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14 September 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:54pm

Inaction over ethnic cleansing in Myanmar will only fuel Islamist extremism

If Western governments don't speak up for the Rohingya, extremist recruiters will. 

By Fiyaz Mughal

The silence of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the Rohingya emergency has been deafening. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been rightly challenged, repeatedly, over her failure to address what the United Nations has said is “ethnic cleansing”.

It is not hard to find the hatred which beats beneath the surface of the country and targets the nation’s one million vulnerable Rohingya. The anti-Muslim rhetoric being promoted by those such as the so-called “Burmese Bin Laden” – the Buddhist priest, Wirathu – is no different to some of the virulent anti-Muslim hatred that has been used by far-right extremists in Europe. Wirathu has spread the politics of division and hatred by suggesting that Muslims repeatedly rape Buddhist women.

In one interview he said: “We are being raped in every town, being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up on and bullied in every town…..In every town, there is crude and savage Muslim majority.” The aim appears to be to rally the masses against a weak and insecure Rohingya population and to frame them as an unstable and malign force within Myanmar – simply because of their faith.

Back in February a UN human rights report highlighted the systematic targeting and persecution of Rohingya villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. It gathered testimony from 220 people which showed “severe restrictions on the freedom of movement” of the Rohingya and “clearance operations” by the army, with relatives and family members reporting rape, other sexual violence, abuse and disappearances.

The government of Myanmar’s response has been to deny all charges, claiming it is the victim of a conspiracy from foreign forces wanting to destabilise the country. In essence, this mirrors the response we heard from another regime which was involved in the mass transfer and genocide of its populations: the Serbian government under Slobodan Milošević, and the Republika Srpska paramilitaries which were controlled by Radovan Karadžić, in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Karadžić, the President of Republika Srpska at the time, was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment last year for the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered. 

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The comparisons between the two countries do not end with anti-Muslim rhetoric. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the subsequent calls for independent states led to Serbia’s war of aggression towards Bosnia and its predominantly Bosnian Muslim population. Religious hatred tore apart villages, communities, marriages and families that had been forged over centuries. The attack on the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina led to the merciless siege of Sarajevo, with daily news items showing people cowering from shells as Serb gunners fired down with impunity from the surrounding hills.

The siege of Sarajevo and the West’s inactivity and unwillingness to intervene acted as a recruiting sergeant for Islamist extremists. Their narrative, often carried in extremist literature handed out on London’s streets, said that Muslims are being murdered because they were Muslims.

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Western European nations did not step in for some time. In 1992, then-Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd made clear that Britain would not engage troops on the ground. It was this inertia that created a strong pull for the Islamist-Jihadist narrative, which said that the West was doing nothing and was in cahoots with the Serbs to wipe out Muslims in Europe. Fighters arrived from the Middle East, fuelled by stories of the atrocities unleashed by Bosnian Serb and Serbian forces against Bosnian Muslims.

Myanmar today is reminiscent of the Bosnian crisis, though there is only one side which is perpetrating the majority of violence. The images and video footage filtering through are having an impact. Within Muslim countries, and here in the United Kingdom, large sections of the Muslim community are voicing anger about the international community’s inaction.

Just as in the 1990s people complain about the “inaction of the West”, irrespective of the complexities and or opportunity to influence any real change in Myanmar. The reality seems to be that Western nations are not going to intervene in Myanmar. In a world of realpolitik they calculate they need Myanmar’s military junta as a “stable partner” for the future. There will be much talk about human rights and about the need for the persecution to stop, but the reality is that the UK government will probably do little to exert real and sustained pressure on Suu Kyi and the military.

How soon we forget the lessons of Bosnia, when inaction feeds Islamist groups and extremism, who then step in to portray themselves as the defender of Muslims and Islam. Inaction over the Rohingya and softly spoken words about the genocide in Myanmar will help no-one but Islamists who use such situations as a recruiting sergeant for Muslim hearts and minds.

The Rohingya do not need jihadi bedfellows. Nor can or should we allow Suu Kyi and her junta to get away with the open and blatant persecution of a defenceless people. The latter is going unpunished, but without action the former becomes increasingly likely.

Fiyaz Mughal is founder and ex-director of anti-Muslim hate crime initiative, Tell MAMA, and Director of the interfaith organisation, Faith Matters