Myanmar: The Rohingya Crises as an Analytic Lens to Understanding Violent Extremism

By Engy Abdelkader, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick/Piscataway.


Abstract

On November 28, 2016, an Ohio State University student drove his car into pedestrians on campus. He then exited the vehicle and stabbed multiple people with a butcher’s knife before a law enforcement officer killed him. A mere minutes prior to the attack, the 18-year-old student complained in a Facebook post that he had reached a “boiling point” and was “sick and tired” of seeing Muslims around the globe “killed and tortured.” While his post began with a broad condemnation of anti-Muslim violence “everywhere,” it then referenced the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, specifically. The attacker’s stated motivations - no matter how unjustified and reprehensible his actions - are significant for a number of reasons. First, the attack demonstrates the international ripple effects that a humanitarian and human rights crises seemingly regional in nature have in an increasingly interconnected world. Second, it evidences the myriad factors that “push” or “pull” individuals - from Myanmar to the United States - towards violent extremism. Third, it also illustrates how extremist violence creates a cycle that culminates not only in mass migration but transnational violence. This chapter explores these themes in greater depth employing the Rohingya crises in Myanmar as its analytic lens to better understand violent extremism in both minority and non-minority contexts.

Keywords: Violent Extremism, Terrorism, Rohingya, Myanmar, Human Rights, International Law, Genocide, Terrorism, Radicalization, United Nations,


Introduction

On November 28, 2016, an Ohio State University student drove his car into pedestrians on campus. He then exited the vehicle and stabbed multiple people with a butcher’s knife before a law enforcement official killed him. The suspect was identified as Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a recent transfer from a local community college. A mere minutes prior to the attack, the 18-yearold student complained in a Facebook post that he had reached a “boiling point” and was “sick and tired” of seeing Muslims around the globe “killed and tortured.” While his post began with 1 a broad condemnation of anti-Muslim violence everywhere,” it then referenced the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, specifically.


At the time of the Ohio State attack, members of the long-persecuted religious and ethnic minority group were fleeing what was widely described as ethnic cleansing by some and genocidal acts by others. In response to an attack on police posts carried out by Rohingya militants, 2 officials launched a counter-terrorism offensive against the civilian population writ large. The official response included slaughtering children, raping women and killing men. In fact, the Ohio State attacker’s social media post read, “Seeing my fellow Muslims being tortured, raped and killed in Burma led to a boiling point, I can’t take it anymore.” He further exhorted readers, 3 “Stop the killing of Muslims in Burma.”


The attacker’s stated motivations - no matter how unjustified and reprehensible - are significant for a number of reasons. First, the attack demonstrates the international ripple effects that a humanitarian and human rights crises seemingly regional in nature has in an increasingly interconnected world. Second, it evidences the myriad factors that “push” or “pull” individuals - from Myanmar to the United States - towards violent extremism. Third, it also illustrates how extremist violence creates a cycle that culminates not only in mass migration but transnational violence that threatens peace and security. This chapter explores these themes in greater depth employing the Rohingya crises in Myanmar as its analytic lens to better understand violent extremism among both non-minority and minority contexts.


THE ROHINGYA MUSLIMS IN MYANMAR

The United Nations (UN) has consistently characterized the Rohingya as the world’s most persecuted population. Such discrimination taints Burma’s legal, political and social spheres. Public international law notwithstanding, Burmese officials have long subjected Rohingya Muslims to a spectrum of human rights abuses including the denial of citizenship rights, restrictions on religious freedom, forced displacement, gender-based violence and the arbitrary deprivation of life. While often framed as an ostensible response to Rohingya militancy, official persecution of the ethnic and religious minority group spans decades.


Background

Historically, the Burmese viewed the Rohingya as illegal immigrants permitted entry by their former British colonizers despite the group’s precolonial ties to the land. This context shapes contemporary Burmese views of the group as “foreigners,” “Bengalis,” and even, “terrorists.” Such dehumanizing narratives have helped both private and public actors justify persecution culminating most recently in mass atrocity crimes. While the Rohingya can trace their ancestral ties to Burma at least to the 12th century, they are widely seen as “outsiders” who benefitted from colonial governance. The British ruled Myanmar (then Burma) for over a century, beginning with a series of wars in 1824. Colonial policies encouraged migrant labor in order to increase rice cultivation and profits. Many Rohingya entered Myanmar as part of these policies in the 17th century. During this time, the British also promised the Rohingya separate land – a “Muslim National Area” – in exchange for support. During the Second World War, for example, the Rohingya sided with the British while Myanmar’s nationalists supported the Japanese. Following the war, the British rewarded the Rohingya with prestigious government posts but they were not given an autonomous state as promised. In 1948, when Myanmar achieved independence from the British, violent conflicts erupted among various segments of its more than one hundred ethnic and racial groups.


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Suggested Citation:

Abdelkader, Engy, Myanmar: The Rohingya Crises as an Analytic Lens to Understanding Violent Extremism (November 25, 2019). Handbook on the Dynamics of Violent Extremism, Extremist Groups and State Fragility, Routledge, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3493716 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3493716

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