NAYPYITAW—The director general of Myanmar’s President’s Office U Zaw Htay has said that Myanmar has been a target of the Islamist militant group ISIS since 2012 when the group shifted its focus to northern Rakhine State after losing its footholds in Syria and Iraq.
“ISIS mainly nurtured home-grown cells. The terrorists who entered from outside linked and worked with radical elements inside the country, as in the case of Sri Lanka,” U Zaw Htay told reporters.
Malaysia Police Chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun has also claimed that ISIS is believed to be shifting its focus to southern Philippines and Myanmar’s Rakhine State for terrorism.
The police chief made his statement after ISIS claimed responsibility for a string of bombings in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka that killed 253 people.
“Indonesia has warned us [of terrorist attacks] several times as it carries out counter-terrorism as a priority,” said U Zaw Htay.
While Myanmar’s government, the military (or Tatmadaw) and security organizations have prioritized preparations against terrorist threats, they are at the same time working to address radicalism inside the country, he said.
Many youth refugees, who had to flee Rakhine State for Bangladesh following counter-insurgency operations in the north of the state in 2017 and still can’t return to Rakhine, will harbor grievances as time passes, making it easier for ISIS extremists to rally their support, said Rakhine affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe.
“I think they will choose to launch suicide bomb attacks like in Sri Lanka rather than establish an ISIS army like in Syria. Therefore, there are reasons that they may use northern Rakhine State to build a foothold,” U Maung Maung Soe told The Irrawaddy.
An ISIS involvement would be another blow to troubled Rakhine State which is suffering due to clashes between the military and the Arakan Army (AA) while it is also under international pressure, said U Pe Than who is a central executive committee member of the Arakan National Party (ANP).
“The situation will get worse if religious extremists launch suicide attacks. There are fierce ongoing clashes with the AA, and under such circumstances, if ARSA [the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] entered [Rakhine], it would be quite difficult to restore stability,” said U Pe Than.
He suggested that the government makes peace with the AA, which is representing an ethnic group of Myanmar, the Rakhine. “If the AA is allowed to be based [in Rakhine] as a border guard or as part of a peace agreement, it will be difficult for ARSA to enter. It is impossible for ARSA to enter if Arakanese (Rakhine) people oppose it,” he added.
Nearly 300 local civil society organizations in Rakhine released a joint statement on Tuesday calling for dialogue to be used to solve problems between the two sides, rather than using military means.
According to their statements, 66 camps have been opened in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Minbya townships for over 34,000 locals displaced by clashes.
At a high-level meeting between Myanmar’s border guard forces and Bangladesh officials held in Naypyitaw on April 9, the two sides agreed to cooperate in crushing the AA and ARSA.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.