Vivek Shukla

‘Domino effect’ of Islamic fundamentalism in Myanmar

Last October, 250 men armed mostly with knife, slingshots and about 30 firearms launched an attack on three police posts situated in the north-western border of Myanmar with Bangladesh. They killed 9 policemen and fled with about 50 guns and ten thousand rounds of ammunition. Belgium-based ‘International Crisis Group’ in a report said that the attacks were the handiwork of the new Islamic insurgent group called ‘Haraka Al Yaqin’ or the ‘Faith Movement’. It claimed that the new Islamic group comprising of Rohingya Muslims had links with Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, Bangladesh and possibly India.

Who are Rohingyas?
Rohingyas are the Stateless minority Muslims in Buddhist majority nation called – Myanmar. There have been clashes between Buddhists and Rohingyas over a long period of time. The worst riots were seen in 2012 which left 200 people dead and 150,000 Rohingyas homeless. They continue to live in Refugee camps since then.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the de-facto leader of Myanmar has been criticized internationally for doing little to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas. Last year, she announced that an ‘Advisory Commission’ led by former United Nations Secretary General – Kofi Annan would look at the possible solutions for the standoff with the Rohingyas, but nothing seems to have come out of that move. The situation of the Rohingyas is further complicated by the emergence of an allegedly Islamic extremist group among them.

What is the root cause of the marginalisation of Rohingyas in Myanmar?
The main issue is the issue of legitimacy. It is believed that Rohingyas are not really an ethnic group, but they are a political construction. There were Muslims living in that region from 9th century and there was no issue with them because they were under the Arakan Kingdom. But in 20th century, a huge migration of Muslims took place from Bangladesh (the then Bengal of India) to the British Burma (today’s Myanmar). Therefore, the Rohingyas are not actually an ethnic group, but the people of Bengali origin. In fact, even calling them only Bengalis are also injustice to them because some of them have Arab origin. Therefore, they do not have a homogenous origin and identity. Even the historians cannot categorise them under one particular group as they have distinct social backgrounds. Well known human rights activist and writer ‘Benedict Rogers’ denies the proposition that Rohingyas are actually an ethnic group. He calls them Bengali Muslims.

Myanmar refuses to recognize that Rohingyas have lived in the Arakan area of Myanmar for several centuries. They consider them non-Burmese and hence, they consistently keep them outside of the citizenship of Myanmar. Due to the historical animosity between the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, they stay at each other’s throat till today.

What is the political issue attached with Rohingyas?
As Myanmar is actually patterned along various ethnic identities and all the States are known by their ethnic names. So, if Rohingyas become an ethnic group, then there is a fear among Buddhist Rakhine majority that they would also claim an ethnic State for their representation and administration.

Is it justifiable to disenfranchise the Rohingyas because they are not an ethnic group?
In 2015 general elections, the Rohingyas were not allowed to vote. The 2015 election was celebrated the world over as an election ushering democracy in an otherwise martial government.
Myanmar is a very complex society since historical times and unless one understands the complexities of the Rohingyas issue, it would not be apt to analyse the issue. Myanmar is ethnically a Burmese society which commands majority over the political and military institutions. Even the de facto leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burman. During the colonial times, the British tried to deliberately push the Burmese people out of power by promoting the people from the hills (Burmese belonged to the plains). Hence, the backlash against other ethnic groups is majorly xenophobic in nature.

Aung San Suu Kyi is being harshly criticized for her perceived silence on Rohingya Muslims cause. In reality, she recognizes the need for human rights protection of these minority groups. But she is also the product of this complexity of situation. She has already been suspiciously looked in the context of her alleged little support for the Burman cause, therefore, she has to maintain her credentials with the Burman people and the army.

Moreover, this extermination of the Rohingyas is propagated by the anti-Muslim stance of hardliner Buddhists in Myanmar.

Emergence of ‘Haraka-Al-Yaqin’ –
It is inevitable that such fundamentalist groups would emerge against the backdrop of perceived persecution of the Muslim community anywhere in the world. It would harden the Burmese sentiment and it might lead to more violence in the region. If this happens, then it might dilute the powers of the Aung San Suu Kyi Government as the army still controls the security structures of the Myanmar State. It might bring some trouble for Malaysia too as it had been vocal in expressing support for the Rohingyas, despite not clearing the air over giving them shelter in their country.

What could be the solution to the issue?
An obvious answer to this question is ‘political reconciliation’, because otherwise the Myanmar Army is preparing for inflicting more pain on the Rohingyas for inciting violence in the region. Although unacceptable to Rohingyas at the present moment, the present nomenclature ‘Rohingyas’ would have to disappear from their identity to bring a perpetual state of peace in the region.

If there is anyone in particular who can resolve this problem, it is Aung San Suu Kyi because she is quite aware of the issue and she enjoys popular support. She has admitted that the Rohingyas should be accommodated in the political process and be given citizenship status. The international community should give her more time to accommodate all such issues and resolve the problem at the internal level itself without internationalising it any further.

Conclusion –
Burmese people say that so long as the Rohingyas continue to call themselves as Muslims, they have no issues with them, it is actually their ethnic identity of Rohingyas which troubles the majority of the Burmese people because of above mentioned reasons. It is quite unclear if there would be an early solution to the issue because of the rigidity of the Myanmar army and the aggressiveness of Buddhist Sangh in Myanmar, but it is important to circumscribe further persecution and disenfranchisement of the minority community of the Rohingyas in the Myanmar region. For the sake of humanity and peace in the region, a political reconciliation becomes desirable. The world cannot afford to have another hotspot oozing extremism and dispersing its ‘domino effect’ in the critical South East Asian region.

About the Author
The author is an analyst who expresses his opinions on matters of global significance. He can be contacted at X (formerly Twitter) using the handle @postsfromVivek.
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