Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and author of Burma and International Terrorism.
The recent spate of terrorist bombings in Burma has not injured many people or caused much property damage, but it is a reminder of the country’s multi-faceted internal security problems. No-one seems sure who conducted the attacks, or why, but several explanations have been offered. Some have been more convincing than others, but all need to be considered in the widest context.
Terrorist bombings in central Burma are not new. For decades, small devices have periodically exploded in public meeting places like markets, cinemas and railway stations. Larger bombs have been employed against infrastructure targets such as bridges, communications facilities and power plants. Official buildings have also been attacked. The casualties were often light, but the bombings contributed to a persistent low-level threat.
Over the past 20 years, the nature of these attacks has broadened. In 1997, for example, a parcel bomb was sent to a senior military officer from Japan. In 2002, letter bombs were sent to Burma’s embassies in Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Manila. In 2005, two powerful bombs exploded in Rangoon, killing 25 people. At the time, Burma was averaging about one bombing a month, though attacks of this size and sophistication were unusual.
It has never been clearly established who was behind all these incidents. The culprits have probably varied over time. Before 1988, they were most likely members of underground communist cells and armed ethnic groups. After the abortive pro-democracy uprising that year, the Thailand-based All Burma Students Democratic Front planned a series of bombings inside Burma, and a few other activist groups may have also adopted terrorist tactics.
The attacks against Burma’s national infrastructure and official sites doubtless reflected the fact that, for many years, up to 25 armed groups were waging guerrilla wars against the military government. The bombings in urban centres were harder to explain, as they achieved no appreciable results — apart from alienating the civilian population and prompting tougher counter-measures by the security forces.
Rarely did any group claim responsibility for terrorist bombings. Indeed, those groups accused by the government — most often ethnic insurgents — invariably denied any involvement. Supported by conspiracy theorists inside and outside the country, they claimed that Burma’s military intelligence service was staging such attacks to discredit opposition groups and justify the state’s powerful coercive apparatus.
From time to time, the authorities announced the arrest of an individual or group that they claimed was responsible for particular incidents. Some may have been guilty, but given the regime’s paranoia, its constant search for scapegoats and its penchant for calling all its opponents terrorists, it was difficult to know when to take such claims seriously.
The latest attacks are notable for three reasons. First, they mark the first string of bombings since the inauguration of Thein Sein’s reformist government in 2011. Second, they appear to have been part of a coordinated country-wide campaign. And, third, a bomb left in a luxury hotel in Rangoon seems to have been specifically aimed at foreign visitors.
If all nine reported incidents are connected, and that is not yet clear, their timing may be related to Burma’s recent accession to the ASEAN chair. A nationwide ceasefire agreement with ethnic armed groups is close to being finalised and Burma is due to host the Southeast Asia Games in December. The bombing campaign raises the level of uncertainty about all these developments.
Burma’s police have announced that the bombings were carried out by ethnic Karen businessmen to scare off foreign investors. Others have pointed the finger at ethnic insurgents, hardliners in the armed forces, rogue intelligence agents, disgruntled democracy activists, Buddhist fanatics and Muslim extremists. It is the last category that has attracted most attention from foreign observers.
After the sectarian violence in Rakhine State in 2012, and similar outbreaks in central Burma this year, there were warnings that the persecution of Burma’s Muslims could prompt foreign extremists to action both inside Burma and further afield. It was also feared that it could radicalise local Muslims, leading to a campaign of terrorist violence in Burma and the recruitment of Burmese Muslims to conduct terrorist operations elsewhere.
These scenarios are worth briefly considering.
Foreign extremists have been calling for a jihad against Burma’s government and ‘infidel’ population since the 1970s, but with little apparent result. After the 2012 violence, however, spokesmen for Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Jemaah Islamiyah all warned of retaliation for attacks against Muslim Rohingyas. In May 2013, Indonesian authorities foiled an attempt to bomb the Burmese embassy and in August a Buddhist centre in Jakarta was attacked ‘in response to the screams of the Rohingya’.
Whether foreign extremists will increase their efforts to operate inside Burma is difficult to judge. Usama bin Laden stated in 2001 that there were already jihadist cells there, a claim repeated by a few journalists and academics. A small number of Rohingyas has been linked to Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Bangladesh, but unconfirmed reports of militant groups in Burma with ties to organisations like Jemaah Islamiyah need to be treated carefully.
In the vast literature on international terrorism that has appeared since 9/11, it is easy to find lists of factors that reputedly radicalise religious communities. Considered against these criteria, it is easy to see why some counter-terrorism experts fear the possibility of Burma’s Muslims turning to terrorism. Experienced Burma watchers, however, are much more cautious in speaking about home-grown or imported jihadism taking root there.
In the freer atmosphere now prevailing in Burma, a terrorist campaign might be easier to mount, either from inside or outside the country, but it would still be difficult to sustain. Burma possesses an extensive state security system and an alert citizenry that would detect outsiders very quickly. More to the point, an organised campaign of violence would be strongly opposed by the overwhelming majority of Burmese Muslims.
Local Muslims want to be accepted as full citizens of Burma, not risk further marginalisation, or worse. They know that a terrorist campaign would be completely counter-productive. A bomb at a sacred site like the Shwedagon Pagoda, for example, could provoke a massive backlash. Also, such attacks would be exploited by Buddhist extremists ready to seize upon any ‘evidence’ of Muslim attempts to destroy the dominant culture.
These are complex and sensitive issues, all demanding close attention. However, it is worth keeping in mind that, whoever is behind the latest bombings, they will fail to achieve their objectives, whatever these may be. The government will not fall, nor will major policies be amended, because of terrorism. Unless the scope and nature of the attacks dramatically change, tourists will still visit Burma in unprecedented numbers and foreign companies will continue to pursue opportunities in a country hungry for foreign capital and expertise.