10-16 May 2013
Photo: Jakarta’s Hotel Indonesia roundabout, near the Myanmar embassy, where demonstrations against Myanmar’s treatment of Muslims occurred earlier this year (Wikimedia commons).
Myanmar Muslims worry about unwelcome attention from foreign radicals
After 50-odd years of isolation, Myanmar now finds itself on a number of geopolitical fault lines. Aside from becoming a new theatre for Sino-American competition, state-sponsored abuse of Muslims has brought Myanmar uncomfortably into the global Islamist spotlight over the past year
Last Friday, a crowd of angry demonstrators numbering in the hundreds gathered at Jakarta’s Hotel Indonesia roundabout, metres from the Myanmar embassy. Led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an Islamic fundamentalist group with a history of committing attacks against religious minorities in Indonesia, the demonstrators voiced their anger at Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim minorities. FPI chairman Rizieq Shihab was unequivocal about the course of action to take.
“[Our Rohingya brothers] have been tortured by the Myanmar military, Buddhist monks and Buddhist people in Myanmar,” he told the Jakarta Globe. “There is no other way for our Muslim brothers in [Myanmar]. We have to wage jihad.” Wielding banners reading “We want to kill Myanmar’s Buddhists,” “We want to go to Myanmar for jihad” and “Stop genocide in Myanmar,” the protestors seemingly ignored the contradictory nature of these statements.
The protest was sparked by a call-to-arms by Abu Bakar Bashir, the jailed cleric who acted as a spiritual mentor to Jemaah Islamiyya, the terrorist group behind the 2002 Bali bombings. In a statement published last Thursday by Islamist news site Voice of Al-Islam, Bashir implored Indonesian mujahideen (holy warriors) to go to Myanmar and treat it “just like [we treated] communist Russia, which has gone to pieces, or just like America, which will perish soon, Insh’allah [God willing].” The same day Bashir’s statement was published, two men carrying homemade pipe bombs were arrested by Indonesian anti-terror police near the Myanmar embassy. The failed embassy attack marks the first instance of an attempted Islamist attack on a Myanmar target, and has left Myanmar’s Muslims in fear of a violent backlash from Buddhist nationalists and the security services at home.
The plight of Myanmar’s Muslims has garnered attention outside Southeast Asia, as well. According to Egypt’s Daily News, Salafist protestors gathered outside the Myanmar embassy in Cairo on April 12. Around the same time, Lebanese news site NOW Media reported that Syrian jihadis claimed to have attempted to send a contingent of fighters to Myanmar, but that “these attempts had failed.” In the same article, Sheikh Bilal al-Masri, a Salafist commander from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, called on “every person who can get to a Buddhist [to] kill him, because they are killing our people.” While these claims are probably nothing more than empty boasting, the rhetoric alone is telling: Myanmar is on the radar of Islamists around the world in an unprecedented way.
At the height of anti-Rohingya violence last June, Jamaat-Ud-Da’wa, the political and relief wing of notorious Pakistani terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, issued an appeal for funds to send to displaced Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Around the same time, the Pakistani Taliban issued an official statement threatening to launch an attack on Myanmar unless the Pakistani government ceased all diplomatic ties with Naypyidaw. Islamist groups abroad have latched on to the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims to bolster their own appeal and credibility by spreading misinformation about the situation on the ground through social media, including disseminating images from other conflicts claiming they were atrocities committed against Muslims in Myanmar.
This chorus of radical Islamic voices threatens to drown out more constructive criticism of Myanmar from governments across the Muslim world. In a late April visit to Naypyidaw, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono criticised Myanmar’s handling of Muslim issues, claiming that sectarian violence “is not good for Myanmar and even for Indonesians who are majority Muslims,” Reuters reported. Yudhoyono’s criticisms may have been, in part, a concession to Islamist sentiment at home, but it is unlikely that appeasing Islamists was his primary concern. Jakarta is bound to feel that attacks on Muslims in Myanmar threaten the vision of a unified ASEAN that it has helped champion. In recent years, Indonesia has taken on the role of ASEAN’s self-styled peacemaker – largely through the efforts of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa – and Yudhoyono’s comments on the state of affairs in Myanmar fit into this pattern. ASEAN itself has largely refrained from getting involved in the Rohingya issue, because it is unwilling to direct attention towards human rights violations in Myanmar before the country assumes leadership of the 10-country bloc next year.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest intergovernmental organization after the United Nations, has been much more vocal than ASEAN in its criticisms of Myanmar, going so far as to describe the displacement of the Rohingya as “genocide” in November last year. Myanmar has blocked the OIC’s efforts to establish an office in Yangon, but has grudgingly allowed OIC aid to reach displaced Rohingya. Among OIC member states, perhaps the most active on Myanmar has been Turkey, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moderate Islamist government. Ankara sent $33 million for relief efforts in Rakhine state last June, and as anti-Muslim campaigns have spread to other parts of Myanmar, the Turkish foreign ministry has issued statements condemning the escalating violence.
Lost in the Islamist conversation are the voices of Myanmar’s Muslims themselves, the vast majority of whom abhor any notion of responding to violence with violence. Many fear that the spectre of international terrorism will give the security services additional opportunities for repression. The government has long explained away its repression of the Rohingya, in particular, as a response to a terrorist threat, a discourse that has become especially prevalent in Myanmar since the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
U Hla Myint, a scholar at Yangon’s Jamaat Ulama El-Islam, does not welcome the attention thrust on Myanmar by those calling for jihad. “In our country, our Sharia prohibits jihad,” he said. “Abu Bakar Bashir has many followers, but we cannot allow jihad in our country.” The wall outside the entrance to the Ulama’s offices in Yangon bears a sticker issued by a local youth campaign calling for an end to sectarian hatred in Myanmar, a sentiment miles away from the venom spouted in Jakarta.
The appeals to violence championed in other parts of the Muslim world come at a worrying time for Myanmar, as anti-Muslim attacks have continued with alarming regularity over the past few weeks. On April 30, Muslim targets came under attack in the town of Okkan, 80 kilometres north of Yangon, and a mosque was reportedly razed in the jade-mining centre of Hpakant in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State last Thursday. While the prospect of local Muslims mounting a retaliatory attack on Buddhist targets remains remote, a successful attack on a Myanmar target by foreign radicals – either in the country or abroad – would likely serve as a catalyst for further repression. U Hla Myint’s fears for the future reflect a common sentiment. “We are a small minority, and we would all die [if our Buddhist neighbours were to be provoked],” he said. “We do not want foreign jihadis here. We will not allow it.”