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The Jihadist Threat in Myanmar
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist and ethnically diverse country, with the government recognizing 135 distinct ethnic groups and 108 ethnolinguistic groups. For most of its independent years, the country has been embroiled in rampant ethnic conflict, as well as increasing religious clashes. Since 1948, the Burmese army, which came to power in a 1962 coup d’état, has subjected many ethnic groups to forced labour, torture, rape, arrests and extrajudicial killings. The military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and moved the capital to Naypyidaw in 2005.
In 2011, the military junta allowed a civilian government to take office following the 2010 general election and released democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, along with several political prisoners. In the 2015 elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) — a civilian party led by Aung San Suu Kyi — won a majority in both chambers. Nevertheless, the government has faced international criticism for its handling of ethnic tensions and religious clashes. By the end of 2020, NLD had won 83% of seats in parliament. On February 1, 2021, the military junta arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, ministers, deputies and some members of parliament. The military declared a state of emergency for one year, appointing General Min Aung Hlang as leader of the interim government. After the coup, the military responded harshly to protests by demonstrators, thousands of people were arrested, and hundreds were killed or injured.
The reasons for the coup are to be found in the country’s complex political landscape and its precarious balance. The Constitution gives the Tatmadaw, the armed forces, a central role in the control of political, social, and economic life, and gives the military party (Union of Solidarity for Development/USDP) a fixed quota of parliamentary seats (25%) and control of the ministries of the Interior, Defense and Border Affairs. The main factors that may have contributed to the decision to carry out the coup appear to be the overwhelming victory of the NLD in the November elections, the economic and Covid-19 crisis, and the stalemate in peace negotiations with rebels.
Islam is a minority faith in Myanmar, comprising 4.3% of the population and the Rohingya ethnic minority constitute the majority of that Muslim population. Rohingya Muslims, who mostly live in the northern part of the northwestern state of Rakhine, claim to be descended from ancestors settled in pre-colonial and colonial Arakan, but are not recognized as an ethnic minority. The government considers them to be Bengali immigrants and has deprived them of Burmese citizenship (it is only granted to those who have at least one parent with Burmese citizenship or can provide evidence that their parents resided in Myanmar before independence in 1948). The Rohingya cannot travel without permission, cannot own property and cannot have more than two children. In 1982, the Citizenship Law issued by the Burmese military junta (confirmed in July 2012) did not include the Rohingya as a recognized ethnic group. In the 1990s, the military junta changed the name of Arakan Province to Rakhine State (the name of the Rakhine community living in the area). The Burmese military regime has attempted, over the years, to forcibly and violently expel the Rohingya from the country, accusing them of pursuing a separatist agenda.
As early as 1947, shortly before independence, the Rohingya supported an armed jihadist movement and founded the Mujahid Party, to create an autonomous Islamic State in Arakan. During General Ne Win’s 1962 coup, the Burmese army took violent military action against the Rohingya minority. As a result, many Muslims fled to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Over the years, the Rohingya carried out numerous armed insurgencies followed by violent crackdowns in 1978, 1991-1992, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017-2018. Meanwhile, international and local terrorist organizations have sought to radicalize and even recruit disillusioned Rohingya, as well as incite Muslims to go and fight in Myanmar to defend Islam.
Jihadist terrorist groups have been exploiting the humanitarian crisis affecting the Rohingya minority for propaganda and operational purposes for several years. In 2014, the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab praised Muslims in Myanmar for their determination and resilience. In June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former caliph of the Islamic State, called for jihad in Myanmar and promised revenge for atrocities committed against Muslims. In September 2014, al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video in which he announced the formation of AQIS, said the organization would fight to unite the Indian subcontinent and liberate, among others, Myanmar. In May 2015, a new statement from al-Shabaab urged Muslims to fight for and defend Muslims in Myanmar. In June 2015, a Teherik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson urged the Rohingya to fight and offered them training, financial resources and weapons. In 2016, the leader of the IS affiliate in Bangladesh (IS Bengal) Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif reaffirmed the call for jihad in Myanmar to support the Rohingya. In 2017, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) urged Muslims in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Malaysia to fight against the Myanmar government to support the Rohingya. On March 13, 2021, As-Sahab Media released a 21-minute video focusing on the situation in Myanmar, in which it discusses the recent coup. The video includes a voice message from AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (probably dated), in which he threatens Myanmar and the “criminal Buddhist government”. According to al-Zawahiri, “the wound of the Rohingya Muslims is the wound of the ummah as a whole”, so there is only one way forward: “Hit Myanmar’s interests”.
Katibah al-Mahdi of Arakan
In early November 2020, a new jihadist group emerged: Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan (KMBA) and, through its spokesman Abu Lut al-Muhajir, swore allegiance to IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (the oath was published in the Wilayah Hind’s “Voice of Hind” magazine). This could potentially indicate an operational collaboration with groups operating in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh). The use of the term katibah (military unit or brigade) also suggests the use of violence and armed struggle to achieve their goals.
The KMBA immediately published a new magazine in English, entitled Arkan which promotes jihad and calls for Muslims to undertake hijrah (migration – used in the jihadist strategic lexicon to refer to a battlefield) in Myanmar. In the first issue, entitled: “A Call to Hijrah”, which runs to 40 pages, the group states that it is mandatory for Muslims to fight where they reside or undertake hijrah, to transform the “land of the kuffar” (infidels) into the Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam). KMBA leader, Abu Dawud al-Arkani, called on all Muslims to undertake hijrah in Arakan “to help their brothers”.
In the magazine, the group identifies the two enemies fighting against Myanmar: Buddhists and the central government — both accused of repressing Muslims and of being infidels (kuffar) — and rival Islamist groups (takfir) accused of being oriented towards nationalism.
At a time when clashes between protesters, rebel groups and the Armed Forces are causing a rapid deterioration of the security situation within the country, the future development of events could be tied to the international community’s reaction. So far, it has been divided in its position towards the military junta. The influence and recruiting capacity of AQ, AQIS and IS on Myanmar’s Muslims has been low to date. Even in the past, AQ and IS have failed to recruit Rohingya Muslims into jihadist networks and wage armed struggle.
However, the recent situation and escalation of ethnoreligious violence in the country could create an environment that has the potential to radicalize part of the Muslim population. The emergence and formation of the KMBA could signal the beginning of a jihadist revival in the country and worsen the already complicated relations between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar. Security issues related to the emergence of KMBA could potentially be significant, particularly after the coup and subsequent clashes. Rakhine State is very vulnerable, easily accessible and difficult to protect. The conflict in northern Rakhine could serve as a training ground for IS militants, as well as the development of a new front in Southeast Asia, following the experience of the occupation of Marawi.
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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