Top Govt Official Downplays al-Qaeda Threat to Burma

By The Irrawaddy 5 September 2014

RANGOON — The President’s Office says there is no need to worry after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri announced the formation of a new al-Qaeda branch in the Indian subcontinent to help persecuted Muslims in the region, listing Burma among the places that the group is setting its sights on.

In a 55-minute video posted online, Zawahri described the formation of “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent” as good news for oppressed Muslims “in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir.”

“We need to treat that news with caution as it can raise doubts and lead back to conflicts. I would like to ask [people] not to be too worried,” said Zaw Htay, director of Burma’s President’s Office, on his Facebook page under the name Hmuu Zaw.

The Burmese government for years has recognized Burma as a potential terrorist target, Zaw Htay continued, saying the country’s security apparatus had put in place measures to safeguard Burma from such an occurrence. Those preparations are ongoing, he added.

“Particularly, Burma has been cooperating in establishing an international early warning system to exchange and share the activities of terrorist organizations,” read the Facebook post.

Zawahri’s announcement has brought speculation about the implications for the government of India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been accused of failing to stand up for the rights of Muslims in the Hindu-majority nation. India put several states on heightened alert on Thursday in the wake of Zawahri’s video, which was posted online Wednesday.

An al-Qaeda regional presence could also represent a challenge to the government of Burma’s President Thein Sein, which has been condemned by human rights groups that allege systematic discrimination against Burma’s Muslim minority. Rohingya Muslims in western Arakan State have been a particular focus of human rights groups and international media coverage, but the Burmese government has frequently downplayed the issue.

“At this particular time, hate speech could lead to widespread bloodshed. I would like to seriously urge caution because I don’t want to see violence here due to the words of Zawahri, who has fled for his life from US forces,” read his post.

Zawahri was the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s deputy, and took over the organization’s leadership following the United States’ assassination of the latter in May 2011. Washington has offered a reward of up to US$25 million for information leading to the arrest of the al-Qaeda chief.