The Buddhist-Muslim Violence in Myanmar: A Threat to Southeast Asia

By November 28, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 188

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The country of Myanmar recently embarked on a widely-hailed democratization process. Renewed violence between local Buddhists and Muslims, however, threatens the country’s advance and may thrust the region into turmoil. Myanmar’s policies towards its minority Rohingya Muslims have sparked a rise in Islamist agitation against Buddhists in Indonesia and Malaysia.

On November 19, 2012, US President Barack Obama became the first serving American president to visit Myanmar. After five decades of military dictatorship, the oil and natural gas-rich country is poised to become the next Asian economic tiger. However, renewed violence in late October 2012 between majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has raised concerns for Myanmar’s democratic transition, as well as for the stability of ethno-religious relations across Southeast Asia. Citing the “risk of a radicalization of the Rohingya,” Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) General-Secretary Surin Pitsuan declared that such radicalization “would have wider strategic and security implications for the region.” Since Rakhine is situated along Myanmar’s coast, Surin fears the nearby Malacca Straits could become “a zone of violence like the waters of Somalia.” With one third of the world’s oil and traded goods transiting the straits, militant activity against the sea lane would jeopardize the economies of East Asia and Southeast Asia. Already, spillover from the Rohingya crisis threatens democratic gains on both sides of the straits in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

Myanmar’s October violence resulted in over 200 dead and injured, with more than 4,000 Rohingya homes destroyed and over 30,000 Rohingya displaced. These displaced Rohingya join the 70,000 who were displaced during the previous violence in June 2012, when the entire Rohingya population of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, was forced into squalid camps on the city’s outskirts. Responding to the June violence, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein placed Rakhine under military rule. The Rohingya accuse the security forces of partaking in the subsequent October attacks.

Myanmar’s first civilian president in 49 years, Thein Sein, is a moderate reformer overseeing Myanmar’s democratic transition and re-entry into the international community. However, one month after the June violence, the president proposed the deportation of Myanmar’s Rohingya as “the solution to the issue.” In September 2012, Buddhist monks demonstrated in support of his proposal. In October 2012, thousands of Buddhist monks in Myanmar’s two major cities protested the opening of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) offices in Myanmar to assist Rohingya refugees. Thein Sein rescinded his permission for the OIC offices, proclaiming them “not in accordance with the people’s desires.” One week later, violence erupted across five different townships in Rakhine.

Seventy-five percent of Rakhine’s population is Buddhist, while the remaining 25 percent are Muslims, mostly Rohingya. The origins of the 1.5 million Rohingya remain unclear; their language is a dialect spoken in southeastern Bangladesh, and they are not recognized as citizens under the Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which defines a Myanmar (Burmese) national as a member of an ethnic group inhabiting Myanmar prior to 1823, the onset of British colonial rule. The government of Myanmar and most Burmese regard the Rohingya as unwanted implants, arriving illegally during British rule from present-day Bangladesh. As non-citizens, the Rohingya are granted few legal protections and are denied freedom of movement as well as access to education and other public services.

From 1947 to 1961, Myanmar combatted a Rohingya Islamic insurgency fighting to unite with neighboring East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The insurgency was defeated by the dictatorship of Ne Win. The 1971 Bangladeshi war of secession reinvigorated Rohingya militancy, which was defeated in 1978 by a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that drove thousands of refugees across the border into Bangladesh. With the rise of Islamist militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan (home to a smaller Rohingya refugee community), concern has grown over possible Islamist radicalization of the Rohingya in Bangladesh. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee population at 400,000. Following the June 2012 violence, Bangladesh closed its border to any further Rohingya refugees. On September 30, 2012, in southeastern Bangladesh, an Islamist-incited mob of several thousand torched eleven Buddhist temples as well as Buddhist homes and shops. The Bangladeshi prime minister publically warned that Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugees were vulnerable to radicalization by terrorism-linked organizations. The closure of Bangladesh has led more Rohingya to seek asylum in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Islamists Incite Anti-Buddhist Backlash in Indonesia and Malaysia

In late October, Indonesian authorities prevented Rohingya refugees and their supporters from demonstrating in the North Sumatra, home to a significant number of Indonesia’s Buddhists. North Sumatra, forming the western coast of the Malacca Straits, has become a flashpoint because of growing tensions between the province’s Buddhist community and an increasingly dominant Islamist movement.

In early September 2012, Indonesia’s national police discovered a jihadist plot to attack Indonesia’s Buddhist community when a bomb exploded (see BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 184). The jihadists allegedly were preparing to attack Indonesia’s Buddhists, most of whom are ethnic Chinese, in reprisal for the mistreatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. Since the 1998 anti-Chinese riots, Indonesia’s decade of democratic development has led to the nation’s recognition of ethnic Chinese as full citizens and Chinese culture as part of the Indonesian national fabric. Hardline Islamist agitation and jihadist violence may exploit popular outrage over the Rohingya to undermine the advance of Indonesian civil society.

The situation is even more sensitive in Malaysia, where approximately one quarter of the population is ethnic Chinese and disaffected with the failure to dismantle Malaysia’s decades-old racial quota system. This system favors ethnic Malay Muslims, and reforming it risks driving more ethnic Malays towards the increasingly popular Islamist opposition. Malaysia’s long-serving former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad publically contrasted Malaysia’s granting citizenship rights to its Chinese minority to Myanmar’s failure to grant citizenship to the Rohingya. Since 84 percent of Malaysia’s Chinese are Buddhists, the Rohingya crisis may exacerbate Malaysia’s already contentious ethno-religious politics as it heads toward national elections in 2013.

Conclusion

The continuation of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar will aggravate Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Indonesia and Malaysia and may well invite a campaign of jihadist violence within Myanmar itself. International commerce in the strategic Malacca Straits could be in jeopardy, as well. Without a solution to the Rohingya’s plight that will reduce regional tensions, jihadists will find a new home in Myanmar and expand across Southeast Asia.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Dr. Micha’el Tanchum

Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a fellow in the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He also teaches in Tel Aviv University’s Department of East Asian Studies.