Jakarta Bomb a Warning That Burma’s Muslim-Buddhist Conflict May Spread

The fear now is that the plight of Burma's Muslim minority has become a battle cry for Islamist militants in Indonesia

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ROMEO GACAD / AFP / Getty Images

Armed police secure the compound of Ekayana Buddhist Centre in Jakarta in the early morning of Aug. 5, 2013, hours after a bombing attack hit the temple in the evening of Aug. 4

The Ekayana Buddhist Centre in western Jakarta is a gaudy, bustling place of worship for the Indonesian capital’s mostly ethnic Chinese Buddhists. Known for its colorful Lunar New Year celebrations and visits from celebrity monks, Ekayana last made headlines in 2012, when it was cited as proof of the new tolerance being shown toward Chinese Indonesians — a minority that has had to cope with decades of social exclusion and repression. But the center made the news again on Sunday, this time for a bombing that inflicted minor injuries on three members of a 300-strong congregation that had gathered for a sermon. One explosive device failed to go off and was found smoldering in a bucket. There was a note from the perpetrators that read “We respond to the screams of the Rohingya.”

The attack on Ekayana is a grim warning that the Muslim-Buddhist conflict in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, may be spilling over into other parts of Asia. Official persecution of the Muslim Rohingya of western Burma, who are not recognized by the Burmese government as citizens, has driven tens of thousands to flee the country, mostly across the border to squalid camps in Bangladesh or on rickety boats to Malaysia and Indonesia. A violent pogrom in 2012 in the Burmese state of Rakhine, where Rohingya make up about 40% of the population, saw many more killed and displaced after clashes with the Buddhist majority. The bloodshed has now migrated to other parts of Burma, with terrifying reports of Muslim women and children being massacred, Muslim homes razed and, in some cases, Buddhist monks goading on frenzied mobs. The Buddhist extremist movement 969 is thought to have backing from the highest levels of the Burmese government.

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The fear now is that the plight of the Rohingya has become a battle cry for Islamist militants in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. “Now the terrorists may have shifted their target from [Christian] churches to [Buddhist] temples,” warned national police chief Sutarman.

Indonesia already has its own share of ongoing religious strife — most notably hard-line Muslims’ attacks on Christian churches and persecution of minority Islamic groups like the Shi‘ites and the Ahmadis. But officials have been uncharacteristically quick to condemn the Ekayana bombing. “We are disturbed by the Ekayana temple bombing at the end of Ramadan,” tweeted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, referring to the Muslim fasting month that comes to an end today. “This is a damned and uncivilized action,” said Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who visited the temple on Monday morning. Yet their words may do little to restrain extremists for whom the Rohingya cause “is closer to home than, for example, the sectarian conflict in Syria,” says Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based terrorism expert and the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

Neither is the Ekayana bombing the first Rohingya-related trouble to have occurred in Indonesia. Last year, hard-liners from the Islamic Defenders Front vandalized Buddhist temples in Sulawesi during a pro-Rohingya rally. In April, Muslim and Buddhist refugees from Burma clashed at a camp in Sumatra, resulting in eight dead and 15 injured. In early May, police foiled a plot to bomb the Burmese embassy in Jakarta, capturing two men with pipe bombs en route to the site. Less than a week later, in two days of raids across Java, police arrested 13 suspected terrorists and killed seven others, some of whom were thought to have links with the embassy-bomb plot. Islamist radicals have been suspected of plotting attacks on Buddhist temples and a market in Jakarta’s Chinatown.

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Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, regarded as the spiritual leader of Islamist radicals in Southeast Asia and currently serving a 15-year jail sentence in Jakarta, has meanwhile taken up the cause of Burmese Muslims. In an open letter to Burmese President Thein Sein, dated July 22 and published on Islamic fundamentalist websites days before the Sunday bombing, he threatened to wage a war if Muslims continue to be harmed there. “You must know that we are brothers as Muslims. Their pain is our pain, their sorrows are our sorrows, and their blood that you shed is our blood too,” Bashir wrote. “By the will of Allah, we can destroy you and your people.”

None of the plots, bar the attack on Ekayana, have been successful. But it may only be a matter of time before tragedy strikes. The Ekayana bombing “should give a warning to both Indonesia and Myanmar that a failure to deal with violence in Myanmar can have implications beyond its borders,” says Jones. “ASEAN should put pressure on the government of Myanmar to take firm steps against the violence and prejudice on the Rohingya and other Muslims.”

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