Why the rise of ‘terrorism’ in Myanmar (Burma) should surprise no one

Before this piece goes any further I need to spell out that I am not a big fan of the use of force unless absolutely necessary (and when necessary it is best to use it wisely while still protecting the lives of the force wielders).  Clearly it is required in some situations but if public perception is that it is being applied too quickly or too harshly things go awry.  That is why police officers are often (rightly or wrongly) convicted in the court of public opinion when some amateur video suggests they have overstepped their authority and shot someone.  It is also probably why the anti-fascist/extreme RW/neo-Nazi Antifa may be losing its clear advantage over repugnant skinheads: it seems to resort to the same violence it is protesting against.

In some situations it is easy to understand why a group decides to use violence even if it is hard to provide outright ‘support’. A case where this appears to be true is unfolding in Myanmar (Burma), a southeast nation still emerging from decades of military rule under what everyone thought would be the wise leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.   Well, things have turned out a little differently.  Not only has Ms. Suu Kyi been described as autocratic, she has not decried a clear human rights violation in her own country – the army’s campaign of rape, killing and destruction in the northwest corner (Rakhine state),  an area where the Rohingya live.

The Rohingya are a Muslim people who probably arrived in Myanmar from neighbouring Bangladesh centuries ago.  The state, however, sees them as usurpers and johnny-come-latelys and wants them to return to Bangladesh.  It refuses to recognise the Rohingya as an official ethnic group which seriously undermines their representation and rights.  To make things worse, a Buddhist monk some have called Myanmar’s Usama bin Laden, Ashin Wirathu, leads an Islamophobic group called Ma Ba Tha and has inspired Burmese (the dominant ethnic group) attacks on unarmed villagers.  Tens of thousands of Rohingya have tried to flee both west to Bangladesh (more recently) or southwards on flimsy boats where they  have landed (if they don’t drown) in Thailand and Malaysia only to be enslaved at times.

In response to the one-sided violence a group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has arisen and has carried out attacks against Myanmar soldiers.  Ms. Suu Kyi has called them ‘terrorists’ and there are allegations that foreign jihadis have joined the group (perhaps because they also call themselves Harakah al-Yaqin – Arabic for ‘the Faith Movement’, which is a little odd since no one in Rakhine speaks Arabic that I know of).

This development was eminently predictable  since no outside body, including the UN and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, seemed to be capable of doing anything to lessen the violence against the Rohingya.  What is very worrying is the possibility that the conflict will draw in foreign jihadis (if it hasn’t already), perhaps some leaving Islamic State in Iraq/Syria.  We saw an outflow from Afghanistan post Soviet withdrawal to Bosnia in the early 1990s and could witness similar movements in a host of wars including Myanmar (the possibility that Myanmar may become a new jihadi battleground, as well as two dozen other cases, is covered in my soon to be released third book The Lesser Jihads).

Is the ARSA a terrorist group as Myanmar claims?  I have no idea and I am the last person to support terrorism.  The problem is that we have no idea what of any ‘ideology’ the ARSA espouses and to date they have only targeted the military.  The militants say they just want the killing to stop and self-determination for the Rohingya. We will wait and see how this pans out.

So while I would prefer a peaceful resolution to the situation in Rakhine the violent surge by the ARSA is easily comprehended.  The Rohingya do not stand a chance against the army and extremist Buddhists (should this not be an oxymoron?). If Myanmar does not change its approach or the international community does not step up we will see more killing, perhaps worse.  The time for another kind of ‘action’ is now.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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