During the last 18 months, a surge of communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has killed at least 180 people and displaced more than 120,000, the vast majority of them members of the country’s one million-strong Muslim minority.[1] These events, accompanied by instances of official government discrimination against Muslims, has prompted a range of attacks on Buddhists throughout the region, including an attack in July 2013 on the Bodh Gaya, India’s most important Buddhist temple, and in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia. Myanmar’s perceived mistreatment of Muslims has also galvanized a wide range of Islamist and jihadist groups from the Middle East to Australia and the United Kingdom.

This article provides background on militancy among Rohingya Muslims, highlights recent regional incidents of related anti-Buddhist violence, and examines the potential for a wider uptick in Islamist militancy over the issue. It finds that Islamist organizations, as well as jihadist groups, are increasingly incorporating developments in Myanmar into their propaganda campaigns, as well as including Myanmar’s interests in their targeting selection.

There are approximately one million Muslims living in Myanmar, a country of 55 million people.[2] Around 800,000 of these are from the Rohingya ethnic minority, a group concentrated in the country’s southwestern Rahkine State (formerly known as Arakan State).[3] The Rohingya typically argue that they are indigenous to the area, but many Burmese claim that they are relatively recent immigrants from Bangladesh, where many Rohingya also live. Regardless, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar are long-standing.[4] The recent unrest, however, is the worst in at least a decade—involving widespread attacks on Muslim homes and businesses.

The violence has primarily been conducted by Buddhist civilians, although there are credible reports of the authorities turning a blind eye or tacitly supporting the violence.[5] There are examples of Buddhist monks (notably Ashin Wirathu from the Buddhist 969 movement) inciting hatred against Muslims; this intolerance can easily lead to violence over local issues. There are also allegations of some monks directly taking part in the violence.[6] The Myanmar government itself has imposed discriminatory measures against Muslims, notably a two-child limit on some Muslim families.[7] The unrest has been concentrated in the country’s southwestern Rahkine State, as well as in central towns such as Meiktila and Shan State in the west. In contrast to previous outbreaks of conflict, however, news of the latest violence has impacted Muslims outside of the country. This is largely due to the growth of social media, which has dramatically raised awareness of the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims. The country may also have gained a greater significance to the global Muslim community due to high profile U.S. and Western engagement with Myanmar during the last two years.[8]

Rohingya Armed Groups
Myanmar has been challenged by a range of armed separatist groups representing Rohingya Muslims since its independence in 1948 when the self-described “Mujahidin,” a term that embraced activists from a range of groups, began fighting for some form of self-government, ranging from autonomy to full independence. Since then, various armed groups have been periodically active, such as the Rohingya Liberation Party in the 1970s. All of these groups have had a limited impact, with most being broken up by Myanmar’s efficient security apparatus or forced abroad.

The most active current group is the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) based largely in neighboring Bangladesh. The RSO, which has a limited capacity in Myanmar, is widely accused of working with radical Bangladeshi groups, including the two banned jihadist groups Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islam-Bangladesh (HuJI-B). The RSO has denied these links.[9] Separately, a range of media outlets and commentators have alleged that the RSO, along with the Arakan Rohingya National Organization and individual Rohingya, have had contact with foreign militant groups such as the Taliban.[10] These claims, however, are difficult to substantiate. Likewise, in July 2013, radical Islamist websites reported that a group of jihadists from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar had entered Myanmar and killed 17 Burmese soldiers and claimed that Rohingya Muslims were being trained by militants in Bangladesh; the claim was denied by Myanmar’s government.[11]

More credibly, the RSO is accused of stoking anti-Buddhist violence in Bangladesh and of involvement with radical Bangladeshi groups.[12] For example, the group was accused of involvement in the September 2012 attacks in Ramu in Cox’s Bazaar district in Bangladesh, in which mobs attacked and destroyed 12 Buddhist temples and more than 50 houses, in apparent revenge for attacks by Buddhists in Myanmar, although the unrest also seems to have been stirred up through social media.[13] In March 2013, Hafez Sanaul Islam, a senior RSO leader, was arrested by Bangladeshi police over the violence, along with several other Rohingya refugees, illustrating the potential for hard line Rohingya activists to use the issue to stoke violence abroad.[14]

While the RSO stages periodic attacks in Myanmar—for example, the government blamed the group for a minor cross-border attack from Bangladesh in November 2012—there is no evidence that militant Islamism has enjoyed significant traction among Rohingya. This may be because Islamist groups such as Jamaat-i-Islami,[15] which can create environments in which jihadist groups can flourish, have gained little purchase in the country. Similarly, Wahhabism and other forms of Salafi Islam have made few visible inroads among the Rohingya, and Islamic practices remain largely traditional, syncretistic, and Sufi-influenced. Additionally, the minimal numbers of Rohingya studying in the West have meant that radicalism has not been imported into the country by returning students.

Current dynamics, however, could change. Although the Myanmar government’s harsh rule has historically quashed radical tendencies, the recent uptick both in intra-communal violence against Muslims and the government’s latest intolerance toward Muslims could prompt Islamist radicalization. Conversely, however, political liberalization by Myanmar could give Islamists, and particularly non-violent political Islamists, more room to maneuver.[16]

In a possible sign of incidents to come, on July 21, 2013, a small bomb exploded near a Buddhist temple in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, only meters away from where the 969 leader Ashin Wirathu was speaking.[17] It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the blast.

Regional Islamist Reaction
In addition to the spillover violence in Bangladesh, Myanmar’s treatment of Muslim civilians has prompted attacks further afield in both South and Southeast Asia, providing Islamist and jihadist groups with fresh grievances and a new cause with which to rally their followers.

In Indonesia, although overall support for jihadist groups is much reduced from the 1990s, recent events in Myanmar have reenergized the country’s small and fragmented radical groups. In May 2013, for example, Indonesian police broke up a terrorist cell that was allegedly planning a bomb attack on the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta, arresting several people and seizing bomb-making materials.[18] The police added that the suspects were believed to be linked to a previous December 2012 plot to attack U.S. diplomatic and commercial interests in Jakarta and Surabaya.[19] The arrests illustrated both the Indonesian government’s ability to contain jihadist groups and an uptick in Islamist activism over the Myanmar issue.

Similarly, Abu Bakar Bashir, the jihadist cleric imprisoned for his role in the Bali bombings, issued an open letter to Myanmar President Thein Sein from prison in July 2012.[20] The letter characterized the actions of Burmese Buddhists as “barbarous” and described how “they burn the homes of Muslims, forbade [Islamic] worship and slaughter them like animals.”[21] Bashir also warned that if Myanmar did not improve its treatment of Muslims, “the destruction of the lands [of Myanmar] at the hands of the mujahidin (with the permission of Allah) will take place.”[22]

Echoing these sentiments, hundreds of hard line Islamists gathered outside the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta in May 2013 to call for “jihad in Myanmar,” carrying banners declaring “we want to kill Myanmar Buddhists” and “stop genocide in Myanmar.”[23] Then, in August 2012, around 1,000 members of the Islamist group Hizb al-Tahrir marched in Jakarta “to show solidarity with the Rohingya who the extremist Buddhists are slaughtering, raping and torturing.”[24]

Sporadic violence has also occurred. On April 5, 2013, Rohingya refugees from Myanmar killed eight Burmese Buddhists in a clash at an immigration detention center in Indonesia.[25] The Indonesian authorities said the attack began after Muslim detainees circulated photographs of the violence in Myanmar.[26]

A comparable uptick in tensions and related violence is also visible in normally peaceful Malaysia, with at least four Burmese Buddhists killed in a spate of attacks in the capital Kuala Lumpur in early June 2013.[27] Some reports blamed local Malay Muslims; others said that Rohingya refugees had carried out the attacks. Members of the 969 movement, a hard line Buddhist nationalist group blamed for much of the Myanmar violence, had reportedly visited Malaysia in the last year, which local activists said had contributed to an increase in tensions.[28] Following the June clashes, Malaysia arrested 900 Burmese nationals to preempt further violence, with a police spokesman saying the arrests were intended to “send a clear message to stop this nonsense and not bring the violence over to Malaysia.”[29]

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) threatened to take “revenge” on Myanmar in July 2012. Although its spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan warned that they would “attack Burmese interests anywhere,” the group rarely carries out attacks abroad.[30] The statement was more likely an attempt to pressure the Pakistani government and to justify fresh attacks against it; Ehsan warned the government to halt relations with Myanmar and close Myanmar’s embassy in Islamabad or face the consequences.[31] Likewise, on June 14, 2013, Jamaat-i-Islami held rallies in Lahore where the group’s leaders reportedly told followers that thousands of Burmese Muslims were being “martyred” and that their mosques were being demolished.[32]

Violent protests have also occurred in India, notably in Mumbai in August 2012 when two protesters were killed and 50 injured.[33] Indian police said the violence was prompted by inflammatory SMS (cellular phone text messaging) videos of violence in Myanmar—an example of how social media has dramatically raised awareness of events in the country.[34] Separately, on July 7, 2013, nine small bombs exploded at India’s most significant Buddhist temple, Bodh Gaya in Bihar Province, injuring two.[35] Although no official statements have yet been made on the motive, Indian media speculated that the attack was revenge for events in Myanmar and cited past threats by Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Saeed to target India over its relations with Myanmar.[36]

Global Islamist Reaction
Events in Myanmar have also provided a rallying cry for Islamist groups worldwide. Some groups seem to have eagerly seized on the issue as it offers a clear narrative of Muslims being victimized by non-Muslims. This is particularly true of the Muslim Brotherhood which, at least until the recent military coup in Egypt, was eager to deflect attention from its growing image problems in Egypt and elsewhere. For example, the Freedom and Justice Party (FYP), the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian wing, has repeatedly seized on the issue, describing it as “genocide against Burmese Muslims” and the “barbaric cleansing of more than a million Muslims.”[37] In April 2013, the FYP’s Ezzedin al-Komi, chairman of the Human Rights Committee of Egypt’s Shura Council, described Myanmar’s actions as “crimes against humanity, gross injustice and brutal genocide.”[38] Gamal Heshmat, another senior FJP leader, suggested a wider conspiracy: “Why do some parties—certain world powers—not consider the tragedy of Muslims as they scrutinize most minority issues in the Muslim world?”[39] In other countries, there have been calls for violence. In Lebanon, for example, a prominent Salafist was quoted as calling for attacks on Buddhists: “Every person who can get to a Buddhist should kill him because they are killing our people.”[40]

In Western countries, the same emotive propaganda intended to foment anger and a narrative of Muslim victimhood is also visible. In September 2012, a grouping of British Islamists linked to the Cordoba Foundation, a London-based Muslim Brotherhood “front” group,[41] organized an event entitled “Burma Bloodbath,” at the East London Mosque, the UK headquarters of Jamaat-i-Islami.[42] Anas al-Tikriti gave a speech describing Buddhists as being “far more capable of bloodshed and violence than we ever gave them credit for” and urging the audience to “remember Bosnia.”[43] Another speaker, Ufuk Secgin, a representative of the Turkish Islamist group Milli Gorus, also compared the violence to Bosnia, saying: “Will we learn the names of the towns of Burma and Arakhan as we learned the names of the towns of Bosnia?”[44] Separately, Alyas Karmani, a Bradford-based preacher widely employed by the UK government through the counterterrorism “Prevent” program, gave an emotive talk in Bradford describing Rohingya Muslims “crying tears of blood” and “being clubbed to death.”[45] He blamed the root cause of the strife on British colonialism and on Muslims “rejecting their core values” and “abandoning their din [religion],” closing his talk by calling on Allah to provide nusra (victory), although he was careful to urge his audience to work peacefully through democratic channels.[46]

Also in the United Kingdom, Hizb al-Tahrir held a protest outside the Bangladeshi High Commission in London in August 2012. The event was, however, mainly directed at Bangladesh’s secular government, a long-standing opponent of Hizb al-Tahrir’s UK branch, and the West. “The West doesn’t care about Muslims—they care about business deals,” read one placard. Hizb al-Tahrir’s central office issued a notably more hard line statement in May 2013, advocating the reestablishment of the caliphate as this “will cause nations to quiver at the mere thought of harming a single Muslim under their rule.”[47]

Further along the Islamist spectrum, groups such as the one run by Anjem Choudary (his group is currently nameless after its previous incarnations were banned) also agitated against Myanmar. On April 5, 2013, the group protested outside the Myanmar Embassy in London (as well as the Sri Lankan one[48]) against the “continuous atrocities being committed against Muslim men, women and children…at the hands of Buddhist individuals and monks.”[49] In Australia, Shaykh Shady Alsuleiman, a Salafist preacher at the controversial Lakemba Mosque, gave a sermon that “Muslims in Burma are being slaughtered.”[50] In Myanmar, he continued, Muslim “blood was so cheap, it was like stepping on a cockroach” or “slaughtering a chicken.”[51] He warned his audience, however, not to attack Buddhists in Australia as this “would not please Allah” and would “bring harm upon the Muslims.”[52]

Although there is little evidence of Rohingya Muslims being involved in international terrorist groups, or any recent record of Rohingyas carrying out any sustained terrorist campaign within Myanmar, it is clear that Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim minority is rapidly becoming a mobilizing issue for Islamist and jihadist groups—both regionally and globally. Indeed, in the past year the issue has already generated violence overseas, including in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and even in normally peaceful Malaysia. It has also attracted the attention of Islamist and jihadist groups from Afghanistan to Australia to the United Kingdom—a notable development given that the Rohingya issue had rarely featured on the radar of such groups previously.

There are several reasons for this. Western engagement with Myanmar has raised the country’s profile and enabled groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir to link Western engagement with anti-Muslim violence. In addition, many such groups have a vested interest in raising the profile of the violence in Myanmar. For some beleaguered organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Myanmar has been an opportunity to recast themselves as defenders of Islam. The conflict—which is typically presented by Islamists as a straightforward story of Buddhists victimizing innocent Muslims—is also much easier to market to core Islamist audiences than complex intra-Muslim conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Bahrain. In addition, anger at Myanmar (as evidenced by riots in Mumbai and the Indonesian detention center killings) has been repeatedly stoked by the deliberate circulation of forged or mislabeled photographs—as well as by Islamists’ routine inflation of casualty figures.[53] Likewise, the characterization of the violence in Myanmar by a wide range of Islamist groups as a “slaughter,” “massacre” and “genocide” has resonated in many Muslim communities, including among relatively more moderate groups.[54]

It is unlikely that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya will ever become a core issue for Islamist or jihadist groups globally. Nevertheless, one should not discount the power of a compelling and simple “good vs. evil” narrative— promoted by a broad range of Islamist groups and based on genuine instances of anti-Muslim discrimination and violence—to cause an uptick in Islamist violence and radicalization, within Myanmar, regionally, and further afield.

James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at Kings College London.

[1] “Unpunished Crimes Against Humanity, Humanitarian Crisis in Arakan State,” Human Rights Watch, April 22, 2013. Rahkine State was known as Arakan State until 1989.

[2] Thomas Fuller, “Extremism Rises Among Myanmar Buddhists,” New York Times, June 20, 2013.

[3] Araminta Wordsworth, “Burmese Sleepwalking Into ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’” National Post, July 13, 2013.

[4] Although the precise origin of the Rohingya is contested, it seems likely that while significant numbers of Rohingya have lived in the area for centuries, others arrived from Bangladesh during the British colonial period in 1826-1948.

[5] “Unpunished Crimes Against Humanity, Humanitarian Crisis in Arakan State”; Kate Hodal, “Video Shows Burmese Police Standing by as Buddhists Attack Muslims,” Guardian, April 22, 2013.

[6] Hodal; Jared Ferrie, “Buddhist Mobs Attack Muslim Homes in Myanmar, One Dead,” Reuters, May 29, 2013.

[7] “What is Behind Burma’s Wave of Religious Violence?” BBC, April 4, 2013; “One Region in Myanmar Limits Births of Muslims,” Associated Press, May 25, 2013.

[8] Previously, there was little awareness of Myanmar even from regional Islamist groups.

[9] “RSO Press Release: Statement in Response of the News Reports of the Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh and Indonesia,” Rohingya Solidarity Organization, May 21, 2009. The Australian government has categorized the RSO with groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines that are “not primarily anti-Western” and are instead largely motivated by “local socio-political and economic grievances.” See “Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia,” Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2004.

[10] For example, in 2002 CNN said it had found an al-Qa`ida tape in Afghanistan that showed jihadists training in Burma in 1990. See “Exclusive Tapes Reveal al Qaeda’s Capabilities,” CNN, August 23, 2002.

[11] “Jihad Started in Burma,” Kavkaz Center, July 12, 2012; “Myanmar Bins Reports of Rohingyas’ Military Training,” Daily Star [Dhaka], July 13, 2013.

[12] “Rohingya Rebels Trained JMB Men,” Daily Star, May 19, 2009.

[13] “Man Held for Link with Ramu Attacks,” Daily Star, October 31, 2012; “Rohingya Accused of Sparking Bangladesh Riots,” The Irrawaddy, October 1, 2012.

[14]  “Rohingya Groups Under Scanner,” Daily Star, October 7, 2012; “Remand of Ramu Violence ‘Plotter’ Sought,” BDNews24, March 23, 2013.

[15]  Jamaat-i-Islami was founded in 1941 in British-run India by Abu al-A`la Mawdudi, which broke in different, but closely-associated, national movements following the creation of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as separate states.

[16] That being said, given the government’s reluctance to even accept Rohingya claims to citizenship, this appears unlikely at present.

[17] “Blast During Sermon by Radical Myanmar Monk Wounds 4,” Reuters, July 22, 2013.

[18]  “Myanmar Embassy Bomb Plotter Used Facebook to Recruit Followers,” Jakarta Globe, May 4, 2013.

[19]  “Bomb Plot Linked Known Cells,” Jakarta Post, May 4, 2013.

[20] “Ustadz Abu Bakar Ba’asyir Letter to the President of Myanmar,” Arrahmah.com, August 2, 2012.

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  Ibid.

[23] “Radical Rallies in Jakarta Call for Deadly Jihad in Myanmar,” Jakarta Globe, May 3, 2012.

[24]  “Solidarity with the Rohingya Muslims by Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia,” Khilafah.com, August 6, 2012.

[25]  “Myanmar Muslims Kill 8 Buddhists in Indonesian Centre,” Agence France-Presse, April 5, 2013.

[26]  Ibid.

[27] “Burmese Migrant Community in Malaysia Simmers after Attacks,” The Irrawaddy, June 13, 2013.

[28]  Ibid.

[29] “Malaysia Arrests 900 Myanmar Nationals in Wake of Violence,” Agence France-Presse, June 6, 2012.

[30] “Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Threaten Myanmar over Rohingya,” Express Tribune, July 26, 2012.

[31]   Ibid.

[32] “Religious Parties Protest Against Muslim Killings Today,” The News International, June 14, 2013.

[33] “Inflammatory SMSs, Pictures Behind Rioting?” Times of India, August 13, 2012.

[34]  Ibid.

[35] “Blasts at Indian Buddhist Shrines of Bodh Gaya in Bihar,” BBC, July 7, 2013.

[36] “Buddhist-Rohingya Conflict in Myanmar Spells Trouble for India,” Times of India, July 8, 2013; “Terror Strikes Bodhgaya, Two Monks Injured,” Indian Express, July 7, 2013.

[37] “Freedom and Justice Party Demands Immediate Halt of Genocide Against Burmese Muslims,” Ikhwanweb.com, August 5, 2012.

[38] “Freedom and Justice Party Demands Immediate Halt of Genocide Against Burmese Muslims,” Ikwanonline.info, August 15, 2012; “Egypt Parliament’s Human Rights Committee Urges International Protection for Burma Muslims,” Ikhwanweb.com, April 16, 2013.

[39] “Gamal Heshmat: Muslims of Myanmar Victims of Discrimination, Racism and Genocide,” fjponline.com,  March 28, 2013.

[40]  “Syrian Islamists Set Sight on Myanmar,” Now Lebanon, April 12, 2013.

[41] In 2008, David Cameron, who led the British parliament at the time, called the Cordoba Foundation a “political front for the Muslim Brotherhood.”

[42]  “Burma Bloodbath: Symposium on the Human Rights Abuses Inflicted on the Rohingya Muslims,” available at  www.youtube.com/watch?v=m57w86J5Oik.

[43]  Ibid.

[44] “Ethnic Cleansing of a Forgotten People – New Coalition Supports Burma’s Rohingya Muslims,” Rohingya Minority Crisis Group, September 7, 2012.

[45] Alyas Karmani, “Tears of Blood (Massacre of Muslims in Burma),” August 15, 2012, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo1g_Pa5TCY.

[46]  Ibid.

[47] “The Fascist Burmese Regime Presents Birth Control of Rohingya Muslim Women as its latest Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing of Rakhine’s Muslims,” Hizb al-Tahrir, May 10, 2013.

[48] There has been a similar uptick in Buddhist intolerance against Muslims in Sri Lanka, but at a much lower level.

[49] “Demonstration Outside the Sri Lankan and Burmese Embassies Tomorrow,” anjem-choudary.com, April 2013.

[50] “Burma: Where are the Muslims,” August 3, 2012, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAw4xFG5xS4.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] For instance, some of the most widely shared photographs on social media sites which purport to show dead Rohingya actually show Indonesian victims of the 2004 tsunami.

[54]  In June 2013, for example, a Maryland representative of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), while making many accurate points about Myanmar’s denial of equal rights to Rohingyas, himself described the killings of Muslims “as an ongoing genocide.” See Saqib Ali, “In Burma, Let’s Call it What It Is: Genocide,” Council on American Islamic Relations, June 5, 2013.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up