Violence in Myanmar
Radicalizing Rohingyas

The Rohingyas, a long-suffering Muslim minority in Myanmar, have lately become the cause célèbre of the international human rights community as they face a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military. But ever since a series of border attacks in October, many Rohingyas are now turning to internationally funded Islamist insurgents to resist the government. The New York Times:

The group that attacked the border posts, Harakah al-Yaqin, is believed to have several hundred recruits, substantial popular support and ties to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. Separately, there has been a surge of international humanitarian and political support for the Rohingya cause, mainly from Muslim countries that have cast the Rohingya as the Palestinians of Southeast Asia. […]

In addition, some analysts fear that turning the Rohingya into a transnational Muslim cause could draw foreign jihadists of varying stripes to Myanmar, adding terrorism to an already combustible mix and giving the Myanmar military a convenient excuse for a draconian response.

But after decades of persecution and violence, to which the rest of the world largely responded with a shrug, some Rohingya say an armed response is overdue.

“They are doing good things,” Mr. Naing Lin said of the insurgents. “They are protecting our rights. If it’s needed, I might join them.”

The Times story draws on an analytical report from the International Crisis Group, one of the few NGOs that has done the serious reporting necessary to convey the complexities of the conflict to a Western audience. Unfortunately, most other human rights groups have oversimplified the situation, casting the Rohingyas as the noble victims of a brutal military and a callous Prime Minister, the once-beloved Aung San Suu Kyi. As Walter Russell Mead argued last month, such uninformed pleas serve little purpose beside moralistic signaling, failing to illuminate the harsh political realities on the ground.

This is not to minimize the Rohingyas’ plight. They have undeniably suffered from religious discrimination, exclusionary citizenship laws, and now, an indiscriminate army campaign that has included the burning of villages and systematic rape. But troubling developments within the Rohingya population cannot be overlooked. As the ICG report makes clear, the rise of insurgent groups would be unthinkable without a growing acceptance of their tactics among the Rohingya population, who had largely foresworn violence in the past. And the specter of international terrorist groups joining the fight bodes ill for any peaceful resolution.

Resolving this kind of intractable conflict will require painstaking diplomacy, not facile pleas to implement an untenable peace. Unfortunately, the human rights community has too often preferred to pin its lofty hopes on simplistic narratives: holding up Suu Kyi as a paragon of democracy and human rights, for instance, and then turning on her when she was unable to resolve the conflict overnight. The Obama administration, for its part, played into the canonization of the Prime Minister, going so far as to lift all sanctions on Myanmar as a reward for her progress on human rights—even as international terror networks metastasized on Obama’s watch. No U.S. administration can be blamed for the conflict in Myanmar, but the dismal situation currently unfolding there certainly belies Obama’s optimistic narrative of its great progress.

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