NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — As Myanmar moves toward its much-awaited 2015 national elections, persecution of the Muslim minority Rohingyas is casting shadows on the prospect of restoring democracy in the country.
Violence against the destitute Rohingyas, numbering less than a million in a country 52 million majority Buddhists, has brought international condemnation. Discrimination also risks arousing sectarian violence from Islamic groups with serious security implications for Myanmar and Southeast Asia. The nine bombs targeting Buddhist pilgrims in India’s holiest Buddhist shrine Mahabodhi temple in Gaya on July 7, 2013, was perhaps the first such response to the Rohingya massacre but may not be the last.
The little known Rohingyas burst into international news when in 2012 rioting Buddhist mobs massacred 240 men, women and children and burned their pitiful bamboo and thatch huts. Some 240,000 were rendered homeless and have since been living under plastic tents. In another explosion of violence against Muslims—non-Rohingyas—in March 2013, Buddhist activists killed a total 43 people and injured 93 in Meikhtila in central Myanmar. The anti-Muslim violence spread to other parts of Myanmar as well. Thousands of hapless Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh and others have taken to the sea in the hope of starting a new life somewhere in the region. Hundreds drowned but survivors were sent back to Myanmar.
The story of the Rohingyas offers an example of how history, religious bigotry, ethnic prejudice and drive for power combine to turn a small problem into a bigger issue for a country and its neighbors. The Rohingyas, who are Muslim and speak a dialect of Bengali of neighboring Bangladesh, are believed to have lived in the coastal Arakan State bordering Bangladesh. In the 1960s, the military government of Gen. Ne Win wooed their vote and recognized them as an ethnic group. Rangoon Radio also had a Rohingya service. But things changed in the early 1980s when the military launched violent operations in Arakan State driving some 250,000 Rohingyas to take refuge in Bangladesh.
The 1982 Citizenship Law denied all but 40,000 of 1.33 million Rohingyas access to citizenship; provisional on proving that their families lived in Burma before the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824 to 1826. Leading Burma expert Bertil Lintner says, “In a country like Burma, where people don’t even have surnames, that is, of course, impossible.” President Thein Sein’s spokesman said “The Myanmar government’s policy does not recognize the term ‘Rohingya,’ but Bengalis who live in [Arakan] State.” Aside from their ethnic and linguistic differences, their Islamic faith set them apart from the majority Buddhists who resented their lifestyle. In recent years, a movement called 969 launched by radical Buddhist monks has urged the faithful to boycott non-Buddhist businesses and called for banning of interfaith marriages.
Recently revealed confidential government directives show that freedom of movement, marriage and childbirth are severely restricted for the Muslim Rohingyas. The group Fortify Rights that released the document says the policies appear to be “designed to make life so intolerable for Rohingya that they will leave the country.” The policies also seem to reflect extremist Buddhist notions of an Islamic plot to convert the Burmese and take over the country, hence the need to expel them. However absurd the idea of 4 percent Muslims forcing 90 percent Buddhists to convert might be, it seems to resonate with masses of the faithful who believe in these apocalyptic scenarios.
It is not surprising that when the Arakanese mob burned and killed Rohingyas the police made itself scarce. The images of burned bodies and gruesome accounts have raised anger among Muslim-majority neighbors like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. A plot to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta was foiled by the police. In India, Muslim organizations held protest marches. Pakistan’s radical Muslim cleric and founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba Hafiz Saeed tweeted accusations of plots to “wipe out Muslim population of Myanmar” and said it was “an obligation on the whole Muslim Ummah to defend the rights and honor of Rohingya Muslims.” In November 2013, the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation representing 57 nations paid for a fact-finding trip to Arakan showing concern about the fate of the Rohingyas.
Whether it was in fulfilment of that appeal or not, New Delhi believes the attack with nine low-intensity bombs in Gaya was the handiwork of Pakistan-based terrorist groups and their Indian acolytes. It seems to have been aimed at Buddhist pilgrims, many of them from Myanmar.
Shortly after the blast, Indian intelligence agencies arrested Abdul Karim Tunda, who has been called the “master bomber” of Lashkar-e-Toiba. In the course of interrogation, he revealed that LeT was exploring the possibility of recruiting Rohingya youth for terrorist operations. Although a video of a training camp in neighboring Bangladesh has surfaced, so far there is no indication that Rohingyas have taken part in any terrorist activities. A recent newspaper report said that representatives of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), founded in 1982 to train fighters, visited Indonesia seeking assistance for armed struggle. They reportedly spoke at Forum Umat Islam, a radical Indonesian group.
Regional experts, however, fear that facing threat to their life and property from Buddhist mobs and discrimination by the military government, the Rohingyas might yet become the latest recruits in a Southeast Asian jihad. As Lintner notes, “Islamic extremists have taken advantage of the plight of the Rohingyas. Most Rohingyas are poor farmers, or refugees, but also, because of their plight, easy prey for radical elements.”
Rohingyas are not yet a name popping up on the radar of counter-terrorism experts, but if Myanmar’s single-minded generals and bigoted monks have their way, that could change.
Nayan Chanda is the editor of YaleGlobal Online Magazine at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.