Myanmar’s religious violence a threat to Southeast Asia’s security

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Author: Eliane Coates, RSIS

Renewed violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar appears to be spreading regionally, with tensions threatening to spill over to Malaysia and Indonesia. In particular, there are concerns that the violence among Myanmar nationals in Malaysia may radicalise Muslims outside Myanmar, which could lead to a vicious cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals. Such radicalisation, as noted by ASEAN’s former Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, ‘would have wider strategic and security implications for the region’.

Approximately 200 people, mostly Muslims, have died in the expanding sectarian fighting between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar since June 2012. While the violence was still centred in Rakhine State in 2012, it has now spread throughout the country. In May, the violence flared again in northeast Myanmar after a riot between Muslims and Buddhists in the township of Lashio in Shan State, where ‘Buddhist mobs’ set fire to Muslim homes and engaged in indiscriminate killings. These attacks have been associated with the ‘969 campaign’, which promotes the boycotting of Muslim businesses and the segregation of Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar.

The rising religious tensions in Myanmar are threatening to spill over to neighbouring countries. Renewed violence in Myanmar has provoked tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in both Malaysia and Indonesia, and the recent retaliatory attacks by Myanmar Muslims against Myanmar Buddhists in Kuala Lumpur has put at risk inter-religious relations across the region. According to the UNHCR, there are approximately 83,000 refugees in Malaysia from Myanmar — 28,000 of whom are registered as Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group from Rakhine State in southwest Myanmar.

In response, Myanmar has asked the Malaysian government to do its utmost to protect Myanmar citizens and take action against those responsible for the attacks. Naypyidaw has also sent a delegation of senior ministers to Kuala Lumpur to observe the situation and lodge protests should their citizens be inadequately protected. In the meantime, however, the trend of Myanmar Muslims seeking vengeance for the persecution of their brethren in Myanmar shows no signs of abating.

While Myanmar’s religious tensions have gradually spilled over into Malaysia, the rallying cry has been most vocal in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation. The Indonesian government has demonstrated continuous support for Muslim minorities in Myanmar — having pledged US$1 million to aid Muslims in Myanmar. Some of the sympathy and assistance has also come from Muslim hardliners in Indonesia, such as imprisoned radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who wrote a letter to President Thein Sein threatening violent jihad against Myanmar over the persecution of the Rohingya.

But threats of violence from Indonesia only form part of the bigger picture. In April, eight people were killed after a dispute between Muslim and Buddhist refugees from Myanmar at a detention camp in Medan, Sumatra. Several failed attempts at violence against Buddhists have also occurred in Indonesia. In May 2013, police frustrated an attempt by Indonesian Muslim militants to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. On the following day protests were held outside the same embassy with approximately 1,000 Indonesian Muslims denouncing the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and supporting Bashir’s call for jihad. Similar protests were also held in Medan as well as in Solo, Central Java.

While some support for the Muslims of Myanmar is genuine, there are concerns that radical Muslims outside Myanmar could exploit the situation to support their narratives of Muslim persecution to recruit followers. This could in turn feed into the narratives of Myanmar’s violent Buddhists, who believe that foreign radicals are supporting certain Muslim ethnic groups, including the Rohingya. Unless regional governments firmly address this situation, the radicalisation of Muslims for the ‘Myanmar cause’ could spread throughout Southeast Asia.

Despite Myanmar’s ongoing efforts toward democratisation, the recent violence only reaffirms there is still a long way to go, and that the success of peace in Myanmar has implications for regional security and stability. Certain measures must be taken to bring about durable solutions to the crisis.

Firstly, Naypyidaw must make concerted efforts to arrest and prosecute those accountable for the ongoing violence inside Myanmar, especially the complicit local authorities, such as those present during the violent outbreaks in Lashio and Meikhtila. Secondly, ASEAN should put more pressure on Naypyidaw by stressing the risk of a regional spill-over. While intervention by ASEAN member states in Myanmar’s domestic affairs is unlikely, ASEAN could play a constructive role by facilitating dialogues, such as those seen in Mindanao and Aceh. ASEAN’s Muslim nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, could also collectively pressure Myanmar to end the violence. Indonesia could lead the way in this regard, having successfully defused its own inter-religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Ambon and Poso a decade ago.

Eliane Coates is Research Analyst at the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article was first published here as RSIS Commentary No. 117/2013.
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