar ethnic group, restoration of full citizenship rights, and lifting of restrictions on the community’s freedom of movement and access to services in Rakhine State.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladeshi government and refugee leaders, June and August 2019. See also “Rohingya refugee leaders draw up demands ahead of repatriation”, Reuters, 19 January 2018.Hide Footnote “This will be our last time as refugees. We will not let this be repeated. We must return with full rights”, said a senior member of a new political group that the Rohingya have formed in the camps.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya community leader, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Many countries back the Rohingya demands, including (increasingly) Bangladesh, where officials recognise that unless Myanmar tackles the underlying causes of the Rohingya plight returnees will be very likely to cross the border again at some point. But the demands have had little impact on decision-makers in Naypyitaw. Myanmar has persistently refused to entertain the kinds of changes that would allow the Rohingya to rebuild their lives with a reasonable measure of security and economic opportunity. It has instead argued that the way to fix the problems of Rakhine State is through an infusion of investment and aid focused on infrastructure and economic development in the northern part of the region – an infusion that would do precious little to help the Rohingya absent the introduction of meaningful protections for their economic, civil and political rights.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Neither Myanmar’s attitude toward the Rohingya requests nor conditions on the ground in Rakhine State appear likely to improve in the foreseeable future. Because of widespread antipathy toward the Rohingya, Myanmar’s looming general election in 2020 makes gestures of support even more unlikely than at less politically charged moments. There has also been a sharp increase in clashes in Rakhine State between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group fighting for autonomy that represents the state’s Buddhist majority. This conflict has displaced at least 65,000 people and has made prospects for repatriation even more remote.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote

As the displacement crisis drags on, Bangladeshi officials increasingly view Myanmar as insincere in its public commitment to take back the refugees. Each side has accused the other of manipulating repatriation protocols and procedures to slow the process. Bilateral tensions spiked in June, when a trusted aide to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Minister for the State Counsellor’s Office Kyaw Tint Swe, told an audience in Japan that Bangladesh was responsible for the failure to repatriate refugees through formal channels.[fn]“Myanmar says Bangladesh not helping refugee return”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 2 June 2019.Hide Footnote Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina shot back that “the problem lies with Myanmar, as they don’t want to take back the Rohingyas by any means”.[fn]“Bangladesh PM attacks Myanmar over Rohingya deadlock”, Frontier Myanmar, 10 June 2019.Hide Footnote This public criticism has continued in recent months, including at the UN General Assembly in September and a Non-Aligned Movement Summit in October.[fn]See, for example, “Myanmar objects to Bangladeshi minister’s remarks over Rohingya at NAM meeting”, The Irrawaddy, 25 October 2019; and “Myanmar blames Bangladesh for Rohingya repatriation failure”, The Irrawaddy, 18 November 2019.Hide Footnote

The exclusion of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from the bilateral repatriation discussions – apparently at Myanmar’s insistence – means that there is no neutral party at the table to help iron out such logistical problems.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN official and diplomat, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote As noted below, China has recently assumed a mediation role, but it is widely seen as siding with Myanmar and has made little progress bringing the two sides together.

In addition to their frustration with Myanmar, Bangladeshi officials are also beginning to lash out at other countries for their perceived inability or unwillingness to push Naypyitaw to ensure accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine State and to take the steps necessary for repatriation to begin.

The problem is not lack of effort, however. On the legal front, actions against Myanmar for alleged atrocities against the Rohingya are now pending at the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and the Argentinian domestic courts – although because of limitations on enforcement capacity any verdict against the Myanmar state or senior officials may be largely symbolic.[fn]Priya Pillai, “Three complementary legal strategies for accountability: a momentous week for the Rohingya”, Opinio Juris, 19 November 2019.Hide Footnote Many countries, as well as the UN and non-governmental organisations, have sought to push Myanmar to take a more constructive approach to addressing the Rohingyas’ plight. But none of them has had much success in shaping decision-making on this issue by officials in Naypyitaw – whose intransigence is linked to pervasive domestic bias against the Rohingya and, increasingly, reflects a siege mentality toward international demands.

In order to mount a more effective campaign against Myanmar, Bangladesh will need more help from regional heavyweights, particularly China.[fn]Bangladesh has also lacked India’s support. Although New Delhi does not have the influence in Naypyitaw to push for a shift in policy toward the Rohingya, the fact that it has tended to take Myanmar’s side – largely for strategic and economic reasons – is still important symbolically to Bangladesh, which has looked to India as its most important international partner since its independence in 1971.Hide Footnote Thus far, however, Beijing has proven reluctant. China generally shies away from pushing other governments on issues relating to human rights, regarding such pressure as meddling in internal affairs, and it wants to advance security and economic ties with Myanmar.

Dhaka has worked to change these calculations, especially in Beijing. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid a six-day visit to China in early July 2019 and lobbied Chinese officials to press Myanmar more forcefully to improve conditions in Rakhine State so that voluntary repatriation can take place.[fn]“PM Hasina: China promises to remain beside Bangladesh in Rohingya crisis”, Dhaka Tribune, 8 July 2019.Hide Footnote Hasina and members of her cabinet have also tried publicly emphasising the potential impact of a protracted refugee crisis on “regional stability”, including the multi-billion-dollar Chinese investments in Rakhine State, such as the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and oil and gas pipelines.[fn]“China-led port project inches ahead in Myanmar”, Asia Times, 15 July 2019.Hide Footnote There is something to this warning, given the porous border between Bangladesh and Myanmar and the numerous armed groups in the region, including the Arakan Army. Although Bangladesh’s policy is that it will not allow its territory to be used by these armed groups, officials in Dhaka are understandably keen to remind regional partners that they ignore the threats Bangladesh is wrestling with at their own peril.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and political analysts, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Bangladeshi leaders’ frustrations reflect the lack of options at their disposal to address the refugee challenge.

Following this push, China has begun to position itself as a mediator, and has at times been critical of Myanmar’s unwillingness to make concessions in discussions about repatriation.[fn]“Myanmar, Bangladesh, China to form Joint Working Group on Rohingya repatriation”, The Irrawaddy, 26 September 2019.Hide Footnote Overall, however, the impact has been modest. The primary outcome of Hasina’s visit to Beijing is that China urged both sides to make another attempt at repatriation, which predictably ended without a single refugee returning. China’s ambassador to Dhaka, Zhang Zuo, visited Rohingya refugee camps, but likely only to placate the Bangladeshi government after he had echoed Myanmar’s line that “the real solution to the problem lies in development”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladeshi political analysts, Dhaka, June 2019. See also “Beijing sees solution to Rohingya crisis in BCIM implementation”, United News of Bangladesh, 8 May 2019.Hide Footnote China also proposed – with Bangladesh’s support – that Myanmar allow refugee leaders to conduct “go and see” visits to northern Rakhine State to help them weigh the possibility of returning.[fn]“Myanmar rejects Rohingya refugee visit to Rakhine State to inspect conditions for repatriation”, Radio Free Asia, 3 October 2019.Hide Footnote Myanmar said no, suggesting either the limits of Chinese diplomacy or the absence of pressure from Beijing to back it up. Naypyitaw may well understand that when push comes to shove, Beijing will continue supporting Myanmar, which it considers of much greater strategic value than Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi leaders’ frustrations reflect the lack of options at their disposal to address the refugee challenge. Following earlier migration waves, Dhaka sometimes mobilised mass repatriation campaigns using coercive tactics, such as cutting food aid to refugees, as was the case in the late 1970s.[fn]“Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution”, Human Rights Watch, May 2000.Hide Footnote In general, diplomats and humanitarian organisations doubt that the current government will go to these extremes. They believe that Dhaka wishes to keep the international good-will it has accrued in hosting the Rohingya and avoid the international condemnation that would come with forced repatriation. They also think that the Bangladeshi public, despite clamouring for progress on repatriation, might still oppose such harsh measures.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, diplomats and political analysts, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Sheikh Hasina reiterated her government’s commitment to voluntary repatriation.[fn]“Address by Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina”, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 27 September 2019.Hide Footnote While a constructive statement, it underscores the importance of planning for a future in which the circumstances that permit return could be years away.

B. Political Pressure and a Crackdown

Over the course of 2019, Bangladesh’s leaders have grown increasingly concerned at the impact of the Rohingya displacement crisis on their country. The crisis has created tension between Bangladeshis living in Cox’s Bazar (one of the country’s least developed areas) and the refugees being hosted there. It dominates the country’s politics and is frequently in the news in ways that feed public anxiety. Throughout the year, media outlets have run prominent pieces linking the Rohingya to an increase in drug-linked crime in border areas and calling for stronger security measures.[fn]See, for example, “Crimes in the Rohingya camps”, The Daily Star, 31 March 2019.Hide Footnote Since January, security forces in Cox’s Bazar have killed dozens of Rohingya and locals alleged to be involved in drug trafficking and other crimes, in what officials refer to as “gunfights” but may be better described as extrajudicial killings.[fn]“39 Rohingya killed in ‘gunfights’ with Bangladeshi authorities in 2019”, The Irrawaddy, 23 September 2019. See also “‘Gunfights’ in Bangladesh”, The Interpreter, 13 June 2018, and “Bangladesh: Alleged Extrajudicial Killings in the Guise of a ‘War on Drugs’”, Amnesty International, 4 November 2019.Hide Footnote While the public frets about Rohingya links to drug trafficking, others, particularly in the military, worry that the crisis could threaten the fragile peace between the government and the ethnic minority armed groups that waged an insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts between 1977 and 1997.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and diplomats, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Against this backdrop, in August, several quickly unfolding events appeared to aggravate officials’ already high levels of anxiety over the displacement crisis and to prompt the unexpected rollout of increased security measures and restrictions in the refugee camps.

To begin with, on 22 August, a second attempt at repatriation ended with none of the 3,450 refugees cleared by both countries agreeing to return home.[fn]The first attempt at repatriation, in November 2018, also ended with no refugees agreeing to return.Hide Footnote The same day, a politician from the youth wing of the ruling Awami League was killed near the border town of Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar. Allegations quickly spread that two Rohingya were responsible, prompting a riot that saw local Bangladeshis attack refugees and vandalise Rohingya shops. The manhunt that ensued ended with police killing the two suspects and created a climate of panic in the refugee camps.[fn]“Rohingya refugees shot dead by Bangladesh police during gunfight”, Agence France-Presse, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Three days later, on 25 August, large crowds of refugees – some media reports put the number at 200,000 – demonstrated to mark what they referred to as “genocide day”, ie, the anniversary of the outbreak of violence in northern Rakhine State in 2017 that triggered the mass exodus.[fn]“‘Genocide Day’: Thousands of Rohingya rally in Bangladesh camps”, Al Jazeera, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote Although the demonstrations were peaceful, Bangladeshi officials were troubled by what they saw of refugees’ capacity to mobilise quickly and in significant numbers. The event also strengthened domestic pressure on the government to take a tougher line against the Rohingya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and Bangladeshi government official, October 2019. See also “August 25 Rohingya rally: Contradictory findings out of two inquiries”, Dhaka Tribune, 10 September 2019.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, on 31 August India released a citizenship register that effectively stripped citizenship from 1.9 million people in the eastern state of Assam, including many Muslims perceived to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It is unclear what will happen to them if they become stateless, but some in Bangladesh fear that India will follow Myanmar’s lead and force the country to open its borders to these Muslims, exacerbating its refugee-related burdens yet further.[fn]“Bangladesh concerned about fallout from India’s citizen register”, The Straits Times, 14 October 2019.Hide Footnote

To be sure, Dhaka has reason to be concerned about security in southern Bangladesh. Reports of violent deaths and drug seizures are emerging on an almost daily basis from Cox’s Bazar, particularly around the town of Teknaf, which is on the Naf River directly opposite northern Rakhine State. As Crisis Group recommended in April 2019, measures to improve law and order could include instituting a regular Bangladeshi police presence in the camps – where armed groups and criminal networks appear to be active – investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. Failure to address these issues risks both harming the refugees and fuelling insecurity and instability in this part of Bangladesh.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Bangladeshi efforts to control crime and respond to domestic political pressure have been implemented in a way that has only heightened tensions.

Bangladeshi efforts to control crime and respond to domestic political pressure, however, have been implemented in a way that has only heightened tensions. The authorities’ heavy-handed response risks increasing resentment among the refugees and, consequently, adding to the security challenges. Among other things, the government has tightened enforcement of travel restrictions on refugees so that it is difficult to leave the camps’ vicinity; placed Rohingya leaders under stricter police surveillance; evicted several humanitarian NGOs from the camps; and threatened to ban more.[fn]According to some officials as many as 41 NGOs had been banned from the refugee camps. See “Bangladesh withdrew 41 NGOs from Rohingya camps for ‘malpractices’”, bdnews24.com, 31 August 2019.Hide Footnote It has also cut off internet access in the camps and threatened to arrest any refugee found with a phone – restrictions that have not only hurt refugees’ ability to share information, mobilise, and organise social and political activities, but also have “seriously disrupted” relief activities and coordination efforts, according to aid groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya refugee, October 2019. See also “Situation Report Rohingya Refugee Crisis”, Inter Sector Coordination Group, September 2019, p. 3; and “Bangladesh, growing tired of hosting Rohingya refugees, puts new squeeze on the teeming camps”, The Washington Post, 11 September 2019.Hide Footnote Finally, the government has replaced local officials in the camps known to be sympathetic to refugees, including the refugee relief and repatriation coordinator, who was regarded highly by humanitarian partners.

The government’s restrictive policies are already affecting the humanitarian response. Since the replacement of local officials in early September, NGOs report that it is increasingly difficult to operate in the Rohingya camps: they are subjected to much closer scrutiny and face long delays in the processing of visa requests and provision of other documents required to operate in Cox’s Bazar.[fn]In remarks that suggest a dim view of NGOs, Sheikh Hasina has told journalists that certain “international agencies that are providing voluntary services or working at Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar never want any refugee to go back”. “Bangladesh PM attacks Myanmar over Rohingya deadlock”, op. cit. But some have suggested her remarks were likely aimed at pacifying domestic constituencies. “The finger-pointing at the international community is just populism – the prime minister needs to blame someone”, said one Bangladeshi NGO leader. Crisis Group interview, Bangladeshi NGO leader, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote Some have had to interrupt delivery of humanitarian services after local authorities insisted that they replace Rohingya volunteers with Bangladeshi citizens, a request agencies working in the camps deem “totally unrealistic”. “Bangladeshis would never accept to do such menial work for symbolic pay”, commented one aid worker. “This could kill the humanitarian response”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, aid worker, October 2019.Hide Footnote

These polices have also increased refugees’ vulnerability and sense of desperation. While the pay for humanitarian work may be so low as to be “symbolic” from locals’ perspective, it is an important source of income for thousands of Rohingya volunteers, particularly women.[fn]“Cash ban stokes worry among Rohingya volunteers”, The New Humanitarian, 17 December 2019.Hide Footnote Moreover, many of the refugees rely on remittances from abroad to supplement the support they receive from aid groups, but struggle to receive these without access to mobile phones.

Beyond their financial impact, the new restrictions on movement and internet access are humiliating and painful for many refugees, and have created an atmosphere of isolation, boredom and despair.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee and aid worker, November 2019.Hide Footnote These restrictions may become more onerous still. In September, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan announced that the government would fence the three largest refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, installing barbed wire, watchtowers and closed-circuit video cameras in an effort to further restrict the refugees’ movement.[fn]“Bangladesh to fence Rohingya camps in further crackdown”, Frontier Myanmar, 27 September 2019.Hide Footnote Work on at least some of the fences is already under way.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugee and UN official, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Finally, as further discussed below, in October, Dhaka suggested that it would press forward with an on-again, off-again plan to relocate some of the refugees to Bhasan Char, a silt island in the Bay of Bengal where it has already built shelters for an estimated 100,000 people. This idea has been criticised by humanitarian organisations because of concerns that harsh weather conditions on the island would endanger its inhabitants. Critics have also decried the site’s physical isolation, the access challenges it would present for organisations providing aid and the freedom of movement restrictions it would imply for residents.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and Western government officials, June and October 2019.Hide Footnote

Despite these announcements and actions, it remains unclear whether the government will maintain the restrictions and follow through on its plans. Competing interests and priorities within the government, administration and security agencies, along with the lack of a clear solution to the crisis, have created a confused and haphazard policymaking environment. “Everyone is holding their breath”, said one UN source. “The Bangladesh government could still walk backward from some of these proposals”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, October 2019.Hide Footnote

Kutupalong “megacamp”, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. CRISISGROUP

III. Overcoming a Dangerous Contradiction

Bangladesh’s policy toward the Rohingya contains a dangerous contradiction. Bangladeshi officials privately acknowledge that large-scale returns are unlikely to begin any time soon, but because of concerns about saying so publicly, they have so far been unwilling to undertake the kind of medium- and long-term planning that is necessary to manage both security risks and humanitarian assistance at the refugee camps. Most immediately, the government has indicated that it wants to continue with a single-year plan for 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and diplomats, Dhaka, June 2019.Hide Footnote

A. A Reluctance to Face the Future

In explaining Bangladesh’s reluctance to engage in planning past the short term, officials identify a number of concerns. They worry that by visibly planning to host the Rohingya for what could stretch into an unknowable number of years, they will give international partners a reason to relax pressure on Myanmar to take the necessary steps to enable large-scale returns. They claim that recognising this likelihood would be demoralising to the Rohingya, and might encourage them to take up arms to force political change or turn to drug trafficking and other criminal activities to provide for themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bangladeshi government officials, June and August 2019.Hide Footnote Conversely, they argue that if conditions improve too much, some of the estimated 600,000 Rohingya who have thus far remained in Rakhine State might be motivated to cross into Bangladesh.[fn]“Detailed findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar”, Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, September 2019, p. 6.Hide Footnote Finally, they point to the domestic blowback they would face if they were to begin planning to accommodate the Rohingya for a long period of time, especially among residents of Cox’s Bazar, who increasingly see the refugees as both a drain on the local economy and a source of insecurity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and Bangladeshi government officials, diplomats and political analysts, Dhaka, Cox’s Bazar and Yangon, June and August 2019.Hide Footnote

The Rohingya could well end up overwhelming local capacity if special provisions are not made.

Some local officials familiar with the displacement crisis and who worked closely with refugees and humanitarian groups had sought to thread a needle between these concerns and the importance of providing support that takes into account the needs of refugees almost certain to be around for at least the medium term. To improve conditions in the camps and provide refugees with a partial means of supporting themselves, they had quietly allowed some activities – such as paving roads, digging drains and building sturdier housing – that contravene official policy. Many camp residents worked as “volunteers” with NGOs to get around prohibitions on employment, and were doing tasks for which it would be difficult to hire locals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and humanitarian organisation officials, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

The informal skirting of official policy to allow space for refugees to achieve a measure of self-reliance follows a pattern established over the past 25 years. Bangladesh looked the other way as tens of thousands of Rohingya who fled the 1991-1992 military operation but never returned integrated into Cox’s Bazar and nearby districts. Many found work or established businesses, and their children enrolled in local schools. Some even obtained Bangladeshi citizenship, often through illegal means. The results of this “quiet integration” approach are evident even today. A short walk through the local market that leads from the town of Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar to the registered refugee camp at Kutupalong reveals gold shops, mobile phone outlets and fruit stalls run by long-time Rohingya refugees who have become part of the local community.

This “quiet integration” approach is not a tenable solution to today’s crisis, however. The million-strong refugee population is too large and the economic situation of the district too strained.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, diplomats and aid workers, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote Rather than integrating, the Rohingya could well end up overwhelming local capacity if special provisions are not made. Bangladeshi authorities have already taken some anti-integration measures, including forcing some Rohingya children out of the state school system earlier this year.[fn]Those expelled were the children of registered refugees who arrived in the early 1990s. See “Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugee Students Expelled”, Human Rights Watch, 1 April 2019.Hide Footnote

B. The Downsides of Dhaka’s Current Approach

Against this backdrop, one option for Bangladeshi authorities is to continue going in the direction in which they have already begun to move: tightening security, affording little freedom of movement, restricting access to employment and continuing to manage this massive displacement crisis through a sequence of one-year plans. But while the government may believe that this strategy plays well with its domestic constituents and serves its repatriation objectives, it should weigh the significant practical risks that its approach creates.

The emphasis on near-term planning may short-change the communities of Cox’s Bazar by denying them access to donor funding that might help them better bear the burden of this influx of refugees. Many donors recognise the need to provide support to local Bangladeshi communities in order to cushion the impact that the population surge in the district has had on the local economy, and host community support is an important part of their planning. Yet the government’s restrictions on aid programs and its year-to-year approach to planning do not encourage the mobilisation of aid funding for anything beyond the most basic needs of the refugees, let alone host community development. In some cases, donors have already committed to multi-year financing, but in the absence of proper planning there is a risk that these funds will not have the maximum possible impact.[fn]

“Moving Beyond the Emergency: A Whole of Society Approach to the Refugee Response in Bangladesh”, Centre for Global Development and International Rescue Committee, October 2019, p. 19.
 

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The flaws of this approach are showing as Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar cope with the welter of problems that have come with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of people. Wages for daily labourers have declined and state schoolteachers have quit their jobs for higher-paying positions with NGOs, creating challenges for educating local children. Crime has increased and thousands of acres of forest have been decimated for the creation of camps and by refugees in search of firewood. The aid operation has also caused significant traffic congestion, creating safety concerns, particularly for local children walking to school. Failure to address host community frustrations is almost certain to manifest itself in increasingly greater tensions between the Rohingya and their hosts. “At first we had sympathy and we helped them”, said one politician in Ukhiya, near the Kutupalong camp. “But now we are living side by side, the situation has changed … we are facing many problems”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local politician, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Another impact of Bangladesh’s short-term focus is that humanitarian and development organisations face a range of restrictions in terms of how they are able to respond to the crisis. The UN and NGOs, for example, are not permitted to build permanent housing, which leaves refugees vulnerable to cyclones and landslides. Bangladesh has two cyclone seasons per year. As one aid worker observed: “Twice a year, we’re rolling the dice. So far we’ve gotten lucky, but eventually we won’t”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international aid worker, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote Even in 2019, during which, as the aid worker said, the camps have been “lucky”, monsoon rains caused dozens of landslides that left at least ten people dead and destroyed 5,000 shelters.[fn]

“Deadly monsoon destroys 5,000 shelters in Bangladesh”, Agence France-Presse, 14 July 2019.
 

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Finally, short-term planning makes it very difficult to develop programming that would help refugees achieve a measure of self-reliance through livelihood opportunities and education for their children. Local observers worry that, as the situation becomes protracted, a combination of frustration, boredom and despair could lead greater numbers either to turn to crime to support themselves or to armed violence as a means of having a say in their future.[fn]

 Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya leaders and UN official, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.

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Still, to date, the primary concession that Dhaka has made to the long-term reality of the Rohingya presence has been to construct a facility on a silt island in the Bay of Bengal, Bhasan Char, ostensibly to relieve overcrowding in the camps. Sheikh Hasina has made this relocation project her signature initiative, handing the navy a $276 million budget to make the cyclone-prone island habitable by building shelters and other infrastructure. The facility would be able to house an estimated 100,000 refugees.[fn]“Bangladesh project to house Rohingya on flood-prone island ready to open”, Radio Free Asia, 12 October 2018.Hide Footnote

The government says refugees who relocate will enjoy better services, security and livelihood opportunities (primarily agriculture and fishing) than in the Cox’s Bazar camps. Evaluating these claims is difficult, however, because the government has not permitted the UN to undertake any technical assessment and UN officials have not been able to visit the site for more than a year. UN agencies and international rights groups have expressed repeated concerns about the plan, particularly that it would leave refugees exposed to the threat of cyclones. The prospect of moving to Bhasan Char is also unpopular with many refugees, due to concerns about the island’s safety and its isolation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya leaders, UN and humanitarian organisation officials, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. See also “For Rohingya, Bangladesh’s Bhasan Char ‘Will Be Like a Prison’”, Human Rights Watch, 14 March 2019.Hide Footnote (The island is much farther away from Myanmar than the camps are.)

Sensing the discontent among refugees and donors, and probably wary of going ahead just prior to the risky monsoon season, the Bangladeshi government backed away from an April 2019 deadline to begin relocation. In October 2019, it claimed that several thousand refugees had agreed to relocate, and that the first would move in November 2019, but it appears to have once again backed down in the face of UN and refugee concerns.[fn]“Rohingya island relocation uncertain after UN doubts”, Dhaka Tribune, 4 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Moreover, even if it were viewed as both safe and desirable, relocation to Bhasan Char on its own would not be an adequate response to the protracted refugee crisis in Bangladesh, as it can only accommodate a relatively small proportion (roughly one tenth) of the Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar.

C. The Advantages of a Longer-term Approach

Given the downsides of short-term planning and heavy-handed security measures for managing what all parties agree (at least privately) is going to be a multi-year displacement crisis, one question the government of Bangladesh should be asking is whether there might be a more promising approach.

When it comes to programming for the promotion of self-reliance, perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in education.

The answer is a provisional yes. Given the enormous burdens of hosting one million refugees, no strategy can realistically promise simultaneously to provide for their needs and eliminate all of the burdens and risks they create for host communities. Still, by taking a longer-term approach to planning for these challenges, Dhaka would be able more effectively to mobilise government capabilities and donor resources in trying to meet them, while also position them better for a successful return to Myanmar when conditions in Rakhine State improve.

Responsible preparation for a years-long period of hosting the Rohingya does not require Dhaka or its external partners to abandon pressure on Myanmar to create conditions that will allow refugees to return to their rightful homes. Indeed, donors, international organisations and civil society should continue to press vigorously for needed reforms in Rakhine State. They should appeal to regional heavyweights China and – to a lesser extent – India to join the effort, arguing along the same lines as Sheikh Hasina that the protracted displacement of one million Rohingya risks creating instability well past Bangladesh’s borders. By rallying to Dhaka’s side in continuing to push Myanmar, external partners may help allay its concerns – and those of its domestic constituents – that they have abandoned hopes for repatriation even as they work to improve conditions for the refugees during their stay in Bangladesh.

To maximise its efforts at improving those conditions, however, Dhaka will need to drop its insistence on meeting the needs of the Rohingya and their host communities through one-year planning. It will also need to relax its restrictions on humanitarian programs. It should work with the UN on a multi-year Joint Response Plan and encourage donors to consider the full suite of needs that must be met over the next several years – from basic humanitarian services to support for communities that may be chafing at the burdens of a long-term refugee presence to programming that can help refugees achieve a measure of self-reliance. It should also, with donor and UN support, build camp facilities that can withstand the monsoons, cyclones and accompanying mudslides that put residents at risk.

When it comes to programming for the promotion of self-reliance, perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in education. Current educational programming contains major gaps: while early learning centres at the Rohingya camps enrol substantial numbers of children under age twelve, educational opportunities for older children are non-existent.[fn]Although official enrolment figures for children under twelve are high – 420,000 children across 5,475 centres – community leaders and NGO workers caution that some children have been enrolled multiple times and the quality of education varies significantly. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya community leaders and NGO workers, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. See also Situation Report Rohingya Refugee Crisis, op. cit., p. 2.Hide Footnote Survey data suggests that camp residents are correspondingly focused on the need to educate their older children, and eager for higher quality education in all age groups.[fn]“We Do Not Believe Myanmar! The Rohingya Survey 2019”, Xchange, March-April 2019. According to the survey, 99.8 per cent of respondents believed that there was enough educational opportunity for those under twelve and 99.4 per cent said there was not enough opportunity for those twelve and above. Six in ten said they were dissatisfied with the quality of education.Hide Footnote To fill these gaps, Rohingya leaders have supported informal education programs to supplement current offerings, and madrassa schools, which teach both religious and secular subjects, are proliferating. For its part, UNICEF has prepared a multi-level standardised curriculum, which targets competencies similar to those that children would learn in a more formal school setting, up to the eighth grade. None of these stopgaps, however, provides children with exposure to an accredited curriculum that can be the gateway to educational advancement down the road.[fn]Rohingya leaders have expressed frustration both that they were not consulted in the development of the UNICEF curriculum and that – because it is not accredited in either Bangladesh or Myanmar – it would put students at a disadvantage should they seek to enrol in formal schooling at a later date. Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya community leaders, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

The medium-term goal should be to teach the curriculum that is used in Myanmar.[fn]When refugees first began arriving in Bangladesh after August 2017, Myanmar reportedly rejected a request to use its curriculum in the camps. It is unclear how strongly it was pressed, however, and more recently both the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have expressed willingness to explore the possibility of using the Myanmar curriculum. Crisis Group interviews, NGO workers, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. See also “UN, NGOs accused of bungling effort to educate Rohingya children”, Al Jazeera, October 2019.Hide Footnote Crisis Group interviews indicate that Rohingya leaders strongly prefer this option because they see their future as being back in Myanmar.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya leaders, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. This preference was also reflected in a recent survey of the informal education sector in the camps, where use of the Myanmar curriculum is common. “We Must Prevent a Lost Generation: Community-led Education in Rohingya Camps”, Peace Research Institute Oslo, 2019, p. 7.Hide Footnote Giving Rohingya children instruction in the Myanmar curriculum could help strengthen literacy in a community where, as a result of lack of opportunity, around half of the refugees received no formal schooling before arriving in Bangladesh (though many had attended religious schools) and many cannot speak the Myanmar language.[fn]“We Do Not Believe Myanmar! The Rohingya Survey 2019”, op. cit. Only one in ten females and two in ten males had any formal schooling.Hide Footnote By providing language and literacy skills, an education in the Myanmar curriculum could help Rohingya overcome perceptions that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh when they are ultimately able to return to their homes, and therefore make it easier to overcome resistance within Myanmar to extending them citizenship and in turn support repatriation efforts.

The Bangladeshi government could also use the development of this programming as a tool to further its diplomatic goals. Teaching the Myanmar curriculum would require not only the approval but also the support of the Myanmar government, which would need to facilitate both accreditation and the travel of Myanmar-speaking teachers to the camps. Although by some accounts Naypyitaw earlier refused requests along these lines, Bangladesh should press again, seeking support from China and others, and underscoring that Myanmar can show its support for repatriation by acceding. It would also be a way for Bangladesh and Myanmar to pursue cooperation on an issue that is less politically charged than repatriation, citizenship or accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine. Ideally, Myanmar NGOs and civil society organisations could be engaged to support this effort, creating valuable links between the Rohingya and mainstream Myanmar society, from which they have been cut off.

Regardless of the curriculum and language of instruction, it is important that the authorities scale up education quickly, in consultation with Rohingya community leaders and those running informal education programs. While the refugees’ future is uncertain, education will be an asset wherever they end up.

Creating income-generating opportunities for the Rohingya could help reduce their reliance on external support and give them more agency.

Progress on livelihood opportunities and skills-based training is no less essential, although the path forward is less clear than it is in the area of education. The overwhelming majority of Rohingya are unemployed and reliant on humanitarian aid.[fn]“We Do Not Believe Myanmar! The Rohingya Survey 2019”, op. cit. Eighty-eight per cent of the 1,277 respondents said they were unemployed at the time of the survey.Hide Footnote Aid pledges remain robust but will inevitably decline in the coming years, even if Dhaka takes steps to encourage more donations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, aid workers and diplomats, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, June 2019. The 2019 Joint Response Plan is 66 per cent funded, only slightly below the 2018 plan which was 71 per cent funded. For funding figures, see the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs website.Hide Footnote Creating income-generating opportunities for the Rohingya could help reduce their reliance on external support and give them more agency. Because of the potential impact of work force competition on wages and opportunities for Bangladeshi locals, however, any move in this direction needs to be paired with support to host communities to blunt ill effects and mitigate possible friction with the Rohingya. Local humanitarian workers and Rohingya leaders suggest that there is a great deal of work that Dhaka, donors, NGOs and institutions such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank could usefully do to develop a package of livelihoods programs that benefit refugees and corresponding support that cushions surrounding communities against the impact of a surge of new workers into the local work force.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya leaders and aid workers, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

In shifting to an approach that emphasises the development of refugee self-reliance, Bangladeshi authorities should roll back newly introduced and counterproductive security restrictions that pull in the opposite direction – increasingly toward treating the Rohingya population as a nascent security threat to be isolated or walled off. While camp security should be a priority, the government needs to avoid draconian and alienating measures like fencing and phone confiscation that appear intended to make camps seem like prisons and threaten access to or provision of humanitarian services.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, op. cit.Hide Footnote Similarly, the government should shelve plans to relocate tens of thousands of detainees to Bhasan Char until it has addressed the well-founded concerns raised by humanitarian workers and refugees, and can ensure that the process is voluntary.

Finally, the Rohingya themselves should have greater opportunity to participate in planning for their future in order to create trust, build optimism about the future and develop the community’s capacity to fend for itself. In interviews with Rohingya leaders, Crisis Group found a perception that neither Bangladeshi officials nor humanitarian organisations consult them properly on key initiatives, which has led to possibly avoidable problems in implementation.[fn]Rohingya leaders highlighted several examples where inadequate consultation had led to negative outcomes. These include the hiring of Rohingya women as volunteers with NGOs, which provoked a conservative backlash and resulted in them facing threats from other refugees, and the design of smart ID cards distributed by UNHCR, which had prompted protests from refugees, who were concerned that it would undermine their prospects for ethnic recognition in Myanmar. Consulting with religious and other leaders could have helped the humanitarian organisations anticipate resistance to these steps and build support that would have mitigated the backlash. Crisis Group interviews, aid workers and Rohingya community leaders, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote Initially, the lack of consultation was understandable: the chaos of the immediate crisis response made deliberation difficult. But the Rohingya have since organised and are finding their voice. Refugees are establishing new groups focused on politics, education and gender. Some of these organisations may not be truly representative of the entire community (women remain very much under-represented in most of them), but together they are increasingly positioned to offer a range of valuable perspectives about the community’s future – a future they see as being back in Myanmar.[fn]Crisis Group interview, leader of a Rohingya women’s group, Cox’s Bazar, June 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusion

Near-term prospects for repatriating Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are slim. Dhaka’s policy toward the refugees should evolve to recognise this emerging reality. Its recent policy moves to combat crime and insecurity and to put in place restrictions on refugees and NGOs are largely counterproductive and could lead to a dangerous downward spiral in the camps that would only undermine security further. Beyond rolling back draconian measures and focusing on steps better tailored to making the camps safe – such as increasing police presence – the government should shift its focus to addressing the question of how it will create a secure and protected environment for both the Rohingya and their hosts in southern Bangladesh over the longer term.

Taking a longer view of the displacement crisis, and discarding the practice of single-year planning to manage it, could help Dhaka mitigate risks from armed gangs to extreme weather. Providing the Rohingya with education and vocational opportunities as part of this effort could help not only avert militancy and criminality but also support the refugees’ eventual reintegration into Myanmar.

Such a policy shift from Dhaka will require international partners to play their part as well. They should continue pressing Myanmar to create the conditions for safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation. On the ground in Bangladesh, they should significantly increase support to Bangladeshis in and near Cox’s Bazar, not only to alleviate the burden that the refugee crisis has imposed but also to mitigate the domestic political backlash that is narrowing Dhaka’s policy options for the crisis response. Together with Dhaka, they should look for ways to expand the role of Rohingya refugee representatives in making decisions about their future. It is a future that the Rohingya, Dhaka and external partners all hope will bring the refugees back to Myanmar, but that in the meantime will require all parties to make the best of a difficult situation in Bangladesh.

Yangon/Brussels, 27 December 2019

Appendix A: Refugee Population in Cox's Bazar District, Bangladesh

UNHCR