This is the first in a series of political risk and prediction blog posts derived from Dr Aziz's upcoming political comic book, The Global Kid (note: 100% of sales will go to global education non-profits that help youth reach their potential).
Myanmar is not currently on ISIS' target list - it does not feature in the group's five-year plan to conquer parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. And though other Islamist extremist groups like the Afghan Taliban, al-Shabaab and the Pakistani Taliban have recurrently vowed jihad over the Buddhist-led violence against Muslim minorities in the country, there hasn't been much reaction from ISIS. But very unfortunately, things may be changing. A recent report suggests ISIS may now be looking to recruit from the historically persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, some of whom are still desperately fleeing Myanmar to live as refugees in neighboring countries. If this recruitment happens, this could lead to the unravelling of this newly democratic country and its much-lauded reforms since 2012. Current concerns about the legitimacy of Myanmar's November 8 election (in which democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is still not eligible to run) will pale in comparison to the risk factor posed by ISIS. In fact, it could serve as the final nail in the coffin that leads to Muslim genocide at the hands of Buddhist extremists. WHAT DOES MYANMAR THINK ABOUT THE ROHINGYAS? There's nothing to debate about the fact that Burmese government officials (and most of the majority Buddhist population, except for some youth and activists) simply do not care for the Rohingya Muslim minority. These people do not belong to one of the 135 distinct ethnic groups or 8 major national ethnic races in the country; they have no citizenship; they have very few job opportunities (except for forced hard labor); and more than 140,000 of the 1.3 million now live in disease-ridden camps on the border. Back in 2012, President Thein Sein even publicly remarked that the solution to dealing with this Muslim minority was to simply exile them to a UN-run camp in another country.
Fast forward to 2015 and the Rohingya are in fact offered voting rights, due to international pressure. Progress, right? Not really - it only lasted one day, due to local pressure from Buddhist extremists. It's not surprising that some Rohingyas say they feel "just being Muslim is like a crime" in Myanmar. Many have fled the country but in some cases only to live in equally poor conditions (note: in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees may be relocated to a flooded island; in Malaysia, the government has "no plans" to allow them to work; in Thailand, many have been beaten, raped or abused). Most Rohingyas in Myanmar and regionally clearly have few sources of support - which is why ISIS has declared this vulnerable group as a potential recruitment pool.
WHAT ISIS COULD OFFER POTENTIAL ROHINGYA RECRUITS Well, it's obvious. Think about what ISIS and other terrorist groups have offered recruits globally in recent years. In some cases, it was a salary - consider 21-year old Pakistani Ajmal Amir Kasab, the chronically unemployed villager who went on to earn $1250 for his role in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. For others, it was about finally having rights - think of the debt-ridden peasants and tenants who were so poorly treated by their feudal landlords that during the 2010 floods many were easily recruited by the Pakistani Taliban. And for others it was just about the ideology which was more appealing than what was on offer in their existing society - think of the young girls who have been recruited by ISIS to be Jihadi brides, from Quebec, Canada, to Bradford, UK, in the past year.
Now consider the Rohingyas who lack the sufficient means to earn a salary, have no rights and don't have a real sense of belonging anywhere - thanks to Myanmar's government and other regional countries where they're generally unwelcome. If just one Rohingya is recruited by ISIS for any of these reasons, sectarian violence will rapidly escalate in this nascent democracy. It will give Buddhist extremists like Ashin Wirathu, often referred to as the Burmese bin Laden, even more ammunition to attack Rohingyas and could even serve as the tipping point leading to Muslim genocide. Let's not forget that the first four stages of genocide - stigmatisation, harassment, isolation and systemic weakening - have already occurred in Myanmar. ISIS' recruitment of just one Rohingya could spark the fifth stage - mass annihilation.
WHAT WE CAN DO NOW TO AVOID THIS BLEAK FUTURE We know the steps the government should take to eradicate anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar and prevent potential ISIS recruitment from this minority group. Step 1) Bring back Rohingyas who have fled to other countries in the region. Step 2) Make all Rohingyas citizens of Myanmar, also giving them voting rights. Step 3) Give all Rohingyas opportunities in education and jobs so they can be productive members of society and help with the ongoing democratic transition.
It's completely obvious and yet sadly quite impossible. The reality is none of these steps can be taken until the historically entrenched anti-Muslim/Rohingya sentiment that persists among the majority Buddhist population, including in government and military, somehow disappears. Let's not forget the power of Buddhist extremists over government, which is still somewhat of an enigma (e.g. on July 7, Buddhist monks objected to a new real estate project near the Shwedagon Pagoda and the government quickly scrapped the plan).
So the more realistic first step is to understand why this Muslim minority is so hated, not just by Buddhist extremists, but even the average citizen. Historians have explained it as a response to British colonialism. But what about today? Foreign governments, universities and/or international organizations need to commission studies on why such hatred has now surfaced in such a significant way. Let's put some academic experts and ambitious PhD students to work.
And then let's consider how some kind of public communication program could be launched to counter such negative sentiment, so the largely Buddhist population can start seeing Rohingyas as compatriots - not Bengali aliens. (Note: there are small numbers of youth who have already started a multi-religious Twitter and Facebook campaign called "My Friend" to show how Buddhist-Muslim friendships in Myanmar are possible).
THE BOTTOM LINE If just one Rohingya is recruited by ISIS, Myanmar's internal sectarian crisis and regional refugee crisis will only get worse. The country's Buddhist extremists will only find more reason to attack the Rohingyas (and other Muslim minorities). And this will only give more legitimacy to the global anti-Islamist pact these monks created last September with their Buddhist counterpart in Sri Lanka. Buddhist extremism will likely then spread deeper into these countries and regionally, potentially paving the way for a battle between Buddhist and Islamist extremists in the coming years.
Oh Myanmar, we are rooting for you.