By Ding Gang Source: Global Times Published: 2017-2-8
The situation in Rakhine state on the western coast of Myanmar is facing an increasingly severe challenge as signs show that the Islamic State (IS) and other Islamic extremist groups from Southeast Asia are sneaking across the border into the area.
Rakhine state is situated in an arc-shaped region in Asia with a large Muslim population that covers countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, as well as regions including Mindanao in the Philippines, southern Thailand and southern Myanmar. The region is marred by social instability due to its ethnically and religiously diverse residents. In Myanmar, the most heated conflict is between Islamist and Buddhist groups.
The state is also home to the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group. Approximately 140,000 Rohingya people were officially quarantined in camps in the wake of a large-scale conflict between Buddhists and Rohingya in 2012.
The makeshift quarantine cannot sustain Rohingya`s lives and the dire conditions have driven a great deal of them to flee the country. The resulting refugee crisis has destabilized the neighboring regions and invited vehement discontent among Muslim countries.
The IS and Southeast Asian Islamic extremists started spreading into this region amid the aggravating conflicts. Malaysia police recently found that IS-backed recruitments have been set up to help Rohingya people cross the border.
The Myanmar investigation also found a terrorist group was responsible for the attack on three police stations at Rakhine`s border with Bangladesh in October. Thereafter, Buddhist extremist groups launched another wave of attacks on Rohingya.
Despite the repeated vows of Myanmar`s National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government to find solutions to the refugee crisis, the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi admitted that there is yet a roadmap in the short term.
Concerns have been raised that the government cannot control the military, and meanwhile, is unwilling to offend the majority Bamar group, its key electoral voters. It is of great worry that with the escalating sectarian conflicts, greater scale of violence aimed at Muslims from Myanmar`s Buddhism extremist groups would break out, triggering an extensive unrest across the country.
If that situation occurs, Myanmar`s military is likely to intervene to reinstate its authority over the country. Myanmar`s incipient democracy would be dealt a blow.
At the informal meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in December, the Malaysian government proposed to establish a task force to investigate if Myanmar`s military has imposed violence against the Rohingya. This pro-Muslim advice is unlikely to be followed.
At the present, alternative media and international observers are not allowed to enter the Rakhine state. Aid organizations are banned as well by reason of safety concerns. Thus, it is very difficult to provide humanitarian aids to the area.
The dire situation there also could harm China`s interest. In Rakhine, China has built facilities like wharfs, tank stations and reservoirs, as well as communication towers to serve the oil and gas pipeline connecting Kyaukpyu with Kunming in Southwest China`s Yunnan Province.
Though the pipeline between China and Myanmar is currently safe from the refugee crisis, once terrorists enter the area, the whole region would be in turmoil. This will put the operation and development of Chinese enterprises, and Myanmar government`s economic plans in Kyaukpyu in peril.
Some Westerners believe that Myanmar would follow the same path as Syria. But for the time being, the Suu Kyi-led government still has popular support internationally and intervention from outside powers is not yet needed.
If Asian powers like China and India could coordinate with ASEAN or appeal to UN`s engagement together with the Myanmar government, a roadmap to stabilize the unrest is possible.
Provided that there is a fundamental stability, all sides could step up further negotiation and map out a resettlement plan for the Rohingya.
The author is a senior fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.