Myanmar’s Muslims Are No Security Threat

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

Dozens of Rohingya children must live with their parents in overcrowded homes, straining the few resources available to families. (Photo: Austin Bodetti).

Dozens of Rohingya children must live with their parents in overcrowded homes, straining the few resources available to families. (Photo: Austin Bodetti).

Civil wars waged by separatist rebels have plagued Myanmar (known to the opposition as “Burma”) since its independence. The country’s worst-treated minority, however, inhabits one of its most-peaceful states. The Rohingya, a Muslim people whom the Myanmarese government has oppressed and persecuted, have endured living in concentration camps for four years. The government in Naypyidaw claims that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who risk the Buddhist population’s safety. Human rights defenders assert otherwise.

Native Muslim minorities often find themselves resisting non-Muslim governments. In Chechnya, rebels launched two failed wars of independence against Russia. In Kashmir, locals found themselves partaking in a proxy war between India and Pakistan. In Palestine, the world’s best-known Islamic conflict continues against Israel. Unlike the Chechens, the Kashmiris, and the Palestinians, the Rohingya have resorted to nonviolent resistance — they prefer the international community to mujahideen from foreign countries. “We want peacekeepers and humanitarian intervention,” one Rohingya told me. “We want a no-fly zone as Kosovo and Iraqi Kurdistan had. We will only take up arms with the international community’s blessing. Otherwise, there would be no benefit to us.” The Rohingya understand that Muslim and Western countries support them against Myanmar, which has opposed Islam and the Western world. “If we were armed, the United Nations and the United States would refuse to help us,” said another Rohingya. “They would consider us like they do al-Qaeda and ISIS. This is already how the Myanmarese government thinks of us. We will use resistance to get our rights, but we will only use nonviolent resistance.” According to the Myanmarese government, its security forces have been fighting the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a separatist resistance movement planning to build an Islamic nation state in the west of the country. The Myanmar Army has blamed the RSO for an insurgency that may in fact have resulted from Buddhist rebels in the region.

It remains questionable how much the RSO can threaten Myanmar and whether the resistance movement still exists. The Myanmarese government would like foreign analysts and journalists to believe that the RSO has collaborated and cooperated with foreign terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Frequent rains mean that the roads in the Rohingya's camp "Thet Key Pyin" are prone to flooding. (Photo: Austin Bodetti).

Frequent rains mean that the roads in the Rohingya’s camp “Thet Key Pyin” are prone to flooding. (Photo: Austin Bodetti).

“After 2001, the Burmese government began sharing intelligence with the U.S. on Rohingya organizations, namely, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO), a conglomerate organization of the RSO factions and other Rohingya militant groups. As one 2002 U.S. cable reports on this unusual intelligence sharing, ‘[i]ts purpose is probably to draw a connection between Al Qaeda, which has supported ARNO, and Burmese insurgent groups active on the Thai border.'” The evidence of collaboration and cooperation with foreign terrorist organizations remains limited at best. “Despite such reported linkages, there have been no known terrorist activities in Rakhine state,” noted Elliot Brennan and Christopher O’Hara in a policy brief for the Institute for Security and Development Policy. “Thus while sympathetic groups may try to launch attacks on Myanmar, they are highly unlikely to be driven by the RSO or any other Rohingya organization.” The Rohingya, whom Buddhists attack and Muslims defend, have appeared as talking points when convenient for politics. “While evidence of Rohingya militancy and Islam-inspired extremism lacks credibility, the Rohingya issue is being used by Naypyidaw, international terrorist organizations, and certain domestic groups to serve their own agendas”. The Myanmarese government wants to enhance its credibility by protecting a Buddhist nation from alleged Bangladeshi immigrants. Terrorists in South Asia, meanwhile, hope to improve their pan-Islamic credentials by expressing solidarity with Muslims in Myanmar.

Myanmar has been reforming itself, transitioning from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), dictatorial and pro-military, to the National League for Democracy (NLD), which has composed one of the first democratic governments in decades. The USDP sided with Buddhist extremists who hoped to deport the Rohingya to Bangladesh, which refuses to accept them. The NLD has implied that it may continue this policy of oppression and persecution. Earlier last month, the NLD-led government criticized America for referencing the Rohingya by their chosen name, pleasing hardliners. Even the word “Rohingya” can be controversial. “It is certainly true that the term ‘Rohingya’ was used relatively rarely until the 1990s, when the community and its international supporters fully adopted it,” reported The Washington Post. “However, although some critics suggest that the ethnicity is only a recent invention, records show that Prime Minister U Nu, who led Burma for several years when it was a parliamentary democracy between 1948 and 1962, used the term ‘Rohingya’ at a number of points.” The complex ethnic dynamics in Myanmar can muddle this problem further. The Myanmarese government has used this complexity to weaken the Rohingya, arguing that they have no rights as illegal immigrants.

The Global War on Terrorism has challenged many countries to confront militancy among their Muslim minorities, yet Myanmar has used the War on Terror to excuse the oppression and persecution of its own inhabitants. Confined to concentration camps, the Rohingya have chosen non-violent resistance to combat the policies of the Myanmarese government. Whether the NLD will abandon the discriminatory laws of the USDP remains open. So far, the new leaders in Naypyidaw have disappointed the Rohingya’s international allies. For now, the Rohingya are only hoping for the best.

A Rakhine youth sits in the ruined Yenasu mosque that was destroyed during the 2012 violence, Rohingya no longer being allowed to visit it’s location in Sittwe.

A Rakhine youth sits in the ruined Yenasu mosque that was destroyed during the 2012 violence, Rohingya no longer being allowed to visit it’s location in Sittwe. (Adryel Talamantes and Austin Bodetti, “The Rohingya and Suu Kyi’s Myanmar“, The Diplomat, 04.05.2016).

This entry was posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Security Policy, Terrorism.

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