Thanks to modern communications, an old phenomena might be getting a more serious, modern twist in Asian conflicts. Extremists of various stripes have long lumped together disparate groups of people with only weak ties in order to suggest a global alliance against the extremists’ own favored in-group. A typical example in the contemporary West would be the far right’s demonization of Muslims, under which narrators try to present a coherent worldview that ties the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania (in West Africa) into the activities of the Indonesian government. Suggesting that one’s local adversaries are more powerful than they really are, and that weaker foes are actually part of a malignant global bloc aligned against the extremist’s own in-group, is a time-honored propaganda tactic. With the spread of cheap smartphones and other near-instantaneous means of communication however, there are now signs that hardliners in various local conflicts are taking the propaganda of “enemy” groups from elsewhere, and using it to justify their own atrocities at home.
An early example of this development in action can be seen in the way that Myanmar’s persecution of its Rohingya Muslim minority increased after the then-Taliban government demolished two ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province in 2001. The hard-line Taliban took this action for internal political reasons unrelated to any sectarian animus toward Buddhists in particular; the population of Afghanistan is 99.7 percent Muslim, while the people of nearby Bamiyan city are Shia Muslims, a far more common target for the Sunni fundamentalists who join groups like the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban movements. In Myanmar, however, the destruction of the Buddha statues and the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington that same year fueled resentful local perceptions of Muslims as violent and untrustworthy neighbors, according to a contemporary Human Rights Watch report. These feelings were easily exploited by local actors to launch another round of Myanmar’s regular persecutions against non-Buddhist minorities. In 2002, it was stateless Muslim Rohingya who were the primary targets of sectarian persecution, though they were not the only Muslim minorities attacked by mobs.
As is so often the case in contemporary Myanmar, the perpetrators in 2002 went unpunished by the then-military government. In fact the country’s military has long had close ties with the hard-line Buddhist monks fomenting much of the current anti-Muslim animus in Myanmar today; the appeal of extreme nationalism in modern Myanmar even has some commentators drawing comparisons to historical forms of European fascism. But the periodic outbreaks of violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities have also drawn the attention of the Islamic world to Myanmar. Now, thanks to modern media technology, just as Buddhists around the world were made aware of destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in the early 2000s, so Muslim communities quickly learn of attacks against their co-religionists in places like Myanmar. The cause of the Rohingya today has been elevated out of global obscurity into something of a cause celebre in the Muslim world as a result.
Extremist groups, as always, were somewhat ahead of this curve. Even earlier, smaller clashes between Rohingya and Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012 drew the ire of Muslim extremists outside of Southeast Asia for example; the Pakistani Taliban (a related but separate branch of the movement that destroyed the statutes of the two Buddhas in Afghanistan) demanded that Pakistan cut off diplomatic relations with Myanmar, whose generals had good relations with their Pakistani counterparts. Even in 2012, before the persecution of the Royhingas had assumed today’s catastrophic proportions, there were worries that Islamists in South Asia could target diplomats from Buddhist countries to solidify their claim to stand up for the global community of Muslims. Similar fears surround China’s treatment of the Muslim minority in its Xinjiang region, and the potential for escalation elsewhere in Asia, particularly as Beijing’s Belt and Road project causes the new superpower to expand into unstable areas of the world where it had previously not had much of a presence.
Of course, the idea of a single continental struggle between Muslims and other groups in Asia is an overblown one, found mainly in the literature of extremist Buddhist groups in places like Sri Lanka or Myanmar. But the propaganda value of broadcasting government repression of Muslims in non-Muslim majority countries, or recording the crimes committed against non-Muslims by Muslim extremist groups, can quickly create a dynamic where extremists in otherwise unrelated conflicts seek out atrocities in distant struggles in order to justify their actions at home. For example, Hezbi-i-Islami, an extremist group in Afghanistan that signed a peace agreement with the Afghan government last year, recently drew explicit attention to the way the destruction of the Bamiyan statues by the Taliban in 2001 increased persecution of Muslims thousands of miles away in Myanmar, eventually culminating (though it did not explicitly say so) in the recent ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community there.
As a group that has recently changed sides in the Afghan civil war between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, Hezbi-i-Islami of course has its own agenda; accusing the Taliban of recklessly endangering other Muslims overseas undermines the group’s claim to be a defender of Sunni Muslims, and by inference, paints Hezbi-i-Islami as correct to have abandoned the rebel cause in Afghanistan. But it is an interesting confirmation of how extremists themselves now recognize that the effects of actions they take in a local conflict can have global repercussions elsewhere, repercussions they might once have remained in ignorance of just a few decades earlier. Moreover, in the new information era, separate conflicts are also now increasingly universally compared to one another, even by moderates and peace activists, as though their situations were somehow linked. Sometimes these comparisons can encourage hardliners to feel victorious in their efforts to portray local enemies as pawns in a global struggle.
For example, in Asian and Western media outlets some comparisons have been made between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya. Israeli arms sales to Myanmar have even been interpreted as evidence of a tacit alliance between two non-Muslim powers, who are both seen as hostile to Islam. Though there are diplomatic ties, the two governments do not have a particularly close history of working together, yet they are often linked in the media and by activists. Similarly, extremist monks in places like Myanmar have begun using mainstream media stories covering faraway conflicts between various Muslim and non-Muslim populations to justify their own narrative of a global struggle against the Islamic religion. This conveniently avoids any discussion of the many splits within Islam, and within Islamic countries, that quickly exposes the idea of any kind of united Muslim world conspiracy or popular front as preposterous.
In reality, Muslims today are the group most victimized by the very same Islamic terrorists used to demonize them by extremists in other countries and cultures. This shows that while it is now easier than ever to get information on conflicts in distance places, bias and lack of contextual understanding can make it easy for local prejudices to be inflamed by selective filtering of the images and statements shown online and through social media. For example, attention on the responsibility for the massacres in Myanmar has largely focused on the twin roles of human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi and various Buddhist monks; yet the policy of ethnic cleansing was probably decided upon by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the actual commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces, whom the elected civilian government does not control. He is a known Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar military are known) hardliner, who first rose to prominence in 2009 when he led a brutal campaign against the ethnic Kokang Chinese of the rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
With so many hardline groups now online and looking to push a slanted agenda, sometimes over conflicts few outside their region will even have heard of, international media groups and unconnected governments will have to become even more sensitive to how events they are portraying could be interpreted or misused by actors far away.
Neil Thompson is a freelance journalist and analyst. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the International Security Network, the Independent, and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and is presently based in London.