With Islamist militant groups co-opting the cause of the persecuted Muslim minority, the crisis in Myanmar could escalate into regional religious conflict.

Last November, an ISIS sympathiser with explosives more powerful than the bombs used in the 2002 Bali attack that killed 202 people was arrested in Indonesia. According to authorities, a potential target was the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. An attack would send a message to the Buddhist-majority nation regarding the persecution of its Rohingya population, a Muslim minority considered by many in Myanmar to be illegal immigrants.

This persecution, which has flared up again since last October, is undermining regional peace, and nurturing extremist activity. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) are using the government’s abuse of the Rohingya, and the lack of support and attention given to the community, as a rallying call for jihad.

In October, a month before the arrest in Indonesia, a deadly attack on a border checkpoint in Myanmar, claimed by Islamist militants, led to a total military shutdown of Rakhine state, home to most of the country’s 1.4 million Rohingya. The subsequent crackdown included summary executions of civilians, rape, torture, and the displacement of tens of thousands. The operation has been labelled "ethnic cleansing" by a UN refugee agency. The army has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, while videos posted online purport to show otherwise. The military banned international observers from the area, making the situation difficult to verify.

Calls for action by governments in the region and activists to hold the Myanmar military to account have had little effect. Meanwhile, there has been little response from the broader international community, though the UN released a report this month detailing serious allegations against Myanmar’s security forces, including rape and mass killings.

Islamist extremists however, are tuned in to the already hostile and volatile situation and are creating their own narratives. In 2014, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced a focus on Myanmar, along with India and Bangladesh, leading Myanmar to tighten security. AQIS has reportedly trained Rohingya refugees in Afghanistan, and has called Myanmar a "21st century concentration camp" because of its treatment of the Muslim minority. More recently, in February an ISIS supporter planning to carry out jihad in Myanmar was arrested in Malaysia. According to Kuala Lumpur’s top counter-terror official, Myanmar is increasingly at risk of attack by jihadis fighting for the persecuted Rohingya minority.

Regional Reaction

Rohingya Muslim refugees shout slogans as they carry a man in chains during a protest against the persecution in Myanmar, outside the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

There are plenty of people in the region who are angry over the treatment of the Rohingya and who could be susceptible to these narratives. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, all Muslim-majority countries, have seen large-scale protests, as well as Thailand and - outside the region - South Africa. Bangladesh, from where Myanmar believes the Rohingya illegally migrated, and which already has problems with Islamist militancy, is barely coping with the pressure from thousands of Rohingya refugees who have poured over the border.

These are unchecked ingredients for radicalism and conflict, and they are threatening to turn a civil rights struggle into a religious battle. Marginalised refugees and angry sympathisers are vulnerable to recruitment by extremists who can exploit their cause.

South East Asian leaders are also getting anxious about jihadi returnees from Iraq and Syria. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has warned that ISIS would look towards the region as it is pushed out of the Middle East, while the Indonesian military believes the group seeks to establish a new base of operation in the southern Philippines. These battle-hardened militants could also shift their focus on nearby Myanmar.

The extent of the problem is highlighted by the October border attack itself. According to the International Crisis Group, it was perpetrated by a group of Rohingya with links to Saudi Arabian and Pakistani militancy. Harakat al-Yakin, which claimed responsibility for the assault, has not yet engaged civilians and has stated that its main purpose is to end the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, and secure citizenship for the minority.

Exploiting the Conflict

There is a risk that sustained pressure by the country’s military on ordinary Rohingya Muslims will alter Harakat al-Yakin. A religious calling, coupled with a cause, international jihadi links, and growing support is a dangerous combination.

Groups like al-Qaeda have employed this narrative to recruit around the world before. In Bosnia in 1992, ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosniaks and slow international action drew foreign fighters to rally to the cause, forging a generation of jihadis. As did Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown.

For many in Muslim communities the world over, the Rohingya conflict is already framed as religious. The lack of international engagement is reinforcing the binary world view put forward by jihadis.

Bloodshed in the Middle East rightfully deserves our attention. But by having a largely regionalised focus, we risk creating blind spots where abuse and extremism may continue to fester.

As ISIS looks to new frontiers, its insurgent ability to adapt and exploit regions with porous borders and limited state control should cause concern. Its changing focus, and returning fighters could provide this expertise to other jihadis and recruits in South East Asia.

The silence of Myanmar’s Nobel peace prize-winning de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and an international community mostly otherwise occupied is creating a vacuum in which this conflict could escalate. Left unchecked, the plight of the Rohingya could become a catalyst for a broader regional conflict. The religious framing of Myanmar’s crackdown is adding fuel to the fires of Islamist militancy. The international community must not allow violent extremists the opportunity to hijack another conflict.