Myanmar’s Anti-Muslim Policy: A Threat to the Region
by Ramtanu Maitra on 12 Nov 2012 18 Comments
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The inability or,  at the worst, unwillingness of uniformed and non-uniformed Myanmar authorities to put an end to the persecution of Muslims in the Arakan Hills and beyond poses a serious threat to a fragile and increasingly important economic region in Asia.

Myanmar is the gateway for the two most-populous and powerful Asian nations, China and India, to an economically-stable southeast Asia. But because of the Myanmar authorities’ historical inability to govern the northern and eastern part of the country bordering India, Bangladesh and southern China, a vast area has remained lawless, threatening to undermine the region as a whole economically. The killing of Muslims by chauvinist Buddhists, with apparent support from the Buddhist Sangha, could have fatal consequences for years to come for those who are not involved in these insane activities but merely reside in the neighborhood.

According to available media reports, on Oct. 21, a violent mob led by a group of Buddhist fanatics, killed resident Muslims and burned down their homes in Rakhine state, located in western Myanmar. A Rakhine government spokesman put the death toll at 112, but within hours state media had revised it to 67 killed, 95 wounded and nearly 3,000 houses destroyed from Oct. 21 to Oct. 25. All those killed were Arakanese Muslims, called Rohingyas. According to Iran’s Press TV, Myanmar army forces provided the Buddhists with containers of petrol to set ablaze the houses of Muslim villagers, forcing them out of their homes. This latest violence against the Muslims by Myanmar’s Buddhists has also drawn the attention of the United Nations. On Oct. 25, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the authorities in Myanmar to take action to bring an end to the lawlessness currently affecting the state, with the UN chief’s spokesperson describing the outbreak of communal violence in five townships in the state’s north as “deeply troubling.”

Earlier this year on June 4, Buddhist residents in western Burma killed at least nine Muslims as sectarian tension worsens in the region, police say. Reports say a crowd attacked a bus in Rakhine province after blaming some of the passengers for the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. In another incident, at least 10 people were injured in the state capital Sittwe when police broke up a protest. The riots continued throughout the month of June.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch released satellite images of the “near total destruction” of a once-thriving coastal community that was reduced to ashes around Kyaukpyu, an industrial zone important to Chinese energy interests.

Chain in the Buddhist Fanatics

Persecution of the Arakanese Muslims by the Buddhists has been a pattern in Myanmar’s national fabric for decades. The heart of the problem lies with the Buddhist-majority government of Myanmar, which refuses to recognize the Rohingyas and has classified them as illegal migrants despite the fact that they are said to be Muslim descendants of Persian, Turkish, Bengali and Pushtun origin who migrated to Myanmar as early as in the 8th century. As a result, Myanmar’s estimated 800,000 Rohingyas have remained officially stateless, and are considered outsiders and not one of country’s 135 officially-recognized ethnic groups. Extremely disturbing is the fact that this persecution of Muslims has now gone beyond the Arakan Hills, and Muslims are now under the Buddhist gun throughout Myanmar.

The Buddhist-led anti-Muslim viciousness took this violent turn in 1978, when more than 200,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee to Bangladesh following targeted Myanmar army operations against them. The army’s aim, as Yangon explained at the time, was to scrutinize individuals living in Rakhine State and designate them as citizens or foreigners in accordance with the law and take action against those who were identified as foreigners by labeling them illegal.

At the time, a report issued by the London-based Amnesty International pointed out that the military campaign directly targeted civilians and resulted in widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, rape, destruction of mosques and other religious persecutions. Most of those refugees were later repatriated; but in 1991, more than 250,000 Rohingyas again fled their homes to Bangladesh, citing religious persecution at the hands of the military junta and the Buddhist fanatics, who had joined the organized pogrom.

The persecution of Muslims in Myanmar has now gone beyond the vicinity of the Arakan Hills. Two incidents of grenade attacks on Muslim mosques occurred on Oct. 28 in two different townships in Karen state, which is near Thailand. A bomb exploded at Ye-Nan-Si-Gone mosque of Kawkareik and the Jameh mosque in Kyone-Doe was attacked by grenades, according to local Muslim residents.

Recent intelligence reports indicate that the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a breakaway group of former Buddhist soldiers and officers of the predominantly Karen Christian-led Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), has been involved in the destruction of mosques and forced relocation of Muslim villagers. DKBA soldiers have allegedly tried to force Muslims to worship Buddhist monks and have put up Buddhist altars. Restrictions have also been placed on Muslims to force them to become vegetarian. Both the DKBA and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) have forced Muslims in Karen State to do menial labor for them on a regular basis, reports claim.

Where Is Suu Kyi and her Democratic Fervor?

Also disturbing is the fact that neither the military authorities nor the civilian political groups have shown any inclination to openly oppose the marauders or come to the aid of their Muslim victims. Myanmar’s military junta has time and again sided with the anti-Muslim fanatics while maintaining its own complex political equations with the Buddhist monks intact. The behind-the-back shaking of hands between the fanatic Buddhists and the military junta on the persecution of Muslims has not gone altogether unnoticed. On the contrary, the fanatics want their backing by the military to be known.

In September, about six weeks before the latest violent attacks, hundreds of Buddhist monks marched in Yangon, calling for the deportation of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. Voice of America cited analysts saying the country’s Buddhist chauvinism was shaped by authorities’ attempts to form a “national identity.”  The monks were supporting a suggestion by President Thein Sein, who made a public statement saying the Muslim minority, numbering close to a million, should be segregated and deported.

It is evident that the hard-headed military junta, seeking support of the Buddhist fanatics for its own political longevity, is silently backing the persecution of Muslims. And the same could be said for Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Though she lived for decades in the international limelight as a victim at the hands of military dictators, Suu Kyi has been noticeably silent. A blue-blooded Burman like Thein Sein, she traveled out of Myanmar to accept her Nobel Peace Prize last July at a time when the Arakanese Muslims’ homes were burnt and people were killed by those whom Suu Kyi represents. (The peace credentials conferred by the prestigious Nobel Prize have already been called into question, of course, by US President Barack Obama, who is directing the unconstitutional and extrajudicial killing of individuals in foreign lands by unmanned aerial vehicles known as drones and labeling all the dead as terrorists.)

Speaking at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) annual conference last June in Geneva at the height of the June riots, Suu Kyi said that “fear of illegal immigration” lay at the heart of the violence between ethnic Arakanese and the stateless Rohingya minority. “Of course I am concerned, and the most important lesson is the need for rule of law,” she said when asked by reporters. “We need precise laws on citizenship. I think a big problem comes from fear of illegal immigration, I think we need more responsible uncorrupted border vigilance.” She added that those deemed worthy of citizenship should get all the legal benefits that entails.

Suu Kyi has tried to make the issue part of her political campaign by saying the problem lies in the fact that the junta is not ruling the country effectively. But did she visit the victims? No, she did not. And that is because her political campaign is based on projecting a common cause between ethnic Rakhines and Burmans under a common “Buddhist Burmese” identity. And to attain this merger, ostensibly a political necessity, she has little to do with what is happening to the Rohingya Muslims. The nature of this common cause is out there in the open for all to see as the military junta, as well as senior opposition leaders from Suu Kyi’s own party—including Tin Oo, Nyan Win and Win Tin - have together ganged up against the Rohingya Muslims.

The Jihadi Threat

Naypyidaw must notice that its “business as usual” approach in dealing with its Muslim population may end up costing it a lot. Besides the UN, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and a slew of human rights groups have spoken out against anti-Muslim activities within Myanmar. Turkey has taken a serious note of these developments. 

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife, Emine Erdogan, and daughter Sumeyye Erdogan visited Myanmar to get accurate information about the situation. Mrs. Erdogan has expressed her horror and dismay at the anti-Muslim pogrom, calling it “unbelievable” and “shocking.” The Turkish news weekly, Journal of Turkish Weekly, said: “What’s going on in the region is just an ethnic cleansing, which has been common throughout the 20th century in Burma against Muslims. The majority of the Buddhist population of the country see themselves as a powerful nation and recognize themselves the ‘right’ to attack and chase off the Muslim residents, who were seen as ‘subordinates’ and ‘aliens’ in the country.”

Such reports will not help the Myanmar junta or the civilian democratic forces under Nobel laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi. And greater threats are lurking around the corner. Muslims around the world, even before the “Arab Awakening,” had begun to take note of the persecution of Muslims. Some of these Muslims have turned toward armed militancy to deal with their persecutors. Their militant and violent acts have been financially supported by the oil and gas-rich Gulf Arabs, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular. With the tacit approval of colonial European powers and the United States, these militants have recently turned Libya and Syria upside down and have also moved toward Islamicizing Egypt, Tunisia and Pakistan, among other nations.

This is a threat that not only extends its ominous shadow over Myanmar, but over a large area where efforts are being made by the major nations of the region to ensure peace and stability. Those efforts focus on accelerating the growth of their physical economies. To say the least, it would be naïve for the Myanmar authorities, and the political figures of that country who have sided with the Buddhist fanatics because of their own prejudices to gain domestic political mileage, to believe that the uprooted Rohingyas, driven away from their homes through the use of violence, will take it lying down and not reach out for support from militant Islamic forces elsewhere.

There are media reports that reveal a militant Rohingya group, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), has set up a network in the Cox’s Bazaar district of southern Bangladesh. Afghan Taliban instructors were also seen in some of the RSO camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, while some RSO rebels were reported to be undergoing training in the Afghan province of Khost along with Hizb-e-Islami fighters. One CNN video, reportedly secured from al-Qaeda’s archives in Afghanistan in August 2002, shows Muslim allies from “Burma” receiving training in Afghanistan.

In addition, it has been reported that following the atrocities committed in the Arakan Hills, Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, commander of the Saudi Arabian Military, visited Dhaka and recommended waging a military action against Burma.

In 1998, the RSO and Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) combined to found the Rohingya National Council (RNC). The Rohingya National Army (RNA) was also established as the RNC’s armed wing; and the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) began to organize all the different Rohingya insurgents into one group. As Wikileaks revealed at the time, ARNO had an estimated strength of about 200 militants, of whom about 170 were equipped with a variety of arms. Ninety members of ARNO were selected to attend a guerrilla warfare course, a variety of explosives courses and heavy-weapons courses held in Libya and Afghanistan in August 2001.

In January 2012, six months before the June riots, a Bangladeshi newspaper reported a merger of different Rohingya militant groups in Bangladesh. According to the news, the RSO, Arakan Movement, Arakan People’s Freedom Party and ARNO had decided to form an alliance and work together.

These are danger signals for the Myanmar authorities to take note of. If the Myanmar leaders do not wake up to these warnings, the region could turn into another hotbed for jihadis posing threats not only to Naypyidaw/Yangon, but also to Dhaka and India’s troubled northeast.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review

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