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The Danger of Linking the Rohingya Crisis to Terrorism

Sahar Khan

On August 25, the Arakan Rohingya
Salvation Army
(ARSA) – formally known as the Harakah al-Yaqin

coordinated an attack
on a Burmese army base and 30 police
posts in the state of Rakhine, killing more than 71 people,
including 12 security officers. Calling the ARSA
“extremist Bengali terrorists,”
the Myanmar army’s response was
swift and brutal, and within two weeks,
123,000
Rohingyas fled their homes. Dubbing their response as

clearance operations
, the army
burned
villages and even planted
landmines
as a way to further target the fleeing Rohingyas. But
the army’s response is grossly disproportional. The ARSA is a small
group with
no links to transnational terrorist groups
(yet)
and has a very narrow mission:
stop persecution of Rohingyas Muslims. Because of the actions of
this minor group, there are currently half a million refugees in
Bangladesh seeking security, protection, and food in
makeshift camps
, where they are exposed to the elements and
increasingly vulnerable to disease.

While the United Nations declared the persecution and recent
flight of the Rohingyas
“a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,”
the region has a

long history
of
discriminating
against them. The clash between Buddhists and
Bengali-speaking Muslims in the in Myanmar’s Rakhine province can
be traced back to the 1980s when the Burmese regime abruptly

stripped them of citizenship
. While the Rohingyas, who are
predominantly Sunni Muslims, claim to be
indigenous to the area, the government of Myanmar has always viewed
them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The
government further maintains that it will
reinstate their citizenship rights
if they drop the term
“Rohingya” and instead register as “Bengalis.” This condition is
unacceptable to the Rohingyas, who are
protective of this label
as it has become a part of their
identity, and the means why which they can garner international
attention.

The perils of portraying
the Rohingya crisis through securitized lens are quickly becoming
apparent.

Myanmar’s refusal to acknowledge Rohingyas as an ethnic minority
entitled to citizenship rights is not just semantics. It is related
its territory and sovereignty. According to the state’s
1982 citizenship law
, if the government accepts the Rohingyas
as a legitimate Burmese ethnicity, they will have autonomy in
Rakhine, where they are the majority. Myanmar, a predominantly
Buddhist country, fears three potential developments: 1) an
alliance
between
the Rohingyas and Bengalis, both of whom are Muslim, 2)
calls for secession that may follow an alliance, and 3) the

ARSA entrenchment
in Rakhine. To be fair, Myanmar’s fears may
be overstated but they are not misplaced. As a weak postcolonial
state, it is suffering from a myriad of issues, such as
civil-military imbalances
, corruption,
poverty, and
food
insecurity
. But persecuting the Rohingyas is a short-sighted
strategy that threatens Myanmar’s credibility – and, by igniting
dangerous religious and ethnic fissures, the security of the
region.

The
genocide-like
persecution of the Rohingyas continues to put
Bangladesh in a strenuous geostrategic position. While Bangladesh
has
welcomed
the refugees, it is also a poor country with

limited resources
. And similar to Myanmar, it also has a
checkered past with the Rohingyas. Earlier this year, Bangladesh
wanted to hold talks with Myanmar to accelerate the process of
resettlement, where one official said, “We want to
see them leave Bangladesh quickly.”
Currently Bangladesh’s
government is working to relocate the new refugees to an
“unlivable island”
to decrease some of the pressure that the
influx has caused. On
closer examination
of Bangladesh’s domestic politics, the
Hasina administration’s reaction to the refugees is a balancing act
between criticizing Myanmar, pacifying Bengali right-wing
Islamists, satisfying Bangladesh’s army, and appeasing India, who
has also
persecuted the Rohingyas in the name of national security.

The ongoing crisis, however, highlights two important
developments that will negatively impact the fate of the Rohingyas.
First, the ARSA, currently an outlier, will be linked to the larger
Rohingya community, increasing its prominence, and potentially
emboldening it. While the ARSA has links to
both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
, there is
no evidence
that the group has links to al Qaeda and the
Islamic State (ISIS) or that it has been incorporated into larger
transnational Islamist extremist networks. It is a small group
whose
main grievance
– persecution of Rohingya Muslims – can be
solved relatively easily by ending widespread discrimination. While
meeting ARSA’s demands of citizenship and political equality will
expose Myanmar’s poor governance, especially in the Rakhine
province, it will likely eliminate the main root of violence in the
area. But if the situation continues as is, ARSA might grow and

develop real links
to real terrorist groups, a claim already
being made by
Myanmar
,
India
, and
Bangladesh
. Second, and more troubling, the Rohingyas are set
to become a regional political tool that will continue to be used
to justify a series of predatory and illiberal counterterrorism
strategies as seen, again, in
Myanmar
,
Bangladesh
, and
India
.

As yet another boat full of refugees – mainly children –
capsizes and
survivors share stories of
sexual violence
, the current state of Rohingya suffering seems
to have entered a new, more horrific chapter.
Worldwide protests
may pressure the current government in
Myanmar to end the violence and accept the Rohingyas back, but it
will not end the practice of linking a persecuted community to
terrorism.

Sahar Khan is a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute.