"I was a monk. Most of us used to be," says a heavily armed soldier in the rugged mountains of northern Burma's Kachin state. "When I heard about this army, I really wanted to join. You know,
in Rakhine state, we need to defend Buddhism."
The soldier fights for the little-known militia of Buddhist
nationalists referred to as the Arakan Army. In his khaki uniform, a
Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, he is
far from the peaceful Buddhist monk of the Western imagination. Yet some officials of the
Burmese government, which faces challenges from countless ethnic armies, see
the Arakan Army as a potentially useful ally in their efforts to consolidate
Anyone familiar with the recent
sectarian conflict in Burma will shiver
at the militiaman's words.
Since the country embarked on its rapid liberal reform process in 2011,
communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims has swept the country. The bloodshed began in 2012 in the Arakan Army's home state of Rakhine, where
ultranationalist Buddhists targeted the Muslim Rohingya population -- whom they
dismiss as "illegal Bengali immigrants" -- in severe pogroms.
uptick in violence against the Muslim minority follows classic conflict
patterns. When power relations are shifting -- as they have been during Burma's
transition to democracy -- those who are in a position to lose power seek to
maintain it by mobilizing against minorities. The Muslim minority's historic
strength in the business sector, its reputation for being wealthy and powerful,
and its well-established transnational connections have fueled resentment from
some among the Buddhist majority. Muslims in Rakhine, where the wave of
religious violence began in 2012, are the targets of particular acrimony. Many
Buddhist Burmese dismiss the Muslims, commonly called "Rohingyas," as
"illegal Bengali immigrants" who came to take jobs and land in the
overpopulated province. Though
their ancestors hailed from Bangladesh, these Muslim families have lived in
Burma for generations. But that hasn't stopped the authorities from denying
them basic civil rights, such as freedom
of movement, for many years. The United Nations lists them among the most
persecuted minorities in the world.
grievances have contributed to similar conflicts throughout history. Perhaps
most infamously, rapid political and
economic liberalization coincided with economic marginalization in the runup
to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The violence against Rohingyas and the reported
complicity by local security forces has similar characteristics. With religious and
nationalistic rhetoric serving as a tool for
mobilization, the reordering of political power and economic assets is
a primary cause of recent violence in Rakhine.
is so often the case, the roots of the conflict date back to colonial
history. Rakhine state was the independent Kingdom of Arakan until the Burmese
conquest in 1784. Brutal occupation sent more than 35,000 Arakanese fleeing to
British-administered Bangladesh. After the British annexed Rakhine at the end
of the First Anglo-Burmese War, the fertile plains of Arakan were deserted.
This caused the British East India Company to encourage migration from
Chittagong, Bangladesh, to Rakhine state. Most of these migrants settled down as
farmers, only to find themselves on the receiving end of hostility from the
original inhabitants, who viewed them as occupants of their ancestral land. That
the British often favored Bangladeshi immigrants for jobs in the colonial
administration added to local resentments.
violence in Rakhine first broke out during the Second World War. With the
Japanese conquest of Burma in 1942, Rakhine nationalists attacked migrants in
an attempt to drive them back to Bangladesh. During their reconquest of Burma,
the Allies relied heavily on armed ethnic minority units to stage guerrilla
attacks on Japanese troops all over the country. In Rakhine state, these units
were recruited from Bangladeshi migrants. Instead of fighting the Japanese,
they mostly targeted Buddhist Arakanese as revenge for the bloodshed against
their own community just months earlier. This history, plus the more recent
competition for scarce land and resources amid economic liberalization, explains
much of the Buddhist violence against Rohingya Muslims.
2008, Tun Mra Naing and 300 recruits traveled across Burma to Kachin state to
receive basic training in guerilla warfare from the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of
Burma's oldest and strongest ethnic armed groups. Together with other armed
groups, it is in de facto control of territorial pockets along the Chinese
border. These mountains have given birth to several armed groups that are not
necessarily linked to Kachin soil, including the All Burma Students' Democratic
Front (ABSDF), a faction of Burmese students who militarized after the army's
brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988.
face of things, the Arakan Army's ethnic nationalism, and its claims to
original ownership of land, seem to dovetail with the objectives of the Kachin
rebels. Yet the two organizations are inherently different. The KIO, whose armed
wing boasts over 10,000 active soldiers, has a sophisticated bureaucracy,
administering Kachin civilians through managing taxes, operating hospitals and
schools, building roads, and providing electricity from its own hydropower
plants. Its decision-making apparatus includes military officers as well as a
civilian administration resembling a one-party state that enjoys
wide popular support. In contrast, the Arakan Army claims no governmental
ambitions. As Tun Mra Naing, the militia's commander-in-chief, explains: "Our Arakanese politicians already do a good
job. But in our situation we cannot only rely on soft power. We need hard
power, too. In Buddhism, we say
that you have to create your destiny with your own hands."
the past six years, since the Arakan Army moved to Kachin state, its ranks have
swollen to more than a thousand heavily armed fighters. "You know, we first wanted this to be a secret
mission. But our growing numbers became hard to hide," the
commander-in-chief notes over milk tea.
chagrin of the Kachin army, however, Arakan fighters seem unwilling to turn
their "hard power" against the
Burmese military. Although Rakhine soldiers have engaged in some skirmishes with
advancing government troops since the cease-fire between the KIO and Burma's
government collapsed in 2011, fighting the state was never their intention. The
Arakan Army is simply trapped in a tricky situation: "We cannot move back home through the front line at the moment,"
Tun Mra Naing explains. "Also, we need to stand by our allies and help them
fight the government. Right now we are, let's say, stranded here."
While stranded, the Arakan Army has
largely refrained from heavy clashes with Burma's military. In
soldiers even assert that the Arakan soldiers have, more often than not, handed over their
front-line posts to the military without much resistance. According to one KIO officer, this is a problematic
reality for the KIO: "We now realize that [the Arakan Army] never came to fight the Burmese
armed forces. This wasn't obvious to us in 2008. We thought that they were similar to us and the other ethnic, armed resistance movements." The officer explain that the KIO originally agreed to
train the Arakan soldiers at a time when they felt mounting pressure from the
Burmese government, foreshadowing the upcoming war. "But all they want to fight for is religion," the KIO
Make no mistake, religion is important to
the Kachin, too. (Most of them are Christian.) But they are much more inclined
to support religious diversity and tolerance in Burma than their
brothers-in-arms. Moreover, they oppose and decry military dictator Ne Win's 1962
declaration of Buddhism
as the only religion recognized by the state,
a measure that has aggravated extant political and economic
discrimination. Yet religion was never at
the forefront of the KIO's armed struggle. For
decades, they have been struggling for political autonomy and minority rights side by side
with predominantly Buddhist ethnic minorities, such as the Shan and Palaung.
the Arakan Army's leader makes quite clear that he never intended to join Burma's
various ethnic armed organizations in their battle against the Burmese state. "We want self-determination, too,"
Tun Mra Naing said, before quickly adding: "But for us it's a matter of survival. If we don't stand up today
we will disappear forever." He then continued to speak emotionally about
the exploding Rohingya population, its growing wealth and political influence,
and its evil plans to seize the ancient homeland of Rakhine's Buddhists.
Finally, he declared that this "invasion" is funded by Saudi oil money and masterminded by al
its fiercely independent rhetoric, the militia does not have a bad relationship
with the Burmese government. "At
one point we will return and defend our fatherland," Tun Mra Naing
explains. "We already asked to assist the Burmese army as an auxiliary
border force protecting our land and sea borders from illegal migrants." Last year, the Arakan
Army put forward a joint proposal with parliamentary members of the Rakhine
Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), an ultranationalist party whose members
are reported to have
instigated and participated in sectarian
government has so far declined their request, but the militia leaders remain optimistic that
their political allies in the RNDP will eventually convince the central government. The RNDP has
indeed become a powerful force in Rakhine state, propagating an uncompromising
against Rohingyas, a platform that includes forced relocation to fenced-off
camps and eventual deportation. One senior United Nations official who recently
visited the camps expressed her horror at conditions in the camps, which she referred to as "appalling."
recently, the RNDP succeeded in lobbying the central government to exclude
the Rohingya as a recognized minority group in the upcoming nation-wide census. Officials have done little
to end the sectarian violence or even to alleviate humanitarian suffering. On
the contrary, the government has increasingly restricted the work of
humanitarian agencies in Rakhine state, at one point even banning local operations
of the outspoken medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontièrs (MSF) for allegedly favoring Rohingya. According
to Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch, a recently proposed marriage
discriminates against non-Buddhists demonstrates how "government
leaders are playing with fire by even considering proposals that would further
divide the country by restricting marriage on religious lines."
The apparent agreement on religious questions
between the Burmese government and RNDP ultranationalists explains why relations
between them are warm. Given the alliance between the RNDP and the Arakan Army,
as well as the government's long-standing practice of using ethnic militias to
police its restive borderlands, the prospect that Burma's leaders may eventually
allow the Arakan Army to return to Rakhine state does not seem out of the question.
the underlying drivers of sectarian violence in Rakhine are complex, one thing
is very clear: An alliance between ultranationalist
politicians and a well-armed militia is
certain to end in catastrophe. One
officer puts it this way: "We cannot let them return with weapons
in their hands and massacre innocent civilians." That, of course, is far
easier said than done, considering that the KIO is currently preoccupied with
fighting the Burmese army. Yet the responsibility for solving this problem
cannot be attributed to the KIO alone. So far, the Burmese government has
focused on brokering cease-fires in its wars with restive ethnic groups. A more
permanent solution will have to involve demobilization, reintegration, and a
plan to address the socioeconomic causes of sectarian violence.
Photo Credit: David Brenner