Myanmar, the Rohingya, and Anti-China Jihadism

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Credit: Jihadology.net

China’s rise to great power status in conjunction with its policies and expanding influence in the Islamic world have elevated its profile within the contemporary media discourse and overall strategic consciousness of the global jihadist movement. Beijing has been most criticized and threatened by jihadists for its transgressions in Xinjiang, however, its support for states deemed illegitimate, hostile, and repressive have also drawn an increased level of attention from Islamist militants in recent years. One notable rhetorical flashpoint in this regard is that of Beijing’s backing of the Myanmar government and, by extension, its alleged complicity in the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority group. To be sure, China-Myanmar relations are not a top tier concern for most Islamist groups, yet such affairs have been periodically accentuated in recent years — the subject was notably brought to the forefront this past March in a lengthy video featuring al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri that was released through the organization’s chief propaganda outlet As-Sahab.

This strain of jihadist criticism focuses primarily on direct acts of violence and repression committed by the Myanmar government, its security forces, and hardline Buddhist elements against the Rohingya Muslim minority. However, Islamists do assign secondary blame to influential external players including China, the US, as well as international bodies like the United Nations (UN). In some cases, jihadists accuse said actors of actively supporting Myanmar government atrocities, while in other instances they fault them for passively enabling state violence.

The plight of Myanmar’s Muslim inhabitants, the Rohingya in particular, has long been an issue of interest for the global jihadist movement as evidenced by the public recognition received from Abdallah Azzam in the 1980s, Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Suri in the 1990s, and virtually every leader of the world’s prominent transnational militant organizations in the years since. Bin Laden, in his 1996 declaration of war on the United States, spoke of violence committed against Islamic populations in “Palestine and Iraq … Lebanon … Tajikistan, Burma (Myanmar), Kashmir, Assam, Philippine, Fattani, Ugadin, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya and in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

China’s accused role in such affairs is certainly a more obscure dynamic and is infrequently mentioned in jihadist media content. With this said, the issue of China-Myanmar relations gained an increased level of discursive traction in the 2010s, albeit from a low baseline. There was a proliferation in militant propaganda in response to events on the ground in 2012 as Myanmar security forces cracked down on the Rohingya and ethnic violence flared. In the years since, jihadist media coverage of Myanmar’s political and security developments has become more detailed and in-depth, which may explain why peripheral topics like Chinese policy in the region have increasingly come into focus.

With the end of the unipolar moment, jihadist organizations are evaluating the broader structural shifts taking place within the international system and, subsequently, the implications for Muslim populations located in regions that are site to great power competition between China and the United States.

In 2013, a writer going by ‘Abd Allah bin Muhammad’, who jihadism researcher Aaron Zelin identified as a pro-al-Qaeda ideologue active in the early 2010s, published a unique assessment of the geopolitical dynamics at play in Myanmar and provided recommendations on what should be done in this context to best protect the Rohingya Muslims. There are clearly issues with his analysis, and the feasibility of his prescribed solution is questionable at best, but his essay demonstrates how jihadist thinkers are paying close attention to international affairs, taking stock of the shifting global balance of power, and thinking in long-term, big picture, geo-strategic terms.

Abd Allah bin Muhammad explains how the “Buddhist regime in Burma” received “cover” from the “regional and international powers like Buddhist China and America,” as each power aspires to greater influence in the country and, therefore, does not want to aggravate the Myanmar government and thus hinder their respective regional ambitions.

He alleges America “seeks to drag the Burmese regime to an alliance at the expense of China,” which “made it more comfortable for the rulers of Myanmar in expelling a whole nation from its land and confiscation of all its rights without any political pressure or economic sanctions that prevent him from continuing in this unprecedented crime!”

The author then calls for the Rohingya to realize their “historical right in ruling the kingdom of Arakan” by taking up arms with the aim of establishing an “Islamic state of Arakan.” Such a polity, he argues, would give Rohingya Muslims autonomy and would act as a bulwark of security and stability, while providing the Rohingya diplomatic leverage with which to negotiate with “regional and international powers.”

He anticipated an intensifying great power competition and surmised the formation of a state would best position the Rohingya for a “global conflict in the east which is the geographic scope promised by the strategies of conflict of the great powers like America and China.” Referring to the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia, he described how America was “transferring military gravity towards East Asia and the Pacific Ocean in an indication for besieging China” and likewise wrote of Beijing’s intention to spread its influence and “change the balances of the game in the world and not only in Southeast Asia.”

He concludes by exalting Syria as an example to follow, suggesting the “strategic balances that allowed for the jihadi momentum to reach Syria amidst these warring regional and international poles will allow the presence of a jihadi movement that will be a nucleus for the Islamic State of Arakan Allah willing.”

Jihadist groups increasingly perceive China as an aggressor and imperialistic power that is actively expanding its political, economic, and military footprint abroad, supporting repressive governments, and exploiting natural resources. According to jihadist organizations like the Islamic State (IS), Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), and figures like the cleric Abu Zar al-Burmi, former leading mufti of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and current associate of the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the TIP, China is using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in part, to colonize Muslim lands.

To this point, the predominantly-Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party published an article in a 2019 issue of its Turkistan al-Islamiyya magazine accusing China of predatory behavior in its use of debt trap diplomacy and in actuating its strategy of leveraging the BRI to subjugate less powerful nations. In the article, they discuss the massacre and displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and highlight how China is developing a port on the country’s littoral to expand its influence in the region. Likewise, the TIP asserts that China is investing in and constructing ports from Myanmar to Djibouti to boost its naval power projection capabilities. Interestingly, the author notes how Xinjiang too is a part of China’s Belt and Road network, which spans the lands and coasts of the Islamic world. Jihadists have likened the suffering of Muslims in Xinjiang and the Rakhine (Arakan) in the past, but this illustration of the infrastructural and economic BRI connection between the two is quite peculiar.

Image credit: Jihadology.net

Abu Zar al-Burmi, a Pakistani national and himself of Burmese Rohingya descent, displays an intense blood-soil connection to the Muslims and lands of the Rakhine, paired with a fierce hatred of the Chinese government. He is a distinctive figure in the jihadist scene in Asia and is uniquely situated in the realm of anti-China militancy given his national and ethnic identity, rhetorical and linguistic abilities, organizational links, operational longevity, and persistence in railing against Beijing.

For al-Burmi, Chinese aggression against Islam begins domestically in Xinjiang and extends out into the international arena — he views China as an occupier of “East Turkistan” and a supporter of illegitimate, hostile, and repressive state governments abroad that includes the ruling body in Myanmar.

In a video released through the Turkistan Islamic Party’s media outlet Sawt al-Islam, he describes the struggles of the Uighurs and the Rohingya as unitary:

“I was asked what you know about eastern Turkistan. I answered that it is part of our Ummah (Islamic nation) and the people living there are our brothers and sisters. Thus how can our Muslim fighters not know our brothers and sisters who are living in an oppressed land? I came from Burma and we were oppressed by the Buddhists and Chinese too. I very well know what our brothers and sisters are facing … Muslims are not facing difficulties and oppressions such as Syria and Burma … We are not Uighurs, Pakistanis or Burmese in principle, but we are Muslims inside out.”

Al-Burmi presents a detailed analysis of the Myanmar government’s oppression of the Rohingya in a video titled “A Lost People: About the Tragedies of Burma.” In it, he exclaims, “we are heartbroken by the massacre…committed by a pagan Buddhist enemy which is the infidel, aggressive, oppressive, licentious state of Burma with support of China” insisting “the Ummah and especially the mujahidin should know that the coming enemy of the Ummah is China which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.” He delves into the history of Rohingya persecution, asserting how in “1965 the communist police government came that was supported by China and Russia and the oppression and aggression reached its peak.” Al-Burmi calls upon Muslims to “target the most important installations of Burma, China and Germany, and their interests and the interests of the United Nations, which supports these massacres and this genocide in Arakan.”

In one instance, he claimed the atrocities are part of a targeted Chinese plot to remove the Rohingya from regions containing oil resources.

Al-Burmi is not the only jihadist looking to inflict harm on China in retaliation to its support for the Myanmar government. In an interview with the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Mohamad Adhe Bhakti, the executive director of the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies (PAKAR), describes rising anti-China sentiment amongst Indonesia’s Islamists. The militants are reportedly incensed over China’s growing influence and footprint in Indonesia, its clampdown on the Uighurs, and the suffering of the Rohingya in Myanmar. He noted how these elements view Chinese nationals and Chinese-Indonesians as “infidels,” and how Myanmar government policy “somehow puts ethnic Indonesian-Chinese within the FPI’s sight, as the majority of them are Buddhists.”

The issue made headlines this past March when al-Qaeda released a video titled “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Ummah” that featured the organization’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although the content focuses foremost on the actions of Myanmar’s government and, secondarily, on perceived Western support for the atrocities, the production is particularly notable as it addresses China in three separate instances.

The narrator explains, “in spite of the horrendous nature of the genocide and racial cleansing of the Muslims of Rohingya, the ‘world community’ has remained silent, if not passively supportive of these crimes,” arguing “the reason is simple: the victims are Muslims, not Christians, Buddhists or atheists — the occupants of the five permanent seats in the UN Security Council.” The video includes a shot of a Chinese representative to the UN to emphasize the role of the latter party.

Continuing in the trend of the TIP, al-Burmi, and the Indonesian jihadists, the speaker follows by tying in China’s alleged abuses in Xinjiang, stating, “as for the oppression faced by the Uyghur Muslims, the criminality of the Chinese government has crossed all limits,” alleging “women are subjected to rape in concentration camps and are forcibly sterilized so that they are unable to bear children.”

The video features an audio clip of Osama bin Laden criticizing the United Nations Security Council purposed to reinforce and add gravitas to their accusations of UN dereliction and nefariousness:

“And I say, clarifying their domination of the Security Council, that Crusader International and pagan Buddhism hold the 5 permanent seats and what is called the privilege of the right of veto in what is called the Security Council. America and Britain represent the Protestant Christians, Russia represents the Orthodox Christians, and France represents the Catholic Christians, while China represents the Buddhists and pagans of the world.”

The connection bin Laden draws between China and Buddhism is an interesting nuance. It is found elsewhere in al-Qaeda’s video and in the statements made by Abd Allah bin Muhammad, Abu Zar al-Burmi, and the Indonesian jihadists. This representation of China as a Buddhist power is less common in jihadist propaganda about Chinese policy in Xinjiang or its activities in Pakistan that instead frames the country as atheistic. Such a description invokes China as a more intimate player with a deeper religious and cultural connection to the regional context of the conflict.

China’s domestic security crackdown against the Uighurs in Xinjiang and its growing influence in the Islamic world have drawn an increased level of attention from an expanded range of elements within the global jihadist movement in recent years. Although China is not a top priority enemy for most non-Uighur jihadist actors at this time, militants are taking note of Beijing’s support for governments they deem repressive and adversarial to Muslims. China’s relationship with Myanmar may be a marginal issue, however, it is yet another offence being added to the list of grievances held against Beijing, and, in an analogous way to how the other great powers are rhetorically framed, jihadist groups are developing an enemy profile of China as it rises and becomes more powerful on the international stage. As seen in how the United States and Russia are portrayed in jihadist propaganda, actions taken to strengthen and empower designated enemy governments of jihadism are points of intense focus for militants making the case for the direction and incitement of violence against influential nation-states.

Lucas Webber is a writer and researcher focused on geopolitics and militant movements. He tweets at @LucasADWebber. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.