Malaysian police detained 54 illegal immigrants from Myanmar on June 9, a week after detaining another 1,000 Myanmar nationals. The detentions followed a series of reprisal attacks in Malaysia between Myanmar Buddhists and Rohingyas, many of whom fled sectarian violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state in 2012. In recent weeks, at least seven separate sectarian attacks occurred in various parts of Kuala Lumpur and cities in nearby Selangor state, leaving four dead and eight injured, all Buddhists from Myanmar. A similar clash occurred in Indonesia in early April, when a brawl in an immigration detention center left eight Buddhists from Myanmar dead and a dozen Rohingyas injured.
Radical Buddhist groups in Myanmar — such as the "969 movement," whose anti-Muslim and ultranationalist propaganda have heightened sectarian tensions at home — reportedly operate in neighboring countries with Myanmar refugee populations (though abroad it has largely limited itself to activities like handing out leaflets), increasing the chances of the sorts of clashes seen recently in Malaysia and Indonesia. Such clashes are largely an extension of Myanmar's intercommunal tensions.
Muslim-Buddhist tensions have long simmered in Myanmar, but the government managed to control the issues along with various other internal conflicts during its decades of military rule. But in an unforeseen consequence of Myanmar's increasingly open society, the long-standing ethnic and sectarian conflicts have been increasingly boiling over.
Naypyidaw now faces the difficult task of managing racial and sectarian conflicts within its borders while facing increased scrutiny from its neighbors, who increasingly view Myanmar's problems as exacerbating their own. Several nearby countries have already been struggling with their own intercommunal tensions and fears of cross-border militancy. Such challenges are particularly acute in eastern Bangladesh, southern Thailand and the remote northeast Indian state of Assam. In each of these places, governments fear that Rohingya refugees could add another insurgency to an already volatile mix, further jeopardizing central control.
As sectarian violence spreads from Myanmar to its neighbors, Myanmar in return runs the risk of drawing attention from Islamic extremists. Since Muslim-Buddhist violence erupted in 2012, the Myanmar government's inability or unwillingness to take steps to end the violence against Rohingyas has provoke a strong rhetorical response from its Muslim-majority neighbors. From even further abroad, Hezbollah and the Taliban have condemned the killings in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing and threatened to attack foreign and domestic Myanmar targets.
Threats from so far afield may well be empty given that both foreign militant groups have higher priorities. However, threats from Myanmar's Muslim-dominated neighbors have more substance. In early May, for example, an attack against the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta was foiled. Radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who inspired the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people and who has prompted protests by hundreds of hard-line Muslims demanding jihad against Myanmar, is thought to have inspired the plotters.
More concerning for Myanmar, the outflow of Rohingya refugees could lead to stronger contacts between Myanmar Muslims and regional Islamist militants. Such militants could recruit disaffected Rohingyas to their own cause or provide them with supplies for attacks back in Myanmar.
As Myanmar's various ethnic conflicts continue to hold back the country's nascent economic revival, the consequences from sectarian spillover add yet another challenge to its efforts to open up to the outside world.