ICG Warns Heavy-Handed Military Response Could Abet ARSA in Rakhine

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 28 August 2017

YANGON — The International Crisis Group (ICG) has warned that a disproportionate government military response without any overarching political strategy will play directly into the hands of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which continues to commit deadly attacks in northern Rakhine State.

ARSA claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks on 30 police outposts and an army base—killing 12 security personnel—and sending both Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine fleeing their homes.

The Myanmar government promptly denounced ARSA as a terrorist organization and on Sunday reported it had targeted civilians.

In a statement released on Monday, the Belgium-based transnational NGO that carries out field research to prevent and resolve conflict said ARSA was well aware that their latest attacks were likely to provoke a strong military response and a political backlash—as they did in 2016—which will greatly harm Rohingya.

“That almost certainly is its aim. Despite its claim that it is “protecting” the Rohingya, it knows that it is provoking the security forces into a heavy-handed military response, hoping that this will further alienate Rohingya communities, drive support for ARSA, and place the spotlight of the world back on military abuses in northern Rakhine State,” the statement said.

While suggesting the government quickly addresses legitimate Rakhine and Rohingya security concerns, the ICG also suggests that if the military response is not to entrench worsening cycles of violence, it must respect the principle of proportionality and distinguish between insurgents and Rohingya civilians.

“It must provide protection to all civilians caught up in or fleeing the fighting. And it must provide unfettered access to humanitarian agencies and media to affected areas, lest it contribute to a dangerous, violent polarization, increase alienation and despair, and enable provocative misinformation to take hold,” it said.

U Maung Maung Soe, a Yangon-based conflict and ethnic affairs observer, said he welcomed the ICG warning on the military’s response.

“How [the military] takes action is important,” he said, mentioning that he had heard reports the terrorist group was using women and children as human shields during confrontations with security forces.

“It’s hard for the security forces…If there is no response, there will be more violence out there,” he told The Irrawaddy on Monday.

He said if all the ethnic Rakhine people fled the area due to the violent attacks, the ARSA would be the winner.

“So, action must be taken very carefully,” he said. “To do so, the government and the military have to be on the same page to tackle the issue on both local and international fronts.”

The ICG said the current crisis was neither unpredicted nor unpreventable. The anti-Muslim violence of 2012, and the emergence of a new insurgent group last year were both clear signals that the volatile dynamics of Rakhine State urgently needed a political—not just a military—response to address the concerns of all communities in the state.

“Yet the Myanmar government has not moved quickly or decisively enough to remedy the deep, years-long policy failures that are leading some Muslims in Rakhine state to take up violence,” the statement says.

The statement also urges the government to implement the recommendations outlined in the recently-released Kofi Annan-led advisory commission’s report on Rakhine State, which was welcomed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led government.

“The recent attacks have created a far more difficult political context for the government to implement these recommendations, but have also reinforced the urgency of doing so,” the ICG says.

The statement also warned that the impact of failing to address the roots of the crisis will not fall only on Rakhine State but on Myanmar as a whole.

“The deepening crisis in Rakhine State threatens to sweep aside all other priorities as it will continue to dominate both domestic debate and international engagement with Myanmar,” it says.