Democracy Lab

Local Bloodshed, Global Headache

Sectarian conflict in Burma is once again spurring talk of a “global war against Islam.”

Let's face it: Not too many people outside of Southeast Asia have been paying attention to the sectarian conflict in Burma. For much of the world, Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a remote and somewhat mysterious country, and it's been prey to internecine squabbles for about as long as anyone can remember. (As a matter of fact, its people have been at war with themselves for even longer than the Afghans.)

So it's possible to understand, if not to excuse, the world's relative ignorance of the bitter feud in Arakan state, where the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine have been at each other's throats since a Buddhist woman was raped and killed there on May 28. The Rakhine blamed it on the Rohingya, triggering violence that subsequently prompted the government to declare martial law. Dozens of people have been killed, and some 90,000 have been transformed into refugees.

Outsiders didn't prompt this violence by meddling in Burma's internal affairs. As a matter of fact, lately other countries have been rewarding the government there for its efforts to allow a bit more democracy. The United States, for example, recently suspended financial sanctions it imposed on Burma's brutal military dictatorship years ago. By contrast, Western countries have had notably little to say on the bloodshed in Arakan.

They may not be able to afford the luxury of ignorance much longer. That's because the violence in Burma is already showing up on the radar screen of the world's Muslims. Indignant believers from Turkey to Indonesia have been taking to social media to denounce the treatment of the Rohingya. (The Pakistanis have been particularly zealous.) The reactions have ranged from mournful and relatively sober analysis to downright hysteria. (One astute Pakistani journalist, for example, has spotted photos from entirely different parts of the world being passed off as examples of "ethnic cleansing" in Burma.)

There is a big grain of truth to many of these stories, though. The Rohingyas have long suffered from their status as one of the most downtrodden groups in a benighted country. Many Burmese don't even acknowledge them as citizens; even members of the pro-democracy opposition have derided them as illegal immigrants (even though there's evidence that many of them have lived there for generations). In one of the ugliest recent manifestations of ethnic Burman chauvinism, Buddhist monks have called upon the population to shun association with the Rohingya. There have even been reports of monks blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid to Rohingya areas. 

A United Nations report published last December noted that the Burmese authorities have long curtailed Rohingyas' civil rights, up to and including freedom of movement. A few weeks ago, President Thein Sein suggested that the best "solution" to the Rohingya issue would be to deport all 800,000 of them: "We will send them away if any third country would accept them."

Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., says that such talk by members of Burma's government justifies accusations that anti-Rohingya pogroms constitute "slow-motion genocide." Even though the number of Rohingya killed in the latest violence remains relatively small (with the total number of dead estimated at around 80), he cites the original U.N. definition of genocide that encompasses cultural and economic destruction as well as wholesale physical annihilation. A few years ago, a Burmese diplomat in Hong Kong referred to the Rohingya as "uglier than ogres" -- evidence, Ahmed says, of a "classic relationship between a powerful dominant ethnic group and a minority that is the focus of ethnic hatred." 

For many members of the global ummah, this latest story of the persecution of innocent Muslims slots neatly into earlier narratives about victimized Palestinians, Bosnians, Kashmiris, Iraqis, and Afghans. (Never mind, as Ahmed points out, that two of Burma's Muslim neighbors, Bangladesh and Malaysia, have also treated Rohingya boat people fleeing to their shores with casual viciousness.) The British-based Quilliam Foundation, a self-described counter-terrorism think tank, has already warned of the risk that "the Rohingya people and their cause could be exploited by extreme Islamists and nationalists to justify a violent response that would only escalate the crisis." All this, the group notes, is likely to fuel renewed talk of an alleged "global war on Islam."

Such warnings cannot be dismissed out of hand. On July 20, the Afghan Taliban issued a statement on the situation in Burma that began this way: "The Muslims of Burma have been facing such oppression and savagery for the past two months never previously witnessed in the history of mankind." On July 21, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted Western countries for ignoring the plight of the Rohingya: "The obvious manifestation of the false assertions of the West on ethics and human rights is its silence over killing of thousands of people in Myanmar." Hezbollah issued a statement defending the Rohingya two days later. The Tehrik-i-Taliban, one of Pakistan's leading jihadi groups, chimed in soon afterwards.

So far there are no serious indications that the Rohingya are connected with global extremist movements, and I, for one, find it highly unlikely that we can expect to see foreign terrorists flocking to Arakan anytime soon. But it's certainly true that the horrible treatment of this particular minority group gives Islamist radicals a perfect propaganda opportunity that they are already doing their best to exploit.

The countries of the West can hardly be expected to solve the Rohingya crisis from without. But it's time for the Americans, the Europeans, and the Australians to press the Burmese government much harder to behave according to international norms for the treatment of ethnic minorities. That goes for Burma's harsh treatment of other restive groups, such as the Kachin (many of whom are Christians). Yes, this is a human rights issue, not a religious one. And let's keep it that way.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/GettyImages

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