Myanmar’s religious violence threatens South-east Asia

Myanmar’s religious violence threatens South-east Asia

Renewed violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar appears to be spreading regionally. Since May, at least eight people have died in a series of retaliatory attacks by Muslims from Myanmar against Myanmar Buddhists in Kuala Lumpur, which has a community of Myanmar refugees and illegal workers.


Renewed violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar appears to be spreading regionally. Since May, at least eight people have died in a series of retaliatory attacks by Muslims from Myanmar against Myanmar Buddhists in Kuala Lumpur, which has a community of Myanmar refugees and illegal workers.

Concerns abound that the violence among Myanmar nationals in Malaysia may radicalise non-Myanmar Muslims, and this could lead to a vicious cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals.The spate of anti-Muslim attacks in Myanmar in recent months has agitated Muslims in neighbouring South-east Asian countries.

Since June last year, approximately 200 people, mostly Muslims, have died in the expanding sectarian fighting between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. While the violence was still centred in Rakhine state last year, it has spread throughout the country this year.

Seen as a sign of increasing ultra-nationalist Buddhist violence, these attacks have been associated with the 969 campaign, which promotes the boycott of Muslim businesses and the segregation of Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar.


The renewed violence in Myanmar has provoked Buddhist-Muslim tensions in both Malaysia and Indonesia.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 83,000 refugees in Malaysia from Myanmar, 28,000 of whom are registered as Rohingya — a Muslim ethnic group from Rakhine state. This figure adds to the existing 257,000 Myanmar nationals in Muslim-majority Malaysia who are mostly illegal workers.

In response to the recent retaliatory attacks in Kuala Lumpur, Myanmar officials have asked the Malaysian government to do its utmost to protect Myanmar citizens and take action against those responsible for the attacks. Naypyidaw has also sent a delegation of senior ministers to Kuala Lumpur to observe the situation and lodge protests should their citizens not be adequately protected.

In the meantime, however, the trend of Myanmar Muslims seeking vengeance for the persecution of their brethren in Myanmar shows no sign of abating.


While Myanmar’s religious tensions have gradually spilled over into Malaysia, the rallying cry has been most vocal in the world’s largest Muslim nation: Indonesia. Jakarta has demonstrated continuous support for Muslim minorities in Myanmar.

In January this year, the Indonesian government pledged US$1 million (S$1.3 million) to aid the Muslims in Myanmar. However, some of the sympathy and assistance has also come from Muslim hardliners in Indonesia.

In July last year, imprisoned radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’ashir wrote a letter to President Thein Sein threatening violent jihad, or holy war, against Myanmar over the persecution of the Rohingya.

In April this year, Ba’ashir reinforced his statement by calling forth mujahideen for the jihad on Myanmar’s Buddhist population.

In September last year, an Indonesian Muslim man turned himself in to the police and admitted to having planned a suicide bomb attack against local Buddhists in Jakarta.

In May this year, the police foiled an attempt by Indonesian militants to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. On the following day, protests were held outside the same embassy, with some 1,000 Indonesian Muslims denouncing the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and supporting Ba’ashir’s call for jihad. Similar protests were held in Medan and Solo, Central Java.

While some support for the Muslims of Myanmar is genuine, there are concerns that radical Muslims outside Myanmar could exploit the situation to support their narratives of Muslims being persecuted to recruit followers. In turn, this could feed into the narratives of Myanmar’s violent Buddhists, who believe that certain Muslim ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, are supported by foreign radicals.

Unless this situation is firmly addressed by regional governments, South-east Asia could be at grave risk of more Muslims becoming radicalised for the “Myanmar cause”.


With Myanmar’s inter-religious skirmishes generating a spillover effect that threatens regional stability, measures must be taken to bring about durable solutions.

Firstly, Naypyidaw must make concerted efforts to arrest and prosecute those accountable for the violence inside Myanmar, especially the complicit local authorities, such as those evident during the outbreaks of violence in Lashio and Meikhtila.

Secondly, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) should put more pressure on Naypyidaw by stressing the risk of a regional spillover from its internal problem of sectarian violence. While intervention by ASEAN member states in Myanmar’s domestic affairs is unlikely, ASEAN could play a constructive role by facilitating dialogues, such as those seen in Mindanao and Aceh. Such pressures upon Myanmar to end the violence could be collectively initiated by ASEAN’s Muslim nations like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Indonesia, in particular, could lead by example as Jakarta has successfully defused its own conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Ambon and Poso a decade ago.

ASEAN should refrain from taking short-term solutions. Rather, it should develop coherent plans that would yield long-lasting peace in Myanmar. While such measures do not guarantee success, they may well encourage Myanmar to do more to address its home-grown violence which is threatening regional security.


Eliane Coates is a Research Analyst at the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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