Myanmar’s anti-Muslim violence: a threat to Chinese and Indian interests

Author: Micha’el Tanchum, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Myanmar’s abundant energy resources and key geostrategic location between India and China has seen a miniature ‘Great Game’ develop since its recent democratic opening and re-entry into the international community.

A man walks in a site where a building once stood before sectarian violence between  ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in western Myanmar which started last year, in Meikhtila, central Myanmar on 21 May 2013 (Photo: AAP).

While several countries have become players in Myanmar’s development, India and China have taken the lead with the construction of multi-billion dollar deepwater ports and energy projects.

The increasing Buddhist nationalist violence against Myanmar’s Muslim minority is creating instability in regions of Myanmar critical to India and China. On 22 March 2013, Myanmar imposed a state of emergency in Meiktila, a town in central Myanmar, after three days of anti-Muslim rioting left over 40 people dead, 12,000 displaced, and more than 1,000 homes and buildings destroyed. Demonstrators attacked a madrasa, hacked 20 students to death, and burnt their bodies in ceremonial triumph. Meiktila’s Muslims, 30 per cent of the town’s population, were forced out of the city by armed Buddhist nationalist demonstrators, and remain in displaced persons camps on the town’s outskirts. The events resembled the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Sittwe and other locations in the state of Rakhine in June and October 2012 that displaced approximately 100,000 people.

The widening anti-Muslim agitation in Myanmar increasingly resembles anti-Muslim violence in Bosnia in the early 1990s. It is fuelled by the Buddhist nationalist extremist ‘969’ movement, which calls upon Buddhists to protect their country from the ‘Muslim threat’ to the Buddhist way of life and nation. Local ‘969’ committees distribute propaganda, and organise anti-Muslim activities which include boycotting economic transactions with Muslims through a campaign of intimidation and vigilante violence.

Much of the anti-Muslim violence has been concentrated in areas crucial to Chinese and Indian interests. A critical component of India’s ‘Look East’ strategy, India’s presence in Myanmar assists it to project power deeper into Southeast Asia and offset Chinese domination of the region. India financed and built Myanmar’s deep water port in Sittwe, which is north of Myanmar’s offshore natural gas fields. The Sittwe port is the cornerstone of India’s massive Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, which aims to connect eastern India with Myanmar through a sea route between Kolkata and Sittwe and a road and river route from Sittwe to India’s eastern Mizoram state.

But Sittwe has also been the site of Myanmar’s worst anti-Muslim violence. Sittwe’s strategic infrastructure would be extremely vulnerable to attack if Rakhine’s Rohingya Muslims seek assistance from outside jihadist organisations. Mizoram and the other six eastern Indian states neighbouring Myanmar are also all grappling with their own separatist insurgencies. These insurgent groups have cooperated in the past with Nepalese Maoist guerrillas as well as Pakistani jihadist organisations. They would likely cooperate with Islamist militants in Myanmar.

China’s strategic investments are perhaps even more at risk. About 100 kilometres south of Sittwe, China has been developing a rival deep water port in Kyaukphyu, south of Myanmar’s offshore natural gas fields, which would provide it with a long-sought-after, land-accessible port on the Indian Ocean. China is also currently constructing oil and gas pipelines that would carry energy from Kyaukphyu directly to China’s Yunnan province. The Sino–Burmese oil pipeline will provide China with an alternative route for Persian Gulf energy, which would alleviate China’s need to transport oil through the increasingly disputed territorial waters of the South China Sea, and therefore give it greater freedom of action in the conflict.

Yet the Sino–Burmese pipelines pass through Mandalay, the state where the most recent anti-Muslim violence has taken place. The 771-kilometre-long twin pipelines would be extremely vulnerable to sabotage by outside Islamist militant organisations. The Kachin separatist insurgency in Myanmar’s Kachin state has already ostensibly forced China to halt its construction of the Myitsone hydroelectric dam designed to supply electricity to Yunnan province. China cannot afford to ignore the possible repercussions of jihadist violence in the region bordering its Yunnan province. After Xinjiang and Tibet, Yunnan is perhaps China’s most restive province. Approximately 40 per cent of Yunnan’s population consists of non-Han Chinese minorities, including a small ethnic Kachin community. Similar to India’s eastern states, a jihadist presence within Myanmar could assist disaffected minorities in Yunnan and markedly increase their capabilities.

Heavy direct foreign investment from India and China has allowed Myanmar to ignore protests from ASEAN, the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation, and the United Nations about the ongoing violence. Like Bosnia two decades earlier, the failure of international powers to halt such gross human rights abuses will turn Myanmar’s oppressed Muslims into a cause célèbre in the Muslim world and attract jihadists to Myanmar capable of attacking infrastructure projects, particularly following crackdowns on al Qaeda-affiliated, jihadist organisations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. If jihadist militancy materialises in Myanmar, it would place both India’s and China’s strategic interests at risk, and potentially blow back across each country’s borders.

Dr Micha’el Tanchum is a fellow in the Middle East and Asia Units at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.