Rangoon Region Border Affairs and Security Ministry said it has beefed up security in Rangoon with CCTV surveillance and patrols at various religious sites and increased monitoring of arrivals at the international airport in the wake of a declaration by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri that the terror network has expanded its jihad to India, Bangladesh and Burma.
Burma’s police force said it is seeking help from Interpol with regard to intelligence gathering; meanwhile Rangoon Minister Col. Tin Win has urged citizens to be vigilant and report any suspicious activities in the city.
However, several observers have questioned the impact such security measures will play on the civil rights of citizens, particularly towards the Muslim community.
Meanwhile, several local Islamic leaders rejected the notion of an extremist element in Burmese society, with the Burmese Muslim Association denouncing Al-Qaeda as “morally repugnant”.
Speaking to DVB on Wednesday, Kyaw Win from the Burmese Muslim Association noted that despite five decades of persecution, Burma’s Muslims have never retaliated by taking up arms. “We believe that violence is not the solution,” he said.
Several international voices jumped to the defence of Burma’s Muslim community and the Rohingyas of Arakan State who have recently been the focus of attacks by extreme nationalists.
“It appears that this Al-Qaeda statement is in response to the popularity of IS in the Middle East,” said Chris Lewa, director of NGO Arakan Project, which funds Rohingya projects. “There is no evidence that such jihadist movements have ever appealed to Burmese Muslims or Rohingyas.”
Security Analyst Rahul Bhonsle, from Indian intelligence network Security-risks.com told DVB that, “There is some degree of potential to fan the flames of violence through the Rohingya, as well as through the Muslim and Buddhist divide that has recently surged in the country.”
However he also expressed doubts over their ability of mass recruitment in Burma, despite oppression. “Rohingyas follow Sufi Sunnism which is anathema to Al-Qaeda, so they will not be able to carry out a mass recruitment programme [in Burma]. Nevertheless, developments have to be watched,” he said.
Following Al-Zawahiri’s call to arms, made public on a video on 3 September, the President’s Office in Naypyidaw immediately assured the public that there was no reason for panic, saying the security apparatus was in place to defend Burmese citizens. Zaw Htay, the director of the President’s Office, cautioned citizens to “handle inflammatory speech cautiously as it could lead to conflicts”.
However, there is a growing concern among many Burma watchers that new security measures will be used as a tool to harass Muslims. Mathew Smith from Bangkok-based Fortify Rights said, “We’re concerned the state and certain groups of civilians might use this threat to further demonise Muslim populations, which is the wrong tack to take if the objective is peace and security.”
His sentiment was echoed by David Mathieson, the senior researcher on Burma in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
“Residents of Rangoon of all faiths and ethnicities will realise that beefed up security measures under the guise of anti-terrorism imperil all their basic liberties, and the real vigilance of the citizens should be to ensure that the government doesn’t misuse them to coerce critics and restrict legitimate peaceful political activities,” he said.
A Rohingya activist who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the situation, said, “The Burmese government will use any excuse to clamp down further on the rights of Muslims in the country, which is a concern. Such moves will only lead to resentment which could then be exploited.”
In restive Arakan State however, where anti-Muslim mob violence has been triggered on occasion by seemingly innocuous personal incidents over the past two years, a more vigilant set of values has taken root.
Dr. Aye Maung, deputy leader of the Rakhine National Party and an upper house MP, told DVB this week: “Most Arakanese people are afraid of the jihad movement declaration. We [Buddhists] are the minority in the northern part of Arakan, where 98 percent are Muslims.”
On the question of whether heightened security could be used to silence any one group of people, Aye Maung said that the government has no intention of harassing any particular community. “The government has the right to defend their territory and sovereignty,” he said. “Nonetheless, it will go about security procedures in a prescribed manner.”