Kim Jolliffe continues looking at impacts of the Rakhine State crisis on Myanmar’s international relations. Part I of this series can be found here.
As I introduced in Part I, much of Myanmar’s population has shown unwavering support for Aung San Suu Kyi and her government’s handling of the Rakhine State crisis. This has given rise to a popular narrative that criticism from the international community is unfounded and unfair, and that Myanmar just needs to focus on building unity and moving forward its agenda of political and economic reform.
In these two posts, I argue that – whoever we blame for events in Rakhine State – in today’s globalised world, Myanmar cannot simply dismiss international responses and focus on its own vision. Actions have reactions, and any good government needs to manage international relations in a way that suits its people’s long-term interests. In other words, Myanmar’s peace and development will require efforts to maintain good relations with other countries.
Part I discussed the challenges that recent events have presented for Myanmar’s ability to navigate relations with the world’s leading powers. In this post, I discuss: 1) the potential implications of declining relations between Myanmar and majority Muslim countries; and 2) the increased threat of transnational Islamist terrorism.
Relations with majority Muslim countries
Recent events in Rakhine State have garnered notable criticism from majority Muslim countries around the world, many of which have condemned the Myanmar government for its alleged abuses of the Rohingya and other Muslims. Though most people in Myanmar likely consider these relations of little interest anyway, the possible implications are numerous, including even further pressure in diplomatic forums, decreased economic cooperation (including with some of the world’s fastest growing economies), and the potential for increased political interference and financing of militant movements in Myanmar. If Myanmar is to realise a peaceful and prosperous future, the last thing it needs is more enemies.
In September 2017, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian and staunchly nationalist leader, told members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that “Muslim countries in particular, should fight together by using every means available to stop that cruelty [emphasis added by author].” Such confrontational language from the leader of an ascendant NATO power, which has increasingly used military force in its own region, should not be taken lightly in Myanmar. Erdoğan has been looking to establish Turkey and his regime as a leading strategic player globally, and confrontation with Myanmar is a useful way for him to do this.
In early September the Iranian Foreign Minister announced that “crimes, brutality and genocide and massacre…. must be stopped swiftly with the pressure of Muslim and freedom-seeking countries”, and denounced “the complacent silence of the West and the so-called human rights organizations.” Shortly after, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called Aung San Suu Kyi a “cruel woman” and called on “[Islamic governments] to increase their political, economic, and trade pressure on Myanmar’s government and cry out against these crimes in international organisations”.
Other major powers in the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, have also issued strong condemnations, but have been much more conservative, often due to business and strategic interests. Saudi Arabia is a major provider of oil to China via Myanmar’s Rakhine-Yunnan pipeline, while Pakistani defence companies are developing increasingly profitable relations with the Myanmar military. The state of Qatar has numerous business interests in Myanmar, including telecoms and air transportation.
Pressure from those countries’ populations for their governments to take greater action is growing, however, and could lead to incremental changes in stance. In any case, if the only reason these countries continue to go soft on Myanmar, and to limit collective action from the OIC, is in return for natural resource and military deals, Myanmar could become vulnerable to exploitation and find it harder to set preferable terms in future investment and trade talks.
Tensions at the government-to-government level are being made worse by increasing public expressions of hatred between the Myanmar public and Muslims abroad. This has been visible at regular public rallies as well as in mainstream and social media. Cartoons have been circulated widely by both sides depicting religious icons as barbaric monsters, or showing soldiers to be conniving tricksters manipulating international opinion for money or other ends. Large demonstrations led by popular Islamic leaders have been frequent in recent months, with the movement seemingly transcending sectarian and other political fault lines in a way previously only seen in the case of Israel-Palestine.
Some Myanmar Buddhist leaders are claiming recent events as proof of the widely held belief that Muslim majority countries pose an inherent threat to the nation and to Buddhism itself. Narratives that incorrectly label all so-called “Muslim countries” as enemies completely ignore centuries of strong trade and diplomatic relations, and the fact that Myanmar will depend on global cooperation with a wide range of partners to achieve economic and political success.
Declining relations will serve to heighten the anti-Myanmar government rhetoric at the UN and add to calls for sanctions and punitive action. With new vociferous voices entering the fray, the kinds of measures being proposed could become more stringent and less sensitive to the fragile political dynamics of the country. Events could also lead some of these countries to interfere in Myanmar’s internal politics, or at least to turn a blind eye to actors within their countries that are doing so. Importantly, tense relations will make these countries far less willing to crackdown on support going to ARSA from within their borders. Indeed, elements within the security agencies of some of these countries could even offer support to Rohingya militants directly, as they have done with militants elsewhere.
Myanmar can expect a particularly significant period of tension with both Bangladesh and Malaysia. Both countries contain large self-identifying Rohingya populations following years of steady immigration, and have recently hosted large public rallies against the Myanmar government. Relations with Bangladesh had been slowly improving, providing opportunities for economic and security cooperation (including against Arakanese insurgents in Myanmar), despite a history of border disputes and animosity. Malaysia – a powerful influencer within the ASEAN bloc – had previously held amicable relations with Myanmar, but could now present new hurdles in regional cooperation. Tense engagements, particularly around refugee issues, will continue, while these countries could become increasingly unsafe for Buddhist Myanmar citizens.
To conclude, many of the challenges and potential threats discussed in this section might be viewed by Myanmar readers as simply unfair inflictions on their country by foreign actors who seek to harm them. But it is crucial that Myanmar leaders and society avoid settling into a hyper-defensive siege mentality and reacting recklessly and aggressively to external taunts and critics. All countries face bilateral confrontations and experience tensions with countries that have different ideologies. Compromise and diplomacy, even on issues seen as purely internal affairs, will be critical to maintaining beneficial relations, as the country progresses.
Transnational Islamist Terrorism
One must be extremely cautious not to exaggerate the threat to Myanmar from large and well-funded transnational Islamist terrorists, as there are no signs of significant activity at present. Nonetheless, recent events have laid the foundation for increased risk, both in the immediate and long term. In a worst-case scenario, the incursion of transnational Islamist terrorists could escalate the conflict, making northern Rakhine State the site of multilateral sectarian insurgencies and communal violence, while putting major cities such as Yangon and Naypyitaw at constant threat of attacks on civilians.
As yet, there are no overt signs of direct support from transnational terrorist organisations to ARSA. Indeed, ARSA’s communications wing has explicitly called for nearby countries to block foreign fighters from entering the region “and making a bad situation worse”. Almost certainly, the organisation has backers and associates in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (where commanders were possibly trained), and some funding has been reported as coming through Malaysia and Bangladesh among other countries. However, this support seems far from extensive (evidenced by how poorly armed and financed the group is in the field), and is not all that different from the support given to other armed movements in Myanmar by their diaspora, ethnically linked societies, or associates in neighbouring countries.
Over the years, foreign jihadist organisations in the Middle East or Pakistan have repeatedly threatened Myanmar, but have yet to mobilise any kind of violent response. In practice, the country has been of marginal interest at best, and a logistical nightmare given the lack of well-organised militants on-the-ground, or viable access routes. In September, al Qaeda made a typically empty-seeming statement, saying that the events in Rakhine State “shall not pass without punishment.”
Despite those caveats, two changing conditions are heightening the threats to Myanmar considerably. Firstly, Rakhine State has become increasingly visible internationally and has gained growing interest from Muslims abroad. This generates incentives for jihadist organisations to be seen to be taking action there, and improves their ability to gain funding to do so. Actions taken against Myanmar could provide useful material for their online campaigns, through which they gain recruits and financing from around the world. As noted previously, elements of the security forces in certain Muslim majority countries could also start supporting such actions, if tensions continue to rise. The government should realise that the more the Rakhine conflict escalates and is thus globalised, the higher the risk will ultimately be for Myanmar.
Secondly, the situation is creating a veritable breeding ground for new recruits to the global jihadist movement. As has been seen in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, jihadist organisations thrive in settings where Sunni Muslims face violence from militaries or other communities. In the mid-2000s, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (the direct predecessor of today’s “Islamic State” organisation), rose rapidly in power by attacking Shiite communities, thus fomenting sectarian conflict and provoking heavy handed responses from the Shiite-led government and associated militias. The resulting chaos in such settings thus generates widespread grievance, trauma, fear and a culture of militancy that makes the Sunni communities susceptible for radicalisation for other ends.
Since 2012, people who define themselves as Rohingya in Rakhine State have lost the right to vote, have been largely blocked from attending university and have been given clear signals that they are not considered welcome in the Union of Myanmar. Internally displaced communities have been kept in makeshift camps in the dry plains, without land, work or opportunities to put their children through school. At the same time, Saudi funding for madrassas has risen considerably, encouraging a growth of Wahhabi practice and becoming one of very few avenues available for social protection or identity.[i]
In these communities, the average young male has little memory of any other reality in Myanmar. While his elders may have voted for publicly identifying Rohingya election candidates of the NLD in 1990, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2010, he has had no such privilege and cannot expect to in 2020. Although the vast majority of such people will continue to avoid violent approaches at all costs, this level of alienation makes a tiny minority increasingly susceptible to exploitation. Indeed, a transnational Islamist organisation could offer such a man protection, salary, spiritual salvation, and most concerningly, the opportunity for revenge.
As of early October, there are over 800,000 refugees from Rakhine State in Bangladesh, in large sprawling camps within miles of the Myanmar border. If this situation becomes protracted, there are numerous armed and non-armed Islamist groups operating in Bangladesh that will gain access to the settlements, including some with strong links to the Islamic State and other major jihadist groups. Refugee camps in Kenya and elsewhere have been exploited in this way by terrorist organisations. In protracted situations like Palestine, camps across borders have unavoidably become a central part of the political economy of conflict, both symbolically and logistically.
While a transnational terrorist group’s most immediate interest in the refugees could be in recruiting fighters for operations abroad, over time, Myanmar-focused movements or individuals would likely emerge and could escalate the situation in Rakhine State significantly. Along with the presence of numerous Arakanese armed organisations and paramilitary actors already in that theatre, there would then be potential for a much more intractable, multilateral conflict to develop, and to perpetuate the cycle of chaos and instability further. Attacks in major cities, including on Buddhist sites, would become increasingly likely, and in turn, could set off a spiral of violence (and international interference) yet unknown.
Western and other militaries in the Middle East have repeatedly learned the hard way that purely military responses to such environments only fuel them further. Without a more sophisticated approach to counter-terrorism, the Myanmar Tatmadaw could make many of the same mistakes and transform a small band of poorly resourced militants into the kind of “Islamist” threat that currently only exists in its worst nightmares.
Most importantly, it is crucial that the repatriation efforts being spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi provide returnees and future generations with a firm stake in the country’s future so that they can take pride in the Union of Myanmar and be accepted by other communities. Further alienation will only serve to perpetuate conflict and suffering all round.
 I have visited madrassas in Sittwe and talked to imams and other teachers. I have also discussed this dynamic with other members of the Muslim and Rakhine communities in Rakhine State. It is important to understand that conservative Islam appears to have been largely mobilised as a means to dissuade people from violence, by encouraging them to focus on their practice and putting faith in God. Nonetheless, Wahhabi practice may lead adherents towards political equivalents such as Salafism, and further entrench people’s disillusion with, and separation from, the nation of Myanmar.
Kim Jolliffe is an independent researcher, writer, and general resource person, specialising in security, development and humanitarian affairs in Myanmar. Find his work at www.research.kim.