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Hotspot report

Rohingya crisis and violence in Myanmar – What’s going to happen now?

Myanmar, 27/11/2017 by Céline Neuenschwander

In August we received the first reports of the Rohingya people’s mass exodus from Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh. The unrest in parts of Myanmar is not a new development, but what is noteworthy is the timing of its escalation. This hotspot article looks at why the conflict has escalated at this point in time and who benefits from the turmoil within Myanmar.

Rohingya are the ethnic Muslim minority group who until now have lived in the Burmese Rakhine State. In the past there has often been conflict between members of the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist majority. This was an extremely difficult situation for the Rohingya because they were prevented from settling or owning land. What’s more, many Rohingya are stateless and are classed as illegal immigrants.

The last wave of extreme violence in Rakhine was in 2012. The Rohingya were the target of this religious and ethnically charged turmoil. Its trigger was the murder of a Buddhist woman, for which three Rohingya men were blamed and as a result, 10 Rohingya men were murdered. After Myanmar’s first free elections in 2015, the Rohingya people once again fled to other Southeast Asian states.

On 25th August 2017, the conflict saw a fresh outbreak of violence. Following an attack on border police by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), whole Rohingya villages were burned down. These were described by human rights organizations as targeted attacks by the Burmese army. However, the troops said that they were only acting in response to attacks by insurgents.

Since then, a new wave of forced migration began for the Rohingya. Around 580 000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since the outbreak of the crisis, where in many cases they are enduring desolate conditions in refugee camps. The stream of refugees will decrease in the foreseeable future, simply because there will soon be no Rohingya left in Rakhine. Will this stabilize the situation in Myanmar? Unfortunately, that is an unlikely scenario. The unrest in Myanmar has entirely different reasons at its core.


Decision-making in the interests of neighboring states at the cost of minorities


The Rohingya crisis has to be seen in a wider context to better understand the interests which lie behind it. Myanmar’s two influential neighbors, China and India, play a key role.

Since the beginning of the political and economic liberalization of Myanmar, China, to the north, has been steadily losing influence. For many years, China was Myanmar’s main trading partner, which enabled it to exercise influence on the country. China’s main interest was the fact that it could obtain access to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar and thus open a secure transport route. Additionally, China could further develop its southern areas. But at present, China’s hold over Myanmar is waning. The reason for this is India, which is building ever stronger relationships with the country.

Since the liberalization, India has also been an increasingly important partner for Myanmar, while for India, Myanmar is of political and economic significance. Positive Indian-Burmese relations mean India can guarantee security in its border regions, subdue insurgency within its own country and gain access to new markets.

By becoming involved in Myanmar’s internal affairs, China has the opportunity to strengthen its own position in the neighboring country. This is where the Rohingya conflict comes into play. Using the internal unrest in Myanmar, China can exercise pressure on the country and ultimately try to assert its own interests. To achieve this purpose China can transfer financial aid to the parties involved in the conflict and fuel the turmoil by providing false information. In addition to the Rohingya conflict, China is also purported to be providing financial support to other rebel groups in the north of Myanmar.

Looking ahead, under these conditions the wrangling in the power struggle for influence in the Southeast Asian state is set to continue. Even if the Rohingya exodus decreases in the foreseeable future, a détente in the security situation within Myanmar cannot be expected any time soon.

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