All Unquiet on the Western Front

By Aung Zaw 20 October 2016

RANGOON — The border attacks in northern Arakan State were troubling. And there is no doubt that the attacks will only generate more fear, insecurity, and suspicion among Burma’s general population. Also certain is that, if the attacks continue, the Muslim population in the state will face a government crackdown and, in turn, a murky future.

We can only hope that these well-coordinated, ostensibly “terrorist” attacks won’t fuel more violence and a repeat of communal violence that, in the past, has spread to other parts of Burma. Indeed, the authorities must restore calm—and must themselves keep a cool head while trying to extinguish the thorny issues in northern Arakan State that have since convinced observers both within and beyond Burma’s borders that there is some sort of radical element afoot.

A curfew has been extended in affected areas, and Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe, minister of home affairs, has warned locals to abide by the law, asking them not to leave the area. Buddhist Arakanese there have also reportedly asked security forces to provide them with arms and to form a local militia.

The attacks appear to have been well planned and coordinated. According to some Asian intelligence sources, military training was provided near the Burma-Bangladeshi border area; similar information was released during the government’s press briefing, based on the confessions of those arrested so far in northern Arakan State.

Ten days before the attacks, militants, looking to join groups in Arakan State, allegedly crossed the Naf River that marks the Burma-Bangladeshi border. Aqa Mul Mujahidin, a group unknown previously, carried out the attacks, the President’s Office said, and has links to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, a group that has seemingly been defunct for some 20 years but which is often invoked in Burma by those fearful of Islamic extremism. Indeed, the government is under the impression that the organization receives financial backing from global Islamic terrorist networks and is led by a 45-year-old living in Maungdaw Township’s Kyauk Pyin Seik village who attended a “six-month Taliban training course in Pakistan,” according to the press release.

However, Burma’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, currently in India, told the Hindustan Times: “We don’t know the full details. We don’t know when those six months were. And we are also told he had been receiving funding from various Islamic countries. That is information from just one source. We can’t take it for granted that it’s absolutely correct.”

The government has asked for cooperation from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said “Bangladesh has been very cooperative…they have given us information when there was an attack looming and we were able to make necessary preparations.”

When questioned on the the issue of terrorism, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate treaded carefully while talking about new challenges facing her country.

“Basically what we’re trying to get rid of is terrorism, the use of terror to achieve one’s ends… I’m certainly not in favor of violence, let alone terrorism and I think we all need to work together to find the answer to why people resort to terrorism. What is it about, it’s not as easy as some people think it is, people resort to terror because they like terror—no, it’s not like that,” she said.

The Rohingya—the country’s oft-persecuted Muslim group—has swiftly been caught up in the hunt for suspects.

Richard Horsey, a political analyst, told the Brussels-based International Crisis Group last week that “there is clear evidence that many of the attacks were from the Rohingya community, who make up 90 per cent of the population in this area of [Arakan] State. But it is not clear how they were organized.”

The Rohingya are not an officially recognized ethnicity in Burma. Indeed, even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, “We think that saying ‘Muslims in the [Arakan] State’ is a factual [position].”

Soon after the attacks, the military sent troops to the area, and Burma’s Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing reportedly gave the green-light to use air assistance to evacuate Buddhist Arakanese locals and civil servants who had been trapped by the unrest, as well as to deploy more troops, a decision backed by a majority of Burma’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population.

Given the country’s past experience with Mujahideen separatist outfits, the attacks have alarmed many Buddhist Burmese and more moderate Muslims. In 1948, Mujahideen violence erupted in Arakan State soon after Burma regained its independence; the rebellion received support in parts of Eastern Pakistan (what is today Bangladesh). Some Muslim leaders in northern Arakan State who had served under the British took part in the rebellion. In April of 1942, when Japanese troops occupied Burma, British soldiers who had retreated to India set up the V Force to gather intelligence, in the process recruiting Muslims to work on the frontline.

There were Arakanese Muslims who played key roles in reconnaissance missions, the rescuing of downed aviators, and raids on Japanese collaborators. British officers serving in V Force provided assistance, particularly medical aid, to the Muslim populations, wrote Moshe Yegar, author of the book “Muslims of Burma.”

It took years to quell Mujahideen movements in the course of the 1950s under late Prime Minister U Nu’s government. In 1961, the Burma Army finally forced Mujahideen forces to surrender.

In any case, news of alleged militant attacks and security forces’ response has taken center stage in the media, siphoning away attention from Burma’s north, where skirmishes between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army have flared up over the past several weeks.

The recent attacks in Arakan State have no doubt provided more authority to armed forces and to police to tighten security, set up checkpoints, send more troops to seal the border area, and even prevent humanitarian assistance from reaching refugee camps along the border.

Also of note is that the attacks took place only one month after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s controversial visit to Arakan State. Before her official visit to the United States and prior to delivering her first speech at the United Nations in her capacity as foreign minister, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gave the go-ahead to establish an advisory commission—headed by Annan—that would look for solutions to conflict in Arakan State. Local Arakanese strongly opposed the Annan-led commission and staged protests during his visit. In light of the attacks, there is now fear among diplomats, some Burmese, and the international community that the commission is in jeopardy.

Last week, President Htin Kyaw, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing held a meeting at the presidential residence in Naypyidaw. Deputy Army Chief Gen Soe Win, Defense Minister Gen Sein Win, and Minister of Home Affairs Lt Gen Kyaw Swe also attended.

They discussed overall security issues, including the recent attacks, clashes in Kachin and northern Shan states, the actions of National Ceasefire Agreement signatory the Restoration Council of Shan State, the conditions in the Wa and Mongla autonomous regions, and plans for improving the combat-readiness of the Myanmar Police Force.

But the issue in Arakan State is different, and it received special attention. The security forces seemed to have information to feed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw.

The meeting was itself an interesting development, as the country has the National Defense and Security Council, a powerful body comprised of 11 members including the two vice presidents, the two speakers of the Parliament, and the foreign affairs minister. But the two vice presidents and the parliamentary speakers were not at the meeting. According to the constitution, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw are members of the council, in addition to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Gen Soe Win, and Gen Sein Win.

This meeting took place as Burma’s government struggles to transform the old system and steer the country in a new direction, and as a new security crisis unfurls on the country’s western flank, in northern Arakan State, a situation made precarious by the competing sympathies of Arakanese and the international community when it comes to the plight of Rohingya Muslims.

Looking ahead, Burma’s six-month-old government will need the full cooperation of the security forces and as much reliable information on the ground as possible if it wants to contain a perfect storm of events that could muddy the country’s much-lauded democratic rebirth.