Myanmar: Why the Islamic State Failed Here

19 Nov, 2014    ·   4748

Aparupa Bhattacherjee explains the reasons behind the relative failure of the Islamic State towards gaining a foothold in Myanmar

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer
The Islamic State (IS) unilaterally declared an ‘Islamic Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria in June 2014. This has resulted in the increase in the numbers of radicalised Muslims from all over the world travelling to the region to support the IS, and Southeast Asia is no exception. 

According to reports, there are roughly 30 Malaysians, 60 Indonesians, 50 Filipinos, one Cambodian and a few Singaporeans have already joined the IS. However, there are barely any reports that cite Muslims from Myanmar having joined terrorist group. Why is that the case? Why are there low or negligible numbers of radical Islamist jihadists joining the IS from Myanmar? What are the general sentiments the Myanmarese Muslims foster towards the IS?

The Anti-Muslim Sentiment Factor
The growth of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar to some extent thrives on the misinformed notion that most Muslims encourage terrorism. The presence of militant and secessionist groups such as Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) and a newly formed fundamental group called the Arakan Mujahedeen (AM) have resulted in the development of such a perception. Muslims in Myanmar are aware of this notion and that radical Buddhists misuse the sentiment.

Thus, Myanmarese Muslims know and feel that any news of anyone from their community’s involvement in any kind of terrorist activity would worsen the already bad situation for them; especially given their small number (approximately four per cent) in comparison to the majority Buddhists (approximately 89 per cent).

Although there are grievances among Muslims over the use of violence against their community in various riots that have taken place since 2012, most of them feel that violence is not a good medium of response. 

This became clear when the London based Myanmarese Muslim association became the first to announce their denial to support any al Qaeda dream to “raise the flag of Jihad” across South Asia, and stated that Myanmarese Muslims will never accept any assistance from a terrorist organisation. 

Lack of Vanguards?
In Southeast Asian countries, most jihadist recruiters are home-grown terrorist organisations. In Myanmar, both the RSO and the ARNO are too weak to play this role.  The AM, although armed, so far claims to want to achieve political emancipation of the Rohingya Muslims via political means as opposed to resorting to violence.  The RSO, which shifted its base to Bangladesh after the 1977 Nagamin operation in Myanmar, has thrived due to support from the Islami Chhatra Shibir, a wing of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and also from Jemaah Islamiya (JI).  Heavy crackdowns by the incumbent Awami League government in Dhaka, both on the JeI and the RSO, and the disintegration of the JI into several smaller and weaker groups are among the reasons for present state of the RSO.

Significant numbers of Myanmarese Muslims are naturalised citizens of the country; and even for those who are full citizens, restrictions are placed on travel simply because they belong to a minority religion. Thus, travelling to Iraq and Syria is only possible via Bangladesh, and that too, only illegally. This is no other viable option given Dhaka’s strict vigilance measures. Furthermore, the lack of support from recruiters too deters most radicalised Myanmarese Muslims from traveling to unknown lands to wage jihad.

Lower Levels of Ideological Indoctrination?
Both the RSO and the ARNO were formed with an aim to create a separate state for Rohingya Muslims as opposed to waging jihad. Economic and political segregation were the bases of the formation of these groups. They were introduced to the concept of ‘global jihad’ only after their link up with al Qaeda and the JI.

However, both organisations were not influential enough, and not based in Myanmar, resulted in their failure to instil their extremist ideology among the locals. Thus, unlike other terrorist organisations in Southeast Asia, the RSO and the ARNO did not manage to anchor the extremist ideology in their home ground. 

The large numbers of Southeast Asian Muslims who travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamic education in 1990s were the ones who brought the seeds of radical Islam to the region.  Myanmar was an exception in this case. Factors such as globalisation, urbanisation, and westernisation that, in the 1990s, led other Southeast Asian Muslims to travel abroad to study religion, did not influence the Myanmarese.  This was because Myanmar, during that period, was under the military Junta rule, and as a result, was cut off from the rest of the world. 

Many madrassas in Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand also function as media for the dissemination of jihadist ideology. In Myanmar, the presence of such madrassas preaching radicalised interpretations of Islam are only restricted to the northern areas of the Arakan province; and here too, the numbers are trivial. Thus, it appears that Myanmar so far lacks the necessary apparatus key to create a conducive environment for the growth and grip of radical Islam – which also explains the limited influence, the IS’s propaganda for ‘global jihad’ has had on Myanmarese Muslims.