Myanmar government claims Islamic State poses threat in Rakhine

U Zaw Htay, director-general of the president's office. Photo Credit: YouTube/screengrab

The Myanmar government claims that the Islamic State poses a growing threat to Rakhine state. But with little evidence, this only serves to build the narrative of Islamic terrorism that the military uses to justify its atrocities in Rakhine.


A spokesperson for the Myanmar government said last week that the Islamic State poses a threat to northern Rakhine state. Myanmar President’s Office Director-General U Zaw Htay claimed that the threat is growing after the group’s recent defeats in Syria and that the terrorist group has targeted Myanmar for years.

There is little evidence to support the claim but it helps the Myanmar government build and maintain its narrative of an Islamic terrorist threat that the military must defeat.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and other groups have used violent tactics and groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have spoken about the importance of supporting Islamic terror in Myanmar. But the narrative that there is a threat to stability is little more than an attempt to legitimize the military’s violence against Muslim communities and its war against the Arakan Army (AA).

“In today’s world, governments should be alert to potential threats to all those who reside within their borders, including violent threats,” Laetitia van den Assum, member of the former Rakhine Advisory Commission, told ASEAN Today.

“But their duty of care towards the population includes refraining from disseminating unsubstantiated or false information, the more so if it may have the effect of promoting anger and even violence against one or more specific groups among the population.”

There is no proof that international terrorist networks are operating in Myanmar

Though some Islamic militants in both Myanmar and Thailand reached out to the Islamic State in 2014, the group’s leadership mostly ignored their pledges of loyalty.

Later, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi called for Rohingya to travel to Syria to join their cause. However, there are no reports to suggest that anyone from Myanmar did so.

After the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, embarked on ethnic cleansing that forced over 700,000 Rohingya from their homes, al-Qaeda issued a public condemnation and expressed support for Myanmar’s Muslims. But today there is no evidence that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab or the Islamic State are operating inside Myanmar, according to the Counter Extremism Project and other sources.

A Tatmadaw sign outside Mandalay Palace, Myanmar.
Photo Credit: Adam Jones/Flickr

“It was total lip service. This speaks to the inherent racism within the Islamic State and al-Qaeda: that they are actually Arab chauvinists and have done nothing to take up the cause of the Rohingya,” Zachary Abuza, Professor at the National War College, told ASEAN Today.

ARSA also formally rejected the support of international terrorists again in July 2018, saying “We do not welcome the involvement of these groups in the Arakan conflict.” ARSA requested that states help stop any militants from these groups from coming to join them. The group also said they would support state governments to stop the spread of these terrorist groups.

Muslim militants in Myanmar stand to gain very little from affiliating themselves with a globally infamous terrorist organisation. Rohingya communities in Bangladesh now rely heavily on the international community for support and any relationships with the Islamic State would jeopardize this. Muslim militants inside Myanmar also channel their efforts towards domestic and local grievances, not the establishment of a global caliphate.

The Islamic State threat builds on a long-standing strategy of Myanmar’s government

The Myanmar government has constructed the idea of an Islamic terrorist threat in order to justify its military presence in Rakhine, which in turn enables its campaigns against the non-Muslim AA. The concept of the Islamic terrorist enemy allows the military to maintain an environment that precludes the repatriation of the Rohingya.

“It’s clear that the Islamic State is moving to a global model, with more fronts and more attacks, and that can help the Myanmar government to justify their approach,” Abuza told ASEAN Today. “The radical Buddhist clergy in Myanmar, who justify these pogroms against the Rohingya, they have ties to the ultra-conservative clergy in Sri Lanka.”

Under the military junta of Than Shwe and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the inflated threat of Islamic extremism served to distract the public in Myanmar from political conflicts and popular dissent. In 2001, the Myanmar government began to refer to a domestic terror threat called the “Myanmar Muslim Army,” a group that may have never existed.

The Myanmar government also uses the fear of terrorism to frame its war against the AA as a conflict that can only be ended through the AA’s total and definitive military defeat. The National League for Democracy (NLD) labelled the AA as terrorists in January, which only served to escalate tensions.

The Myanmar government is using the Islamic State’s shift towards a global strategy to legitimize tactics that perpetuate the conflict and prevent the repatriation of the Rohingya.

“If [U Zaw Htay’s] allegations against ISIS were true, one would expect that the spokesman would at the same time provide information about what action the government is taking to protect the population and on how communities can protect themselves,” said van den Assum. “That too is part of the duty of care.”

About the Author

ASEAN Today is a leading ASEAN commentary site. Our HQ is in Singapore. We publish business, political and fintech commentaries daily, covering ASEAN and Greater China. Twitter: @Asean_Today Facebook: The Asean Today