By Jacob Zenn
After decades of isolation under military rule, Myanmar is opening to foreign investment and forms of democracy for the first time in a generation. The reform process, however, is now being attended by unanticipated consequences and influences, both internally and from abroad, that could undermine the country's new trend towards openness.
Recent sectarian fighting between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar's western Rakhine State has caught the attention of militant Islamists in South and Southeast Asia. Since May, the amount of jihadi propaganda directed towards Myanmar, a country previously unknown in the world of jihadi antagonists, has surged as perhaps thousands of Muslim Rohingyas have been forced to flee the country.
Tensions between the ethnic Rohingya and Rakhine populations in Rakhine State were mostly kept under wraps under Myanmar's previous ruling military junta. Violence erupted on May 28 after an ethnic Rakhine woman was raped and murdered allegedly by three Rohingyas in Rakhine State, and the government was unprepared for the inter-ethnic violence that soon transpired.
A cycle of violence between the two groups has since resulted in widespread arson attacks and hundreds of murders. Perhaps thousands of the 800,000 Rohingyas living in Rakhine State have recently fled to Bangladesh, which many Myanmar citizens claim is the Rohingyas' true homeland.
The violence occurs at a time of growing regional instability in the pivot area where South and Southeast Asia meet, namely the areas along the Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India's Assamese borders. At the same that Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines clashed in Myanmar, fighting erupted between Muslims and Hindus in India's Assam State.
Since mid-July, more than 30 people have been killed and 150,000 displaced in Assam as riots devolved into open conflict between indigenous tribes such as the Bodos and Muslim settlers in the state's Kokrajhar and Chirang districts. As in Myanmar where the Rohingyas are considered illegal Bangladeshi settlers, the Muslims targeted in Assam are accused of being ethnic Bengalis from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has the highest population density of any country and is woefully ill-equipped to deal with an influx of refugees from Myanmar and India. Bangladesh is home to a population of 160 million people in a country the size of the US State of Iowa, which in contrast has a population of only three million people.
Bangladesh also has its own homegrown problems with Muslim extremist groups, including the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which authorities banned in 2009. The head of the Indian Mujahideen (IM), Yasin Bhatkal, is believed to be hiding in Dhaka and Chittagong, Bangladesh's two largest cities, allegedly with the help of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.
The Bangladesh government now runs the risk of being perceived by militant Islamists as selling out fellow Muslims, a sentiment expressed in a recent surge of jihadi propaganda condemning it for not doing enough to help the inrush of refugee Rohingyas.
As is often the case with jihadi statements, the videos and essays propagated by militant Islamists about recent events in Myanmar are more rhetoric than substance. Playing up the victimhood narrative, they apparently hope to incite the global Muslim community, or ummah, and win new recruits to their wider cause against enemy "infidel" governments and countries.
While secular Bangladesh has been a target of Islamists for years, Myanmar is apparently a new member of the "infidel" club of countries that propagandists threaten in response to its treatment of the Rohingyas. Given the Myanmar military's ongoing challenges of trying to pacify internal insurgencies, including a major unresolved conflict in northern Kachin State, it is likely unprepared to raise its counter-terrorism capabilities to prevent a possible retributive plot against the country.
The most recent militant statement to target Myanmar came from Lebanon's Hezbollah, which on July 23 said in an official statement:
"The regime-owned killing machine relentlessly works on striking Muslims in different regions, with Rohingya at the forefront...This is a new racial purification trend against Muslims."On July 20, the Taliban released a more vitriolic statement saying:
The Muslims of [Myanmar] have been facing such oppression and savagery for the past two months never previously witnessed in the history of mankind.On July 16, The Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), the European propaganda arm in support of al Qadea and other radical Islamic organizations, issued a recent question and answer essay called "The Genocide against the Muslims in [Myanmar]" on the jihadist website al Fidaa:
Mercilessly burning children, women and men like toasting sheep on fire is not only against every known law but something no man with any conscious can ever accept but unfortunately the Muslims of [Myanmar] are targets of such a gross crime. Not only that, but they are also being expelled from their lands, forcefully ejected from their homes, their wealth is being usurped and their honor looted while the whole world turns a blind eye to their plight.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, besides considering this crime a black scar on the history of mankind, calls on the government of [Myanmar] to immediately put a stop to this savagery and barbarism and halt such heart rending historical violations against humans and humanity. They should realize that this is not only a crime against the Muslims of [Myanmar] but against all humankind and especially an unforgivable crime against the entire Muslim worldâ€¦
Why did this genocide begin? The Buddhist Rakhine killers placed the dead body [of the raped and killed Rakhine woman] near a Muslim village without any knowledge of the murder. The Buddhist Rakhine and Burmese (Myanmar) authority accused Muslims of killing the woman. As a result, three innocent Muslim youths were arrested. One was beaten to death, and the other two were sentenced to death by the court. The government has shown the world that they created a fake issue to instigate a real event against Muslims.These messages and interpretations of events are starting to cause regional ripple effects. On July 13, 300 members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) in Indonesia threatened to storm the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. One protest leader said over a loudspeaker: "If embassy officials refuse to talk with us, I demand all of you break into the building and turn it upside down â€¦ Allahu Akbar â€¦ Every drop of blood that is shed from a Muslim must be paid back. Nothing is free in this world â€¦ FPI is ready to wage jihad â€¦ Go to Myanmar and carry out jihad for your Muslim brothers."
How did this genocide start and what happened afterwards? On June 3, 2012, eight Muslim pilgrims along with one escort, one bus helper, and one woman were killed by a Rakhine mob in Taungup township in southern Arakan [Rakhine] State. Five others escaped the massacreâ€¦The gang of Rakhine terrorists stopped the bus, which had the license plate 7 (Ga) 7868, at an immigration gate, and called, "Come down all, if there are any foreigners," while holding lethal weaponsâ€¦Then, they started to beat the Muslim pilgrims and dragged them from the bus to the road, where an organized gang of more than 300 Rakhine terrorists beat the Muslims until they died. The gang had been standing at the immigration gate, but no authorities came out to stop the massacre. 
On July 6, the al-Faruq Foundation for Media Production released an Arabic-language video called "Solidarity With Our Muslim Brothers in Arakan (The Tragedy of [Myanmar])" on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Forum. The propaganda film includes a historical narrative focusing on Muslim victimhood played over images of brutalized Rohingyas, although some of the images appear not to have come from the recent violence. The video's narrative includes a passage that says:
They steal the money of the Muslims and they steal their crops and they prohibit the Muslims from communicating with people from other countries. They also prevent the marriages of Muslims and they put a lot of obstacles in the way of Muslim marriages. This is not all as there is a lot of injustice that you can't even imagine and all forms of torture. So where are the defenders of the human rights in the 20th century and where the people who fight for freedom and democracy. This awful silence indicates the acceptance and supporting of this because it is Muslim blood that is being shed and since it is a Muslim blood, then the blood is cheap like the blood of Muslims of 'Arakan', Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya and everywhere else.These and other statements have put the Rohingyas' plight on the radar of many Islamist militant groups. While their propaganda is directed at militants from all regions, some of the groups who have issued statements on Myanmar are clearly trying to recruit disenfranchised Rohingyas to their radical causes.
They have a potential galvanizing figure. One ethnic Rohingya, Abu Zar al-Burmi, is believed to be the mufti, or religious scholar, for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Without roots in any nation, as Rohingyas are not allowed citizenship in Myanmar or Bangladesh, al-Burmi has promoted the creation of a global Muslim community which exists without respect to international borders.
The growing inter-religious fighting and spillover humanitarian crises in Rakhine and Assam States is exerting new pressures on Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India. As the violence spirals and governments fail to restore order and dispense of justice for crimes committed, the situation could quickly become a new regional, if not international, security dilemma.
For their part, Islamist militants have shown they are prepared to exploit the plight of the Rohingyas for their own radical purposes, while neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh have demonstrated they are able to manage the crisis at a local or national level. Should the crisis escalate and become an effective recruiting tool for transnational Islamist militant groups, the international community will one way or another eventually be dragged into the mire.
1. Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding the bloody tragedy of the Muslims of Burma, July 20, 2012.
2. The Genocide Against the Muslims in Burma, Jihadology, July 16, 2012.
3. Solidarity With Our Muslim Brothers in Arakan (The Tragedy of Burma), Jihadology, July 6, 2012.
Jacob Zenn is a political risk analyst and legal adviser based in Washington, D.C., who focuses on militant groups in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Nigeria. He can be reached at zopensource123@....