Bodh Gaya blast alerts: Who are the Rohingya Muslims?

Intelligence reports have claimed that conflicts between the Buddhist majority in Burma and the Rohingya Muslims minority in Burma are being mined by Pakistan-based terrorist groups, a phenomenon which is being linked to the attacks on Bodh Gaya

FP Staff July 08, 2013 11:32:55 IST
Bodh Gaya blast alerts: Who are the Rohingya Muslims?

In March of this year, a boat with 108 people on it was rescued by the Indian Coastal Guard off the Indian shore. The occupants of the boat had almost given up hope; they had been at sea without food or water for the last two weeks while trying to escape the country which had subjected them to years of oppression and hardship.

These people were the Rohingyas - an ethnic group who practice Islam. The origin of the group is heavily disputed. While they claim (a claim which is supported by historians) that they are indigenous to the Rakhine state of Myanmar, others (mostly those of the Myanmar regime) claim that the Rohingyas are Muslim migrants who originated in Bengal (latterly Bangladesh) who came to Myanmar during British rule.

Bodh Gaya blast alerts Who are the Rohingya Muslims

Rohingya migrants sit on the boat at a port in Aceh, after their boat was rescued. AP

Now the Rohingyas are back in the news – the conflicts between the Buddhist majority in Myanmar and the Rohingya Muslims minority in Myanmar are apparently being mined by Pakistan-based terrorist groups, a phenomenon which is being linked to the attacks on Bodh Gaya, a Buddhist religious spot.

"There are long-standing relations between Bangladesh-based Islamist groups, which used to be happy hunting ground for the ISI, and the Rohingyas,” Ajai Sahni of the South Asia Terrorism Portal said. “These were connected by Bangladesh-based groups like HuJI (B). But these activities have come down in the past few years. However, given the conflict in Myanmar, it would be easy to activate such links by Pakistani terror groups. Blasts like this have the dual purpose of attacking Buddhist shrines, and India.”

A Firstpost report by Praveen Swamy (read here) also corroborated the reports, saying that government sources have said that since January, the Intelligence Bureau had issued several warnings pointing to heightened risks to Buddhist religious targets in India, as a consequence of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar.

Though it is too soon to come to conclusions about who the perpetrators of the Bodh Gaya blasts might have been – as the Firstpost report concludes – the intelligence information has thrown a rare light on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, and how this might be taken advantage of and mobilised by jihadi groups in other countries.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission has designated Rohingyas as “the most oppressed people in the world”, and even more damningly, the Rohingyas are ‘stateless’ – which means that they are not considered as nationals by any state under the operation of the law. This opens them up to the kind of domestic abuse and international indifference not many minorities in the world have been subjected to.

The situation came into the international spotlight (however limited it was) in June of last year with the massacre of 10 Muslim pilgrims in Rakhine state, which marked the beginning of a long line of pogroms. Since then, stories have been written about no medical aid, about upwards of 85,000 displaced people, mobs lynching and driving away Rohingyas and apartheid-like policies of segregation.

According to a Reuters report in May, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and local officials were exulting in what they regarded as a hard-won triumph in central Sittwe, the capital: streets almost devoid of Muslims. Before last year's violence, the city's Muslims numbered about 73,000, nearly half its population. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 left.

According to an editorial on Open Democracy by Amal de Chickera, besides the role of the Myanmar regime, the reactions of the international community have played a hand in shaping the destiny of the Rohingyas. Firstly, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and what can be termed as the Western Block (EU, US, Australia, etc) acknowledge that the Rohingyas are victims, but not loudly enough, perhaps in an attempt to evade responsibility for them. The second narrative, which also evades the human rights question is from host countries like Malaysia and Thailand, who hold that the Rohingyas and both victim and opportunists. Neither of these narratives has helped the Rohingya crisis, and both have in fact been detrimental to the cause.

In an ideal world, the information that terrorist groups are establishing links with disaffected Rohingya Muslims would lead to international efforts to address the needs and concerns of this group before they are co-opted by a terrorist organisation. But the stateless Rohingyas will probably continue to be that invisible phenomenon known as “someone else’s problem” for the discernable future, until the problem escalates to the point that it becomes detrimental to the national security of other countries.

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