For nearly a year now, the western media has been flooding us with images of Muslim Rohingya fleeing Rakhine state in Myanmar. Since October 2017, an estimated 700,000 (roughly half the Rohingya population) have fled into Bangladesh where they live in primitive refugee camps or in the open air on the roadside. Most of are women fleeing the Myanmar army, which has been burning their villages, gang raping them, killing their husbands and, in some cases, their children. Since 2016, some of the 700,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar having been living in camps (some under military force – others voluntarily for protection from Buddhist vigilantes).
We read occasional vague references to the current “civil war” in Rakhine state. And listen to hysterical rants by Amnesty Internationali spokespeople condemning Myanmar president Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to speak out against the army’s brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims. AI is also calling for Burmese leaders in the International Criminal Court – which is impossible as Myanmar isn’t an ICC member.
Is a New Proxy War Brewing in Myanmar?
In most cases, the western media tells us virtually nothing about the civil war that is the root cause of the current Rohingya refugee crisis. Why not? In exploring non-western media accounts, I get the uncomfortable inkling I am witnessing a burgeoning proxy war in Myanmar, similar to the civil war in Syria, with Saudi Arabia and possibly other US client states supporting the Rohingya rebels. Obviously this background in no way justifies recent terrorism by the Myanmar army against Rohingya civilians. At the same time, the world is growing weary of the US and their allies using human rights violations as justification for military intervention. In Myanmar, as in Syria, the only sustainable solution is a political settlement, ie an international agreement that protects Rohyngya autonomy and human rights while ending interference by foreign players.
Myanmar’s 70-Year Civil War
The current Rohyngya crisis was triggered in August 2017 when the Arakanii Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a new extremist group, launched a concerted attack on Myanmar army and police. The government of Myanmar has been fighting armed Rohingya separatists since it first won independence in 1948. During World War II when Japan occupied Burma, local Buddhists supported the Axis forces and the Bengali Muslims remained loyal to the British crown. Tens of thousands died during mass mutual reprisals. As Burma negotiated independence from the UK, Muslims in northern Arakan appealed to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to annex this area. When the both Burmese independence hero Aung San and Pakistan’s founder Muhammed Ali Jinnaha rejected this appeal, Arakan Muslims launched a mujahideen insurgency
Simultaneously fighting communist and ethnic insurgencies among the Karensiii, the Kachensiv and other marginalized groups, the Burmese army could only control major cities and towns in Arakan. The mujahideen controlled large parts of rural Arakan, leading many Buddhist villagers to flee to the southern part of the state.
It wasn’t until late 1954 that the last mujahideen camps fell to the Burmese army, with most insurgents retreating into East Pakistan. The Burma/East Pakistan (Bangladesh) border has always been extremely porous (like the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) with Rohingya militants moving in and out of northern Burma to launch attacks on police and army outposts.
Two years after Burma’s 1962 military coup, Muslim youth from rural Arakan formed an underground movement called the Rohingya Independence Force (RIF). In 1998 various RIF factions united to form the Arakan Roningya National Organization (ARNO). It was at this point they began receiving financial and material support from the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), which operates out of Saudi Arabia.
The Rise of the Arakan Army
The 2004 downfall of Prime Minister Kihn Nunt and the collapse of his military intelligence network would result, in 2012, in the emergence of the Arakan Army (AA). Recruiting Rakhine laborers working in Phakant jade plants in Kachine state, the AA agreed to open a new western front in Rakhine state when the ceasefire between the Myanmar military and the Kachine Independence Army (KIA) broke down in 2013, Between March 2015 and April 2016, the AA killed 13 Myanmar troops, which, in turn, captured 57 AA troops.
At present, the government estimates there are 300 AA and ARSA troops operating along the Myanmar-India-Bangladesh border and another 200 fighting with the KIA. They enjoy strong support from the civilian population. Rohingya refugees describe young villagers picking up clubs, knives and sticks to join attacks against Myanmar police and military.
Saudi Support and the Methamphetamine Trade
According to the Muslim World League website, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to support the Rohingya with financial and material support. According to International Crisis Group, Rohingya separatists also get major financial support from wealthy Rohingya refugees living in Saudi Arabia.
Rohingya militants also seem to be involved in methamphetamine smuggling, with the army seizing 26.7 million meth tabs from suspected militants in 2015 and 37.7 million tablets in 2017. There are also concerns they may have links with the Pakistani Taliban and possibly Islamic State militants.
ii Arakan (now known as Rakhine state) is a historic region bordering the Bay of Bengal to its west, Bangladesh to its north and Myanmar to its east.
iii The Karen, Kayin, Kariang or Yang people encompass a number of individual Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups, many of which do not share a common language or culture. These Karen groups reside primarily in Karen State, in southern and southeastern Myanmar.