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Seeds of extremism in Myanmar

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Rohingya people are pictured at the Khaung Dokkha camp for internally displaced people in Sittwe, Myanmar's Rakhine State.   © Reuters

Sectarian tensions that have plagued predominantly Buddhist Myanmar in recent years may swell the ranks of Islamic jihadi groups and hinder the country's economic growth.

     In September, al-Qaida announced the establishment of a new South Asian branch, specifically identifying intended areas of operations as India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The announcement followed al-Qaida's public severing of ties with the Islamic State group in February, and may be an attempt by the group to re-establish leadership in the global jihadi community. 

     Al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri stated that the group would rescue Muslims in Myanmar from "injustice, oppression, persecution and suffering." The marginalization of the Rohingya, stateless Muslims in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, by the majority Buddhist population means the country is at particular risk of attracting extremist recruitment and activity.

     Since 2012, hundreds of Rohingya have been killed and injured in interreligious attacks that some critics have called "genocidal." More than 137,000 people, mostly Rohingya, remain in camps whose conditions have been described by a senior United Nations official as "appalling." Tens of thousands have fled the country, mostly to Malaysia and Thailand, where they are often treated as illegal immigrants rather than as refugees.

Pushed to the edge

The persecution shows no signs of slowing. Because Naypyitaw considers them to be immigrants from Bangladesh, Rohingya are denied Myanmar citizenship. According to news agency Reuters, the Rakhine State Action Plan will require Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengali or face confinement in special camps. Those who can prove their families have resided in Myanmar for more than 60 years can begin a lengthy process of applying for a diluted form of citizenship, but even so, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has stated that the restriction of the Rohingya people's movements severely compromises their basic rights to food, education and livelihood.

     Hard-line anti-Muslim Buddhist groups are only making the situation worse. Ashin Wirathu, the leader of the 969 Movement, recently announced that he is building a network with Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka to defend Buddhism against Islam. The presence of extremist groups like these ensures that any future attacks, perpetrated by either side, will be met with an "eye for an eye" response, and the resultant escalation of violence will be hard to contain.

     It should be noted that there is currently no evidence of active al-Qaida cells in Myanmar. Furthermore, the Burmese Muslim Association condemned al-Qaida's announcement, denouncing it as "morally repugnant." There may be no imminent danger of al-Qaida taking root in Myanmar, and many analysts believe that the Rohingya are not predisposed to join forces with al-Qaida.

     However, given their extreme marginalization, the Rohingya appear to be an ideal recruitment target for extremist Islamist groups. The International Crisis Group noted in a recent study of Rakhine State that continuing persecution could prompt civil disobedience or even organized violence. Some former factions of the Rohingya resistance movement -- which is largely nonexistent today -- were militant, radical and religion-based. According to some reports, these factions had limited interactions with al-Qaida and other jihadi groups, including the Taliban, until as late as the early 2000s. There is no indication that Rohingya individuals have joined the Islamic State group, although nationals from neighboring countries, including China and India, have joined the group to fight in Iraq and Syria.

     The Myanmar government's response to al-Qaida's announcement has been significant. Naypyitaw has stepped up patrols and monitoring around religious sites and increased checks at airports and border crossings. Also, the government announced on Oct. 17 that it would establish a central counterterrorism body ahead of the Nov. 13 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Naypyitaw. But if the government simply increases internal security without implementing measures to integrate Myanmar's Muslims, the potential for jihadi organizations to exploit the situation will remain and possibly increase.

Growth in danger

All of this bodes poorly for Myanmar's economic development, which depends upon the country's ability to lure foreign investment. Until now, security concerns have been more of an annoyance than a serious obstacle for foreign players. Some investors have met sporadic violent resistance, as has been the case for Chinese companies developing infrastructure projects linking Kunming in Southwest China to the Bay of Bengal. Rarely, though, has violence been problematic enough to block deals.

     The rise of jihadi activity could significantly slow the influx of cash. Companies from the West would be particularly reluctant to engage in Myanmar if jihadis were to target Western facilities and individuals. A series of challenges already plagues foreign companies that are contemplating an entry into Myanmar, including regulatory uncertainty, poor infrastructure, a low-skilled workforce, weak intellectual property rights and widespread corruption. If terrorist attacks were to become commonplace, then many foreign companies might forgo Myanmar entirely and move on to the next frontier market.

     For the time being, foreign investors in the country should at the very least try to monitor the emergence of al-Qaida affiliates and other jihadi groups in the country. Ideally, investors should implement community-based security programs to protect their investments. Such programs would provide a constant flow of on-the-ground information about potential threats. They would also win favor with local communities, which would protect investors from the more general dilemma of poor stakeholder engagement that has hampered foreign companies in Myanmar.

     In the long term, Naypyitaw needs to take serious measures to reduce sectarianism and the likelihood of jihadi activity. First, it needs to bring economic development to the Rohingya. Poverty is widespread throughout Rakhine State, particularly for the Rohingya and even more so for those living in displacement camps. International organizations are essential providers of relief and development services in the state. Naypyitaw should allow these organizations continued access in a way that does not favor one ethnic group over another.

     Second, and more politically difficult, Naypyitaw should recognize the Rohingya as a people, not as Bengali immigrants. Denying the Rohingya their identity will only ensure that their disaffection continues. Many of them, particularly those whose families have been in the country for generations, should also be granted full citizenship. Anything short of that would amplify their sense of exclusion and could potentially lead to their radicalization.

     Both accepting the term "Rohingya" and granting citizenship will require negotiations with the Rakhine people, who are the Buddhist majority in Rakhine State but an ethnic minority within Myanmar as a whole. Since the end of military rule in early 2011, the Rakhine have been seeking to redefine and reassert their identity after years of oppression under a regime dominated by Burmans, Myanmar's majority ethnic group. The Rakhine perceive the Rohingya as a threat to this goal, given the latter group's competing identity and growing population in the state.

     Third, Naypyitaw must attempt to weaken Buddhist extremist groups, such as the 969 Movement and the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. Naypyitaw should co-opt Buddhist clergymen from such groups and provide alternatives by supporting less-bellicose religious leaders. It should also punish sectarian ringleaders. Very few of the perpetrators of the violence against the Rohingya since 2012 have been brought to justice, which only serves to deepen Muslim distrust of authorities.

Political pressure

There is good reason for Naypyitaw to pursue these measures. There are already murmurs of dissatisfaction over how slowly Myanmar's political liberalization is yielding benefits. Given the democratic advances instituted by the new regime and the buoyed hopes for economic development, the government will face unprecedented public pressure if it is unable to spur economic growth. This is particularly true given the upcoming 2015 election, which many analysts predict will be a bellwether of Myanmar's future prospects.

     Additionally, many international sanctions still remain to discourage foreign investment. Addressing the human rights problems of the Rohingya would facilitate the removal of some of these and increase capital inflows. Besides the compelling humanitarian argument, therefore, there are convincing economic and political reasons for Naypyitaw to improve the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine State. As Myanmar continues its opening, the dangers of sectarian strife and extremist attacks threaten to destabilize the country's reintegration into the community of nations.

Nicholas Borroz is an independent analyst of energy geopolitics and investment strategies, specializing in energy-related infrastructure. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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