x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Indian temple blasts reveal simmering regional fault lines

Explosions at Buddhism's holiest place are a warning that worse trouble could be ahead. the issue is the plight of the Rohingya.

The peace of Buddhism's holiest shrine was shattered on July 7 when blood splattered around the Bodhi Tree - the place where the story of Buddhism began.

Starting at 5.30am, nine bombs exploded within half an hour at the Mahibodhi Temple, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Bodh Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar. Three more were defused. Two monks were injured.

The events that followed the attacks are symptomatic of a broader political culture in India that sees such incidents merely in terms of the number of votes that can be grabbed in next year's general elections.

But such political strategies overlook the need of the hour: to find a remedy to the Rohingya issue in neighbouring Myanmar that officials believe was behind these attacks.

Since the bombing, there has been a lot of criticism that open threats to Buddhist sites in India made by jihadist groups went unheeded before the blasts. But beyond the much-used line about "lax security at the temple", lies a less-reported story of the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and how their plight connects to the Bodh Gaya incidents.

Over the past year, the Al Qaeda- linked jihadist group Tehreek-e-Taliban, in Pakistan, warned of attacks to avenge cruelties against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Last month Lashkar-i-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed tweeted the claim that India is helping Myanmar "wipe out [the] Muslim population".

While no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Indian Mujahideen (an increasingly active, indigenous jihadist group) and the Lashkar-i-Taiba, an Islamist terror group, are considered prime suspects.

The Rohingya, a Muslim group that lives mainly in Myanmar's Rakhine state, have been stateless since 1982, when they were denied the right to citizenship.

Numbering four per cent of the Burmese population, they are routinely discriminated against in education, health care and freedom of movement. Hundreds of thousands of them have been forced to live in squalid refugee camps strung along the country's border with Bangladesh.

Violence and suspicion hang heavily in the air between the Rohingya and the vast majority of Myanmar's population. In May last year, a young Buddhist woman was reportedly raped and murdered by a group of Rohingya men. Retaliatory attacks followed.

New violence was sparked last October. In one attack 70 Rohingya were killed in a village that was burnt to the ground.

According to some estimates, since the communal fighting broke out last year, more than 100,000 Rohingya have been displaced from their homes.

The international community has softly acknowledged the Rohingya as victims but Myanmar's biggest neighbours, India and China, have been mute about the human rights violations meted out to the Muslim minority.

Economics help explain that silence: Myanmar is a trade partner for both its big neighbours, and is set to become a larger one.

At the crossroads of South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia, Myanmar is of paramount strategic importance.

Before the early 1990s India took a hard line against the military regime that ruled Myanmar. However, the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the past two decades has softened this stance somewhat. So has Myanmar's closeness to China, which India aspires to counter.

For some of the Indian media, it is convenient to connect the plight of the Rohingya with the Bodh Gaya bomb blasts. But in the months ahead these bombings will not be the only fallout of the situation in Myanmar.

The continued disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and their movement out of Myanmar means that their refugee camps will provide a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist outfits in the region. Marginalised communities and radical causes are a potentially toxic mixture.

The Maoist uprising in Central India, which Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, has called "the greatest internal security threat to India" has found many recruits in India's tribal populations, who have been almost entirely left out of India's economic growth. The Maoist leaders have been arming these tribes and pushing them to challenge the ideology that "dehumanised" them in the first place.

The Rohingya crisis could create conditions for another version of this recruitment model. To prevent that, India's government needs to move now, showing resolve and impressing on Myanmar's leader Thein Sein and his government that they need to ensure fair treatment for the Muslim minority.

And the international community must follow suit. The way forward has to be for Myanmar to adopt an inclusionist strategy and work towards according citizen status to the Rohingya.

Only if that happens, can bomb blasts like these be consigned to history.


Priya Virmani is a commentator on politics and economics based in London