Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

Another case of Muslim minority persecution, this time in Burma, has gotten attention in the last several weeks. Islamist extremists are using the incident to incite jihad, stoke religious violence, and criticize the Indonesian government.

For the past several weeks, the Muslim minority Rohingya of Burma (Myanmar) has been in the news over reports of renewed oppression and in the context of a reforming Burma. The Rohingya story is long and complex, but there is no denying the history of their persecution by the Burmese government, which began as Burma was negotiating its independence from Great Britain and some Burmese Rohingya declared a jihad in support of an independent state. As the wave of decolonization began following World War II – Burma was the second Southeast Asian state granted independence after the United States granted independence to the Philippines in 1946 – so too began a wave of separatist insurgencies led by religious and ethnic minorities, some with roots in the colonial era. Some of these insurgencies died out or were defeated, but some remain.

The Rohingnya remain among the world’s most persecuted people. They are even denied citizenship in the predominantly Buddhist, predominantly ethnic Burman country.

Despite decades of suffering, the plight of the Rohingya was not widely known due to the secrecy of successive Burmese regimes. Two recent developments, however, have brought them into the news. The first is the loosening of political restrictions, including an end to the ban on the National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and the concomitant greater openness, including a lifting of press restrictions (announced August 21, after weeks of more openness). The second is the outbreak of riots and violence in the Rakhine state where they live. Following accusations that three Rohingya men raped a woman, ethnic Rakhine attacked a bus and killed 10 Rohingya. With a background of tension, the violence between the two groups quickly escalated.

An anti-Rohingya protest in Burma

The conflict is complicated by widespread animosity of many Burmese toward the Rohingya, who for decades were told by the central government that they were terrorists and separatists, and an existential threat to the state. Although many of these demonstrators likely opposed the military junta, decades of propaganda about an “other” is difficult to erase.

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, sympathy for the persecuted Rohingya poured out as mainstream media outlets reported on events in Burma. For Indonesian and other Southeast Asian extremists, the suffering of the Rohingya has become a cause célèbre, and used to advance a variety of their goals.

First, the conflict has been used to incite jihad. “The Taliban is Ready to Attack Myanmar to Avenge the Rohingya,” screamed Imbalo Namaku, a site that covers a different Buddhist/Muslim conflict, that of Southern Thailand. In the comments to a number of stories on various blogs and websites, jihad is a recurrent theme. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims is portrayed as simply another front in the “war on Islam,” and linked to the southern Philippines, southern Thailand, Afghanistan, Palestine, et al.

Second, the conflict has been used as an excuse to stoke religious violence. Indonesia has a troubled recent history of attacks on Shia Muslims, Ahmadis, and Christians. The conflict in Burma is being used as a reason to target Indonesia’s Buddhists. “Buddhists of Indonesia… We can annihilate also… just so you know,” threatened a commenter on this ar Rahmah story. Although I haven’t done a systematic analysis, it appears as though anti-Buddhist sentiment in comments is more pronounced when the story mentions the Buddhist majority in Burma.

Third, the conflict is used as a reason to criticize the Indonesian government and its perceived inaction. Hizbut Tahrir, whose typical answer to any problem is that the world needs a caliphate, organized a demonstration urging Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to send troops to defend Rohingya Muslims.

Indonesian Hizbut Tahrir supporters rally on behalf of the Rohingya.

In another ar Rahmah story, SBY is criticized for stating that the conflict in Arakhine is not genocide: “SBY the houseboy of America, heartless, savage, stupid. He does not deserve to be a leader in a Muslim majority country like Abdullah ibn Ubay (the hypocrite) who sided with the pagan idolaters.” Abdullah ibn Ubay, a contemporary of the Prophet Mohammad, was the leader of Medina prior to Mohammad, and is the prototypical hypocrite in Islam.

In an interesting twist, especially from a source that routinely publishes exaggerations and lies about its enemies, ar Rahmah “exposes” the use of fake photographs to portray the suffering of the Rohingya. Perhaps this is an attempt to portray itself as above the fray and as a reliable source; there is certainly no dearth of images that show the results of Burmese actions in Rakhine.

The Rohingya conflict is a complex problem. Amy Chua has written about the potential for violent conflict in states with minorities as they democratize (which has been mistaken as an anti-democracy stance). And, since democratization is a process and not a moment (as the case of Indonesia since 1999 shows), there are sure to be fits and starts, and deep simmering conflicts that emerge. If Burma is truly interested in furthering democracy, however, it must end the state-sanctioned persecution of Rohingya. Doing so would not only be just and democratic, and a tremendous leap forward for Burma, but it would take away the ability for Islamist extremists to point to another perceived case of injustice directed at a Muslim minority.