Burma has undergone significant changes in recent years, as increasing pressure from the United States and other Western powers to democratize and respect human rights has mounted. The work of political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi’s, which won her a Nobel Peace prize and inspired at least some rudimentary efforts toward Burmese democratization, is emblematic of the loosening of the military dictatorship’s hold on the reins of power. However, democracy and respect for human rights are not guaranteed. In fact, one group, the Rohingya of Burma’s Arakan State (a.k.a. Rakhine State), have experienced historical hatred, violence, and terrorism, a pattern that has re-emerged recently. This is an important issue in Burma’s democratization efforts and has the potential to draw outside Islamic fundamentalist and terrorism groups to the region. Even Suu Kyi is suffering some personal embarrassment from the Rohingya situation as she has chosen to stay silent on the human rights abuses perpetrated against this Muslim ethnic group in order (as some have speculated) to shore up her political chances in the 2015 election (Asia News, August 16).
The Rohingya ethnic group traces its roots back to Muslim merchants who traded with and settled in the Bangladesh/Burma region in the late seventh century. Between one and one and a half million Rohingya currently live in Arakan State with several hundred thousand living in adjacent lands in Bangladesh. Smaller numbers of the group have migrated to India, Thailand, Malaysia, China, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia (Pakistan Observer, September 5).
Relations between the Buddhist Rhakine (the majority in Arakan State), the Burmese government, and the Rohingya have always been rocky, but reached a head after British colonization was abruptly interrupted in 1942 when Japan invaded Burma. The British had been working on a plan to create an autonomous region for the Rohingya people. After the Japanese were expelled, the Rohinga attempted to force the British to make good on their promise. This failed and in 1948 the Rohingya approached Pakistan to incorporate the Arakan region into the area then controlled by East Pakistan, which would later become Bangladesh. These moves toward autonomy angered the Burmese government and the Buddhist Rhakine living in the area, causing the first wave of violence against the Rohingya.
These events also served as the foundation for a new Rohingya narrative. Though it was clear that the Rohingya had lived in Burma for centuries, the government began to argue that the Rohingya were nothing more than refugees from Bangladesh who needed to be repatriated. This came to a head in 1982 when the military junta government amended the Burmese constitution to define Rohingya as non-Burmese citizens (Pakistan Observer, September 5). This had several negative ramifications for the Rohingya, including loss of educational and voting rights, loss of due process rights and the loss of civil service jobs they had enjoyed under British control. The Rohingya were now more impoverished and susceptible to human rights abuses than ever before.
The latest round of violence was sparked by an incident in which a Rakhine Buddhist woman was allegedly raped and killed by three Muslim men in May (Asia News, August 2). In reaction to an inflammatory version of this event carried in a pamphlet, 300 Buddhists attacked a bus in Toungop killing ten Muslim men (Bangkok Post, September 4). Human Rights Watch reports that government security forces and local police stood by and in some cases may even have colluded in the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya.  This incident was followed by reports that police and paramilitary forces opened fire on a group of Muslims in August (Bangkok Post, August 1).
Domestic terrorism targeting the Rohingya is jeopardizing the democratic transition of President U Thein Sein’s government. U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration have been working with President Sein on the democratization process. On August 29, the Obama administration waived visa restrictions for President Sein and some of the members of his administration in order to facilitate a meeting in Washington. The restrictions had been in place due to a 2008 law that bars visas for Burmese leaders alleged to be involved in human rights abuses (Myanmar Times, September 3). President Sein has publicly stated that forced deportation of Rohingya to any country that would take them would be the final solution to the sectarian violence (Bangkok Post, July 12).
Not only do human rights abuses threaten to derail Western support for the development of democracy in Burma, but they also threaten to invite Islamic extremism and terrorism. There is little doubt that the Rhakine campaign against the Rohingya is condoned, if not actually supported, by the current Burmese government. This sectarian violence is feeding into a national strategy of ethnocide aimed at removing the Rohingya from Burmese territory.
The imprisoned Indonesian spiritual leader of the al-Qaeda-associated Jemaah Islamiya movement, Abu Bakr Bashir, threatened to wage a holy war against Burma in retaliation for the sectarian violence (al-Arabiya, August 3). Bashir was able to incite a protest by his loyal supporters outside the Burmese embassy in Jakarta that demanded the Indonesian government cease all aid and support for the Burmese government (Bangkok Post, August 9). Bashir was jailed in June, 2011 for funding a violent terrorist cell in Aceh, Indonesia, but his call to jihad could serve as an invitation for larger terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiya to intervene in Burma on behalf of the Rohingya. (Bangkok Post, August 3).
The Rohingya crisis has also incited Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to threaten terrorist attacks for the first time outside of the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. The TTP recently stated it would present itself as the defender of the Rohingya people and “take revenge for your blood” (Bangkok Post, July 27). The ability of the TTP to commit these attacks is questionable but intelligence sources in the United States believe that the TTP was responsible for the planning of the failed bomb attack in New York’s Times Square in 2010 (Bangkok Post, July 27).
The sectarian violence in Burma has also attracted the attention of the Afghan Taliban, who issued an official statement in response:
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, besides considering this crime [i.e. the forced expulsion of the Rohingya] a black scar on the history of mankind, calls on the government of Burma to immediately put a stop to this savagery and barbarism and halt such heart rending historical violations against humans and humanity. They should realize that this is not only a crime against the Muslims of Burma but against all humankind and especially an unforgivable crime against the entire Muslim world. 
The claim to the land and rightful citizenship of the Rohingya people is rooted in historical fact. The history of sectarian animosity has fed into the current violence and terrorism in Arakan. The current localized violence against the Rohingya, supported by the military government, has far-reaching ramifications for both the democratization of Burma and the potential for outside terrorist organizations to infiltrate the region.
Dan G. Cox is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the United States Army School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
1. “’The Government Could Have Stopped This,’ Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State,” Human Rights Watch, August 2012, p.20, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/burma0812webwcover_0.pdf .
2. “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding the bloody tragedy of the Muslims of Burma,” Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, July 20, 2012.