Burma’s Slaughter of the Rohingya Follows a Bloody Pattern
Rebel attacks draw brutal retaliation
On Oct. 9, 2016 around 400 Rohingya Muslims from an insurgent movement known as Harakan Al Yaqin simultaneous attacked three Burmese Border Guard Police headquarters in Rakhine state.
The HaY, which later changed its name to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, was poorly armed. Only around 30 of the attackers had firearms. The rest used slingshots, knives and other primitive weapons.
However, the ARSA insurgents clearly had had some training in guerilla warfare.
While attacking the BGP headquarters in Kyee Kan Pyin the insurgents planted an improvised explosive device and “set an ambush on the approach road to the headquarters, delaying reinforcements and damaging vehicles,” according to a 2016 International Crisis Group report.
The attacks were largely successful. The insurgents made off with thousands of rounds of ammunition, a few dozen small arms and were able to kill nine BGP personnel. Around eight ARSA members died, but the insurgents were able to kill four additional Burmese soldiers during skirmishes over the next few days.
The Burmese army and BGP forces reacted with brutal military force. Between October and November 2016, 2,000 members of the Burmese security forces participated in “clearance operations” in villages in Rakhine state.
These operations typically involved columns of troops entering a village to look for insurgents. Wide-scale massacres and rapes took place during some clearance operations, but not others. The Burmese military destroyed hundreds of structures across numerous villages. Livestock, crops and other vital resources were often destroyed, as well.
The brutality and mass destruction caused about 66,000 Rohingya to flee Rakhine state for the relative safety of neighboring Bangladesh between October 2016 and February 2017.
Military operations died down by the end of November 2016. However, the Burmese security forces continued to search for insurgents. Arbitrary detentions of military-age males reportedly took place, some buildings were burned and the Burmese military attempted to recruit informants.
ARSA insurgents were not totally restrained, though their alleged atrocities were nowhere near as severe as those carried out by the Burmese security forces. The insurgents have been accused of killing Hindu and Buddhist civilians, and rights groups report that the ARSA has killed numerous Rohingya accused of providing intelligence to Burmese security forces.
Informers are often left to die after having their throats slit, according to the ICG report. “These killings were done in the same gruesome way, presumably to inspire fear,” the report added.
The ARSA was able to regroup between November 2016 and August 2017, despite the attempts by Burmese security forces to quell the insurgency through low-level policing operations. On Aug. 25, 2017 thousands of insurgents from the ARSA attacked 30 BGP posts, killing 12 Burmese security force personnel.
The Burmese government reacted similarly to the attacks in October 2016, but this time on a much larger scale.
Thousands of troops from 40 different battalions were deployed, including 14 battalions from the Burmese military’s elite light infantry divisions.
Mass killings, rapes and scorched-earth tactics became more widespread during August 2017 offensive than during operations in October 2016.
A recent survey of Rohingya refugees by Medecins Sans Frontieres found that “between 9,425 and 13,759 Rohingya died during the initial 31 days following the start of the violence, including at least 1,000 children below the age of five years.”
Rohingya area in Sittwe. DYKT Mohigan photo
The survey estimates that 6,700 died because of violence. Some 69 percent of civilians killed through violence were shot to death. Nine percent were burned alive inside their homes, while five percent were beaten to death and two percent died due to rape.
“Among children below the age of five years, more than 59 percent killed during that period were reportedly shot, 15 percent burned to death in their home, seven percent were beaten to death and two percent died due to landmine blasts,” according to the report.
More than 500,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between August 25 and October 2017. Nearly half the population of Rohingya in Burma has been displaced.
“The situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in November. The United Nations and numerous rights groups have accused the Burmese military of crimes against humanity. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Fortify Rights all said there is mounting evidence that the Burmese government is perpetrating genocide against the Rohingya.
Why the Burmese government has chosen such a brutal counterinsurgency strategy is actually quite confounding. It’s surprisingly rare for a government to blatantly massacre and cleanse civilians during civil war.
A recent study found that only 24.5 percent of governments faced with insurgencies resort to intentional massacres of civilians, and only 13.5 percent cleansed populations from areas while also massacring civilians.
In fact, 49 percent of governments abstain from any form of systematic civilian targeting during civil war. What explains the brutal counterinsurgency strategy used by the Burmese government?
The fight against the ARSA poses an interesting test for academics who argue that the internal characteristics of states and possible costs incurred by the international community have a significant effect on civilian targeting.
The main findings in Jessica Stanton’s 2016 book Violence and Restraint in Civil War indicate that the Burmese government should be likely to practice restraint. Restraint is likely for democratic states, and states that have gone through a significant regime-type transition prior to civil war, according to Stanton.
Democratic states practice restraint because they fear losing votes, according to Stanton. States that have recently gone through a political transition are characterized as unstable, and thus fear losing domestic and international support.
Burma perfectly fits this description.
Burma made the sudden shift from autocracy to democracy less than a year prior to the outbreak of the ARSA insurgency in Rakhine state.
It seems that neither Burma’s recent shift in regime-type nor its democratic character have had any restraining effect on counterinsurgency operations.
Scott Straus’ 2015 book Making and Unmaking Nations provides a far better explanation for the current violence against civilians in Rakhine state. Straus argues that mass civilian targeting is likely when two factors are present.
First, the government forwards a “founding narrative” that one or more groups should be excluded from maintaining any political or economic power.
The Rohingya clearly fit this category. Since 1982, the Rohingya have been explicitly excluded from gaining citizenship, and face restrictions on “freedom of movement, marriage, childbirth, and other aspects of daily life.”
The Burmese government, including its current head, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, use the term “Bengali” instead of “Rohingya” in order to emphasize the view that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Rohingya boy. Photo via Wikipedia
Elites inside Burma, especially Buddhist leaders, are often explicit about their desire to see the Rohingya cleansed from Rakhine state. These leaders often paint Rohingya as sub-human and a major threat to Burmese citizens in Rakhine state.
“The state media has published disturbing opinion pieces, for example one that referred to the Rakhine State situation as caused by ‘detestable human fleas’ that ‘we greatly loathe for their stench,’” according to a report from the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Fortify Rights.
Most journalists and analysts agree that the majority of Burmese citizens, especially in Rakhine state, share a deep animosity towards the Rohingya.
But the existence of an exclusionary narratives alone is unlikely to set off mass violence, according to Straus. For such violence to ensue the excluded group must be deemed a military threat by the government.
The following section on battlefield dynamics shows that the rise of the ARSA in October 2016, and again in August 2017, caused the government to see the Rohingya as a military threat.
Another strand of the civilian targeting literature argues that battlefield dynamics have a large impact on a government’s decision to kill civilians.
Stathis Kalyvas argues in his book The Logic of Violence in Civil War that indiscriminate killing of civilians is most severe when a combatant is attempting to take over a territory under the control of its enemy.
However, once a combatant maintains control of an area, indiscriminate killings occur far less often. Instead, those civilians suspected of supporting the insurgency are most likely to be targeted, according to Kalyvas.
On the other hand, Benjamin Valentino argues in his 2005 book Final Solutions that widespread civilian targeting will be likely when facing particularly strong rebels use guerilla warfare strategies.
Guerilla war often results in the targeting of noncombatants because insurgents require the support of the civilian population to hold territory and carry out attacks against the government. Under these conditions the government is incentivized to wipe out civilians because they are the main source of power for insurgents, according to Valentino.
However, Valentino adds that governments are only likely to carry out widespread civilian targeting when guerillas are able to kill a large number of government troops.
This argument is similar to those forwarded by Alex Downes, Jen Ziempke and others, who believe states target civilians when battlefield conditions become “desperate.”
“Desperation” is usually defined by high battlefield deaths, and wars with a long duration. When cornered, so the logic goes, governments attempt to destroy any source of enemy power—including civilians.
The “territorial control” and “guerrilla desperation” arguments can be tested by tracing the timeline of battlefield dynamics between the ARSA and the Burmese military between October 2016 and September 2017.
ARSA leaders began building their guerilla army and gaining the support of local Rohingya well before the October 2016 attacks. An International Crisis Group report from 2016 provides insight into how the guerrilla army was formed during this period, and the extent of support among Rohingya civilians for the ARSA.
Ethnic Rohingya based in Saudi Arabia began to piece together an insurgency in 2012 after a wave inter-communal violence between Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine state.
A burned-down house in a Rohingya village in northern Rakhine state. Photo via Wikipedia
By 2013, local leaders were recruited by these Saudi emigres, and hundreds of fighters underwent training. The training was conducted by Rohingya, Pakistanis and Afghans, all experienced in guerilla operations. Recruits were selected from local villages and trained in small batches to avoid detection by Burmese security forces.
In August 2016 “two Saudi-based senior leaders spent a month in northern Rakhine state … selecting targets and determining how and when the attacks would take place,” according to the ICG report.
Local support for the ARSA was generally strong in October 2016.
Around 20 Rohingya from Saudi Arabia lived among the Rohingya in Rakhine state for years prior to the October attacks, a move that apparently earned them a great deal of respect in the community. The issuance of fatwas in support of the ARSA from Muslim leaders at home and abroad also helped to increase local support.
Funding for the ARSA came from Saudi nationals and other international sources sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya. This funding, alongside the fatwas and the Saudi emigres’ willingness to live in Rakhine state, seems to have communicated to the population that the ARSA insurgency might actually be successful.
Still, in the run up to the October attacks, the ARSA killed several Rohingya who provided intelligence to the Burmese security forces. The ARSA also had to pay off potential informers to remain silent about their plans.
After two Saudi-based leaders left in September, the ARSA’s worst fears were realized.
Two informants provided the Burmese Border Guard Police with the identities of eight members of the ARSA living in Nga Khu Ya village.
The ARSA killed the two informants, prompting night raids by the BGP in Nga Khu Ya village on Sept. 30. Then an Improvised Explosive Device “accidentally exploded in Ngar Sar Kyu village-tract around Oct. 7 while it was being prepared [and] drew the attention of the security forces,” according to the ICG report.
The two Saudi-based leaders of the ARSA had made significant plans to take control of major bases and roadways in northern Rakhine state. Their end goal was to fully control wide swaths of territory in order to gain the ability to train recruits, plan attacks, and collect resources from the local economy.
The raid on Sept. 30 and the IED explosion on Oct. 7 caused the ARSA to worry that the security forces were closing in. Thus, commanders “decided that though its preparations were not yet complete, it had to make an emergency plan and launch its operation on 9 October, ahead of schedule,” according to the ICG report.
The ARSA attacked the BGP post near Nga Khu Ya village, the same village security forces had raided on September 30th. As stated earlier, the ambush mounted by the ARSA was fairly sophisticated, and they successfully raided the local armory. Two other two BPG posts attacked were Kyee Kan Pying and Koe Tan Kauk.
The evidence from the ICG report clearly shows that the ARSA employed guerilla tactics with some proficiency, and receives support from the Rohingya community. This provides evidence to support the first element of Valentino’s argument and other “desperation” theories.
However, the guerillas also need to pose a significant military threat in order for civilian targeting to take place, according to these arguments.
By most measures, the ARSA did not pose a significant military threat during the October-November 2016 phase of fighting. As stated earlier, the ARSA was initially only able to kill nine BGP personnel in October, and the majority of the insurgents didn’t even possess firearms.
Later attacks in November only resulted in a few more casualties for Burmese security forces.
Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine state. Foreign and Commonwealth Office photo
The August 2017 attacks did show a significant increase in the ARSA’s capabilities. Thousands of insurgents were able to attack 30 BGP posts. However, casualties among Burmese security forces were few, and it took only a few weeks to stamp out further ARSA attacks.
Thus, Valentino’s argument and “desperation” theories seem to fail to explain the onset of mass civilian targeting in Rakhine state.
For Straus, however, the onset of mass violence against civilians does not require a significant number of casualties, or long duration of fighting. The government simply needs to perceive the excluded group as a military threat. The Burmese government has described the ARSA and its supporters as a military threat to the government, and especially to ethnic Rakhine.
But the mobilization of thousands of Burmese soldiers to Rakhine state on 2016, and 2017, were far more significant indicators of how seriously the Burmese government took the threat from the ARSA.
Straus’ theory provides the best explanation for why massive violence against Rohingya civilians occurred in Rakhine state. But only at a general level.
Straus’ theory can’t explain why mass violence occurred in some villages, but not others. Accounting for this variation requires a careful assessment of Stathis Kalyvas’ territorial control theory.
Although the first ARSA attacks occurred on Oct. 9, 2016, widescale massacres and rapes do not seem to have occurred until Nov. 12. A careful look at why, indicates that the Burmese military brutalized villages that clearly provided rebels with significant support.
On Oct. 9 the BGP headquarters at Kyee Kan Pying was attacked. The Burmese conducted searches for insurgents in the nearest Rohingya village, We Peik, almost immediately after the attack was repelled.
The Burmese military destroyed no fewer than 283 building in We Peik. However, after consulting several human rights reports, and other reporting, I was unable to find any accounts of widespread rape or massacres of civilians in the village.
Surprisingly, the attack on the Koe Tan Kauk BGP post on Oct 9 resulted in no reports of any clearance operations taking place in the nearby village that day.
The attack on the Nga Khu Ya post on Oct. 9, 2016 did result in a clearance operation in the nearby Rohingya village of the same name.
It’s important to remember that this village was already under suspicion of abetting the burgeoning Rohingya insurgency. Nga Khu Ya is also where the BGP arrested members of the ARSA on Sept 12, 2016, and where the BPG conducted raids on Sept 30, 2016 after the ARSA killed two government informants.
In short, the Burmese security forces had good reason to suspect that the village provided some form of help to insurgents who carried out the attack on the BGP post near Ng Khu Ya.
The Burmese military allegedly burned hundreds of buildings in Nga Khu Ya on Oct. 9. There is a report of an incident where two people were killed, and another shot. There is one report of gang rape. But there is no clear evidence that these abuses were widespread.
The first significant instance of widespread civilian killing and rape occurred around Oct. 13, 2016 in a village called Kyet Yoe Pyin. A report from Reuters provides rare insight into what happened.
By Oct. 13 Burmese security forces noticed that a road block consisting of logs had been constructed to block the main road leading to Kyet Yoe Pyin. This led Burmese security forces to believe that ARSA insurgents were hiding there, and that the civilians were aiding them.
Several people in the village were killed by Burmese security forces, and a portion of the village’s 1,300 houses were burned down, according to Reuters. Amnesty Internal confirmed that five villagers were killed around the second week in October. An OHCHR report confirms that a number of killings took place in Kyet Yoe Pying, and provides evidence that several brutal rapes also occurred.
Rohingya. Photo via Wikipedia
After several days of searching the village for insurgents, the Burmese security forces decided to take a different approach.
“About 300 soldiers crowded the road while four commanders led … talks with five Rohingya men, according to a village elder who attended the meeting,” according to Reuters. “The talks, confirmed by the military intelligence source, were an example of the army’s attempts in those early weeks to pressure the villagers to help identify the rebels.”
Up until Nov. 12, 2016, Burmese security forces visited several nearby villages in an attempt to get local leaders to hand over the insurgents. Village destruction continued between Oct. 13 and Nov. 12. As did arbitrary detentions of military aged males, as well as beatings.
But widespread massacres and rapes seemed to have lulled during these few weeks. And the Burmese government even allowed the World Food Supply to deliver aid to several villages in northern Rakhine, including Kyet Yoe Pyin in early November.
At this point, it seems that the Burmese security forces believed they could secure northern Rakhine state through low-level policing actions. This lull in civilian killing fits largely with Kalyvas’ theory.
Although the Burmese security forces suspected the ARSA was hiding in some villages, it was clear they did not have the level of control necessary to mount sustained attacks. The one exception, Kyet Yoe Pyin, did see significant brutality. But it seems that once the Burmese security forces felt they were in control of Kyet Yoe Pyin, indiscriminate killing was replaced with selective targeting.
Everything changed on Nov. 12, 2016. That’s when the ARSA conducted a major attack against Burmese security forces near a village called Pwint Hpyu Chaung. This was the first major attack since Oct. 9 the same year. The ARSA fled to a nearby village called Dar Gyi Zar, where they briefly fought government forces before fleeing once more to the nearby village of to Yae Khat Chaing Gwa Son.
The ARSA dug in at Yae Khat Chaing Gwa Son. As the Burmese security forces approached, they met resistance from both the ARSA and “[s]everal hundred villagers, armed with whatever they had to hand (knives and farming implements),” according to the 2016 ICG report. The villagers’ resistance was confirmed by the Reuters report cited above.
The Burmese security forces retreated briefly after a lieutenant colonel was killed and two helicopters were called in for support. One helicopter attacked the ARSA, while the other allegedly fired indiscriminately on fleeing civilians.
The following day, Burmese security forces conducted clearance operation in Yae Khat Chaing Gwa Son.
The operation reached levels of brutality not seen in the preceding month. Rapes, and gang rapes, including against minors, were common. The military also brutally massacred military-aged males, women, children and the elderly.
“When my two sisters, eight and 10 years old, were running away from the house, having seen the military come, they were killed,” one 14-year-old girl testified to the OHCHR. “They were not shot dead, but slaughtered with knives.” The 14-year-old girl had already been raped, and watched as her mother was beaten to death.
Other testimony alleges that civilians were executed in a performative manner.
“The military dragged my grandmother and grandfather out of their house,” according to a witness’s testimony in the OHCHR report. “First they were severely beaten, then tied to a tree. The military then put dried grass, woods around them and set them on fire.”
The neighboring village of Dar Gyi Zar, and nearby Pwint Hpyu Chaung, where the attack on Nov. 12 originated, seem to have incurred a similar level of brutality around the same date.
The clearing operations in several nearby villages, including Pwint Hpyu Chaung, Myaw Taing, Ngar Sar Kyu and Kyar Guang, continued on for a few more weeks.
There are reports of brutality occurring in these villages during this phase of operations. But the available evidence indicates that Yae Khat Chaing Gwa Son bore the highest levels of rape and massacre when compared to other villages.
As the forgoing discussion indicates, the Burmese military seems to reserve the most severe levels of victimization for Rohingya villages that are perceived as actively supporting the insurgency.
The low levels of abuse meted out between Oct. 9 and Nov. 11, is evidence of this. The attacks on Oct. 9 were clearly planned by an organized armed group with some level of training and resources. But the lack of continued resistance beyond the attacks on the three posts likely indicated to the Burmese security forces that the insurgency did not maintain significant control in local villages.
This likely led the Burmese security forces to believe that they could quell continued threat through less-costly, low-level policing operations. They had been able to do so in reaction to attacks from different Rohingya insurgents in the past.
However, the attack on Nov. 12, 2016 “made clear that the attacks on security forces [on Oct. 9] were not one-off and that the armed group was still operational despite a month of intensive military operations,” according to the ICG report.
This meant that the ARSA was perceived to be strong enough to maintain heavy control some villages, and that the ARSA was using the villages to mount attacks against the Burmese government. Thus, when a village exhibited significant signs of insurgent control, Burmese security forces reacted with brutal clearance operations.
But villages were spared from massacre and rape when there was no indication of insurgent control.
The overall pattern during the October-November 2016 phase of the fighting generally supports Stathis Kalyvas’ territorial control theory.
Again, Kalyvas argues that indiscriminate civilian killing should be highest when a combatant is attempting to take control of a territory controlled by its enemy. However, when a combatant maintaining significant control of a territory is likely to practice low-level violence against suspected insurgent collaborators, or little at all.
This pattern of violence against civilians seems to have held during the August-September 2017 phase of operations. As stated earlier, the level of brutality meted out by the Burmese security forces during this phase was more widespread than during the October-November phase.
Rohingya area in Sittwe. DYKT Mohigan photo
Generally, however, the Burmese security force’s reaction seems to have scaled with the extent of the ARSA’s territorial control. The October attack was conducted by hundreds of insurgents, and targeted three BGP posts.
However, on Aug. 25, 2017 the ARSA attacked 30 BGP posts, and the attacks included thousands of insurgents. The attacks in August also covered a much larger geographic area than the attacks in October had done.
In short, more villages were suspected of aiding insurgents during the August-September phase than during the October-November phase.
When focusing in on patterns of brutality at the village level, it seems that the largest atrocities were reserved for villages perceived to provide the highest levels of active support to the ARSA.
For example, three of the worst mass killing events during this period occurred in three villages: Maung Nu, Min Gyi, and Chut Pyin. All of these villages have one thing in common. The ARSA attacked BGP posts either within the village, or nearby.
In the month prior to the attack in Chut Pyin a military contingent came to live at the BGP post and in buildings within the village. A curfew was imposed, movement for the Rohigya was restricted, and the military held several meetings with local leaders asking for the names of ARSA members hiding in the village.
The BGP post in Chut Pyin was attacked by several insurgents on Aug. 26, 2017. The placement of the military in the village, and the meetings likely means that the Burmese security forces had some intelligence indicating ARSA activity in the village.
The attacks confirmed their suspicions. On Aug. 27, 2017 “scores” of villagers were killed, in a methodical attack. The Burmese security forces killed indiscriminately, and destroyed much of the Rohingya portion of the village. The other half of the village—where ethnic Rakhine live—went untouched.
The events leading up to the massacre in Maung Nu followed a similar pattern. A BGP post less than a mile from Maung Nu was attacked on Aug. 25, 2017 by more than 100 ARSA insurgents.
The fighting lasted several hours, costing the lives of two Burmese officers, and six ARSA insurgents. Most of the residents from the village closest to the BPG post almost immediately fled to Maung Nu to avoid reprisal attacks by the Burmese security forces.
“That morning a commander from the army’s Light Infantry Battalion 564, based just south of Maung Nu, called the local district administrator, Mohamed Arof, furious,” according to the Associated Press.
The commander asked why Arof didn’t warn the army of the impending attack. Arof claimed that he “didn’t know anything about it.”
On Aug. 27, several trucks full of Burmese troops arrive at the village. The troops spread fear by firing into the air. But during their initial push into to village troops focused on forcing most of the villagers into a large compound.
It was there that men and women were separated. Many of the men were brutally murdered, including one reported decapitation. The Associate Press reported that between 82 and 200 men and boys were killed that day.
Women reported being sexually assaulted during searches, and some young girls were taken away by the army. However, neither the A.P. report, nor a Human Rights Watch report that documented the massacre, reported rape or women being killed.
The ARSA attacked the Burmese security forces near Min Gyi in waves over a span of five days.
“Myanmar authorities have alleged that ARSA attacked an outpost in Net Chaung, a village near Min Gyi, at around 3:35 A.M. on Aug. 25,” Amnesty International reported. “They further allege that on Aug. 26 ARSA destroyed a deserted police outpost in Wet Kyein, across the river from Min Gyi, and that fighting continued nearby through Aug. 29”
The ability to continuously attack the Burmese security forces is evidence that the ARSA insurgents in the area were particularly strong. Unfortunately, this strength is likely the reason that Min Gyi became the site of the worst massacre during the August phase of the military operations.
On Aug. 30, 2017, Burmese security forces, alongside armed ethnic Rakhine villagers, began surrounding Min Gyi, and burning down buildings.
Between 1,000 and 2,000 villagers gathered on the beach near Min Gyi. Some came there because a local Rakhine leader told them that the army assured their safety if they gathered on the beach and allowed their houses to be burned. Others simply panicked and fled to the beach.
As the Burmese security forces approached the beach, many of the villagers ran. However, survivors told Human Rights Watch that most of those who showed up to the beach died that day.
Like the massacre at Maung Nu, men and boys were separated from the women and girls. Over the next several hours Burmese security forces executed the men that were not lucky enough to flee. Unlike at Maung Nu, however, the women and girls were not spared.
Survivors estimate that about 400 women were corralled at the beach before they were taken in batches to nearby homes where soldiers gang raped many of the women. In some cases, children and infants were hacked to death in front of their mothers, or burned alive.
“The soldiers then left the houses, closed the doors with the women and children inside, and set the houses on fire,” one woman told Human Rights Watch.
According to Amnesty International, “beginning in early to mid-September, the military or local civilian authorities at times warned the Rohingya in advance that their homes would be burned.” This reduced the instances of rape and massacre.
Again, this largely aligns with Kalyvas’ territorial-control theory. As the ARSA insurgency began to wane in September, the Burmese security forces seem to have reduced the severity and frequency of atrocities against civilians.