The on-going hype on anti-Burmese sentiment is burning strong within the last few weeks, particularly on the pro-Rohingya solidarity sentiment which saw thousands of Muslims protesting at the Myanmar embassies in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta.
What must be clear in my write up here is that I am addressing the concern on radicalization of extremist sentiments within the region and this is purely a security perspective and concern which I would like to abstain from raising any political, racial or religious sentiments in this post.
It is quite frustrating in attempting to write this post without any sense of bias because scores of Buddhists were also killed and made homeless by the Rohingyas too — where is the balanced reporting on this?
Allegations of genocide and efforts in resolving the Rakhine state issue
With journalists barred from entering the affected area, it has been a near-impossible to substantiate the reports and allegations of rapes and killings by Myanmar’s soldiers.
As written by Aung Zaw, Founder and Editor of The Irrawady Magazine, Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi had done what was appropriate in resolving the Rakhine state issue, albeit her limited political powers.
The Nobel laureate’s party won elections a year ago, but the military still technically control and influences the government’s power, including access to sensitive border regions.
In May, she formed and chaired the Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development in Arakan State — subsequently, she appointed former UN chief Kofi Annan to lead the advisory commission which was met with much protest from Arakanese lawmakers and the Myanmar army for appointing an outsider.
In a recent interview with Channel News Asia, Suu Kyi said that the government has managed to control the situation in Rakhine and due to the delicate situation between the two communities (Buddhists and Muslims), she is not going to take sides.
This has led to various allegations against her and her administration for keeping publicly silent over the issue.
Speaking to BBC in an interview after visiting the Rakhine state, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan says that there is no genocide of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Quoting from his interview, Annan says that “… there are tensions, there has been fighting, but I wouldn’t put it the way some would have done”, with reference to recent media portrayal of the current situation in the Rakhine state.
He also advises observers to be “very, very careful” when using the term genocide.
“You can feel both communities are afraid. There is fear, there is mistrust. The fear has heightened but we need to find a way of breaking down and beginning to encourage the communities to connect,” he told the BBC.
Annan said Suu Kyi’s government, which won a historic election last November, should be given “a bit of time, space and patience”.
Militancy, radicalization and extremism
It must be noted that Rohingya insurgency has been an ongoing part of the country’s tumultuous history where militant Rohingyas themselves were involved in massacres, rape, looting, and slavery and forcibly converted indigenous Buddhist people of Rakhine region for many decades.
The propaganda of whitewashing centuries of bloody acts by the Bengali Muslims, or Rohingyas, their acts of violence against indigenous Rakhines and trying to take over an integral part of Myanmar by sheer force after totally altering its demographic composition is the driving factor behind this — and human rights activists overlook the fact that the Rohingyas too, were guilty of extreme violence, painting them as the only victims of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar when the facts of history are quite contrary to that and it is very unfortunate that most of the world buys this false narrative.
The Bangladeshi Chakma Buddhist Association maintains a comprehensive list of Muslim atrocities and sectarian violence in Bangladesh and beyond.
On 20th May 2015, Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab condemned Myanmar’s policies towards the Rohingyas.
“At the hands of the savage Buddhists, thousands of Muslims, including women and children, have fled their homes and are desperately trying to reach the shores of safety, their only crime of being their adherence to Islam,” al-Shabaab said in a statement, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported.
“Welcome them, open your homes and give shelter to the fleeing Muslims… Mobilize men, money and resources to defend the honor of the prosecuted Muslims and repel the savage attacks of the polytheists,” al-Shabaab added.
On the 8th of June 2015, the spokesman of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Ehsanullah Ehsan issued an audio message via the AFP urging “Burma’s youth: take up the sword and kill in the path of God. No doubt, God is with us… our training centres, our resources, training, people, everything is available to provide comfort to you”.
The Islamic State (IS) also took note of the Rohingya situation and capitalized on social media campaigns encouraging Rohingyans to look towards IS. On 1st July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State referred to the “1 million of the weak Muslims who are all without exception being exterminated in Burma,” and asked what the Muslim world would do about it.
“So raise your ambitions, O soldiers of the Islamic State! For your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades… It is enough for you to just look at these scenes that have reached you from Central Africa, and from Burma before that. What is hidden from us is far worse,” he said.
“So by Allah, we will take revenge! By Allah, we take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator,” he continued.
October 2016 border attacks
The latest series of violence escalated after the 2016 border attacks:-
The attacks on three police posts near Maungdaw appeared to be co-ordinated where armed assailants were reported to have looted more than 50 guns and thousands of ammunitions from the guard post.
09th October 2016 – an estimated 300 unidentified insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh.
11th October 2016 – four Tatmadaw soldiers were killed on the third day of fighting.
17th October 2016 – a group calling itself the Faith Movement of Arakan (FMA) released a video on several social media sites claiming responsibility for the attacks. In the following days, six other groups released statements, pledging allegiance to the group leader, Abu Ammar Junooni.
Following the attacks, local security forces started recruiting non-Rohingya locals for a new branch of “regional police”. Official announced that recruits would be trained in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, and then sent back to their villages to defend them.
15th November 2016 – the Tatmadaw announced that 69 Rohingya insurgents and 17 security forces (10 policemen, 7 soldiers) had been killed in recent clashes in northern Rakhine state, bringing the death toll to 134 (102 insurgents and 32 security forces). It was also announced that 234 people suspected of being connected to the attack were being arrested.
Following the recent attacks, the US Government has voiced its concern that a security crackdown risks radicalizing a downtrodden people and stoking religious tensions in Southeast Asia — which Rohingya terrorists and human rights bodies term as ‘ethnic-cleansing’.
This was already evident when the social media went abuzz with news of the Rohingyan ‘genocide’ rumours and incitement of jihadist extremism against Burma escalated significantly — particularly in countries such as Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia.
Recent attacks, arrests and further instigation
In Indonesia, anti-terror squad arrested three militants on the 25th November 2016 for allegedly planning to attack prominent places in Jakarta, such as the parliament, police headquarters, television stations and the Myanmar Embassy for recent attacks on Rohingya Muslims.
Several large quantities of high-grade explosives were seized from a laboratory west of Jakarta. According to Indonesian police, it remains unclear when exactly the militants planned to carry out the attacks, but that they had enough explosives to detonate a ‘blast more than double that which levelled nightclubs in Bali’ (with reference to the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 people).
On the same day, Malaysian police have arrested three Myanmar nationals and a local for behaving aggressively during the protest against the Myanmar government relating to the Rohingya issue at the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
In other parts of the world, we are seeing extreme cases such as the 28th November 2016 attack at the Ohio State University where the Somali-born student Abdul Razak Ali Artan who went on a car-and-knife rampage with inflammatory statements and posts over Facebook about being “sick and tired” of seeing Muslims killed and “stop the killing of the Muslims in Burma”.
Following the Rohingya Solidarity protest in Kuala Lumpur led by the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on 4th December 2016, a coalition of 500 Malaysian Muslim NGOs issued a media statement urging Buddhist monks in Malaysia to state their stand on a demonstration held by Burmese monks in Myanmar (on 3rd December 2016 against the Malaysian Prime Minister’s alleged interference in the Rohingya issue). This statement was issued despite a media statement on the 5th December 2016 by the Malaysian Buddhist Cooperative Society, which categorically pledged that it stands by the Rohingyas and rejects the use of violence.
Exploiting on public anger
As mentioned in my earlier blog post, I have written about why we should be extremely careful about the Rohingya cause and how one can fall into the Robin Hood strategy trap by extremists.
Across South and Southeast Asia, Muslims are angry at Myanmar’s alleged treatment of the Rohingya which has boiled over in the streets.
On 9th June 2015, the Dhaka Tribune published a report that Bangladeshi Islamist groups have been trying to instigate violence by posting fake pictures and false information about the persecution of the Rohingya.
“Reports say Jamaat-e-Islami and some local militant outfits including Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-il-Jihad al-Islami (Huji) and Ansarullah Bangla Team have been recruiting Rohingyas,” the newspaper reported.
These local groups have links with the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and international terrorist groups like Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Chittagong Metropolitan Police Commissioner Abdul Jalil Mondol said most of the suspects using social media to instigate communal violence were connected to Jamaat-Shibir.
This tactic allows extremists to tap into the use of social media for their propaganda such as spreading fake news and hoaxes with inflammatory messages meant to cause tension and distrust between Muslim and Buddhist communities.
What is interesting here is that mainstream media often overlook or wouldn’t report issues pertaining to how the Burmese government is tackling the Rohingyan issue as this is a very delicate and sensitive matter.
Rise in number of radicalized extremists closer to home
Towards the end of August 2016, the spread of Islamic radicalization and extremism takes root in Southeast Asia as the IS commanders are suffering heavy losses in their Middle Eastern heartlands.
Analysts now fear that Southeast Asia will provide a fertile ground for IS as the region is already home to violent fanatics who share the group’s brand of Islam and determination to slaughter its enemies.
In the most recent media statement on the 6th December 2016 from the Royal Malaysian Police, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, principal assistant director of the Counter Terrorism Division of the Special Branch in Bukit Aman announced that the police have foiled 14 attempts by the IS to stage attacks in Malaysia.
“It has thousands of cybertroopers… always countering what we propagate. The group has an online TV that operates round the clock. It has websites and Twitter accounts which have been blocked. From the middle of 2015 up to now, 360,000 accounts have been blocked,” he said.
Ayob also mentioned that there were 27 Malaysian men, 12 women, nine boys and eight girls with the IS in Syria. Twenty-seven Malaysians had died in Syria and eight returned to Malaysia.
A total of 260 people from various countries were arrested for involvement in militant groups, four of them in 2013, fifty-nine in 2014, eighty-two in 2015 and 115 in 2016.
Tackling the issue of radicalization and extremism at home
While it is commendable that the Malaysian police have been effectively conducting raids and arrests against militant groups, what is worrisome is the rising number of people becoming radicalized and were actually involved in or influenced by radical and extremist groups.
Government authorities must continuously monitor and take proactive action against propagators and instigators of violence before it is too late.
Despite the rise in extremist sentiments within the region, this does not necessarily signal that Burma will turn into another Chechnya or Kashmir — a big draw for angry, young jihadists as foreign fighters are drawn mainly to join the IS in Syria and Iraq, which offers them a more glamorous cause: fighting for a caliph rather than defending poor farmers and fishermen.
Myanmar also secures its border well, making it hard for foreign jihadists to reach the would-be battlefield. Another factor to consider is that militants also don’t go to where Muslims suffer; they would go to where Muslims fight.
Not religious persecution but ethnic issue
On the 5th December 2016, a group of Myanmar Muslim NGOs have said in a statement delivered to the Malaysian Embassy in Myanmar that the controversy surrounding the plight of the Rohingya people in the Rakhine State is not one of religious persecution but an ethnic issue. The group also urged that the situation in Myanmar not to be exploited by any party, while stressing that the Asean charter prevents a member nation from interfering in another country’s internal affairs.
Learning from the Middle East
The Myanmar government needs to pay more attention in addressing the Rohingya issue by learning from lessons in the Middle East, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq by addressing structural inequalities and grievances in counter-terrorism strategies in recent years have fueled the risk and ferocity of insurgencies which ballooned into otherwise manageable issues.
Instead of fueling further protest and pressuring against the Myanmar government, what should be a matter of concern right now is how the governments of Muslim-majority population such as Malaysia and Indonesia actually addresses the factors of radicalization and extremism and control it from spreading further in their own backyard in the wake of the Rohingya issue.