Militant Islam Meets Militant Buddhism in Myanmar

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 19

Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim neighbourhoods in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine State on September 17 (Source The Hindu)

A wave of violent clashes that swept Myanmar’s restive Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan) in late September left at least five Muslims dead and many members of their community injured and displaced. The epicenter of the violence was the city of Thandwe, which was targeted by a Buddhist mob (Mizzima News [Yangon], October 3). For some time now, Buddhist nationalist groups in Myanmar have opposed Muslim businesses and social practices, creating a sense of mistrust and antagonism between the two communities that frequently erupts in violence. This sectarian divide between Muslim and Buddhist communities in Rakhine State emerges intermittently in the form of riots, arson and vandalism. 

The ongoing communal friction in Myanmar traces its origin to the June, 2012 killing of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim youths in the Rakhine village of Kyauknimaw and the subsequent lynching of ten Muslim bus passengers in Taunggoke that triggered waves of anti-Muslim violence from Buddhist vigilante groups. According to official Rakhine State government estimates, 98 people died and 123 others were injured from both communities. In addition, thousands of people, mostly Muslim ethnic Bengali Rohingya, were displaced by subsequent violent incidents. [1] Burma refuses to recognize its estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims as an ethnic group and denies them citizenship. Many Burmese consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Rohingya Muslims are also denied citizenship in Bangladesh, which says the group has been living in Burma for centuries. 

The simmering discontent within the two communities flared up again in October, 2012 and again in March, 2013 in central Myanmar (The Irrawaddy [Chiang Mai], March 28). The growing mistrust and hatred between majority Buddhists and the Muslim minority escalated further in subsequent months, drawing the attention of the United Nations and many international rights groups. Most alarming, however, was the attention drawn from transnational jihadi groups in support of the stateless Rohingya Muslim community. 

Groups sympathetic to the Rohingya cause from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Afghanistan have called for a campaign against the growing Buddhist “969” nationalist movement in Myanmar spearheaded by radical Buddhist monk Ashan Wirathu. The Buddhist nationalists maintain the movement’s purpose is to restrict the spread of Islam in predominantly Buddhist Burma (Hindustan Times, July 13). [2] In what may have been retaliation for the violence from Islamist extremists, a series of ten bomb blasts struck the 1500 year-old Buddhist complex at Bodh Gaya, India, on July 7. Reputed to be the site of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment, the complex forms one of the most important sites for Buddhist pilgrimage. A posting on a reputed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) blog claimed that an LeT team had reached Myanmar in late 2012, where it carried out operations and recruited a Rohingya Muslim to carry out one of the Bodh Gaya bombings (Hindustan Times, August 15). 

In neighboring Bangladesh, radical sympathizers of the Rohingya community attacked Buddhist homes, buildings and pagodas, causing the death of several people including a Buddhist monk in September, 2012. The Bangladesh government feared that umbrella organizations like the Jamaat-ul-Arakan (JuA) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) who have been running terrorist training camps in remote areas of Bandarban district along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border could create more trouble for Buddhists in Rakhine and elsewhere. 

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was the first extremist group to threaten to avenge the violence and discrimination against the Muslim Rohingya following the violence of June, 2012. While threatening to attack Myanmar’s interests in Pakistan and elsewhere, the TTP’s former spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan urged Islamabad to discontinue all bilateral ties with Myanmar and to close Myanmar’s embassy immediately (AFP, July 26, 2012). This threat, however, was taken lightly by Pakistan’s government and international observers. 

Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the current chief of the terrorist-related charity Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), has added the plight of the Rohingya to his focus on Kashmir and Palestine. In August 2012, Hafiz Saeed joined Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JIP) chief Munawwar Hasan in organizing mass rallies in Lahore to express solidarity with Myanmar’s Muslims and urged immediate actions against Buddhist nationalist groups (The News (Islamabad), August 4, 2012). In early July 2012, LeT/JuD leaders in Pakistan created a new forum, Difa-e-Musalman Arakan (Defense of Muslims in Myanmar) to mobilize support for the Rohingya cause and to stoke an anti-Myanmar campaign (Waqt News TV [Karachi], July 2, 2012). A team headed by JuD spokesperson Nadeem Awan and JuD publications wing member Shahid Mahmood Rehmatullah was appointed to forge links with like-minded Islamic organizations in Bangladesh and Myanmar (Times of India, July 25).  In August 2013, Hafiz Saeed said in a video message that: “Buddhists are killing Muslims with Hindus supporting this genocide. Decisions to suffocate Muslims have been made, by snatching their right to freedom. They fear that Muslims will rise for their rights; therefore they should be brutally killed and intimidated before such an occurrence.” [3] Saeed even used Twitter to spread the message that: “The time is near when those oppressed in Kashmir, Palestine and Burma (Myanmar) will celebrate Eid in the air of Freedom.” [4] 

In July 2013, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) announced the opening of a new jihadist front in Myanmar in support of the Rohingya Muslims. Jihadi forums like Bab-e-Islam, Ansar -al Mujahideen and Arrahmah.com have posted details of this latest mujahideen campaign in both the Arabic and Urdu languages, claiming that this new jihadi group, named Lashkar Mujahideen of Rohingya had already entered Myanmar under the leadership of Commander Abu Shafiyah and Abu Arif (BD News 24 [Dhaka], August 16). The Arrahmah website was founded by al-Qaeda associated Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) member Muhammad Jibril Abdul Rahman and has over 25 pictures of the Lashkar Mujahideen undergoing military training. [5] One of these forums also claimed an initial attack of the Lashkar Mujahideen on Myanmar’s soil against a convoy of the “Buddhist army” in which 17 soldiers were killed and two vehicles destroyed. The forum also cited the killing of three Rakhine people, including a Buddhist monk, in mid-July. [6] 

Though not much is known about the previous activities of these two leaders or the composition of Lashkar Mujahideen Rohingya, it is reported that both leaders are affiliated with the Bangladesh-based Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and had previously visited Indonesia’s Forum Umat Islam (Islamic Community Forum, located in Petamburan, Central Jakarta) looking for men, money and material for waging jihad in Myanmar (Jakarta Post, July 11). Abu Shafiyah, the commander of the Lashkar Mujahideen was also looking for a bomb instructor to train the mujahideen in Myanmar to assemble bombs for use in guerrilla attacks against Buddhists and the military junta of Myanmar. [7] 

Earlier, Indonesia’s notorious militant Islamist ideologue and imprisoned spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Bashir, issued a veiled threat of holy war against Myanmar’s Buddhists on April 23 in a statement issued from his prison cell. [8] He blamed Myanmar’s government for carrying out systematic genocide against the Rohingya Muslims and declared jihad was the only solution to the problem. Taking its cue from Bashir, Indonesia-based militant Islamist groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (FPI – Islamic Defenders Front) organized protest rallies and fund raising activities in Indonesia. Members of the FPI descended into the streets of central Jakarta to chant jihad slogans while marching to the Myanmar embassy. Placards at the rallies stated: “We want to go for jihad to Myanmar,” and “Stop the Rohingya Genocide.” 

On May 25, FPI central board member Ustadz Jakfar Sidiq told a congregation at South Jakarta’s Baiturahman mosque: “If efforts are done through diplomacy and the government still does not care, then we ask the Rohingya people to prepare their young men there to open up [a front]. It is time for the global mujahideen to start arriving, [the front] is already opened." [9] The FPI was aiming to raise 10 billion Indonesian Rupiah (approximately $880,000) for jihad in Myanmar. 

The jihadist resurgence for the cause of the Rohingya Muslims notwithstanding, Myanmar’s Muslim groups have denounced calls for jihad many times in the past. They know that violence and counter violence is not the solution. However, before the Islamic jihadist forces hijack the whole issue for their own purposes, government and international agencies may find a way to facilitate reconciliation between the Buddhist nationalists and the Muslim minorities in Rakhine province and elsewhere in Myanmar. 

Animesh Roul is the Executive Director of Research at the New Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict (SSPC). 

Notes

1. Final Report of the Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State, Appendix C: Damage and loss during the Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State, July, 2013, p. 85.

2. “We’re Building Fences, Protecting Our Race, Religion,” (Full text interview with Wirathu), Outlook India, July 22, 2013.

3. Excerpt from Hafiz Saeed’s Eid 2013 speech, http://tune.pk/video/311881/ProfHafiz-Saeed-EID-2013-Message-.

4. See: https://twitter.com/HafizSaeedJUD, August 8, 2013.

5. The authenticity of these photographs has come under question. See “Gift Ramadan al-Mubarak: Exclusive Photos Mujahideen Rohingya, No answer except by Jihad!” (Title translated from the original Bhasa Indonesia language), July 10, 2013: http://www.arrahmah.com/foto/hadiah-ramadhan-al-mubarak-foto-eksklusif-mujahidin-rohingya-tiada-jawaban-kecuali-dengan-jihad.html.

6. The report was cited by one Abu Musab Al-Pakistani in: http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?p=169944.

7. “Ulama of Rohingya: Jihad fi Sabilillah is now Wajib in Myanmar”, June 21, 2013, http://prisonerofjoy.blogspot.in/2013/06/ulama-of-rohingya-jihad-fi-sabilillah-i.html.

8. See “Ustadz Ba’asyir Calls for Jihad in Defense of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar” (Title translated from the original Bahasa Indonesia language), Voice of al-Islam, May 2, 2013, http://www.voa-islam.com/news/indonesiana/2013/05/02/24323/ustadz-baasyir-serukan-jihad-ke-myanmar-bela-muslim-rohingya/.

9. “FPI: 10 Billions Rp Needed to Buy Arms and Send a Thousand Mujahids to Myanmar,” May 28, 2013, http://www.prisonerofjoy.blogspot.in/2013/05/fpi-10-billions-rp-needed-to-buy-arms.html.