Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's statement on Wednesday that he wants to expand operations to Myanmar and the Indian subcontinent will likely result in a new wave of violence. But the initial assailants may not be Islamists, but rather Buddhist extremists.
The video places new emphasis on al Qaeda's presence on the Indian subcontinent, from Pakistan to Myanmar. Al-Zawahiri begins (a transcript is available here) by calling on the Ummah (community of believers) of the subcontinent to 'unite'. He attacks the West's double standards, comparing the 'crocodile tears' shed over Sudan and Indonesia with the ambivalence shown over 'massacres of Muslims' in Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and a long list of others. He suggests the West, New Delhi and Beijing are colluding in a conspiracy to allow the massacre of Muslims.
Mid-way through his 55-minute address he turns to the situation of Muslims in Myanmar:
With every passing massacre, the enemies of Islam provide even more economic aid to its government on the pretext of 'improvement in the human rights situation in Burma'...We must make a serious effort to bring an end to these oppressions on Muslims in Bangladesh, India, Burma and Sri Lanka with everything within our capacity.
Al-Zawahiri's statement, while probably intended as a reaction to gains made by Islamic State in Iraq in recent months (in effect, it is al Qaeda's attempt at a 'counter narrative' to IS), will carry weight in Myanmar. Buddhist extremists will use it as fuel for a simmering fire which flared in deadly communal violence in 2012. Since then, over 140,000 Muslims, known as Rohingya, have fled to internally displaced people (IDP) camps in western Rakhine state and central Meiktila.
The al Qaeda video appears designed to attract recruits from disenfranchised Muslims on the subcontinent. After recent religious intolerance (bordering on ethnic cleansing) in Myanmar, it is feasible that recruits could come from IDP camps or from Rohingya refugees across the border in Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh. Late last month, there were reports that the Myanmar police carried out raids on the IDP camps, allegedly to root out militants of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation. The group has relatively few members and is based mainly in southeast Bangladesh (an excellent explanatory piece by Bertil Lintner on extremist elements in Bangladesh and the relation to the Rohingya can be found here).
Most Rohingya are focused on survival. Half of the IDPs, or 70,000 people, have insecure access to food. If al-Zawahiri's call is heeded by any, it is more likely to be from among well established radical elements such as those in Bangladesh and further afield in Pakistan, which already have ties to al Qaeda. None of these groups have thus far succeeded in extending their theatre of terror internationally.
In fact, attacks by Islamic extremists in Myanmar seem far less likely than a violent backlash from nervous and angry mobs of Buddhist extremists, at least in the short term. These will likely be provoked by firebrand clerics such as the much criticised 'bin Laden of Buddhism', U Wirathu. His movements (which track closely with the onset of recent religiously inspired violence in the country) and those of his '969' movement will be closely watched. With 140,000 Muslim Rohingya confined to IDP camps, security of these massive complexes will need to be significantly improved.
The prospect of a widespread and a polarising religious conflict appears to have escalated. So there has never been a better time for interfaith dialogue and calls for religious tolerance from government and religious leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi should be pressed to finally speak on this issue. These efforts should be buttressed by greater regional security cooperation on the subcontinent — an effort that has been anaemic for far too long. As I have long advocated with senior government officials in Bangladesh and Myanmar in regard to the Rohingya, regional problems require regional solutions. Now is the time for those solutions to be markedly enhanced.