It’s a scene straight out of Myanmar’s dark past: a military offensive waged beyond world view that forces ethnic minority villagers from the smoldering ruins of their homes.
The US government, a key sponsor of Myanmar’s democratic transition, says a security crackdown that has displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims and left an unknown number dead risks radicalizing a downtrodden people and stoking religious tensions in Southeast Asia.
The military moved in after armed attacks by unknown assailants on police posts along the border with Bangladesh in October.
The attacks in Rakhine State were a possible sign that a small number of Rohingya were starting to fight back against persecution by majority Buddhists who view them as illegal immigrants although many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The top US diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, is critical of the military’s heavy-handed approach and says the escalation of violence risks inciting jihadist extremism in the country also known as Burma.
He is also calling on neighboring countries, such as Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, to resist the urge to stage protests that could further stir religious passions.
Assistant Secretary of State Russel told The Associated Press that, “if mishandled, Rakhine State could be infected and infested by jihadism which already plagues neighboring Bangladesh and other countries.”
The plight of the Rohingya, once characterized by the UN as the world’s most friendless people, has attracted the attention of Muslim extremists since a spike in intercommunal violence in Rakhine in 2012 that left hundreds dead and forced more than 100,000 into squalid camps.
The Somali-born student who launched a car-and-knife attack at Ohio State University this week reportedly protested on his Facebook page about the killing of minority Muslims in Myanmar.
And last weekend, Indonesian authorities arrested two militants who were allegedly planning to attack the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta.
It has also raised hackles in the political mainstream.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, facing domestic pressure over an investment fund scandal, is reportedly planning to attend a protest in his religiously moderate country this weekend condemning the military operation in Myanmar.
Daniel Sullivan at the advocacy group Refugees International said increasing numbers of Rohingya are fleeing across the land border to Bangladesh, and the spike in violence could set off another exodus by sea.