Have you ever been to Burma

How did the Rakhine State crisis in Myanmar come about? A look back ahead


How did the conflict in Rakhine State in Myanmar come about, which resulted in the flight of more than 700,000 Muslims to Bangladesh? In order to get to the bottom of this question, it is important to consider the causes and backgrounds of the conflict and to embed them in the historical context. Various levels overlap in the conflict. It is first of all a local conflict between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist Rakhine, then a conflict between the state of Myanmar, the Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya, and finally an international conflict that is being tried at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.


What are the origins of the conflict in Rakhine State in Myanmar, a conflict that led to more than 700,000 Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh? To be able to investigate this question, it is essential to look at the causes and the background of the conflict and to put them into their historical context. The conflict has several overlapping levels. Firstly it is a local conflict between the Muslim minority and that of the Buddhist Rakhine, secondly one between the state, the Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya and lastly an international conflict that is being heard at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.


In Myanmar, the conflict takes place in the Rakhine StateFootnote 1 the attention of an international public especially since August 2017, when more than 700,000 Muslims, including members of the Rohingya group, fled from here from fighting and have since held out in camps in Bangladesh. The trigger for the escape were coordinated attacks on Myanmar border posts in the north of Rakhine State, carried out by a rebel group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the Myanmar government classifies as a terrorist group. According to government reports, 59 rebels and 12 Myanmar security forces died in the attack. The military responded with offensives that not only resulted in waves of refugees from Muslims to Bangladesh; Hindus, Buddhist Rakhine and other groups were also affected and fled to southern regions of Rakhine State. ARSA, about which there is still little reliable informationFootnote 2, according to his own statements, campaigns for the rights of the Muslim Rohingya and also claims the attack on border posts in October 2016, as a result of which the north was cordoned off by the Myanmar military and over 70,000 people fled the fighting (Fox 2017a) .

The Rakhine State, located in western Myanmar with a border with Bangladesh and separated from the rest of Myanmar by the north-south running Arakan Yoma Mountains, is in an escalation spiral. Another actor has entered the conflict with the Arakan Army (AA), which is fighting for more autonomy for the Rakhine State. Also classified as a terrorist group by the government, the AA counts between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters, mostly Buddhist rakhine, who have been fighting with the military, especially since January 2019. The conflict zones now also affect other administrative districts and no longer just the north of Rakhine State. The southern part of Chin State is also affected. Between 60,000 and 160,000 internally displaced people fled the fighting as of May 2020 (Fox 2020). In addition, in addition to strict control of the conflict area, the government is attempting to massively restrict communication and thus prevent the exchange of information. The government imposed a shutdown on mobile internet traffic in June 2019. The reason given by the Ministry of Transport and Communications was “disturbances of peace and the use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities” (Amnesty International 2019, own translation).Footnote 3

The question that inevitably arises is: How did this conflict and the flight of more than 700,000 Muslims to Bangladesh come about? In order to get to the bottom of this question, it is important to consider the causes and backgrounds of the conflict and to embed this extremely complex situation in the historical context. This is followed by a look at the positions of the international community on the subject and the resulting repercussions on the situation in Myanmar. An assessment of the current situation on site is difficult because access to the conflict area and to information is massively restricted. Various levels overlap in this conflict. It is first of all a local conflict between the Muslim minority and that of the Buddhist Rakhine, then a conflict between the state, the Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya, and finally an international conflict that is being negotiated before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The individual levels are shaped by different actors with their specific agendas and sometimes contradict each other, so that a complex situation arises. In addition, the region has been chronically under-researched for decades. This may have been less due to a lack of research interest than to the fact that until the so-called opening of the country in 2011 it was hardly possible to conduct research in Myanmar and in particular in Rakhine State.Footnote 4

The dark side of the transition

The International Crisis Group (ICG) headlines in one of its reports that violence against Muslims in Myanmar is the “dark side of the transition” (ICG 2013, own translation). Violence against Muslims has existed for decades. However, it is undisputed that the country's transition, initiated by the elections in November 2010, was a crucial condition for the resurgence of current conflicts.Footnote 5 This is shown by a look at the prevailing constitutional realities in Myanmar, the situation in the Rakhine state and the hardened positions of the groups involved in the conflict.

Constitutional realities

The civilian government of Myanmar has to come to terms with the military in an involuntary political tandem (dyarchy). The military, which initiated democratization in a top-down process, anchored in the constitution of 2008 that over 25% of the parliamentary seats are reserved for it and are not available for election. According to the constitution, the military controls the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Border Affairs (Gerson 2017). The first elections took place in November 2010, although foreign observers rated them as neither free nor fair (Lidauer 2012; Turnell 2011). The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was built up by the military, emerged victorious from the elections. Under President Thein Sein, an ex-military man, the government pushed ahead with the political reform process, which resulted in largely free and fair elections on November 8, 2015, in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) achieved a landslide victory (Fox 2017b , 2020). The democracy movement, i.a. represented by the NLD, was suppressed under the military dictatorship, much happened in secret. Activists and NLD supporters have been incarcerated as political prisoners in the past. Experiences of democracy from the short democratic phase in the 1950s do not exist for younger generations. However, they have been able to lead freer lives in the last decade of the country's opening. With the NLD's election victory, there were new responsibilities and tasks, but also a lot of historical baggage and numerous challenges. State councilor and de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are confronted with over 20 armed ethnic groups, some of whom have been fighting for more autonomy and self-determination for over 60 years, an area that is largely not controlled by the government will, 300,000 to 500,000 internally displaced people, more than 1,000,000 refugees in neighboring countries and a flourishing drug trade that benefits both resistance groups and the army.Footnote 6 The struggle for peace is the greatest challenge for the development of the multiethnic state. In addition, the economic sector, the education system and the health system must be reformed and the excessive corruption must be combated (Fox 2017b). For the central government, the conflict in Rakhine State is only one of many in Myanmar, and an end to the spiral of violence is not yet in sight.

The situation in Rakhine State

The situation in Rakhine State is complex, but two aspects can be extracted from this multi-layered mixture: deep-seated racism and xenophobia as well as the struggle for resources and civil rights. The short democratic phase after Burma's independence, as the country was called until 1989, was ended in 1962 by a coup by General Ne Win. In the democratic phase, in contrast to other areas of the country, there did not seem to have been any major problems with discrimination and exclusion of Muslims in Rakhine. The Rohingya were recognized as an ethnic group and citizens until the mid-1960s. That changed after the coup. The slogan "To be Burmane means to be Buddhist" of the nationalism movement that emerged during the British colonial era has been revived. Robert Taylor (2015) sums it up when he writes that the Bamar, the majority ethnic group in the country, felt colonized twice: on the one hand by the British and on the other by South Asians. Burma was a province of India until 1937, which resulted in South Asian immigration and a free flow of capital into the colony. It has been claimed that Buddhism is particularly at risk from the rapid growth of the South Asian Hindu and Muslim populations. Political activists, including Buddhist monks, continue to repeat this rhetoric today (Taylor 2015). Xenophobia and a latent racism were promoted and can also be read from a quote from Ne Win: “Even people of pure blood are being disloyal to the race. [...] If people of pure blood act this way, we must carefully watch people of mixed blood ”(quoted in Gravers 1999, p. 69). Both Chinese and Indians, including people of Muslim and Hindu faith, and the Rohingya were accused of being illegal immigrants who first settled in Burma during the British colonial era. Expressions of all of this were among others. the Citizenship Act of 1982 and two military operations in 1978 and 1991 aimed at tracking down illegal migrants in what is now Rakhine State. This led to waves of flight of a quarter of a million Muslims to Bangladesh.

Ethnicity is instrumentalized and politicized. The Burmese concept of ethnicity (thaing yin tha) assumes that people have lived in an area since the beginning of time. Muslims or Rohingya, so the logic goes, are not indigenous, ethnic or national groups as they immigrated during the British colonial era. The Citizenship Act of 1982 determines citizenship based on ethnicity, religion and origin and makes people first, second and third grade citizens. The government recognizes some indigenous Groups like that Big Eight (Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan), i.e. the seven largest ethnic communities after which the seven Union states were named and the Bamar, as a majority ethnic group in the country, which predominantly in the seven regionsdivisions) lives. On paper, they have full citizenship, so they are first-class citizens. The second category is Associate Citizenship (associated citizenship). Associate citizens can be those whose parents were citizens within the meaning of the Nationalities Act of 1948. A citizen within the meaning of this law was someone whose ancestors had lived permanently in Burma for at least two generations and whose parents were born there. They are therefore older immigrants from the colonial era. The third category are the naturalized citizens (naturalized citizens) who were born in Burma before January 4, 1948, or have parents who moved to Burma before January 4, 1948, i.e. younger immigrants from the colonial era. However, these citizens have the problem of being viewed by the military as a potential security risk (Yegar 2002, p. 62). It is well discussed among scholars and lawyers that the majority of the Rohingya should be considered associate citizens according to the law (Kyaw 2017; Cheeseman 2017). The Rohingya spokesmen, however, are not concerned with portraying themselves as immigrants from colonial times, but rather with obtaining full citizenship, which requires recognition as an ethnic group, or with proof that they were already before 1823, i.e. before the first Anglo-Burmese War, lived in Burma. Because of these conditions, it is therefore important to cover your own roots and yourself into the story to write in, among other things. to assert political demands. The use of the name Rohingya as a group designation and its attempted historical embedding poses a major problem for the Buddhist Rakhine and Bamar. The claim that the Rohingya are an ethnic group among all the other ethnic groups in Myanmar with long historical roots is supported by the Rakhine and Bamar are just as unaccepted as the demand to apply for citizenship under this very name (Rohingya) (Fox 2017a)

Ethnic minorities, including the Rakhine, accuse the Burman-dominated government and the military of not having a say in their own interests, for example when it comes to ensuring that they benefit from investments or with regard to large projects such as dams or Mining, which affects the local people massively.Footnote 7 That divides the people in the multiethnic state rather than uniting them. There are distribution struggles through which groups in the struggle for privileges that are promised, for example, by the military in the case of ceasefire agreements, can easily be played off against one another. The seven EU states in particular are rich in natural resources and access to them is lucrative (Fox 2017a). This also includes the Rakhine State, and China in particular is interested in the resources. However, the former is also one of the least developed in Myanmar. The economic situation is bad, there are hardly any job opportunities and therefore constant migration flows of the Rakhine population to other parts of the country or abroad. The infrastructure needs to be expanded and the education and health systems reformed. However, the perception of the Rakhine State as a crisis region puts off investors.

Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine

The history of Arakan, today's Rakhine State, is closely linked to the history of Bengal. Due to the geographical conditions there has been a cultural and economic exchange between South Asia and Southeast Asia for centuries. This cultural and religious diversity in today's Rakhine State did not represent an enrichment for the military government of Myanmar, but a threat to its Buddhist-Burmese state concept (South 2008; Leider 2002). The existence of various Muslim groups in Rakhine State can be traced back to the 15th century. Muslim traders may have been around since the 9th century. The word Rooinga means Rakhine in the local Muslim language and is a designation of origin for people from the Rakhine region. The political identity of the Rohingya today is, however, attributed to more recent developments and is said to have developed in the 1940s (Tonkin 2014; Leider 2013; Zöllner 2008; Chan 2005).Footnote 8 Exact statements about who the Rohingya of today are, how many there are and how they characterize themselves cannot be made because there is still a lack of studies. Determination became even more difficult after the conflict in 2012, which transformed identity. It was previously widespread that Muslims refer to themselves as "Rakhine Muslims"Footnote 9 languages, at least that is known for the Central Rakhine region. The internally displaced people in the camps, mostly Muslims, have been speaking of themselves as Rohingya since 2012. One possible interpretation could be that there was no reason to ask for an identity label before the conflict. But now that they are excluded, they need that group identityFootnote 10 (Lewa 2003; Unfortunately 2013).

The Buddhist Rakhine, the largest group in Rakhine StateFootnote 11, invoke a different version of history and see the Rakhine State as the cradle of Buddhism. In this way they legitimize their claim to the region through their myths of origin. Historical sources, mostly taken out of context, are said to testify that the Rohingya group has never existed in the Arakan region.They are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh with the aim of Islamizing first the Rakhine state and then all of Myanmar, i. H. destroy Buddhist religion, culture and identity (Fox 2017a). Such fears and convictions were already evident before the so-called opening of the country in 2011 and have run like red threads through the past decades. Again and again the fear is stoked that the Rohingya will demand a state of their own if they would get citizenship. The new dimension, from a former intercommunal conflict in Rakhine State (2012) to an armed struggle by rebels, has led radical Buddhist nationalists in the rest of Myanmar to meet with open ears with their propaganda and to benefit from the crisis. The best-known Buddhist nationalist organization is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha), consisting of monks, nuns and lay people. They deliberately stir up fear of Islamization in Myanmar. This increases the potential for conflict and endangers the transformation of the country. In the areas where the conflict took place in 2012, Muslims and Buddhists are still being sealed off from one another. The more separated they are from one another, the greater the alienation, the more difficult it is to live together again and to build trust. Buddhist nationalists use this situation to stir up fears and build enemy images. The use of social media supports the spread of hate speech and nationalist narratives (ICG 2017). The international media coverage of the conflict, which is perceived as very one-sided and simplistic, as well as the increase in international pressure on the government of Myanmar, the support from the ranks of the Buddhist nationalists for the military and its work in the north of the Rakhine State against the rebels is growing. In this respect, the military also benefits, because the prevailing opinion is that state sovereignty can only be maintained if the army is strong. In doing so, they are following the decades-long propaganda of the military, which the population flatly rejected not so long ago.

Responses from the international community

In September 2018, a UN Human Rights Council mission concluded that crimes against humanity had been committed in the states of Kachin, Rakhine and Shan, mainly by the Myanmar military, which denied the allegations (UNHRC 2018).

Myanmar before the International Criminal Court

The state of Myanmar now has to answer to the ICJ after the Gambia filed a lawsuit on behalf of the 57-member organization for Islamic cooperation in November 2019. Myanmar is accused of violating the UN Genocide Convention (ICG 2019). Human rights organizations speak of human rights violations against the Muslim Rohingya group. Images and eyewitness accounts of refugees went around the world, testifying to rape, killings and burned villages by the Myanmar military (Fox 2017a). This has the allegations of Genocidal Intent as well as State Councilor and Foreign Minister Suu Kyi, who personally traveled to The Hague to present the views of the Myanmar government and the arguments of the defense. The long-standing fear of external interference in the country's internal affairs, of foreign control and loss of sovereignty - a trauma of the colonial era - became clear in her speech, so her statement is not surprising: “Only if domestic accountability fails, international justice may come into play "(Quoted in The Myanmar Times 2019). The prosecution before the ICJ is perceived, especially among the Bamar, as an attack on the entire country and triggered a wave of solidarity with the ruling party. A conviction of Myanmar by the ICJ would not yet result in any immediate action to be taken. The Gambia could involve the UN Security Council, which could enforce the judgment through targeted intervention; In view of the People's Republic of China's right of veto in the UN Security Council, however, such action against Myanmar appears extremely unlikely (Fox 2020).

In a preliminary ruling in January 2020, the ICJ stated that Myanmar must take immediate measures to protect the Rohingya minority. Due to the corona crisis, the deadline was extended to May 2020. Reports from human rights organizations are based on testimony from refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, and these in turn have been challenged by both the Myanmar government and the military. However, the government in Rakhine State does not allow a UN fact-finding mission. At most, it offers diplomats and journalists, depending on the security situation guided Tours to get an idea of ​​the situation on site. There are official statements from the military and the government, but these are difficult to validate as access to the conflict area is strictly controlled (Fox 2020).

Recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, measures of the EU and Germany

Implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and commissioned by Suu Kyi, has also stalled. Central points that are discussed in detail in the report from August 2017 include: improving the social and economic situation of broad sections of the population and recognizing the diversity and identity of the various groups and communities in Rakhine State. Organized repatriation and guarantees for the safety of refugees from Bangladesh, as called for in the UNHCR resolution in June 2020, are out of the question, given the fighting between the military and the AA, which in turn is calling for new internally displaced persons. Despite the possible frustration of the international community over the lack of progress, the ICG's recommendation is: “Stay engaged” (ICG 2020). Funding for humanitarian aid and development cooperation should be maintained. Otherwise, withdrawal could exacerbate the structural factors underlying the numerous crises in Myanmar. One problematic step is the announcement that Germany will withdraw from bilateral development cooperation with Myanmar. Federal Development Minister Gerd Müller (CSU) announced in February 2020 after visiting a refugee camp for Rohingya in Bangladesh that the federal government would suspend aid for Myanmar until the country guaranteed the return of the Rohingya in safety. According to the new strategy paper for the BMZ 2030 reform concept, which the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) presented in May 2020, it is clear that Myanmar will be removed from the list of directly funded countries in the future. A fatal signal to the country and civil society actors, and a misconception that even more pressure would change the situation of the Rohingya, let alone a return to Myanmar.

In view of the attacks initiated by the military, which are difficult to control by the civilian government, the measures of the EU and Germany lead to the weakening of the civilian, democratic forces and to an international isolation of the Myanmar civilian government. The sanctions against Myanmar adopted by the European Union in February 2018 in view of the systematic human rights violations have been extended to April 30, 2021. These include entry bans and property freezes against high-ranking military officials, export restrictions on weapons and the suspension of military cooperation. Critical voices warn that the international community should instead seek dialogue with the government and the military and step up cooperation in order to work on a sustainable plan (Fox 2020).


Before the country was democratized, people were united in their rejection of the military regime. Now this connection is no longer applicable and old lines of conflict are breaking up again. A national identity is to be formed from the many ethnic groups. So far, this has not been successful. Ethnicity ideas will continue to be a motif in Myanmar politics. A broader understanding of the conceptual problems ethnicity poses to understanding Myanmar politics or resolving human rights claims, Taylor said, would help depoliticize an inherently emotional issue. The Rohingya question is ultimately one of belonging: who is entitled to belong to the nation, who is not, and above all: who has the right to decide about it? The majority of the Bamar deny any international organization, but also foreign individuals, the right to rule on it. Who belongs to the nation is entirely the business of the Bamar. If these perceptions are not included in the assessment of the conflict and its solution, it will drag on for a long time.


  1. 1.

    In 1974 the Arakan region became the Arakan state and in 1989 the name of the country, city and street was renamed by the Burmese government to become Rakhine state.

  2. 2.

    ARSA, also known by its former name Harakah al-Yaqin, was apparently founded in 2013 in response to the displacement of Muslims in Rakhine State in 2012. So-called Recruiter encountered open doors as young people in particular were now ready to fight for their rights. According to the International Crisis Group, ARSA is headed by Rohingya, who live in exile in Saudi Arabia, provide financial support and train young recruits in North Rakhine in guerrilla warfare tactics. In addition, there are plans to take an area militarily and make territorial claims, as other armed ethnic groups in Myanmar have already done (ICG 2016).

  3. 3.

    See also Robertson (2020). The Internet blackout should hit the AA in particular. In August 2020, the government allowed 2G services. 3G and 4G services are still suspended. Organizations complain that this is insufficient (MDRF 2020).

  4. 4.

    For further literature, see Jacques Leider, Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, Pamela Gutman, Hans-Bernd Zöllner.

  5. 5.

    In 2003, the military junta initiated democratization on their terms with its Roadmap to Democracy. One budgeted goal after another was made processed, including the adoption of a new constitution in 2008.

  6. 6.

    In its Annual Peace and Security Review 2020, the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS) speaks of an increase in armed clashes of 176% for 2019 and compared to 2018. The township-based conflict monitoring system forms the basis for collecting the data. According to MIPS, there are primarily two conflicts: the one between the AA and the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) in northern Rakhine and southern Chin states and between the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the military in northern Shan state, the are responsible for 81% of armed clashes.

  7. 7.

    As part of the Chinese project of the New Silk Road (One Belt One Road Initiative), many such large-scale projects are also planned in the Rakhine, which is a factor in the escalation.

  8. 8.

    Curtis Lamprecht (2006), on the other hand, writes that the word Rohingya does not originate from politics, but is a historical name of a community living in Arakan (today's Rakhine).

  9. 9.

    Name taken from interviews and field research conducted by Ms. Fox in 2008-2020.

  10. 10.

    Ms. Fox also conducted a personal interview with Mr. Lewa in 2013 as part of her field research.

  11. 11.

    Contrary to the impression that only Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya live in Rakhine State, there are a total of seven ethnic groups recognized by the government: (Buddhist) Rakhine, which in turn form the largest group, Kwe Myi, Daingnet, Maramagyi, Mro , Thet, Kaman (Muslims recognized as an ethnic group and citizens). In addition, Hindus live in Rakhine State, as do Muslims, but not all of them belong to the Rohingya group.


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  1. University of Passau, Innstr. 33a, 94032, Passau, Germany

    Mandy Fox & Prof. (em.) Rüdiger Korff

  2. Ludwig Maximilians University Munich, Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 1, Munich, Germany

    Dr. D. Hellmann-Rajanayagam

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Correspondence to Mandy Fox.

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On February 1, 2021, the military staged a coup in Myanmar, interrupting a decade of relative openness in the country and the transition process towards a democratic system. The manuscript of this essay was completed before February 1, 2021 and thus takes into account the events prior to that time.

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Fox, M., Hellmann-Rajanayagam, D. & Korff, R. How did the crisis in the Rakhine State in Myanmar come about? A look back ahead. Z Foreign security policy (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12399-021-00845-w

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