The Bay of Bengal and the growing Buddhist–Muslim divide
16 Dec 2014|

Buddha headThis is the last post of The Strategist’s series on the Bay of Bengal. As noted in previous posts, the Bay suffers from many trans-regional security issues—including separatist conflicts, piracy and people smuggling—which will increasingly require states in the region to cooperate in order to maintain regional security and stability. One issue that has received scant attention in Australia is the growing fault-line between Islam and Buddhism.

The Bay area represents one of the world’s most important concentrations of Buddhists. There are more than 120 million in the region, mostly of the Theravāda sect, concentrated in the Buddhist-majority states of Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. There are also more than 500 million Muslims, mostly in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia. In recent years there have been growing conflicts involving Buddhist majority and Muslim minority communities.

For decades, Thailand has seen Muslim-Malay separatist violence in its southern provinces abutting Malaysia result in the death of more than 6,000 people. Although the conflict has ebbed and flowed over the years, attacks by militants increased significantly in 2014, apparently as part of a campaign by separatists to ethnically cleanse the southern provinces of Buddhists. That provoked an often heavy-handed response by the Thai Army working in coordination with Buddhist monks and local vigilantes. The new military regime in Bangkok will likely take an even stronger response.

Buddhist-Muslim communal violence is also on the rise in Sri Lanka. Since the defeat of the Tamil insurgency in 2009, Muslims who represent some 10% of the population, have become a target of Buddhist Sinhalese ultra-nationalist groups. They claim the Muslim community is becoming Wahhabised and radicalised through Saudi influence. Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), one of Sri Lanka’s most influential Buddhist groups, has called for laws to restrict the growth of Islam. Sectarian tensions have increased significantly, including attacks by mobs, often led by monks, against mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and even the Bangladesh Embassy.

But Myanmar will likely witness the greatest Buddhist-Muslim violence in the region in coming years. Some 500,000 Rohingyas—essentially Muslims of Indian/Bangladeshi stock—are effectively stateless and stranded in Myanmar’s Rhakhine state. The community has lived there for centuries although some are recent immigrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar refuses to recognize the majority of the community as citizens or grant them the rights to work, own land or vote. The partial loosening of authoritarian government in Myanmar in recent years has only increased oppression, with Buddhist fundamentalist groups such as the ‘969’ movement led by Buddhist monk U Wirathu, leading attacks on the Rohingya community, including calling for laws against intermarriage with Buddhists. The darling of Western democrats, Aung San Suu Kyi, has maintained a conspicuous silence about the Rohingya’s plight.

The conflict is increasingly drawing in Bangladesh. Although it has hosted some 270,000 Rohingya refugees for decades, Dhaka has made clear that it’s not willing to accept further refugees and is increasingly pushing for their repatriation to Myanmar. Attempts by the regime in Naypyidaw to push the Rohingyas out of Myanmar and suppress militant Rohingya groups have led to heightened tensions on the border. In June 2014, there was an armed clash between Myanmar and Bangladesh border forces inside Bangladesh. Although Myanmar claimed the encounter was accidental, Bangladeshi sources saw it as part of a combined land, air and sea operation by Myanmar’s forces.

Some see a community of oppressed and stateless Muslims as a prime breeding-ground for Islamist extremism. Indeed, Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s LET have reportedly tried without much success to create footholds in the community. While Bangladeshi and Indian counterterrorism experts maintain a close watching brief over the Rohingyas, many also acknowledge that poverty, illiteracy and the lack of any middle class actually make them a more difficult target for extremists. As one analyst recently commented to the author, the Rohingyas are too busy trying to survive to spend time thinking about ideology. Nevertheless, Bangladeshi militants and Pakistan’s ISI are currently providing limited military training to Rohingya groups in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. A 2013 bombing at a Buddhist temple in India has also been linked to Rohingyas.

There’s growing evidence of cooperation among fundamentalist groups against Muslims. In September 2014, Buddhist fundamentalist groups (including Burma’s 969 and Sri Lanka’s BBS) met in Sri Lanka, reportedly to form an alliance against the region’s Muslims. The leader of BBS also claimed (which was later denied) that he’d held talks with the RSS, a prominent Hindu fundamentalist group, to form what he called a Hindu–Buddhist Peace Zone. This may represent an ‘enemy-of-my-enemy’ calculation for RSS, but is more than a little odd given the recent depredations against the Hindu Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

Those conflicts could affect Australia in several ways. They might represent a new front—much closer to Australia—in the religious violence and instability we’ve been witnessing in West Asia and Africa. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, some 125,000 Rohingyas have already been displaced in Rhakhine state, creating a constant flow of refugees. Many journey by sea to Thailand and Malaysia but significant numbers have also reached Australia, where they’re often classified as Bangladeshi nationals. That route is now well established, so that a significant upturn in political violence could lead to an exodus to Australia of much greater numbers. It’s in Australia’s interests to be do what it can to facilitate a political solution to this conflict before we see its arrival on our shores.

David Brewster is a Fellow with the Australia India Institute and a Visiting Fellow with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is the author of India’s Ocean: the Story of India’s bid for regional leadership. His research on the Bay of Bengal was funded by a grant from the Australia India Council. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ruud Hilgeman.