Earlier this week a coalition of organisations from around the world came together to warn that the horrendous communal conflict blighting Burma’s Arakan State is rapidly evolving into a fresh wave of government-led violence against the heavily persecuted Rohingya population.
Whilst no one denies that members of both the (generally Buddhist) Rakhine community and the (generally Muslim) Rohingya community have been involved in sectarian killings over previous weeks, it is becoming ever more apparent that the government is using the chaos as an excuse to launch its own military assault against the Rohingya people, who have long been denied citizenship and subjected to some of the worst abuses anywhere in the country.
The present humanitarian crisis, which has left tens of thousands displaced, is being compounded by the Bangladeshi government’s appalling refusal to accommodate Rohingya refugees in clear violation of its international commitments. Meanwhile the political fall out continues to pose what many commentators regard to be the most serious risk to Burma’s reform process so far.
Within this there is a particular danger, should the violence continue, of which all sides should be acutely aware: namely the situation being exploited by foreign-based Islamist extremists as part of their own agenda.
Despite the severity of the persecution that the Rohingya population has faced throughout the decades, armed resistance has been distinctly limited and external involvement utterly minimal. Yet even a quick scour of the internet shows how various groups are currently trying to turn the present crisis into a quick recruitment drive.
One extremist site carries ‘A call to every young Muslim to save the Muslims of Arakan’ , another ‘Jihadi’ youtube account hosts a video entitled ‘O Muslim of Bangladesh, Arakan is calling you’. Meanwhile the Indian fundamentalist group Darsgah-e-Jihad-O-Shahadat (roughly translated as ‘Centre for Holy War and Martyrdom’) and the Bangladeshi Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami have both taken to the streets in protest against the Burmese government. Anecdotal reports suggest that extremist organisations in the UK are making similar attempts to gain support off the back of the unfolding conflict.
This involvement will bring nothing but further hardship for the entire population of Arakan State: it tarnishes perceptions of the predominantly peaceful Rohingya population, playing into the hands of those who seek to demonise them as Islamists and terrorists; it presents an unacceptable sense of threat to the predominantly peaceful Rakhine population, many of whom already fear for their safety; and it injects a violent and volatile element into Burmese politics at a pivotal point in the country’s incremental shift away from dictatorship.
Above all it reduces Arakan’s complex historical social, ethnic, religious and political issues into a crude propaganda tool. Restraint and dialogue will not come quickly or easily but they are the only solution to the current crisis; further violence will only empower the extremists – and that is the worst possible scenario for everyone.