Guest Column

The Specter of Sectarian Violence Looms Large in Arakan State

By Bidhayak Das 21 October 2016

Videos of fundamentalist Muslims appearing to urge Rohingya and other Muslims in Arakan State to become jihadists and to “save” their family and home have recently gone viral. Unsurprisingly, emotions ranging from fear to anger have flared across Burma, especially within the government and among intelligence agencies. Indeed, many see these tensions as thick with the potential to turn Arakan State into a theater of sectarian violence once more.

Something surely needs to be done, and quickly. But the question we ought to be asking is this: are the right steps being taken to stem current hostilities? Since fresh violence erupted in northern Arakan State on Oct. 9, creating a tinderbox of anxieties, the answer seems to be “no.” State security’s reactions have been knee-jerk at best, and lacking any sort of foresight.

For instance, Police Chief Maj-Gen Zaw Win has merely stated that security measures along the 271-kilometer riverine and land border with Bangladesh are weak. His assurances of deploying forces and using helicopters would likely add little to the Burma Army’s security capabilities.

We don’t have to look far to see how these situations can play out. The social unrest, communal strikes, and cross-border “terrorism” in neighboring India—particularly in the country’s northeastern states and in the Kashmir region—are sterling examples of the complexities and long-simmering challenges of containing such issues. States such as Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and several others have struggled with large inflows of migrants from nearby Bangladesh: smoldering resentment of Bangladeshi migrants metastasized to communal unrest before eventually transforming into insurgency and violence hinged on fundamentalism.

The Sept. 18 attack by Pakistan-based “terror” groups on an Indian army camp—which occurred near the de facto border and military Line of Control in the Uri area near Kashmir—killed 18 Indian army soldiers, and it perhaps bears the most resemblance to what happened at border guard outposts in northern Arakan State’s Maungdaw and Rathedaung Townships.

If the Uri attack, which was carried out with immaculate precision, is anything to go by, then it is anyone’s guess as to how the story might unfold if the attackers in northern Arakan State have grander plans in mind. While the videos showing the armed men calling for jihad in Burma have not been traced to a specific terrorist organization, there is the possibility that these groups were influenced by or have links to Jaish-e-Mohammed, a jihadist group active in Kashmir that allegedly masterminded the Uri attack, or even to larger groups such as the Islamic State.

The attack on police in Maungdaw Township’s Pyaungpit Village by hundreds of people wielding pistols and swords is certainly not how a terrorist group would choose to operate. Moreover, the violence in the nearby village of Taung Paing Nyar, where the dead bodies of seven men who had been killed with rudimentary weapons were found, is perhaps also a dark indication of the communal animosities that continue to pervade areas of Arakan State.

These incidents have given rise to a different form of apprehension among residents of Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, and other cities. “We fear a repeat of 2012”—when communal strife between local Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya came to a head—“but we also feel that it’d be more devastating [if violence continued] with terror groups trying to get a foothold here,” is how Tin Aung, a resident of Sittwe, reacted when asked to reflect on the current situation.

On the other hand, one of the viral videos shows a cleric asserting that Burma’s new government has made promises to protect Muslims but that the state’s so far empty words have forced Muslims to ensure their own safety—“to pick up the gun and save [themselves].”

So would a military-led offensive against an unidentified “terrorist” group work? Let’s not forget that Arakan State is already heavily militarized, a reality felt most acutely by residents in the northern part of the state. Deploying more armed forces there would likely only make an already  precarious situation even worse. While the recent incidents in Maungdaw and Rathedaung Townships and the curfew that has followed share similarities to what has been happening along India’s northern borders, government actions—or inactions—don’t have to be the same.

Following the Uri terror attack India responded with a surgical strike across the Line of Control on Sept. 29. These strikes have evoked mixed responses. Critics in India have questioned whether it would further escalate the conflict in Kashmir, but there’s been strong support from Indian civil society, and foreign governments have defended India’s position on stemming cross-border terrorism. But violence in Kashmir is multifarious, and Indian efforts to fight terror across its borders are doing everything possible to turn the Kashmir movement into a jihad.

Burma could take a cautionary lesson from India in deciding what’s good for Arakan State. There’s a need to de-escalate conflict in northern Arakan. Securing the borders is one possible way, the other surely is to take the people—that includes the Rohingya and other Muslims—into confidence and provide them with a sense of security. This perhaps is a better way forward than allowing the armed forces to stoke the embers.

For now, perhaps we ought to be content with what U Kyaw Tin, deputy minister of foreign affairs, recently said: that an investigation is underway to see if the assailants had links to Bangladesh and that, if necessary, the Bangladeshi ambassador to Burma would be summoned. And he reiterated State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s suggestion: respond within the law.

Burma’s State Counselor is perhaps confident that the advisory committee she has instituted under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan will get to the crux of the conflict in Arakan State and ultimately discover a lasting solution. That will be easier said than done. But looking ahead, we should give her the benefit of the doubt, and distill key lessons from Kashmir and other areas in the region as Burma seeks to bring peace to Arakan State once and for all.

Bidhayak Das is a political analyst and an independent journalist. His research focuses on peace and conflict. The views expressed above are his. He can be reached at [email protected].