As tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have escaped across the border to neighboring Bangladesh, analysts warn that the situation could become a lightning rod and a recruiting tool for foreign militants if it remains unaddressed.
“There are a few militant groups active in the region, and they are based in Bangladesh. So far, no concrete evidence has been produced that al-Qaida or Islamic State has a presence in Myanmar, although we saw a sympathy statement on Rohingya by the latter,” Hassan Askari, a Pakistan-based South Asia security analyst, told VOA.
“But if this chaotic situation continues or gets worse, one cannot reject the possibility of militant groups and terror movements getting active and paving their way into Myanmar,” Askari said.
The Rohingya fled following the destruction of their homes and villages, allegedly by extremist Buddhists and the country’s security forces. An estimated 270,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh in the last two weeks, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said Friday.
“UNHCR is gravely concerned about the continuing conflict in Myanmar and by reports that civilians have died trying to reach safety,” Duniya Aslam Khan, UNHCR spokesperson for Asia and the Pacific, said at a news briefing in Geneva this week. “It is of utmost urgency to address the root causes of the recent surge in violence so that people are no longer compelled to flee and can eventually return home in safety and dignity.”
The latest violence began August 25 when Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in what they said was an effort to protect their ethnic minority from persecution.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor and the country’s de facto leader, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was on a two-day visit to Myanmar, have both blamed the Rohingya violence on extremist groups.
Suu Kyi has been under pressure for not speaking up against the violence. When she recently termed the problem as “a huge iceberg of misinformation,” it was met with worldwide criticism.
Suu Kyi’s characterization of a situation that caused throngs of Rohingya Muslims to flee across the border “cannot be true,” Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, told VOA.
Fears of extremism
Experts charge that while extremist groups’ activities in Rakhine are hard to detect, there are legitimate concerns that if the current crisis is left unresolved, the conflict could pave the way for militancy in the country, as different terror groups may try to exploit the grievances of the victims.
Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is reportedly active in South Asia, including Bangladesh, which hosts Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh is facing growing domestic threats from a variety of extremist groups, including Islamic State affiliates.
Given the presence of these groups in the region, analysts warn that they may exploit the current situation.
“There have been ties between JMB [banned group Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh] and the insurgency [in Myanmar], as arrested JMB members have confessed to helping Rohingya,” said U.K.-based analyst Chris Blackburn, who specializes in counterterrorism in South Asia.
The Rohingya are considered one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. The predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, also known as Burma, does not consider Rohingya as Burmese and argues that the minority group are refugees from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh, on the other hand, says they are Burmese.
Protests in the Muslim world
The crisis has incited a wave of anti-Myanmar sentiment in many Muslim countries. Rohingya sympathizers, using several social media platforms, have shared photographs and videos of atrocities allegedly carried out by Myanmar’s security forces against the Rohingya.
The United States has expressed deep concern about the worsening situation in Rakhine, calling on Myanmar to “avoid actions that exacerbate tensions” in the region.
“There has been a significant displacement of local populations following serious allegations of human rights abuses, including mass burnings of Rohingya villages and violence conducted by security forces and also armed civilians,” Heather Nauert, U.S State Department spokeswoman, told reporters Thursday.
VOA’s Bangla service and Madeeha Anwar contributed to this report.