DHAKA/SINGAPORE/NEW DELHI/WASHINGTON/YANGON – Violence in Myanmar that has pushed nearly 400,000 Muslim refugees into neighboring Bangladesh is threatening to deepen sectarian tensions across the region.
The exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine state has sparked concerns that politicians in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and India could seek to capitalize on public anger over the treatment of a group that is considered stateless in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. There have been vocal rallies in some of those nations in recent days in support of the Rohingya.
The militant group al-Qaida has also urged Muslims, especially those in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, to support Rohingya in Myanmar financially, militarily and physically, warning that Myanmar will face “punishment” for its “crimes.”
“The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers . . . shall not pass without punishment,” al-Qaida said in a statement reported by the SITE monitoring group on Wednesday. “The government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted.”
“The regional security implications of the Rakhine state crisis stem primarily from the risks of sectarian conflict as Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, accounting for almost half the region’s population, grow increasingly angry over the treatment of Muslim Rohingya by Buddhist Rakhine,” said Michael Vatikiotis, the Asia regional director for the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based foundation.
“This sentiment is easily exploited by local political actors in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the rise of identity politics has increased the risk of religious conflict,” said Vatikiotis, author of “Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia.” “With over 370,000 recent arrivals in Bangladesh, where access to aid and shelter is challenging, many Rohingya may start to leave on boats and arrive on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.”
The number of refugees was up 10,000 in just 24 hours Friday.
The Rohingya could potentially become a domestic issue for Indonesia, “as it could trigger a strong reaction from the people,” said Hajriyanto Thohari, deputy chairman of the country’s second-largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah.
In India, Junior Home Minister Kiren Rijiju had previously said the government wanted to deport an estimated 40,000 Rohingya living in India. On Wednesday he tweeted that the Rohingya issue “undermines India’s security.”
The Foreign Ministry said Thursday it is sending aid to the Bangladesh port city of Chittagong.
“India’s airlift of humanitarian assistance to Chittagong today shows India’s increasing willingness and capacity to act as a first responder to emergencies in the region,” said Constantino Xavier, a fellow with Carnegie India. It also indicates “its preoccupation in stemming the refugee flow in Bangladesh, reducing their incentives to cross the border into India.
The Indian government told the Supreme Court on Thursday that Rohingya refugees are “a threat to national security.” India’s top court is hearing a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s decision to deport Rohingya Muslims, filed by two Rohingya living in Delhi who fled their village in Rakhine state about six years ago.
Close to 40,000 Rohingya Muslims live in India after fleeing Myanmar over the past decade. Nearly 15,000 have received refugee documentation, according to the United Nations, but India wants to deport them all.
Intelligence agencies suspect that Rohingya Muslim leaders in India are in touch with Pakistan-based militant groups, a senior lawyer representing India’s government said Thursday.
The campaign by Myanmar’s security forces was triggered by an Aug. 25 attack by a Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which killed a dozen security personnel.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has since allotted thousands of hectares for new camps to accommodate the nearly 400,000 Rohingya refugees now residing near the southern border with Myanmar.
Still, “the longer the refugees stay, the less welcoming Bangladesh will be,” Sasha Riser-Kositsky, an Asia analyst at Eurasia Group, said by phone from New York.
On Wednesday, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi canceled next week’s scheduled appearance before the United Nations General Assembly.
A top U.S. lawmaker said Thursday that Suu Kyi had assured him she is working to get aid to Rohingya. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime friend and ally of Suu Kyi, said that during a telephone call she “agreed with the need for immediate and improved access of humanitarian assistance to the region, particularly by the International Red Cross, and she conveyed that she is working toward that end.”
McConnell warned against “unfounded criticism” of Suu Kyi, noting that she has no command over the powerful military, which ran the country for 50 years.
“In my view, publicly condemning Aung San Suu Kyi — the best hope for democratic reform in Burma — is not constructive” and could slow the progress toward a representative government, McConnell said.
Last week senators including John McCain introduced a resolution condemning the violence and calling on Suu Kyi to act. McCain has sought to remove language from a defense spending bill detailing expanded military cooperation with Myanmar.
Myanmar Army troops said more than 400 Rohingya militants had been killed over the past few weeks, while Bangladesh police Inspector Mainuddin Khan said at least 100 people had been found dead in the Naf River that separates Bangladesh and Myanmar. Human rights groups have said most of those killed were civilians.
A report from Amnesty International has found evidence of a “mass-scale scorched-earth campaign” by Myanmar’s security forces and vigilante mobs. The group also said soldiers have planted land mines along the northern part of the Bangladesh border on two busy paths used by Rohingya.
Amnesty released fresh satellite images Friday of burned villages in Rakhine state, alleging Myanmar’s security forces have led “systematic” clearances of Rohingya settlements over the last three weeks.
At least 26 villages had been hit by arson attacks in the Rohingya-majority region, the rights group said.
The group quoted Rohingya witnesses who described security officers and vigilantes using gasoline or shoulder-fired rocket launchers to set homes alight before firing on villagers as they fled.
“It’s very difficult to conclude that it is anything other than a deliberate effort by the Myanmar military to drive Rohingya out of their own country by any means necessary,” said Olof Blomqvist, a researcher with Amnesty.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday said, “We need to support Aung San Suu Kyi and her leadership but also be very clear and unequivocal to the military power sharing in that government that this is unacceptable.”
Reports of the land mines prompted the Foreign Ministry in Dhaka to send a protest note to Myanmar.
Speaking by telephone, Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque confirmed the existence of the note but would not disclose its content.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters Wednesday the situation was “catastrophic.”
The treatment of Rohingya in Myanmar has repeatedly generated accusations of mass murder in recent years.
Many of the country’s 53 million people view the 800,000 Rohingya, who are denied citizenship, as illegal migrants from what is now Bangladesh. Rakhine Muslims constitute the single biggest stateless community in the world.
The international condemnation of Myanmar could yet threaten the flow of international investment into the fast-growing Southeast Asian nation, which saw the U.S. and Europe begin to ease sanctions after the military junta released Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010.
Foreign investment plunged 30 percent last fiscal year after overseas investors pumped a record $9.5 billion into the economy in the preceding 12 months. The investment shortfall has coincided with concern over the direction of the government’s economic agenda.
“A key concern is that Myanmar becomes synonymous with sanctions and human rights violations,” said Erin Murphy, founder of Inle Advisory Group and former special assistant to the U.S. government Office of the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Myanmar.