Violence in Myanmar has been making headlines, but how did it start? Who are the people claiming to fight for the rights of the country's 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims? Why is the state persecuting the Rohingya?

A Rohingya woman cries on the ground as she received news, over the phone, that her husband was killed by the Myanmar Army, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
A Rohingya woman cries on the ground as she received news, over the phone, that her husband was killed by the Myanmar Army, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Reuters)

Rakhine state in Myanmar is burning. 

Nearly 400 people have died in fighting that has rocked Myanmar's northwestern state for a week. Around 38,000 Rohingya, a minority ethnic group in Myanmar, have fled to Bangladesh, marking an escalation in a long-simmering conflict. 

It all flared up on August 25, when – not for the first time – a militia known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched a series of attacks on Myanmar police posts and an army base. 

In response, the military razed parts of Rakhine state to the ground, a Human Rights Watch report with satellite maps showed. Over 100 people were reported dead in the first few days; at least 80 of them were insurgents. 

Rakhine is home to 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims, who have been denied citizenship since 1982. 

The army has been accused of running a protracted, brutal campaign of oppression against them, something the UN says amounts to ethnic cleansing. 

Here are six things to know about the insurgency, also called Harakah al Yaqin (HaY):

1. Myanmar isn’t new to insurgency

Rakhine state was a part of the British Raj (1842 to 1948) after which it became a battle zone during World War II. Rakhine Buddhist forces and Muslims were pitted against each other by the Japanese and British, respectively. 

These divisions were visible in post-colonial Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989. 

Local forces often labelled "the mujahideen" sought to annex Rakhine to what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. But Pakistan's founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah refused. 

This eventually lead to a semi-autonomous Muslim Rakhine state in what is now known as Myanmar. But that did not bring them any security. 

In 1982, a new law limited citizenship for Rohingya Muslims. 

In response, an insurgent group called the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) was formed in 1982. 

The splinter Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) took shape four years later.

Although the groups were responsible for their share of attacks, they never gained much traction. 

By the end of the 20th century, neither was perceived to form a credible military threat – although the RSO still continues to exist. 

Local pro-state militia also grew alongside the Myanmar army. 

Buddhist villagers and Rakhine nationalists have long urged the state military to help arm them out of a concern for safety.

Map showing the global impact of the Rohingya Muslim crisis.
Map showing the global impact of the Rohingya Muslim crisis. (TRTWorld)

2. ARSA, the new player

In October 2016, armed men claiming to be from ARSA flooded a series of border outposts, killing nine police officers. 

The resulting military backlash which continued well into January 2017 was termed disproportionate – a UN report detailed rape, sexual violence and even instances where babies were stabbed for crying out for their mother’s milk. More than 66,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Rakhine state, the UN report said. 

The attack on August 25 prompted a similar response: thousands of fearful Muslim and Buddhist civilians fled the worst fighting to grip Myanmar's northwest in five years. 

ARSA was formed as a response to violence in Rakhine state in 2012 by Ataullah Abu Ammar Junani, a Karachi-born Muslim whose father is of Rohingya heritage. 

He studied in a madrasa in Mecca, Saudi Arabia but disappeared shortly after the attacks on Rohingya. 

Recruitment for the militia group began in 2013 and was followed by training. Reports say support was given by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

ARSA, which is headquartered in Mecca, is overseen by 20 committee members who either have Rohingya heritage or are emigres, according to an International Crisis Group report published late in 2016.

While some Rohingya try to cross by land, others attempt a perilous boat journey across the Naf River separating the two countries. Many do not make it.
While some Rohingya try to cross by land, others attempt a perilous boat journey across the Naf River separating the two countries. Many do not make it. (Reuters)

3. It's all about Rohingya rights

ARSA insists rights are their primary aim. 

The Rohingya are denied Myanmar citizenship, leaving them without fundamental rights in the country in which they were born, and roots that take them back centuries. 

They do not have access to healthcare or education and are restricted in whom they can marry.

“There is no university that they can travel to within Myanmar or abroad because everywhere they go they are considered illegal immigrants," an international aid worker who wishes to remain anonymous told TRT World." They are basically considered illegal immigrants inside of their own home."

ARSA claims to be seeking a means of redress for local grievances rather than joining or founding a global terror network. 

Although the group’s ideology does not appear to be politically motivated, they have attempted religious justifications. ARSA sought fatwas to further their aim and numerous religious clerics within the organisation have ruled the violence justifiable as it is in self-defence.

The Myanmar government doesn't see it that way. Shortly after Friday’s attacks, they designated the militia group a terrorist organisation.

The clashes and ensuing army crackdown have killed about 370 Rohingya insurgents, and also 13 security forces, two government officials and 14 civilians, the Myanmar military said on Thursday.
The clashes and ensuing army crackdown have killed about 370 Rohingya insurgents, and also 13 security forces, two government officials and 14 civilians, the Myanmar military said on Thursday. (Reuters)

4. Violent resistance is not the Rohingya's first choice

For the Rohingya, violent resistance would be counterproductive to the struggle for their rights.

“They [insurgents] see Western governments as key supporters of their rights, which does not fit in with the global jihadist agenda," an International Crisis Group report published in 2014 said.

"They are not easy for global extremist networks to access, and it seems most Rohingya religious leaders are not preaching violence.”

That was a few years ago though, and with the persecution showing no signs of easing, the Rohingya are feeling the heat from a lack of perceived options.

“When I talk to Rohingya people, what they tell me is that all of our rights have been taken away. What other option is left for us? We can either run and if we can't run, the only other thing we can do is fight. Because if we don't fight, we are slowly dying here anyway,” said the aid worker. 

5. As state oppression grows, so does ARSA

The wave of violence that the military unleashed on the Rohingya after Friday’s attacks was swift and ruthless. With it comes a risk that it will only push more to ARSA’s cause.

While almost 40,000 Rohingya have since fled to Bangladesh, others are heading back to Rakhine state to fight. On Wednesday the Dhaka Tribune reported that 115 Rohingya men had left Bangladesh to join ARSA. Other sources put the number at 170. 

ARSA has positioned itself as a movement that fights for Rohingya rights, making it a vehicle for potential change for some. 

But the caveat is that the violence “could create conditions for further radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit to pursue their own agendas in the country,” the International Crisis Group report has warned.  

“Killing, burning and rape will not stop the insurgency but rather strengthen and nourish HaY,” an article by The Diplomat said. 

The crackdown by security forces who have torched villages and targeted civilians has sent thousands fleeing.
The crackdown by security forces who have torched villages and targeted civilians has sent thousands fleeing. (AFP)

6. Myanmar's problem is more complicated than it appears

The desire to end the Rohingya crisis has been echoed by an assortment of countries and the EU – from Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Former UN chief Kofi Annan was appointed by state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to promote reconciliation. 

The reality on the ground provides another narrative.

The siege mentality that is pervasive in Myanmar's society and government, and reinforced by its military, is due to a few factors. 

The main ethnic groups in Myanmar believe that the Rohingya Muslims pose a demographic and cultural threat. In other words, the majority feels threatened by the minority.

Adding to the mix, ARSA released a video statement in the wake of Friday’s attacks that challenges Myanmar's military to fight them rather than attack defenceless civilians.

Flanked by two armed soldiers, Januni urged what he called the “brutal and oppressive Burmese" military to stop persecuting “vulnerable children and women.”

Many have argued that Aung San Suu Kyi is in political gridlock and that as state matters require military approval, her hands are tied

Others have argued that while she was a breath of fresh air after decades of military rule, that air has turned stale

Regardless, the long and bloody conflict drags on as a persecuted minority flee their burning homes.

Who are Myanmar's Rohingya? TRT World's Arabella Munro explains.

Source: TRT World