Selling Out the Rohingyas

In the past several weeks, much attention has been devoted to the abject plight of the minority, predominantly Muslim, Rohingya community in Burma’s (Myanmar’s) Rakhine state. They have long been mistreated in the country and are denied citizenship rights despite a claim to have inhabited the Rakhine region since the sixteenth century; their situation has recently taken a particularly adverse turn. On August 25, it is reported that an emergent Rohingya guerrilla group had launched an attack on some Myanmarese army units. The military retaliated with considerable force and massacred substantial numbers of villagers at Tula Toli near the Bangladeshi border. In its wake, thousands of the hapless villagers trekked to nearby Bangladesh swelling an already turgid refugee population.

The harshness with which the Burmese military has responded to the guerrilla attack has generated understandable condemnation in the global community. Some groups have even organized to try to strip the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of her Nobel Prize. A fellow Nobel Laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has sharply criticized her deafening silence about the situation of the Rohingyas. Another Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousufzai, has also criticized her silence.

Bangladesh and India’s Response

The focus on the global community’s response to these most tragic developments in Myanmar is entirely warranted and appropriate. Lost in much of the reportage on these events, however, are the reactions of two key regional countries, Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh, which has grudgingly sheltered Rohingya refugees for years, has allowed more of them to enter the country, albeit with much reluctance. The conditions that prevail in the Bangladeshi refugee camps can only be described as being downright squalid. Yet, such dire conditions do not deter the wretched Rohingyas from fleeing the depredations of the Myanmar army. Of course, Bangladesh has little or no incentive and has limited resources to improve the existing state of the camps. Making them more livable is likely to make them a magnet for further refugee inflows. Furthermore, despite much economic progress over the past few decades, it remains a desperately poor country and can ill-afford to provide succor to increasing numbers of refugees even if they happen to be fellow Muslims. Even if substantial inflows of international assistance were available to Bangladesh, it is most unlikely that its regime would alleviate the milieu of these camps for fear that the refugees would seek more permanent residence in the country.

Bangladesh’s response to the emergent refugee crisis, while less than laudable, is at least somewhat understandable. What then has been India’s reaction to the unfolding crisis? The country has a long and storied tradition of not merely accepting refugees, but actually providing them solace. For example, in the wake of the Khampa rebellion in Tibet in 1959, it provided comfort to thousands of Tibetans. It has also sheltered the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the global Tibetan community, for decades since his flight to India. More recently, in 1971, it opened its borders to nearly ten million Bengalis who fled East Pakistan following a military crackdown during the crisis that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Why then has the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime adopted a mostly uncaring stance? The reasons stem from the imperatives of both regional and domestic politics.

In his visit to Myanmar last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at least in the public domain, scrupulously avoided bringing up the issue of the Rohingyas. Worse still, he concurred with Suu Kyi that Myanmar was confronted with and needed to address a “terrorist problem.” According to reliable Indian newspaper sources, he was able, however, to persuade her that it was necessary to provide substantial economic assistance to the strife-torn region. Whether or not such aid ever materializes and reaches the unfortunate population remains an open question.

What explains Modi’s reticence to criticize the country’s role in precipitating this humanitarian crisis? In considerable part, it stems from a careful calculation of India’s perceived national security interests. Given that the country has long faced and continues to confront a range of insurgencies in its northeastern region abutting Myanmar, it needs to elicit Suu Kyi’s cooperation to prevent them from using bases and sanctuaries in her country.

Additionally, it can also be traced to India’s interest in limiting the influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In earlier decades, Myanmar’s fledgling democracy movement was battling a vicious military dictatorship, and India had been at the forefront of supporting it. However, after watching the PRC make steady inroads into Myanmar in the early 1990s, India started to move away from its unstinted support for democratic reforms. Modi’s muted reaction to the ongoing crisis amounts to a logical culmination of that strategy.

Beyond regional concerns, what are the domestic determinants of this policy? The BJP regime, as is well known, has little or no regard for India’s vast Muslim minority. In fact, elements within the party are known for their active hostility toward India’s Muslim citizenry. Consequently, it should come as little surprise that the regime has no particular regard for the Rohingyas who have sought refuge within India. With complete disregard for customary international law, which calls on states not to deport refugees to countries where they face a reasonable prospect of persecution, Kiren Rijiju, the junior minister for Home Affairs, has threatened to deport the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Without adducing any evidence, he has argued that the refugees pose a potential terrorist threat and thereby should be deported. It is uncertain that the stinging rebukes that he has received from both Indian civil society as well as human rights groups will lead to a suspension of this stated policy.

At a juncture when multiple global crises command the attention of national leaders, there is a strong likelihood that the stance of the two most important regional actors— Bangladesh and India—to this humanitarian crisis will be mostly overlooked. Under those circumstances, the predicament of the Rohingyas will simply be written off as yet another footnote to the many humanitarian tragedies of the new century.


Sumit Ganguly is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.

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The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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