Challenges and Challenges for Nobel peace laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi as the Rohingya crisis getting more and more complex….writes Mahesh Kumar Sharma
A humanitarian crisis of humongous proportion erupted in Myanmar this year which has led to migration of over 600,000 stateless Rohingya people, many of them to neighbouring Bangladesh. The roots of this crisis can be traced to when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police stations and an army post on the night of 24-25 August 2017 within hours of the Kofi Annan Commission report being handed over to Myanmar President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK). This provoked massive retaliation from the Tatmadaw (military) in Myanmar which led to the eventual migration of a huge wave of Rohingyas into Bangladesh.
Many of the Rohingyas who fled have told Western news reporters that Myanmar Army troops, backed by local Buddhist mobs, began burning their villages and attacking and killing civilians in response to the 25 August 2017 attacks. Some of those who have arrived in Bangladesh have bullet or other wounds. The ARSA group first emerged in October 2016, when it carried out similar assaults on police posts, killing nine police officers.
There are two aspects to this crisis which need to be highlighted. First, there is the traditional apathy that Myanmar as a country has shown to the Rohingyas living as stateless persons. The second is the Pakistani hand in nurturing and training the ARSA which has created the present situation and the motivations that led to the present Rakhine crisis.
ARSA originated as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY), sometime in 2013 and was led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia. It is presently commanded by Rohingyas in Myanmar with international training and experience in modern guerrilla warfare mostly undertaken in Pakistan. ARSA 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 inside Myanmar and elsewhere around the world.
ARSA is led by Attaullah Abu Ammar Jununi. Attaullah was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, before he returned to Myanmar to lead the struggle. According to Subir Bhaumik, a former correspondent for the BBC in Eastern India, Hafiz Tohar, raised the Aqa Mul Mujahideen and later merged with HaY to create the ARSA. Tohar was recruited by Harkat-ul-Jihad of Arakans leader Abdul Qudoos Burmi and was trained in Pakistan.
The question of Pakistan’s support to ARSA has been around for some time now. There are inputs that indicate that Pakistan’s ISI had tasked the ARSA with creating the insurgency in Myanmar in 2016 and specifically instructed the Hafiz Tohar to target the Myanmar Army in August 2017 soon after Kofi Annan presented his report on reconciliation to the Aung Sang Suu Kyi government. The International Crisis Group report on the Rohingyas of late 2016 also states that the ARSA is funded and equipped from abroad. Clearly, Pakistan’s ISI and its proxies want to keep the pot boiling in Myanmar using the excuse of repression of the Rohingyas to fish in troubled waters.
While the ARSA obtains its religious training and guidance from Saudi Arabia, the military aspects of training and equipping the fighters are looked after by Pakistan, mostly by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Foreign intelligence agencies have provided inputs to Bangladesh of the frequent movements of Maulana Ustad Wazeer aka Noor Kabir and Fareed Faizullah, both Pakistani nationals of Rohingya origin, to the Thai border for getting cadres indoctrinated and trained. In May 2016, Omar Faruk aka RSO Faruk of the LeT-backed Rohingya Solidarity Organization was arrested from Chittagong for attacking the Bangladesh ANSAR camp at Teknaf, looting weapons and killing the commander.
The LeT has been in the forefront of publicly criticizing the Myanmar government for its actions against the Rohingyas. In July 2012, it organised the Difa-e-Musalman-e-Arakan conference in Pakistan. How does Pakistan benefit from using the ARSA against the Myanmar government? There is a two-fold approach here. First, the aim is to introduce communal tensions in Myanmar where for long the Buddhist majority has been averse to recognizing the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar. Second, by discrediting the Myanmar government, Pakistan is trying to create the impression that ASSK is not in a position to tackle the ethnic crisis, particularly when it comes to the Muslim minority, when in fact she is trying to do precisely that. The Kofi Annan report was prepared precisely for that objective. Some reports suggest that ASSK has expressed her unhappiness on several occasions in the past at the LeT promoting the ARSA.
This brings us back to the first point of analysis, relating to Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya people. The Rohingya number over a million in Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist society, but have been stateless people for a long time as successive governments have claimed that these people have actually come in from Bangladesh. The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken in the Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. Since 1982, they have not been considered as one of the Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship.
The current dispensation too has not shown any signs that it is willing to accept the Rohingyas as citizens. While ASSK would like to do something she cannot be seen to be doing so publicly given the sentiments among the Buddhists and the military towards the Rohingya, faced with the present outbreak, which has seen the Tatmadaw taking advantage of the actions of the ARSA and ensuring that ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya was carried out, ASSK is now in tight spot and cannot do much. This is likely to remain the course of future policy of the Myanmar government.
The simple answer to Myanmar’s ills lies in reenacting the 1982 Citizenship Law that left out the Rohingya from the list of ethnic groups that were entitled to citizenship. Clearly, this was a decision taken by the military and backed by the Buddhist clergy. There is another catch in this narrative as in 2014 a pilot citizenship verification programme was conducted during the course of which the Rohingyas were forced to list their ethnicity as Bengali, implying that they were immigrants from Bangladesh. This only reinforces the existing situation. Breaking this stereotype will require some hard thinking by the ASSK government with the help of the international community.
It must be realised that at the end of the day, Rohingyas are not only Myanmar’s problem, but the region as a whole. The question is whether there is appetite for a regional solution to the Rohingya issue when Myanmar still hesitates to resolve the issue?