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Recent weeks have seen an escalation of violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine, the poorest state of Myanmar. A tide of displaced people are seeking refuge from atrocities – they are fleeing both on foot and by boat to Bangladesh. It is the latest surge of displaced people, and is exacerbated by the recent activity of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Religious and ethnic differences have been widely considered the leading cause of the persecution. But it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that there are not other factors at play. Especially given that Myanmar is home to 135 official recognised ethnic groups (the Rohingya were removed from this list in 1982).
In analysing the recent violence, much of the western media has focused on the role of the military and the figure of the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her status as a Nobel Peace prize laureate has been widely questioned since the latest evidence of atrocities emerged.
But there remain issues that are not being explored. It is also critical to look beyond religious and ethnic differences towards other root causes of persecution, vulnerability and displacement.
We must consider vested political and economic interests as contributing factors to forced displacement in Myanmar, not just of the Rohingya people but of other minorities such as the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, and the Mon.
Land grabbing and confiscation in Myanmar is widespread. It is not a new phenomenon.
Since the 1990s, military juntas have been taking away the land of smallholders across the country, without any compensation and regardless of ethnicity or religious status.
Land has often been acquired for “development” projects, including military base expansions, natural resource exploitation and extraction, large agriculture projects, infrastructure and tourism. For example, in Kachin state the military confiscated more than 500 acres of villagers’ land to support extensive gold mining.
Development has forcibly displaced thousands of people – both internally and across borders with Bangladesh, India, and Thailand – or compelled them to set out by sea to Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia.
In 2011, Myanmar instituted economic and political reforms that led it to be dubbed “Asia’s final frontier” as it opened up to foreign investment. Shortly afterwards, in 2012, violent attacks escalated against the Rohingya in Rakhine state and, to a lesser extent, against the Muslim Karen. Meanwhile, the government of Myanmar established several laws relating to the management and distribution of farmland.
These moves were severely criticised for reinforcing the ability of large corporations to profit from land grabs. For instance, agribusiness multinationals such as POSCO Daewoo have eagerly entered the market, contracted by the government.
A regional prize
Myanmar is positioned between countries that have long eyed its resources, such as China and India. Since the 1990s, Chinese companies have exploited timber, rivers and minerals in Shan State in the North.
This led to violent armed conflicts between the military regime and armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its ethnic allies in eastern Kachin State and northern Shan State.
In Rakhine State, Chinese and Indian interests are part of broader China-India relations. These interests revolve principally around the construction of infrastructure and pipelines in the region. Such projects claim to guarantee employment, transit fees and oil and gas revenues for the whole of Myanmar.
Among numerous development projects, a transnational pipeline built by China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) connecting Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, to Kunming, China, began operations in September 2013. The wider efforts to take Myanmar oil and gas from the Shwe gas field to Guangzhou, China, are well documented.
A parallel pipeline is also expected to send Middle East oil from the Kyaukphyu port to China. However, the neutral Advisory Commission on Rakhine State has urged the Myanmar government to carry out a comprehensive impact assessment.
In fact, the Commission recognises that pipelines put local communities at risk. There is significant local tension related to land seizures, insufficient compensation for damages, environmental degradation, and an influx of foreign workers rather than increased local employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Sittwe deep-sea port was financed and constructed by India as part of the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project. The aim is to connect the northeast Mizoram state in India with the Bay of Bengal.
Coastal areas of Rakhine State are clearly of strategic importance to both India and China. The government of Myanmar therefore has vested interests in clearing land to prepare for further development and to boost its already rapid economic growth.
All of this takes place within the wider context of geopolitical maneuvering. The role of Bangladesh in fuelling ethnic tensions is also hotly contested. In such power struggles, the human cost is terribly high.
Compounding the vulnerability of minorities
In Myanmar, the groups that fall victim to land grabbing have often started in an extremely vulnerable state and are left even worse off. The treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State is the highest profile example of broader expulsion that is inflicted on minorities.
When a group is marginalised and oppressed it is difficult to reduce their vulnerability and protect their rights, including their property. In the case of the Rohingya, their ability to protect their homes was decimated through the revocation of their Burmese citizenship.
Since the late 1970s around a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar to escape persecution. Tragically, they are often marginalised in their host countries.
With no country willing to take responsibility for them, they are either forced or encouraged to continuously cross borders. The techniques used to encourage this movement have trapped the Rohingya in a vulnerable state.
The tragedy of the Rohingya is part of a bigger picture which sees the oppression and displacement of minorities across Myanmar and into neighbouring countries.
The relevance and complexity of religious and ethnic issues in Myanmar are undeniable. But we cannot ignore the political and economic context and the root causes of displacement that often go undetected.
Giuseppe Forino, PhD Candidate in Disaster Management, University of Newcastle; Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle, and Thomas Johnson, PhD Candidate in Disaster Vulnerability, University of Newcastle
A new phase of massive violent ethnic cleansing is under way in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. An estimated 160,000 men, women and children of the Muslim Rohingya community have crossed into Bangladesh, fleeing indiscriminate attacks by the armed forces.
The military crackdown was in response to a co-ordinated assault against police posts by a Rohingya militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The militants killed 12 security personnel. In the armed forces’ “clearance operations” that followed, 400 people have died so far.
This is the latest wave of violence involving the local Buddhist Rakhine ethnic community and the Rohingya since 2012. Around 1,000 have died over this period, amid reports of mass rape and the deliberate razing of villages by the military.
About 250,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh in the past five years. Others have embarked on an often deadly journey to find asylum, while many more remain in squalid detention camps within Myanmar, to which aid workers or outside observers are regularly denied access. Satellite images suggest that over 100km of land has been burned in the recent attacks.
Survivors have recounted numerous atrocities such as beheadings and the slaughter of children. These are often acts of intimidation intended to ensure communities do not return. It seems likely that another round of violent, intentional and perhaps permanent expulsion has occurred.
History of the conflict
The causes of the turmoil are as complex as they are old. Rakhine State is the poorest region in Myanmar. Both the Muslim Rohingya and the indigenous Buddhist Rakhine community have suffered longstanding injustices at the hands of the military regime and each other.
Many Rakhine believe they lost large tracts of traditional land when the British encouraged Bengali labourers to move into Burma after assuming control in 1824. Large-scale violence between the two communities has occurred several times since the second world war.
Many Rakhine died when the Rohingya fought for Muslim-majority parts of northern Rakhine State to be integrated into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Subsequent military campaigns drove many Rohingya into Bangladesh: 250,000 in 1978 and a further 250,000 in 1991 and 1992, although many were forcibly repatriated to Rakhine.
Many Rakhine now seemingly support the expulsion of the group from the state, with some participating in recent military-led attacks. The ARSA attacks have dramatically worsened the already perilous position of the 1 million Rohingya left in Rakhine.
The broader political context
Also driving the contemporary violence are two broader phenomena. The first is political liberalisation since 2005; the second is a national discourse that denies the Rohingya rights as citizens of Myanmar.
A 1982 citizenship law stripped the Rohingya of the status of one of Myanmar’s “national races”, deeming them to have entered the country after 1823. This means they have no citizenship, voting rights or the right to travel. Any property they own remains vulnerable to expropriation.
Now that a partial democracy has come to Myanmar, both national and Rakhine-based political parties (such as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party) deride the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, “interlopers” and the perpetrators of brutal crimes. This is a way of radicalising and thereby capturing the Buddhist vote.
The historical record suggests that these claims of the Rohingyas’ recent arrival in Myanmar are questionable. Many are descended from Bengali labourers who arrived after 1823, but this means they have resided in the state for almost two centuries.
And many Rohingya also lived in Rakhine before 1823. In 1799, Francis Buchanan, a visiting representative of the East India Trading Company, reported meeting “Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan (Rakhine), and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan”. Many Muslims were living in Rakhine under the Kingdom of Mrauk-U between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Has the hatred become genocide?
Buddhist nationalists, in particular the Ma Ba Tha (Patriotic Association of Myanmar) led by the monk Ashin Wirathu, are promulgating much of the hatred of the Rohingya. Despite Muslims constituting only 4% of Myanmar’s population, he and other nationalists have portrayed the Rohingya as a potentially devastating cultural and physical threat to Buddhists in Myanmar.
Wirathu’s extremism has brought him a large following and, with it, political influence. He successfully pushed a series of “race and religion” laws through parliament, including a population control bill he described as necessary to “stop the Bengalis”.
Many observers now say that recent events in Rakhine constitute genocide. The bar to this most heinous of crimes is set very high, reserved for events intended to eliminate a group in whole or in part.
The difficulty of proving intent has left many large-scale killings uncategorised as genocide. But it seems increasingly apparent that the military’s campaign against the Rohingya meets this restrictive criterion. The repeated mass violence, the execution of civilians, destruction of villages, and atrocities designed to engender terror and effect permanent exodus, combined with the government’s ongoing denial of citizenship and other rights, all point to an intention to eliminate the Rohingya as a distinct group within Myanmar.
Using a phrase commonly used in genocides around the world, the Myanmar army chief said recently that the Bengali problem was a longstanding one which has become an unfinished job.
How can and should the international community intervene?
It is difficult to see how these waves of killings and forced expulsions will cease without international involvement. While her supporters will say she can do little in the face of ongoing military power, government leader Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen to inflame rather than calm the situation. Her office has referred publicly to “Bengali terrorists”, claimed aid agencies are assisting Rohingya militants, stated Muslims are burning their own houses, and denied any wrongdoing by the military.
Regional and international states should intensify their pressure on the Myanmar government and the military to halt the violence and protect all civilians, whether citizens or not. ASEAN states in particular should pressure Myanmar to bring the crisis to an end.
Once this has been achieved, several measures might help reduce the frequency and intensity of the violence. The first and most important step is to grant the Rohingya naturalised citizenship and the rights that go with it. The group would then continue to live in the state, be allowed to vote and hold politicians to account.
To deflect the concerns of Rakhine, the Rohingya will need to rescind their claim to indigenous status and their ties to a traditional homeland in Rakhine. The implementation of certain electoral mechanisms – such as requirements for parties to win a portion of the votes from each community and for pairs of running mates to include a member from each group – will also slowly depoliticise ethnicity in the state.
The provision of aid, which must be rapid and substantial, must be carefully balanced so as not to cause further anger. It should be delivered to both displaced and non-displaced communities from both Rakhine and Rohingya.
None of these measures will be easy. All will face substantial resistance. But the alternative is ongoing mass killing and displacement, and further radicalisation.
Chris Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
The issue of the burqa has erupted in the Coalition, with Tony Abbott suggesting a ban should be considered in places “dedicated to Australian values”, and the Nationals set to debate a prohibition on “full-facial coverings”.
Abbott said he was “a reluctant banner”, but “on the other hand, this thing frankly is an affront to our way of life”, a “confronting” and “imprisoning” garment.
“I think it is worth considering whether there are some places that are dedicated to Australian values such as our courts, our parliaments, our schools – maybe we do need to think about whether this garment is appropriate to be worn in places that are dedicated to upholding Australian values,” he told 2GB.
Abbott was commenting on a motion for a ban that Nationals MP George Christensen will move when the party’s federal conference meets this weekend.
The Christensen motion, supported by his Dawson federal divisional council, calls on the government “to implement a ban on full-facial coverings in all government buildings and public spaces, excluding places of worship, where it assists with security and public safety”.
Christensen said the qualification about security was to make exceptions for face coverings that for example were part of an entertainment.
The motion puts Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce on the spot.
“One of the great things about our party is that any person and any branch can bring forward any motion,” Joyce said.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean it becomes policy. That’s a matter for the federal conference, and I’ll be watching and listening to the debate like any other delegate.” Pressed on his own opinion he told reporters: “You can turn up the conference and find out exactly what I believe”.
In the Senate on Wednesday Pauline Hanson launched a vitriolic attack on Attorney-General George Brandis over his criticism of her stunt last month when she wore a burqa into the chamber. In his emotional speech that drew a standing ovation from Labor and the Greens, Brandis said it was appalling for her to mock the religious garments of Muslims and told her “we will not be banning the burqa”.
Brandis’ speech has since had a mixed reception in Coalition circles. On the day, there was limited and hesitant applause from his own ranks.
In her attack on Brandis, Hanson invoked the Anzacs when she accused him of defending “the most recognised symbol of radical Islam”.
“Whether or not you agree with my decision to wear a burqa in parliament is not the real issue,” she said. “The real issue is that Australians want a debate on full-face coverings and they want a debate on the issues that the burqa raises.
“It is, after all, a sign of radical Islam, which threatens the true Australian way of life. What would our Anzacs say? They fought for our freedom and way of life. There is room for only one flag, one language, one loyalty and one law.
“Recently, the lives of precious Australians have been lost in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to stop radical Islam. But, senator Brandis, you forgot those lives when you defended the most recognised symbol of radical Islam, the burqa,” she said.
“You have a right to a view on my decision to wear the burqa into the Senate, but it is arrogant, incorrect and ill-informed when you presume to speak for most Australians,” Hanson said.
She said that all Brandis’ colleagues had “remained seated and stunned while you strutted the Senate stage with your quivering lip”.
Christensen said he thought Brandis had “over-egged” his reaction to Hanson. He said there had been criticism of Brandis’s speech among Coalition MPs, and the standing ovation had been “from people with values that are antipathetic to ours”.
He said the burqa was not a religious requirement but a “a cultural practice that is based in the oppression of women”.
Christensen said his motion talked “not about the burqa and the niqab specifically but full-facial coverings, so this would even apply to violent people that we have seen in the past violent protesters on the far left and the far right … who put the balaclavas over their nose and mouths to disguise themselves”.
A ReachTEL poll taken after Hanson’s stunt found majority support for banning the burqa.
In all of these cases the weapon of choice was a vehicle, driven at speed, into crowds innocently going about their daily business. Barcelona is just the latest in a series of targets of Islamic terrorism over the past year in which a vehicle has been used to mow down those in its path indiscriminately.
In all of these cases Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.
These sorts of terrorist attacks – like the 2001 al-Qaeda plane attacks on targets in New York and Washington – have elevated threats to the civilian population in urban areas to a new level.
In the latest – on Barcelona’s famous tourist precinct near Plaça de Catalunya and Las Ramblas in the heart of the city – at least 16 people have died and scores more have been injured. The death toll is likely to rise.
IS, in a statement on one of its outlets, claimed responsibility for the attack, telling its supporters in Arabic:
Terror is filling the hearts of the Crusader in the land of Andalusia.
Another outlet warned that Spain was now grouped with the UK and France as terrorist targets.
The use of vehicles in relatively vulnerable locations where crowds gather, to inflict maximum harm on innocent people, will add significantly to unease across Europe. This anxiety will now reach new levels of intensity, with German elections due on September 24, and and a Catalan independence vote on October 1.
This latest attack will cast a shadow over events that will require people to gather in crowds either to participate in political campaigning, or to vote in the election itself.
More broadly, the use of vehicles as weapons against urban populations will add to security concerns in Western capitals – including in Australia.
What’s likely to come as a result are further security measures to combat the risk of vehicular attacks in crowded locations. But we know how difficult it is to prevent such attacks.
In Melbourne, Australia, for example, authorities have installed bollards around the city to guard against these sorts of acts. But ensuring people’s safety in free and open societies represents a huge challenge.
World leaders have condemned the Barcelona attack, but beyond pro-forma statements of support the reality is that the scourge of Islamic-inspired terrorism is here to stay for the time being.
These acts of violence, each one encouraging another, are part of a terrorist landscape. They will remain so especially at a moment when IS is under enormous pressure in its stronghold in Syria.
The expulsion of IS from Raqqa in eastern Syria will not lessen threats of terrorist violence in the West. Instead, it will probably heighten the risk.
What the Barcelona attack reminds us is that the West is embroiled in a long war against Islamic terrorism. Enhanced counter-terrorism strategies, making use of sophisticated technology, will lessen risks, but cannot entirely eliminate the threat in open societies.
This is the reality.
The predictable recapture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) marks a new milestone in the tumultuous events of the Middle East. It has important ramifications for Iraq, IS and the West.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wasted no time claiming victory, entering the ruined city in staged jubilation. Wearing military uniform, al-Abadi was swift to capitalise on the victory, signalling his authority over the entire country. He hopes to keep Iraq united through strengthened political clout on his return to the politically polarised capital of Baghdad.
But the capture of Mosul may in fact accelerate the eventual break-up of Iraq into smaller states. The leader of the autonomous Kurdish regional government, Masud Barzani, has made clear his intentions to hold a referendum on independence by the end of 2017.
Until now, Barzani had to collaborate with the central Iraqi government to clear the IS menace from Mosul and northern Iraq. Now he will have to tread carefully to meet the growing Kurdish expectation of independence and manage al-Abadi’s anticipation of gratitude for the liberation of Mosul.
Barzani and Kurds can see a historic opportunity to create a Kurdish polity in northern Iraq. The gravity of this polity is eventually expected to pull neighbouring Kurdish regions in Syria, Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish dream is to combine these regions to create a larger Kurdish state.
At the same time, al-Abadi will increase pressure on Barzani to remain loyal to a unitary Iraq. While the prime minister will spend most of his time in the safety of the Baghdad green zone, Barzani will collaborate with US forces and heavily armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust IS from its capital, Raqqa. He will also play a key role in further clearing operations in eastern Syria in the second half of 2017 and possibly into 2018.
With the fall of Mosul, the impending capture of Raqqa, and the confirmed death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s days as a caliphate are numbered. Although some argue that IS will transform into a virtual caliphate, without a sovereign state a caliphate is meaningless and Islamically invalid.
This reality has a dramatic impact on the recruiting power of IS. It was able to attract followers with its claim to have resurrected the caliphate abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924.
IS gained an almost miraculous aura after capturing Mosul with 800 fighters. In their eyes, this was proof that God was on their side. A few weeks after the capture of Mosul, al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in the city’s historic mosque in June 2014.
For as much as Mosul had symbolic value for an IS caliphate, its loss signals an irreversible trajectory of collapse. Although IS is taking huge blows, there is no reason to believe it will disappear, much like the frustrating persistence of Taliban in Afghanistan since the collapse of its government in 2001.
Nobody should expect mass desertions from IS ranks. Its membership is likely to remain loyal and fight to the end. What remains of IS leadership holds to the theological line that the pledge of allegiance or bay’ah is binding before God, and if they abandon ranks they will die in a state of disbelief.
While this may help retain surviving militants, IS recruiting power around the world will dramatically reduce, as the greatest attraction for recruits was the promise of a utopian Islamic state.
Nevertheless IS, or whatever the group will be called in the future, will adapt and look for new missions to motivate its members and attract recruits.
One possible trajectory is a merger with al-Qaeda. This is a real possibility, as IS emerged from al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Syria. Without a real caliphate, the line of distinction between IS and al-Qaeda blurs to insignificance, even though their leaderships were in open hostility and competed for the soul of the violent radical movement.
The ideology and the narrative of IS and al-Qaeda are the same: Western powers and their local collaborators are responsible for the occupation of Muslim territories and the ensuing suffering of Muslim populations; violent military response is the response these enemies understand and the only solution that works.
This ideology is conveniently covered by the same veneer of religious arguments to utilise the persuasive power of Islam in gaining and rallying gullible supporters to their ranks.
The more likely trajectory for IS is to ignore the spectacular failure of its state and cling to the alluring promise of a caliphate. Persisting with its brand of radicalism, IS could exist as a violent insurgent movement positioned in Deir ez-Zor, a Syrian town near the border with Iraq.
For the time being, the US administration seems determined not to leave IS any haven, Deir ez-Zor or elsewhere.
As IS regroups, it is likely to unleash violence on two fronts. The first is in the West. IS will attempt to use its sleeper cells and deploy social media to motivate a new generation of gullible minds to carry out terror attacks in North America, Europe and perhaps Australia.
The second front is where IS is based – Iraq and Syria. The conditions that gave rise to IS in the first place, such as military conflict, political instability, sectarian polarisation, ethnic divisions and corruption, continue to exist in both countries. The situation will not change overnight.
Through a drawn-out insurgency and waves of violence, IS will attempt to destabilise the Iraqi and Syrian governments in the hope of resurrecting its Islamic state. Ironically, the greatest victims will be Islam, Muslims and peace in Muslim lands.