A War of Terror. Myanmar, like other states, is using the worldwide conflation of Muslims with terrorism as a way to persecute the Rohingya.
In Myanmar, Muslims Arrested for Joining Terror Group That Doesn’t Exist
By Carlos Sardiña Galache and Veronica Pedrosa
The government of Myanmar, cracking down on the country’s minority Muslims, has arrested at least a dozen people on charges of belonging to a terrorist group that defense lawyers and security experts say does not exist.
The administration of President Thein Sein has refused to disclose any evidence that the “Myanmar Muslim Army” is real — raising the prospect that the government invented an Islamic terrorist threat to justify a new front in its longtime persecution of Muslims. The exact number of people arrested is unclear, but The Intercept has obtained documents and conducted interviews in Myanmar about three cases — one of them involves 12 people accused of having links to the alleged group, the second involves five people accused of plotting to plant bombs in several unspecified places in the country, and the third is against a man accused of funding the group. All of them were arrested between September and November.
“The accused have received training in Myanmar Muslim Army camps, which has been launched and is operating illegally,” reads one of the court documents obtained by The Intercept.
Officially, about 4 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, but the actual number is believed to be higher, perhaps as much as 10 percent. The largest Muslim population, the Rohingya ethnic group, is concentrated in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, while other Muslims are scattered all over the country. The Rohingya are the most persecuted group: the government has denied them citizenship for decades, and according to several human rights groups, they are the targets of an ethnic cleansing campaign that has helped prompt a desperate exodus by boat in which an estimated 300 people died in the first quarter of this year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But non-Rohingya Muslims also face discrimination even though they are citizens of Myanmar. In recent years, sporadic explosions of anti-Muslim violence have taken place outside Rakhine State. The Muslims accused of belonging to the “Myanmar Muslim Army” or plotting terrorist actions hail mostly from central and northern Myanmar.
After five decades of military rule, Myanmar launched in 2011 a process of political transition to what its generals have termed a “discipline-flourishing democracy.” A semi-civilian government made up of former generals was established, hundreds of political prisoners were released in successive amnesties, and the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was allowed to be elected to Parliament in by-elections held in 2012 after having spent 15 years under house arrest.
The transition has given the government a degree of international acceptance unthinkable a few years ago. In 2005, Condoleezza Rice, testifying at a Senate hearing to confirm her as secretary of state, included Myanmar in a list of “outposts of tyranny,” but in 2012 Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, where he praised the transition process. Hillary Clinton has also visited Myanmar and admitted in her 2014 memoir that it’s “hard to resist getting breathless” about the country’s progress. The Myanmar government has even hired the image-polishing services of Podesta Group, a lobbying firm founded by John Podesta, the chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, improvements in political liberties for the country’s Buddhist majority coincides with a deterioration in conditions for the Muslim minority.
Muslims in Myanmar are widely framed within the Buddhist-majority country as foreigners, because a large portion of them are descendants of migrants from the Indian sub-continent. They are being portrayed by state officials and extreme Buddhist nationalist movements as outsiders and a common enemy, a narrative begun long ago, critics say, in order to distract attention from political conflicts created by the military dictatorship, which lacked popular legitimacy.
It was only when the Bush administration launched its “war on terror” in 2001 that Myanmar’s Muslims began to be presented as a potential terrorist threat; this was seen as a bid to win international favor at a time when the U.S. government was trying to isolate the military regime. Yet there was a glaring problem with the military regime’s portrayal of Muslims: there is no record of any actual terrorist attack by Muslims within Myanmar in recent decades.
Now, with the country in a period of transition applauded by the U.S. and other former foes, and with crucial elections to be held in November, the former generals who make up Myanmar’s government need more than ever to legitimize their grip on power, both in the international arena and among the Buddhist-dominated electorate. The emergence of a new terrorist threat gives new life to long-held claims by the military that they are the only guarantors of security in what they term their “discipline-flourishing democracy.”