Why Islamophobia is More Dangerous Than al-Qaeda in Burma

3 November 2014

On September 3rd 2014, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, featured in an online video declaring the group’s opening of a ‘new branch’ in the Indian subcontinent. Zawahiri highlighted the organisation’s “serious effort to bring an end to oppressions on Muslims in Bangladesh, India, Burma and Sri Lanka with everything within [their] capacity” and to eventually “raise the flag of jihad” in these countries.

Even though the move was mostly seen as a way to revitalize al-Qaeda’s lost status since the rise of the notorious Islamic State, Zawahiri’s statement was not ignored. Representatives of South Asian governments were quick to condemn any form of terrorist activities within their countries whilst generally highlighting that “there is nothing to worry about”, as an Indian government spokesperson said. Burmese President Thein Sein, however, does not seem to echo this latter belief.


Thein Sein, Islamophobia and the (un)real terrorist threat

Thein Sein has always been outspoken about the threat of terrorism in the country posed particularly from the western state of Rakhine (i.e. Arakan), which is home to about a million ethnic Rohingya Muslims, and was the stage for the bloody 2012 Muslim-Buddhist riots.

Following Zawahiri’s statement, Thein Sein swiftly increased security in different key cities and announced the creation of an anti-terrorism unit within the police force. Yet an increasing Islamophobic sentiment in the country, fuelled by decades-long government segregation of Muslims, leads critics to believe that these measures are introduced solely to heighten discrimination against Burmese Muslims. Indeed there is no link, according to the Director of the Burmese Transnational Crime Department, “between terrorists in Burma and other global terror networks.” Unlike Burmese officials’ beliefs, the only verifiable exception to the latter statement is evidence from the International Crisis Group (ICG) purporting some Burmese Muslims to have fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan between 1999 and 2001.

Indeed, were Zawahiri successful in creating an ‘al-Qaeda branch’ in South Asian countries, it would probably be very unsuccessful in Burma. Following his declaration, the Burmese Muslim Association (BMA) promptly issued a statement disassociating themselves from Zawahiri and concluding that “the marginalised minority Muslims in Burma will never accept any help from a terrorist organisation, which is in principle a disgrace and morally repugnant.”

The BMA’s opinion is very resonant with Burmese Muslims and in particular with Rakhine Rohingyas, who are mostly Sufi Sunnis and thus deeply in discord with the radical Salafi ideology of al-Qaeda. Moreover, the only real military organisation fighting on behalf Muslims in Burma is the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). Yet, the RSO was founded in response to a government military operation in the late 1970s in Rakhine State that displaced more than 250,000 people, and is not religiously motivated. Despite the government’s professed worries about the radicalisation of Muslims in Rakhine State, the RSO “is not a credible military threat”, according to the ICG’s most recent report on the situation in the state, and is unlikely to begin a religiously-based insurgency. However, President Thein Sein and his administration seem to care little about what Burmese, particularly Rohingya, Muslims believe, preferring to lend an ear to the growing Islamophobic voices in the country. This seems to be a trend in Burmese governments.

Historically speaking, Thein Sein’s administration is in line with the decades long discrimination of Muslims in Burma, under both civilian and military governments, since the country’s independence in 1948. Indeed, as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s 2014 report highlights: “political reforms in Burma have not improved legal protections for religious freedom and have done little to curtail anti-Muslim violence, incitement and discrimination, particularly targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority.” If anything, Thein Sein’s administration has actually expanded the segregation of Muslims by allowing anti-Muslim hate speech, attacks and discrimination. The government’s actions and inactions during and following the 2012 Rakhine State riots are a testimony to this.


Rakhine State and Rohingya Muslims

In June 2012, violence erupted between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims following the rape of a 27 year-old woman that was blamed by authorities on three Muslim men. The incident enflamed existing Buddhists’ preconceptions that the Rakhine Rohingya are an inferior people, stemming from the historically inaccurate yet government supported belief that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh (i.e. ‘Bengalis’) brought by the British for farming. After weeks of violence, Thein Sein publicly announced his belief in the only solution for sustainable peace in Rakhine State: the deportation of all Rohingyas to UNHCR camps in a foreign country. Needless to say, UNHCR refused.

As a result of the 2012 protests, there are currently more than 140,000 Rohingyas living in entirely aid dependent camps around Rakhine State. To deal with these displaced peoples and with sectarian strife in the region, the Burmese government presented the ‘Rakhine State Action Plan’ last month. The plan aims to assess all Rohingyas for their eligibility to citizenship by demonstrating, with papers that most of them do not possess, that their families have lived in Burma for more than three generations.

For those who “refuse to be registered and those without the adequate documents”, reads a part of the plan, the government will “construct temporary camps”, which amounts to indefinite arbitrary detention. The plan is best summed up in Phil Robertson’s, deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, words: “the long-awaited plan both expands and solidifies the discriminatory and abusive Burmese government policies that underpins the decades-long persecution of the Rohingya.”


Nationwide Islamophobia: 969 Movement and the Burmese government

Unfortunately, due to an inadequate government response, discrimination against the Rohingya in Rakhine State soon turned into nationwide hate speech and violent behaviours against all kinds of Burmese Muslims. In September 2012, for example, Karen Human Rights Group reported the dissemination of pamphlets throughout Karen State, made by Buddhist monks and disseminated by Border Guards, declaring the sale and purchase of “food and products” to be illegal.

The following month, thousands of Buddhist monks staged a protest against the opening of an office of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Rangoon, through which many Muslim-majority countries would have channelled aid for the displaced Rohingyas. Violence erupted once again as Thein Sein decided to block the opening of the IOC office. This led to renewed attacks on Muslims around the country, rather than being solely limited to Rakhine State, as a map of attacks on Muslims made by Physicians for Human Rights highlights.

These nationwide Islamophobic tendencies have grown since 2012 and are the result of strong advocacy and engagement by the ultranationalist and Islamophobic 969 movement, composed of radical Buddhist monks whose actions are condoned (if not encouraged) by Thein Sein’s government. When asked his opinion on the 969’s boycott of Muslim businesses, the recently ousted Minister of Religious Affairs Saan Sint concluded: “We are now practicing market economics. Nobody can stop that. It is up to the consumers.” If the minister entitled to deal with religious issues refuses to condemn Islamophobic speech and actions, why should the people he is supposed to represent not do the same?

Overall, however, the most worrying aspect of the post-June 2012 legacy is the growing civilian involvement in Islamophobic discourse as well as the increasing frequency and intensity of anti-Muslim attacks. As long as the government considers the 969 movement “a symbol of peace” (cit. Thein Sein) and continues to let it flourish (in order to avoid another Saffron Revolution), the bloodshed of both Buddhists and Muslims will continue.

Moreover, as both the 969 movement and the government see the radical Islamist threat as a very concrete one that is already terrorising Burmese Buddhists, the authorities will be able to disenfranchise Burmese Muslims even more. Quite ironically, Zawahiri’s call to protect Burmese Muslims is only feeding Islamophobia in Burma and, if anything, will only deteriorate their condition.

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