The threat next door

Essay about the spread of religious extremist terrorism in Southeast Asia exemplified by Myanmar’s “ethno-political” conflict between the Buddhist Arakanese and the Muslim minority of Rahkine State.

In 2014 our iPhones and tablets are flooded by news about the recent happenings in Iraq and Syria, even though the threat of religious extremist terrorism can be found next door: Similar patterns of Jihad fighters already occurred in Myanmar in 2012 after the circulation of physical violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities. In 2012 the politics of Rakhine State in Myanmar created isolated camps for the Muslim minority. More than 150,000 people were displaced; they lost access to hospitals, education and the economic market. Images of these camps recall ghettos which were once created by the Nazis for Jews in Poland in 1939; the Journalist Aubrey Belford describes these still existing circumstances driven by Buddhist activists as “apartheid-like” conditions.

“Please don’t send us back to Myanmar. Just shoot all of us – we are better off dead than going back to our country,“ Alam said.

Farid Alam is a 21-year old asylum seeker from Myanmar. He and more than two hundred other members of his ethnic minority group, the Rohingya, had sailed from Myanmar over Thai waters in February 2013, searching for shelter. Some of them got rescued by Fishermen in western Indonesia. Others were found drifting from the coastal village of Cot Trueng, the northernmost top of Sumatra Island, claiming a lack of fuel due to sabotage by the Thai authorities. But most of them had been already shot at the sea. [Bangkok Post, 2013]

The UN considers the Rohingya Muslims as one of the worlds’ most persecuted minorities. According to the British-based advocacy group, Burma Campaign UK, Myanmar’s government and President Thein Sein have violated at least eight international laws with its treatment of the minority group. Under Burma’s citizenship law of 1982 these peoples are not even recognised as citizens of the country. By the Yangon government they are considered as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, but Bangladesh also denies them citizenship. They are stateless. In a New York Times interview, U Win Wyaing, a spokesman of the Burmese government, denied even the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity in Myanmar. “This violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and international norms prohibiting discrimination of racial and religious minorities,” says the Burma Campaign report. [Mezzofiore, 2013]

myanmar ethnicity

The ongoing violence in Myanmar must not only been seen as result of interreligious tensions, but also as a conflict caused by the separate and interconnected social, economic, and political issues. What are the root causes of the conflict and can they be addressed to the permeation of Muslim people, culture and religious practices in Myanmar and Asia as a whole? Does the ethno-political situation and the incapability of the Myanmar government produce Islamic extremists? And is this entire conflict more about religion or ethnicity?

What must be done to tackle extremist rhetoric and the violation of human rights and is “more democracy” the panacea?

This article does not aim to explain in detail the roots of terrorism groups or how they found access in Southeast Asian countries but it should give one possible interpretation of the violent happenings in this region. As the whole world is focusing on what happens in the Middle East, I think it is important to know how far the network of terrorism reaches and that Southeast Asia is not the „Islamic periphery“ anymore that it was said to be.

„There is a nationwide anti-Muslim sentiment,“ Matthew Smith, a researcher at Human Rights Watch said. „What we are seeing in Arakan state is as much about ethnicity as it is about religion.“ [Wade, 2012, the guardian]

The history of ethno-politics in Myanmar

Burma’s long history of ethno-politics and separatism can be traced back to the colonial period when unchecked immigration from the sub-continent took place and Burman nationalism arose. During this time, ethnic classification was used as a “scientific and non-political tool for managing the colonized population.” [Fennel, 2014] Colonial Burma was governed as province of British India, Chittagong and Arakan (Rakhine) which were part of the same political entity. During colonial times migration was encouraged by the colonial administration and should be part of efforts to develop the agriculture of the sparsely-populated Arakan region. [Yegar, 2001, chapter 3]. But at the same time the immigration of Rohingya Muslims “changed the ethnic and religious mix, created socio-economic problems, and led to considerable resentment from the Rakhine Buddhist community.” [Dolan, 2013, p.4]

During the Second World War in the time between 1942 and 1944 there was no colonial government in northern Rakhine and the area became the front line between the British and the Japanese and ethnic tensions turned violent. The local Arakanese people supported the Japanese military as part of the Burmese independence movement, while the Rohingya remained loyal to the British side. Both formed armed unites and started to attack on the other: This was “a process that led to the expulsion of Muslims from much of southern Arakan state, and the expulsion of Arakanese people from the Mayu River border area”. [Fennel, 2014]

After the Second World War and the country gained independence in 1948, a Rohingya rebellion erupted. The Muslim Rohingya wanted to achieve full citizenship and live in an autonomous Muslim area instead of living under the Arakanese Buddhists, who replaced the former colonial administrators. A coup in 1962 ended the Muslim political activity and forms of political organizations were banned. The so called Mayu Frontier Administration got established by army officers. Their new policy denied citizenship to most of the Muslims in western Burma and showed off a more hardline attitude towards minorities. “During military rule, force was used to contain the ethno-political genie in Rakhine in an ill-fitting bottle […] in 2010 the bottle was uncorked once more in Rakhine state.” In 2012 intercommunal clashes broke out again and the Bruma-Buddhist nationalism in Rakhine State gained more influence. “A pent-up frustration and anger under years of authoritarianism are now being directed towards Muslims by a populist political force that cloaks itself in religious respectability and moral authority”. [Fennel, 2014]

Ashin Wirathu, the so called “Burmese bin Laden” who leads the radical Buddhist group 969, said that the Rohingya minority threatens his nation’s security and racial purity. The still ongoing violence against Muslims has resulted in 250 deaths and displaced 150,000 people since the religious riots erupted in June 2012. The Time Magazine portrayed Wirathu as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. A behaviour “more akin to the sectarian extremism prevalent in troubled corners of the Middle East” appeared, texted the Washington Post in June 2013. Wirathu preaches intolerance and the boycott of Muslim businesses; He is proud of being called a radical Buddhist. [Fisher, 2013, The Guardian]

To this day people in Myanmar are not all represented as equal citizens, “but as members of an ethnically defined hierarchy of peoples within the population” [Fennel, 2014]. That is what we call ethnopolitics. Ethnopolitics and in this case their religious identity are a justification to deny citizenship to Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar since their independence in 1948. As they do not officially belong to their community a peaceful and cooperative coexistence is impossible; “Their lives and cultures are mutually incompatible”. [Fennel, 2014] We also know this phenomenon from religious mafias in Syria and Iraq, where people believe that their very right to life is given them by historic “values”. [Fennel, 2014]
This showcases what the annual survey “Minorities at Risk”, by Peter Wallensteen and Margareta Sollenberg in 1999 proved: Ethno-political conflict has been the world’s most common source of warfare, insecurity and a loss of life for several decades. Gurr describes the reasons for the mobilization of ethnic grievances on four factors: Salience of ethnocultural identity, incentives for ethnopolitical action, capacity (collective action) and opportunities (structural exogenous, conceptual). [Gurr, 2001, p.167] He comes to the solution that “more democracy” will help to serve these concerns. Based on Gurr’s framework I transferred his factors into four pillars of my own argument which are the ethnic identity differences between the two ethnic groups, political exclusion, control of resources, as well as the control of the information system (education) and media (hate-speech) as a sources of grievances in this ethno-political conflict.

Myanmar serves as fertile ground for the spread of religious extremism
Myanmar is said to host the biggest Al Qaeda cell in Southeast Asia. Even though there is still a lack of information about the country’s Al Qaeda network, its nationals have been identified as terrorists. [Abuza, 2002, p. 459]

Identity differences

The ethnic and religious identity justifies why most Muslims in Rahkine are no full citizens of neither Myanmar not Bangladesh. They rather got killed or driven out of the cities into isolated camps, being dependent upon charity. The violence against them has even increased after the riots in 2012. [Fennel, 2014] “If an ethnic group is treated differently, by denial or privilege, its members will become more self-conscious about their common bonds and interests. (…) The greater a people’s dissimilarity from groups with which they interact regularly, the more salient their identity is likely to be.” [Gurr, 2001, p.168] One central key marker of identity on the analyzed example is not only the religion but also the language used to describe different peoples. “In Myanmar, it’s barely possible to utter a word without signaling an ethnopolitical viewpoint, and the possibility of describing a Myanmar without ethnopolitics is denied by the language itself. (…) The terms Magh (Bengali), Arakanese (Arakanese) or Rakhine (Burmese) for the Buddhist population, Rohingya (self-appellation, derived from the Bengali word for the Arakan region), Bengali (used widely by Rakhine and Burmese people) or Arakanese Muslim (a historical term used by the colonial Administration) for the state’s Muslims, and Arakan (Arakanese) or Rakhine (Burmese) for the state itself – are all political signposts to different viewpoints in the world of ethnic politics.” [Fennel, 2014] Their historical background, such as actions during World War II, and not only religion has placed them at the edge of society.

Political exclusion

Racial stereotyping directly affects Myanmar politics. President Thein Sein replied to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay: “We will take responsibilities for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas who are not our ethnicity.” (Arab News 31 July 2012). Since the coup d’état in 1962 any Muslim organization was banned and they have been unable to get access to politics. They still desire a chance for political dialog to resolve their root causes of the conflict with the state. Even though there had been case-fires, those cannot create peace, if they can only address symptoms but not the cause of the ethno-political conflict itself. Fundamental autonomy and identity issues were never materialized. [Dolan, 2014, p.10]

“The absence of political settlement between these groups may be less important than the ethnopolitical rules of the political game, which nurture division. That is, the politics of ethnic distinction have become much more important than the politics of crafting a better direct relationship between the state and its citizens.” [Fennel, 2014] Referring to Gurr, the “fear of future losses” is one type of incentive for ethnopolitical action in Myanmar, which can lead to rebellion such as terrorism or guerilla wars. These incentives do not have to be inherited and are strongly affected by collective disadvantages, the loss of political autonomy or repression. [Gurr, 2001, p.169]

Control of resources

“Indigenous peoples are almost always disadvantaged by the terms of ther incorporation. Their restrictions have been especially sharp in response to the alienation of the lands, forests, and natural resources on which they are culturally as well as marterially dependent.”[Gurr, 2001, p.166f] There is a problem of the access to resources “around ethnic identity.” In the former described case-fire processes “natural resources are fueling conflict y opening opportunity for military and business investors to profit from land and natural resource project, causing land grabbing, displacement, environmental degradation, and erosion of confidence in the peace process.” [Dolan, 2014, p.10] According to Gurr this economic discrimination also contributes to collective disadvantage. [Gurr, 2001, p.170]

Control of the information system and media

The communications revolution due to the process of opening the country, gives fuel to „inflammatory anti-Muslim media accounts and local propaganda (…)”. (Human Rights Watch, 2012). Media has been used as vehicles for hate speech and to mobilize anti-Muslim action. “Antigroup attitudes, suppressed under military regime, are surfacing in the new climate of openness and (…) are being mobilized by certain elites.” There is now a greater risk of violence spreading. [Dolan, 2014, p.6] The availability of modern communication “give leaders powerful means to mobilize mass followings and coordinate their political actions.” [Gurr, 2001, p.167]
“Thus, the greatest risk incurred by contemporary Myanmar in the process of opening, which is slipping out of the population’s control – due to the fast “forward” leap from dictatorship to democracy –, is the ideologization of social values that would deny reality to a much more complex and nuanced identity than a religious, Buddhist, Christian or Muslim, identity for the country’s populations. [Boutry, 2012]

Due to all these factors like-minded external Muslim groups, like the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) in Jammu and Kashmir, and Angkatan Belia Islam sa-Malaysia (ABIM) – the Islamic Youth Organization of Malaysia provide the Muslim Rohingyas with assistance. [Lintner, 2002] In an open letter Indonesia’s radical leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir threatened President Thein Sein in July 2012 from his Jakarta prison cell to conduct Jihad against Myanmar if the killing of Muslims did not stop. [AFP, 2012]

“Southeast Asian states are havens for a small number of terrorists, and have been penetrated by Al Qaeda operatives for three primary reasons: the Afghan connection to Middle Eastern extremists; the increasing grievances of Muslims within Southeast Asian states based on socio economic and political reasons; and, finally, Southeast Asian states have been considered „countries of convenience“ by international terrorists.” [Abuza, 2002, p.428f]

Opponents of this point of view argue with the fact that Myanmar does not offer the intrastructure terrorists would need, “especially the ability to set up front companies and non governmental organizations (NGOs)”. Moreover the militant Muslim groups in the southern Philippines, Aceh, and to a degree in southern Thailand and Myanmar, were seen to have completely domestic agendas and little interest in linking-up with international Muslim organizations. Their struggle around gaining a full citizenship and acceptance in the country might be of greater importance. [Abuza,2002, p.460ff]

Future perspectives: “Why democracy when peoples cannot live?”
There obviously needs to be an effective government response to change the social attitudes of both ethnic groups to prevent a spread of violence. “Future clashes are likely do to the depth of Anti-Muslim sentiment in the country and inadequate response of the security forces.”
But most important is the macro-political stability of Myanmar’s transition. “Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will compete for seats across the country for the first time since the abortive 1990 elections.” [Asia Report N°238, 2012, p.17] 2015 could remark a goalpost with “a constitutional change, free and fair elections, and some form of political guarantee for armed groups for a post-2015 political process (…)” [Dolan, 2012, p.5] Assuming these polls are free and fair, they will herald a radical shift in the balance of power away from the old dispensation. But an NLD landslide may not be in the best interests of the party or the country, as it would risk marginalising three important constituencies: the old political elite, the ethnic political parties and the non-NLD democratic forces. If the post-2015 legislatures fail to represent the true political and ethnic diversity of the country, tensions are likely to increase and fuel instability.” [Asia Report N°238, 2012, p.17] Moreover a further opening should be supported, as can be seen in the access to information. Also people in Western countries should be more informed about the current situation in Southeast Asia.

“If you do not do enough to diminish the underlying conditions that give rise to the extremist networks in the first place, you will always have the physical threat. So you need to approach the problem at two levels – the physical and very importantly, the ideological level.” Kumar Ramakrishna, Head, CENS, RSIS

„I saw at least 21 bodies before I left,“ said Alam of his parting image of Kyaukphyu. He has already lived as a stateless Rohingya in a country growing increasingly hostile to Muslims, and bitterness now pervades both sides. Now he is the only member of his entire family that survived the violence in western Burma in 2012. The general fear now is that this conflict has gone beyond being merely one over ethnic identity. „I hate Buddhists,“ he said. „Now I have no family, no business and no home.“ [Wade, 2012, The Guardian]


Abuza, Zachary (2002) “Tentacles of Terror: Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian Network,” in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 24, No. 3 (December 2002), pp. 427-465.
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DPA, The Bangkok Post (February 2013) “Rohingya claim Thais shot at them“ (available at
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Politics” (available at
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