When the most recent and dramatic stage of the genocide against the Rohingya started with Myanmar’s “clearance operations” in August 2017, the immediate trigger was an attack against a military border post by a previously insignificant insurgent group that called itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
That attack was significant. Dozens of people died and it provided the Myanmar military with a casus belli of sorts to crack down on insurgent groups in the area — a crackdown it then extended to all civilians associated with the group by virtue of supposedly belonging to the same ethnicity, the Rohingya. In the space of just over six months, the “clearance operations” cleared at least 70 percent of the roughly 1 million Rohingya people from the lands of their ancestors.
But the operations were somewhat less successful at “clearing” actual militant groups. The most significant of these groups is the Arakan Army (AA), a long-established ethnic militia of Rakhine Buddhists on the borders of Myanmar. It has been noticeably more effective at resisting the onslaught of the military than other comparable groups, despite bearing the brunt of attacks for decades now (if we also include precursor groups). In the past couple of years, since the genocidal cleansing started in earnest, it has also been the most effective internal group in fighting back against federal Myanmar forces.
The AA is not just a headache for the Myanmar military in terms of fighting prowess; it is also a headache in the ideological battle. The military and the civilian government in Myanmar attempted to construct a justification narrative for their genocidal actions in 2017-18 around the “terrorist threat” that Rohingya insurgent groups supposedly represented. For that to have any traction internationally, and even in some domestic circles, it had to be presented as Islamist terrorism — otherwise, observers might think that the Rohingya were just defending themselves from an overbearing Myanmar-Buddhist nationalist, authoritarian state. But the AA is not an Islamist group, and it is not fighting on the basis of, or in order to promote, anything about Muslims. It is essentially an ethnic militia in the same way that other Buddhist or even Christian ethnic groups in Myanmar have similar groups.
ARSA, on the other hand, is an Islamist extremist militia. The problem with ARSA is that it is just a scattering of a few unhinged individuals with very little organization. It is not in any way a credible threat to the Myanmar military. Yes, it can ambush and kill policemen and border forces. And it does kill some such forces in scattered attacks every few months. But it is not a military or even a serious insurgent force. “Terrorist cell” might be the most threatening description that would still be approximately accurate.
But one insightful analysis by David Scott Mathieson in Asia Times does explain why ARSA and the “imminent terrorist threat” have been coming up more frequently in the news and pronouncements by the Myanmar military and government in recent weeks. The country is due to report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the measures it has taken to protect the Rohingya in accordance with a January order. It has outright flouted the order and intensified its attacks on the few remaining Rohingya civilians in the region, and on AA positions, especially since the coronavirus outbreak took over the international news cycle, giving Myanmar cover from international attention.
Myanmar is trying to revert back to the original justification for its ‘clearance operations’.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
So Myanmar is trying to revert back to the original justification for its “clearance operations” — trying to conflate the Islamist terrorist desires of ARSA with the genuine fighting force of the AA, and using that to portray the whole 1 million-plus Rohingya, and especially those still remaining in the country, as an Islamist extremist, existential threat to the state. And that then justifies, in its mind, completing the “clearance” of all Rohingya.
Of course, the ICJ will not fall for this transparent ploy. But the ICJ is not likely to be the intended audience for this messaging: Rather, the aim is to shore up the Myanmar government/military position on the domestic stage and to furnish China with the arguments with which to veto any UN Security Council resolution aimed at censuring Myanmar or altering its behavior. If they succeed in this, which they likely will by the time the ICJ reaches any final verdict in a few years’ time, the genocide will already be a fait accompli.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim