"Blessed are the Peacemakers"
Tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have escalated dramatically since late August 2017. A series of attacks by a group of Rohingya militants calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on military and police outposts killed more than seventy people, including twelve Burmese security forces personnel. In response, the military launched a brutal crackdown on Rohingya villages, causing over seven hundred thousand people to flee across the border to Bangladesh since August 2017. Widespread reports indicate indiscriminate killings and burning of Rohingya villages, escalating to the point that the UN Human Rights Commissioner called the situation in Rakhine State “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The violence has led to a growing humanitarian crisis in neighboring Bangladesh, where nearly one million Rohingya now reside in refugee camps along the border.
This outburst of violence by the military comes after a similar attack on a security post along the Bangladeshi border in October 2016 killed nine police officers. The army responded to that attack with a month-long crackdown on unarmed Muslim civilians, causing more than one thousand civilian deaths and driving tens of thousands more to flee their homes in search of safety.
After winning Myanmar’s first competitive national election in more than twenty-five years and taking office in March 2016, the National League for Democracy party (unofficially headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi) has continually failed to address the status of the Rohingya people, who were not allowed to vote in the election. A national peace conference was held in August 2016, aimed at ending decades of fighting between the military and a number of armed ethnic groups, but Rohingya representatives were not invited to attend. That same month, Aung San Suu Kyi announced the creation of a nine-person commission, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to review and offer recommendations to address the tensions in Rakhine. The commission delivered its final report in late August 2017, just days before the latest outbreak of violence. Aung San Suu Kyi has continued to face criticism over a failure to address or acknowledge the Rohingya issue.
The Rohingya, a highly persecuted Muslim group numbering over one million, face discrimination both from their neighbors and their nation, and are not considered citizens by Myanmar’s government. Buddhist nationalist groups, including the MaBaTha and the anti-Muslim 969 movement, regularly call for boycotts of Muslim shops, the expulsion of Muslims from Myanmar, and attacks on Muslim communities. After two waves of violence, reprisals, and riots in June and October of 2012 intensified the century-old conflict in the predominantly Buddhist country, more than one hundred thousand Muslim Rohingyas were internally displaced and hundreds killed.
There is little indication that addressing the Rohingya issue will become a priority any time soon for Myanmar’s government, which has focused instead on establishing a new relationship with the military and addressing multiple ongoing insurgencies. The military signed a cease-fire with several armed ethnic groups in October 2015, but some major groups—including two of the largest militias, the United Wa State Army and Kachin Independence Army—continue to fight the government. While the cease-fire agreement was a potential step towards peace in Myanmar, it failed to finalize a framework for a new balance of power between the central government and local authorities in the restive borderlands or require ethnic groups to disarm.
As the U.S.-Myanmar relationship warms, disagreements over human rights issues will remain a divisive factor. However, Myanmar’s stability is increasingly important to U.S. interests given Myanmar’s strategic importance in Southeast Asia, vast natural resources, and emerging democratic government.