MYANMAR – Authorities in Myanmar say they are increasingly wary of a potential threat from Islamic radicals as militants beyond its borders begin taking up the cause of the country’s Muslims, targeted in attacks involving Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
The issue has gained attention after a foiled bombing attempt on Myanmar’s Embassy in Jakarta, allegedly in retaliation for the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, and a major police operation in Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim country—over the past two days in which seven suspects were killed and 13 others were arrested, some of whom were suspected of having links to the embassy plot.
“Security forces are more vigilant about terror threats,” said Ye Htut, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, asserting that Myanmar’s Muslim groups are “not accepting or supporting” terrorist acts against the country.
The head of police forces in Yangon, Col. Win Naing, said police have “secured checkpoints in airports, over land and at other ports, so terrorists will not be able to enter Myanmar.” In Yangon, efforts have been stepped up to guard embassies and observing crowded downtown areas where many Muslims live, said Myint Htay, a police major in the country’s commercial capital.
An eruption of violence that Human Rights Watch has termed “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s south combined with violence against Muslims elsewhere, has left at least 200 people dead and tens of thousands displaced. Nevertheless, authorities and analysts say there is little immediate risk of an internal jihad movement developing among Myanmar’s Muslims, who are isolated and scattered around the country.
But passions are growing elsewhere. The sectarian violence has “agitated Muslim communities across the region” said Joseph Liow, associate dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and coordinator of its Contemporary Islam Program. “There is a tendency to interpret these developments as a deliberate attack on Muslims, and to then act upon them in a defensive way.”
The plight of the Rohingya, who aren’t considered citizens by Myanmar though many families have lived there for generations, has especially agitated Indonesian militants. But terrorism experts note that other radical groups—like the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami in Bangladesh, both of which have bombed pro-Western and pro-Indian targets in their countries—could also start spreading hard-line anti-Myanmar rhetoric. Last June, amid raging violence in Rakhine state against the Rohingya, Tehreek-e-Taliban threatened to attack Myanmar targets and demanded that Pakistan halt all relations with the country.
It comes as no surprise to analysts that the rallying cry around Myanmar’s Muslim has been most vociferous in Indonesia and Pakistan, the two Muslim-majority countries with the strongest history of radicalism and terrorism in the region. But the issue is also on the mind of mainstream Muslims. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has expressed concern about violence between Buddhists and Muslims and sent a team to the country to look into the matter further.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged Myanmar’s leaders during a recent visit there to address sectarian strife that has sent many Rohingya to Indonesia after fleeing Myanmar in rickety boats.
In the past few months, protests about violence against Myanmar’s Muslims were also held in Malaysia and Thailand.
The threat of radicalization is being watched by Myanmar’s diplomatic partners, particularly Western governments that have supported the country’s emergence from military rule to democracy. A senior U.S. State Department official said there were “worrisome signs” in Myanmar, including rumors that terror groups could be operating in Rohingya communities, but so far, Washington hasn’t seen any firm evidence of such activity, the official said.
“You’d expect radicalization” of Muslims in Myanmar given the harsh living conditions they have to endure, the official said, but it doesn’t appear to have taken root so far.
“The extent of radicalization depends on how the situation is handled by the Myanmar government,” said Daljit Singh, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, adding that such sentiments could spread to other countries unless “further large-scale violence can be prevented”.
For now, the ability of hard-line or terror groups to send fighters and arms to Myanmar is limited, though travel to the long-isolated country is much easier than it once was. Even in Indonesia, the more concerted drive against extremism in the past decade has depleted networks that took up arms against religious minorities or orchestrated sophisticated, murderous bomb attacks like the one that killed 202 people in Bali in 2002.
“Muslim fighters moving from one territory to another is not that easy, let alone entering Rakhine, which is a whole different prospect,” Mr. Liow said.
Rohingya groups, too, have claimed that any reports of potential radicalization are unsubstantiated. These accusations are intended to “incite public opinion against the Rohingya people” and are “fabricated nonsense,” said the Arakan Rohingya National Organization, based in London.
Still, those who work closely with Rohingya say that they are growing increasingly aware of their ethnic identity—a new reality as they face hostility from Buddhists in Myanmar and indifference in neighboring, Muslim-majority Bangladesh, where many in Myanmar claim they belong by labeling them “Bengalis.”
“After the violence and expulsion, they strongly rally behind the term Rohingya,” said Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, a human-rights advocacy group.
Ms. Lewa, while rejecting possible terrorist activity among the Rohingya, said some have refused to participate in a Myanmar census labeling them Bengalis, making any compromise between the group and the government “very difficult.”