Myanmar – A New Battleground for the Islamic State?
By Jeff Bates
With the disruption that the Rohingya crisis has created, the Islamic State (IS) has taken advantage over the degraded situation and has been exploiting the crisis. In July of 2016, IS carried out an attack in the capital of Myanmar, Dhaka, in which twenty civilians, mostly foreigners, were killed (Bashar, 2017). Although counter-terrorism (CT) operations continue in Myanmar, IS and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) seem to be attracting more recruits. This is evident by the increasing amount of young men that go missing, which is likely a result of them joining extremist groups. With an increase in the ranks of extremist groups, attacks by IS, AQIS, and other extremist groups are imminent. AQIS itself has already carried out dozens of targeted killings in Myanmar. Additionally, according to a high value target (HVT) that was arrested, IS has sent at least two individuals to India to gain additional experience and knowledge of how to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Citizens of Bangladesh and Malaysia are also reportedly being recruited by terrorist cells to fight for the Rohingyas, fellow Muslims who are being cruelly treated. This is not a new phenomenon however, as jihadis have taken interest in the predicament of the Rohingyas in the past (particularly back in 2012 and 2015). The timing of the latest ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar army makes this crisis of particular importance. IS has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria and, as a consequence, has sought to expand territories internationally. This includes parts of South Asia. IS has already stated that it plans on using neighboring Bangladesh as a staging point for attacks against Myanmar (Bashar, 2017). This is a stark warning as Bangladesh is a struggling country with weak CT capabilities. With the Rohingya crisis ongoing, IS and AQIS will gain more recruits and expertise throughout the crisis and gain territory. As individuals are indoctrinated into Islamic extremism and jihadi ideology, they will gain the potential to stage attacks against Western assets.
According to Habulan et al., on September 12, 2018, Al-Qaeda released a statement calling for Muslims to attack and punish the Myanmar government for its persecution of the Rohingyas (2018). Specifically, the statement called on Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, and Philippine Muslims to fight against the Myanmar government as part of a religious duty and to support the Rohingyas financially and physically. Since Bangladesh (formerly known as East Pakistan due to the Muslim majority) is physically right next to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, threats to Myanmar’s government are increasing as Bangladesh provides a suitable operational point for insurgents and terrorists to attack Myanmar. Along with IS and AQIS, the militant groups Jama‘atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat ul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) are extremist groups in Bangladesh that threaten peace and stability in the region as they also view the protecting of fellow Muslims as part of a religious duty.
IS and its affiliates have lost much territory in Iraq and Syria recently, and they are actively seeking to expand their base of operations and capabilities to wage global jihad. With the atrocities that the Myanmar army has carried out and the nonexistence of condemnation by Kyi’s government, the crisis has opened doors for IS to expand its territory in South Asia. As more genocide occurs, it is likely that IS will conduct attacks against the government of Myanmar and its citizens to protect the minority Rohingya Muslim population. IS may already have safe havens in Myanmar or will station jihadis there to fight. As these situations occur, IS will gain valuable battlefield experience and may be able to rise as a more potent foe to foreign countries. This outcome is likely, as many Muslims view the plight of the Rohingyas sympathetically and will view the fight to protect them as a just cause. As IS expands in the region and receives additional funding, its ability to eventually strike US assets and other countries will increase. If the crisis cools down and the government of Kyi recognizes the Rohingya as an actual ethnic group and part of Myanmar, IS is likely to still grab territory in Bangladesh and Myanmar in the immediate future while the plight of the Rohingyas is recognized across the globe.
A good scenario would be for the Rohingya to return to Rakhine state together and to receive civil rights and political reform. However, this is unlikely as under Myanmar law, the people who will be in charge of protecting Rohingyas once they return is the Myanmar army, the main perpetrator of the ethnic cleansing. Since this is not a safe situation, the Rohingya will likely not return to their homeland unless dignity, safety, and freedom is restored to all Rohingyas.
In 1948, Burma changed its name to Myanmar, and is a country with more than 130 different ethnic groups. In 2015, after years of military domination in the Myanmar government, the National League for Democracy (NLD), an opposition party, won the elections, placing Aung San Suu Kyi as Myanmar’s de facto head of state although the army still has a critical influence over the country. Kyi is a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner for seeking a democratic Myanmar and has distinguished herself as a human rights advocate. After Kyi gained power, many analysts believed that Myanmar was on the path to democracy, supported by Western countries (Barany, 2018). However, she has been leading an autocratic rule and hasn’t been including Western countries. Kyi has had to walk a fine line between supporting the popular Myanmar military and her visionary democratic rule.
Another aspect of the historical background of Myanmar revolves around the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas are ethnic Muslims and the rest of the country are predominately Buddhists. The Rohingyas live in the far west of the country in Rakhine state and are hated by many of Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population who live to the north, south, and east of the Rakhine state. For many years, the Rohingya ethnic minority in the west part of the country have been labeled as foreigners and have been castaways of Myanmar society.
The Rohingyas have been the subject of intense persecution. Within the last five years, the Rohingya have formed a violent militia dubbed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). ARSA leadership hails from Pakistan and Bangladesh and many members are veterans of the wars in Afghanistan. ARSA launched an attack in response to persecution, attacking a Myanmar police station and military camp in August of 2017 resulting in 77 ARSA and 12 Myanmar police officer deaths. In response to this attack and with support of many citizens, the Myanmar army (Tatmadaw) burned down villages, murdered dozens of men, women, and children, and mass raped other Rohingyas. The UN declared that this situation is a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing (Malley, 2018). ARSA actions have brought nothing of substance for citizenship or political reform for the Rohingyas. Approximately 655,000 Rohingyas have fled the recent violence into neighboring Bangladesh. In response to the ethnic cleansing, and with pressure from Western nations, the UN is seeking to punish Kyi’s government for its human rights abuses by pushing for sanctions.
Although the Rohingya have long since peopled Myanmar, the government under Kyi has refused to even use the name “Rohingya” and does not accept Rohingyas in their society. There are an estimated 2.5 million Rohingya internationally and they are the biggest stateless population in the world, many living as refugees. Because the Rohingyas have been persecuted and maltreated for a very long time, only half a million Rohingya now live in Myanmar.
In stark contrast of Kyi’s peace-making ideation, she was denounced for her inaction in the crisis and also for giving political cover to the Myanmar army. Condemnation against the genocide from the US and other Western governments has had little impact on the Myanmar’s government position and in fact has given the Myanmar army more domestic support as witnessed by the many pro-military rallies throughout the country.
- Barany, Z. (2018). Where Myanmar went wrong. US: Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=128950341&site=hrc-live
- Bashar, I. (2017). Exploitation of the Rohingya Crisis by Jihadist Groups: Implications for Bangladesh’s Internal Security. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 9(9), 5-7. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26351550
- Habulan, A., Taufiqurrohman, M., Jani, M., Bashar, I., Zhi’An, F., & Yasin, N. (2018). Southeast Asia: Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Online Extremism. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 10(1), 7-30. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26349853
- Leider, J. P. (2018). History and victimhood: Engaging with rohingya issues. Insight Turkey, 20(1), 99-118. doi:10.25253/99.2018201.07
- Malley, R. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/10-conflicts-watch-2018
- Razvi, M. (1978). The Problem of the Burmese Muslims. Pakistan Horizon, 31(4), 82-93. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41394695
- Shams, S. (2017). Rohingya people in Myanmar: What you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/rohingya-people-in-myanmar-what-you-need-to-know/a-40340067