Rohingya insurgency in Western Myanmar

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The Rohingya insurgency in Western Myanmar is an ongoing insurgency in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar (formerly known as Arakan, Burma), waged by insurgents belonging to the Rohingya ethnic minority. Most clashes have occurred in the Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships, which border Bangladesh.

The conflict in the region arises chiefly from social differentiation and conflict between Rohingya Muslims and local Rakhine Buddhists. During World War II in Burma (present-day Myanmar), Rohingya Muslims (allied with the British and promised a Muslim state in return) fought against local Rakhine Buddhists, who were allied with the Japanese. Following independence in 1948, the newly formed union government of the predominantly-Buddhist country denied citizenship to the Rohingyas, subjecting them to extensive systematic discrimination in the country. This has widely been compared to apartheid[40][41][42][43] by many international academics, analysts and political figures, including Desmond Tutu, a famous South African anti-apartheid activist.[44]

From 1947 to 1961, local Rohingya mujahideen fought government forces in an attempt to have the mostly Rohingya populated region around the Mayu peninsula in northern Arakan (present-day Rahkine State) gain autonomy or secede, so it could be annexed by East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh).[45] During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the mujahideen lost most of its momentum and support, resulting in most of them surrendering to government forces.[46][47]

In the 1970s Rohingya Islamist movements began to emerge from remnants of the mujahideen, and the fighting culminated with the Burmese government launching a massive military operation named Operation King Dragon in 1978.[48] In the 1990s, the well-armed Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) was the main perpetrator of attacks on Burmese authorities near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.[49] The Burmese government responded militarily with Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, but failed to disarm the RSO.[50][51]

In October 2016, clashes erupted on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border between government security forces and a new insurgent group, Harakah al-Yaqin, resulting in the deaths of at least 40 people (excluding civilians).[52][53][54] It was the first major resurgence of the conflict since 2001.[2] In November 2016, violence erupted again, bringing the death toll to 134.[18]

In early August 2017, the Burmese military resumed "clearance operations" in northern Rakhine State, worsening the humanitarian crisis in the country, according to a report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released on 11 October 2017. The report, titled the Mission report of OHCHR rapid response mission to Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, detailed the "systematic process" pursued by the Burmese military in driving out the Rohingya population from the country, as well as various human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by military personnel.[55][56]

During the early hours of 25 August 2017, up to 150 insurgents launched coordinated attacks on 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion army base in Rakhine State, leaving 71 dead (12 security personnel and 59 insurgents). It was the first major attack by Rohingya insurgents since November 2016.[57][58][59]


The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority that live mainly in the northern region of Rakhine State, Myanmar, and have been described as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.[60][61][62] They describe themselves as descendants of Arab traders who settled in the region many generations ago.[60] However, French scholar Jacques Leider has stated that "the forefathers of the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Rakhine have migrated from Bengal to Rakhine"; that "their descendants and the Muslims as whole had in fact been rather uncontroversially referred to as 'Bengalis' until the early 1990s"; and that they were also referred to as "Chittagonians" during the British colonial period.[63] Others such as Chris Lewa and Andrew Selth have identified the group known as Rohingya as ethnically related to the Bengalis of southern Bangladesh while anthropologist Christina Fink uses Rohingya not as an ethnic identifier but as a political one.[note 1]

With the Japanese invasion and withdrawal of the British administration, tensions in Arakan before the war erupted. The war caused inter-communal conflicts between the Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists. Muslims fled from Japanese-controlled and Buddhist-majority regions to Muslim-dominated northern Arakan with many being killed. In return, a "reverse ethnic cleansing" was carried out. The Muslim attacks caused the Buddhists to flee to southern Arakan. Attacks by Muslim villagers on Buddhists also caused reprisals. With the consolidation of their position throughout northern Arakan, the Rohingyas retaliated against Japanese collaborators, particularly Buddhists. Though unofficial, specific undertaking were made to Arakanese Muslims after World War II. V Force officers like Andrew Irwin expressed enthusiasm to award Muslims for loyalty. Rohingya leaders believed that the British had promised them a "Muslim National Area" in Maungdaw region. They were also apprehensive of a future Buddhist-dominated government. In 1946, the leaders made calls for annexation of the territory by Pakistan. Some also called for an independent state. The requests to the British government were however ignored.[64][65][66]

After the colonial period, the first mass exodus from what was then East Pakistan took place to the 1970s.[67] In the 1950s, a "political and militant movement" rose to create "an autonomous Muslim zone", and the militants used Rohingya to describe themselves, marking the "modern origins" of the term.[68] The persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar dates back to the 1970s.[69] The term "Rohingya" has gained currency since 1990s after "the second exodus" of "a quarter million people from Bangladesh to Rakhine" in the early 1990s.[70]

However named, or whatever the longevity in the country, the group has been denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar, which sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.[60] Since then, Rohingya people have regularly been made the target of persecution by the government and nationalist Buddhists.[71]

Mujahideen separatist movements (1947–1961)[edit]

Early separatist insurgency[edit]

In May 1946, Muslim leaders from Arakan, Burma (present-day Rakhine State, Myanmar) met with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and asked for the formal annexation of two townships in the Mayu region, Buthidaung and Maungdaw, by East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). Two months later, the North Arakan Muslim League was founded in Akyab (present-day Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State), which also asked Jinnah to annex the region.[72] Jinnah refused, saying he could not interfere with Burma's internal matters. After Jinnah's refusal, proposals were made by Muslims in Arakan to the newly formed post-independence government of Burma, asking for the concession of the two townships to Pakistan. The proposals were rejected by the Burmese parliament.[73]

Local mujahideen were subsequently formed against the Burmese government,[74] and began targeting government soldiers stationed in the area. Led by Mir Kassem, the newly formed mujahideen movement began gaining territory, driving out local Rakhine communities from their villages, some of whom fled to East Pakistan.[75][better source needed]

In November 1948, martial law was declared in the region, and the 5th Battalion of the Burma Rifles and the 2nd Chin Battalion were sent to liberate the area. By June 1949, the Burmese government's control over the region was reduced to the city of Akyab, whilst the mujahideen had possession of nearly all of northern Arakan. After several months of fighting, Burmese forces were able to push the mujahideen back into the jungles of the Mayu region, near the country's border with East Pakistan.[citation needed]

In 1950, the Pakistani government warned its counterparts in Burma about their treatment of Muslims in Arakan. Burmese Prime Minister U Nu immediately sent a Muslim diplomat, Pe Khin, to negotiate a memorandum of understanding, so that Pakistan would cease sending aid to the mujahideen. In 1954, Kassem was arrested by Pakistani authorities, and many of his followers surrendered to the government.[1]

The post-independence government accused the mujahideen of encouraging the illegal immigration of thousands of Bengalis from East Pakistan into Arakan during their rule of the area, a claim that has been highly disputed over the decades, as it brings into question the legitimacy of the Rohingya as an ethnic group of Myanmar.[46]

Military operations against the mujahideen[edit]

Between 1950 and 1954, the Burma Army launched several military operations against the remaining mujahideen in northern Arakan.[76] The first military operation was launched in March 1950, followed by a second named Operation Mayu in October 1952. Several mujahideen leaders agreed to disarm and surrender to government forces following the successful operations.[72]

In the latter half of 1954, the mujahideen again began to carry out attacks on local authorities and military units stationed around Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. In protest, hundreds of Rakhine Buddhist monks began hunger strikes in Rangoon (present-day Yangon),[46] and in response the government launched Operation Monsoon in October 1954.[72] The Tatmadaw managed to capture the main strongholds of the mujahideen and managed to kill several of their leaders. The operation successfully reduced the mujahideen's influence and support in the region.[13]

Decline and fall of the mujahideen[edit]

A Rohingya mujahid surrenders his weapon to Brigadier-General Aung Gyi, 4 July 1961.

In 1957, 150 mujahideen, led by Shore Maluk and Zurah, surrendered to government forces. On 7 November 1957, 214 additional mujahideen under the leadership of al-Rashid disarmed and surrendered to government forces.[47]

In the beginning of the 1960s, the mujahideen began to lose its momentum after the governments of Burma and Pakistan (which Bangladesh was a part of at the time) began negotiating on how to deal with the insurgents at their border. On 4 July 1961, 290 mujahideen in southern Maungdaw Township surrendered their arms in front of Brigadier-General Aung Gyi, the then Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Army.[77] On 15 November 1961, the few remaining mujahideen surrendered to Aung Gyi in the eastern region of Buthidaung.[46]

A few dozen insurgents remained under the command of Zaffar Kawal, another group of 40 insurgents were led by Abdul Latif, and a mujahideen faction of 80 insurgents were led by Annul Jauli. All these groups lacked local support and a unifying ideology, which lead them to become rice smugglers around the end of the 1960s.[47]

Rohingya Islamist movements (1972–2001)[edit]

Islamist movements in the 1970s and 1980s[edit]

On 15 July 1972, former mujahideen leader Zaffar Kawal founded the Rohingya Liberation Party (RLP), after mobilising various former mujahideen factions under his command. Zaffar appointed himself Chairman of the party, Abdul Latif as vice-chairman and Minister of Military Affairs, and Muhammad Jafar Habib as the Secretary General, a graduate from Rangoon University. Their strength increased from 200 fighters in the beginning to 500 by 1974. The RLP was largely based in the jungles of Buthidaung, and were armed with weapons smuggled from Bangladesh. After a massive military operation by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) in July 1974, Zaffar and most of his men fled across the border into Bangladesh.[47][78]

In 1974, Muhammad Jafar Habib, the former Secretary of the RLP, founded the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) after the failure and dissolution of the RLP. The RPF had around 70 fighters,[47][2] Habib as self-appointed chairman, Nurul Islam, a Yangon-educated lawyer, as vice-chairman, and Muhammad Yunus, a medical doctor, as Secretary General.[47]

In March 1978, government forces launched a massive military operation named Operation King Dragon in northern Arakan (Rakhine State), with the focus of expelling Rohingya insurgents in the area.[citation needed] As the operation extended farther northwest, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas crossed the border seeking refuge in Bangladesh.[2][79][80]

In 1982, more radical elements broke away from the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF), and formed the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO).[2] It was led by Muhammad Yunus, the former Secretary General of the RPF. The RSO became the most influential and extreme faction amongst Rohingya insurgent groups; by basing itself on religious grounds it gained support from various Islamist groups, such as Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and Angkatan Belia Islam sa-Malaysia (ABIM) and the Islamic Youth Organisation of Malaysia in Malaysia.[2][80]

On 15 October 1982, the Burmese Citizenship Law was introduced, and with the exception of the Kaman people, most Muslims in the country were denied an ethnic minority classification, and thus were denied Burmese citizenship.[81]

A more moderate Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF), was founded in 1986 by Nurul Islam, the former Vice-Chairman of the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF), after uniting remnants of the old RPF and a handful of defectors from the RSO.[2]

Military expansions in the 1990s[edit]

In the early 1990s, the military camps of the RSO were located in the Cox's Bazar District in southern Bangladesh. RSO possessed a significant arsenal of light machine-guns, AK-47 assault rifles, RPG-2 rocket launchers, claymore mines and explosives, according to a field report conducted by correspondent Bertil Lintner in 1991.[49] The Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) was mostly armed with British manufactured 9mm Sterling L2A3 sub-machine guns, M-16 assault rifles and .303 rifles.[49]

The military expansion of the RSO resulted in the government of Myanmar launching a massive counter-offensive named Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation to expel RSO insurgents along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. In December 1991, Tatmadaw soldiers crossed the border and accidentally attacked a Bangladeshi military outpost, causing a strain in Bangladeshi-Myanmar relations. By April 1992, more than 250,000 Rohingya civilians had been forced out of northern Rakhine State (Arakan) as a result of the increased military operations in the area.[2]

In April 1994, around 120 RSO insurgents entered Maungdaw Township in Myanmar by crossing the Naf River which marks the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. On 28 April 1994, nine out of twelve bombs planted in different areas in Maungdaw by RSO insurgents exploded, damaging a fire engine and a few buildings, and seriously wounding four civilians.[82]

On 28 October 1998, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation merged with the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front and formed the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO), operating in-exile in Cox's Bazaar.[2] The Rohingya National Army (RNA) was established as its armed wing.

One of the several dozen videotapes obtained by CNN from Al-Qaeda's archives in Afghanistan in August 2002 allegedly showed fighters from Myanmar training in Afghanistan.[3] Other videotapes were marked with "Myanmar" in Arabic, and it was assumed that the footage was shot in Myanmar, though this has not been validated.[2][80] According to intelligence sources in Asia,[who?] Rohingya recruits in the RSO were paid a 30,000 Bangladeshi taka ($525 USD) enlistment reward, and a salary of 10,000 taka ($175) per month. Families of fighters who were killed in action were offered 100,000 taka ($1,750) in compensation, a promise which lured many young Rohingya men, who were mostly very poor, to travel to Pakistan, where they would train and then perform suicide attacks in Afghanistan.[2][80]

The Islamic extremist organisations Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami[83] and Harkat-ul-Ansar[84] also claimed to have branches in Myanmar.

2016–18 clashes[edit]

Members of the Myanmar Police Force patrolling in Maungdaw in September 2017.

On 9 October 2016, hundreds of unidentified insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts along Myanmar's border with Bangladesh.[85] According to government officials in the mainly Rohingya border town of Maungdaw, the attackers brandished knives, machetes and homemade slingshots that fired metal bolts. Several dozen firearms and boxes of ammunition were looted by the attackers from the border posts. The attack resulted in the deaths of nine border officers.[53] On 11 October 2016, four soldiers were killed on the third day of fighting.[54] Following the attacks, reports emerged of several human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by Burmese security forces in their crackdown on suspected Rohingya insurgents.[86]

Government officials in Rakhine State originally blamed the RSO, an Islamist insurgent group mainly active in the 1980s and 1990s, for the attacks;[87] however, on 17 October 2016, a group calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement in English) claimed responsibility.[88] In the following days, six other groups released statements, all citing the same leader.[89]

The Myanmar Army announced on 15 November 2016 that 69 Rohingya insurgents and 17 security forces (10 policemen, 7 soldiers) had been killed in recent clashes in northern Rakhine State, bringing the death toll to 134 (102 insurgents and 32 security forces). It was also announced that 234 people suspected of being connected to the attack were arrested.[18][90] Some of them will later be sentenced to death for their involvement in the 9 October's attacks[91].

Nearly two dozen prominent human rights activists, including Malala Yousafzai, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Richard Branson, called on the United Nations Security Council to intervene and end the "ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" being perpetrated in northern Rakhine State.[92]

A police document obtained by Reuters in March 2017 listed 423 Rohingyas detained by the police since 9 October 2016, 13 of whom were children, the youngest being ten years old. Two police captains in Maungdaw verified the document and justified the arrests, with one of them saying, "We the police have to arrest those who collaborated with the attackers, children or not, but the court will decide if they are guilty; we are not the ones who decide." Myanmar police also claimed that the children had confessed to their alleged crimes during interrogations, and that they were not beaten or pressured during questioning. The average age of those detained is 34, the youngest is 10, and the oldest is 75.[20][21]

The Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) stated on 1 September that the death toll had risen to 370 insurgents, 13 security personnel, two government officials and 14 civilians.[19]

A one-month unilateral ceasefire was declared by ARSA on 9 September, in an attempt to allow aid groups and humanitarian workers safe access into northern Rakhine State.[93][94][95] In a statement, the group urged the government to lay down their arms and agree to their ceasefire, which would have been in effect from 10 September until 9 October (the one-year anniversary of the first attacks on Burmese security forces by ARSA). The government rejected the ceasefire, saying that they do not "negotiate with terrorists". Zaw Htay, the spokesperson for the State Counselor's office, stated "We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists."[96]

At the end of October 2017, the UN estimated that over 600,000 Rohingya refugees had fled to Bangladesh since armed clashes resumed two months earlier.[97][98] The Bangladeshi ambassador to the UN described the situation as "untenable" for his country, which planned to sterilise Rohingya women in order to avoid a population explosion[99] and which also planned on seeking, in cooperation with the Burmese authorities, to repatriate some of the Rohingya refugees in Rakhine State.[100] However, much of the agricultural land abandoned by Rohingya refugees have been seized by the government,[101] and a vast majority of them do not have any official documents certifying that they have lived in the Rakhine State prior to the violence, due to their statelessness.

Report by the OHCHR[edit]

On 11 October 2017, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report titled the Mission report of OHCHR rapid response mission to Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, which detailed the Burmese military's "systematic process" of driving away hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from Myanmar. The report noted that prior to the attacks on 25 August 2017 and the military crackdown that ensued, the military pursed a strategy to:[55][56]

  • have male Rohingyas between the ages of 15–40 years arrested and/or arbitrarily detained
  • have Rohingya political, cultural and religious figures arrested and/or arbitrarily detained
  • ensure that access to food, livelihoods and other means of conducting daily activities and life be taken away from Rohingya villagers
  • drive out Rohingya villagers en masse through repeated acts of humiliation and violence, such as [the] incitement of [sectarian] hatred, violence and killings
  • instill deep and widespread fear and trauma (physical, emotional and psychological) in Rohingyas, through acts of brutality; namely killings, disappearances, torture, and rape (and other forms of sexual violence)

See also[edit]


a 14 soldiers, 30 policemen and 1 immigration officer.[18][19]

b 2012: 168,[32][33] 2013: 50+,[34][35] 2016–18: 6,700+[36][37][38][39]

  1. ^ See (Leider 2013) for the academic opinion on the historical usage of the term by several academics and authors. (Leider 2013: 215–216): Lewa in 2002 wrote that "the Rohingya Muslims are ethnically and religiously related to the Chittagonians of southern Bangladesh."
    Selth in 2003: "These are Bengali Muslims who live in Arakan State... Most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20 centuries."
    (Leider 2013: 216) citing Christina Fink: "small armed group of Muslims generally known as Rohingya".


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Further reading[edit]