Rohingya insurgency in Western Myanmar

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Rohingya insurgency in Western Myanmar
Part of the Internal conflict in Myanmar
Map of Rohingya people in Rakhine State.png
Rohingya population in Rakhine State (Arakan)
Date 1947 – present
(70 years)
Location Northern Rakhine State,
Myanmar-Bangladesh border
Status Ongoing


Former combatants:
Union of Burma (1948–1962)
Military governments (1962–2011)

ARSA (since 2016)
Former combatants:
RLP (1972–1974)
RPF (1974–1982)
RSO (1982–1998)[1]
ARIF (1986–1998)[2]
ARNO (1998–2001)[2]
Supported by:
Hezbi Islami
Hizbul Mujahideen

 Pakistan (until 1950)[3]
Commanders and leaders

Htin Kyaw
(President of Myanmar)
Aung San Suu Kyi
(State Counsellor of Myanmar)
Maung Maung Soe
(Commander of the WRMC)[4]
Former commanders:
Aung Gyi (1947–1963)
Tin Oo (1947–1976)
Than Shwe (1992–2011)

Thein Sein (2011–16)

Ata Ullah[5][6]
Former commanders:
Mir Kassem (POW) (1947–1952)
Abdul Latif (1947–1961)
Annul Jauli (1947–1961)
Zaffar Kawal (1961–1974)
Muhammad Jafar Habib (1972–1982)
Muhammad Yunus (1974–2001)

Nurul Islam (1974–2001)
Units involved


Rohingya National Army (1998–2001)[2][8]

33 infantry battalions[4]
Previous totals:

1,100 (1947–1950)[9]

500 (2016)[7]
Previous totals:
2,000–5,000 (1947–1950)[9]

2,000 (1952)[9]
Casualties and losses
13 soldiers and 19 policemen killed[10][11][12][13]
102 killed[10][14] and 423 arrested[15][16]

134 killed in total[10][17][18]
23,000 internally displaced[19]
69,000[19]–75,000[20] fled abroad

30,000 internally displaced[21]

168,000 fled abroad[22]

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 Maungdaw District, which borders Bangladesh.

From 1947 to 1961, local mujahideen fought government forces in an attempt to have the mostly Rohingya populated Mayu peninsula in northern Rakhine State secede from Myanmar, so it could be annexed by East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh).[23] 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.[24][25]

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.[26] In the 1990s, the well-armed Rohingya Solidarity Organisation was the main perpetrator of attacks on Burmese authorities near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.[27]

In October 2016, clashes erupted on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, resulting in the deaths of at least 40 people, excluding civilians.[17][28][29] In November 2016, violence erupted again, bringing the death toll to 134.[10]


The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority that mainly live in the northern region of Rakhine State, Myanmar, and have been described as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.[30][31][32] They describe themselves as descendants of Arab traders who settled in the region many generations ago.[30] Some scholars have stated that they have been present in the region since the 15th century.[33] However, they have been denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar, which sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.[30] In modern times, the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar dates back to the 1970s.[34] Since then, Rohingya people have regularly been made the target of persecution by the government and nationalist Buddhists.[35]

Mujahideen separatist movements (1947–1960s)[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.[36] Jinnah refused, saying that 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.[37]

Local mujahideen were subsequently formed against the Burmese government,[38] 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.[39]

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.

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.[3]

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.[24]

Military operations against the mujahideen[edit]

Between 1950 and 1954, the Burma Army launched several military operations against the remaining mujahideen in northern Arakan.[40] 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.[36]

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),[24] and in response the government launched Operation Monsoon in October 1954.[36] 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.[9]

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.[25]

In the beginning of the 1960s, the mujahideen began to lose its momentum after the governments of Myanmar (Burma) and Pakistan (which controlled Bangladesh 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.[41] On 15 November 1961, the few remaining mujahideen surrendered to Aung Gyi in the eastern region of Buthidaung.[24]

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.[25]

Rohingya Islamist movements (1972–present)[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.[25][42]

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,[25][2] Habib as self-appointed Chairman, Nurul Islam, a Yangon-educated lawyer, as Vice-Chairman, and Muhammad Yunus, a medical doctor, as Secretary General.[25]

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.[26] As the operation extended farther northwest, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas crossed the border seeking refuge in Bangladesh.[2][43][44]

In 1982, more radical elements broke away from the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF), and formed the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO).[1][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][44]

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.[45]

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 Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (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.[27] 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.[27]

The military expansion of the RSO resulted in the government of Myanmar launching a massive counter-offensive 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.[46]

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.[47] 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][44] 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][44]

The Islamic extremist organisations Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami[48] and Harkat-ul-Ansar[49] also claimed to have branches in Myanmar.

2016–17 border clashes[edit]

On 9 October 2016, hundreds of unidentified insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts along Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. 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.[28] On 11 October 2016, four Tatmadaw soldiers were killed on the third day of fighting.[29] Government officials in Rakhine State blamed the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), an Islamist insurgent group mainly active in the 1980s and 1990s, for the attacks.[50]

On 17 October 2016, a group calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin (also known in English as the Faith Movement) released a video on several social media sites claiming responsibility for the attacks.[51] In the following days, six other groups released statements, all citing the same leader.[52]

Following the attacks, reports emerged of several human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by Burmese security forces in their crackdown on suspected Rohingya insurgents.[53]

On 2 November 2016, the Rakhine police chief announced that his force had begun recruiting non-Rohingya locals for a new branch of "regional police", which would be trained in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, then be sent back to their villages to defend them.[54]

On 15 November 2016, the Tatmadaw announced 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.[10]

On 14 December 2016, the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that in interviews, the leaders of Harakah al-Yaqin claimed to have links to private individuals in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The ICG also reported that Rohingya villagers had been "secretly trained" by Afghan and Pakistani fighters.[6][55]

On 30 December 2016, 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.[56]

On 21 January 2017, the bodies of three Muslim Rohingya men were found in shallow graves in Maungdaw. The men were locals who had worked closely with the local administration, and the government believes they were murdered by Rohingya insurgents in a reprisal attack.[57]

In March 2017, a police document obtained by Reuters 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.[15][16]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]