When terrorism is a scapegoat for even more horrendous violence

We all know that terrorism is an act of violence.  While countries may not agree 100% on definitions – some note that terrorism has to be carried out for political and/or ideological and/or religious reasons (i.e. Canada) – they all agree that it is an act of serious violence or a plan to execute such an act.  Futhermore, in light of the successful attacks we continue to see around the world on a daily basis – sigh! – there is no question that violence is both the vehicle and the message.  Terrorists use violence to make their point, whatever that may be, and to scare people and states into concessions that are consistent with what the terrorists are trying to achieve.

Of course we should do all we can to prevent terrorism.  That is why we have security intelligence services and police forces that engage in investigations to identify terrorist cells and stop them from succeeding.   In addition, we have to acknowledge that terrorism is a constant threat in a lot of areas of the world.  Myanmar is one of them.

There is a terrorist group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has links to individuals outside Myanmar.  ARSA has carried out acts of terrorism against the Myanmar Army, including one in 2016 that killed 12 officers.  We could quibble over whether an attack on an army outpost constitutes terrorism – many say that victims must be civilians – but it was certainly a serious act of violence for ideological reasons.  Myanmar is right to take action against the group.

What Myanmar is not right to do is to use ARSA as an excuse for what it has done and continues to do in Rakhine state and the largely Muslim Rohingya population.  There is no other way to describe its actions than to call them for what they are – genocide.  Thousands of villages have been destroyed, untold people have been killed, women raped, and close to, if not over, one million Rohingya have been forced to flee to beighbourig Bangladesh where they are living in abject conditions in refugee camps.  This is one of the world’s largest current humanitarian crises.

So what does Myanmar say about all this?  Well, besides maintaining – I am not making this up – that the Rohingya burned down their own houses and left the country of their own free will, iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stated that terrorism, not social discrimination or inequality, triggered the crisis.  Quote: “The danger of terrorist activities which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine remains real and present today.  Unless this security challenge is addressed, the risk of intercommunal violence will remain. It is a threat that could have grave consequences, not just for Myanmar but also for other countries in our region and beyond.”

This is a travesty and a shameful thing for the Nobel Laureate to say.  Myanmar’s campaigns against the Rohingya, an ethno-religious group the state refuses to recognise, have been going on for decades.  The most recent army operations may indeed have followed the 2016 ARSA action but the military probably saw that attack as a convenient excuse to rid the nation of the Rohingya ‘problem’ once and for all.  Besides, does the death of 12 people, as tragic as that is, justify the deaths of thousands and the forced eviction of a million?  This is overkill (no pun intended).

Some have said that Aung San Suu Kyi’s hands are tied and that she has to be careful to not challenge the state, which is still largely dominated by the army.  Perhaps, but there is such a thing as speaking truth to power.  Ms. Suu Kyi has failed on this front in my opinion.

PS For more detail on the Rohingya situation I can shamelessly recommend two of my books.  I have a section on Mynamar in my third book The Lesser Jihads which goes into this a lot more.  I also treat the issue in a book I am currently writing for Lynne Rienner When Religion Kills, which I hope will be available later next year.

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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