The government of Myanmar, cracking down on the country’s minority Muslims, has arrested at least a dozen people on charges of belonging to a terrorist group that defense lawyers and security experts say does not exist.
The administration of President Thein Sein has refused to disclose any evidence that the “Myanmar Muslim Army” is real — raising the prospect that the government invented an Islamic terrorist threat to justify a new front in its longtime persecution of Muslims. The exact number of people arrested is unclear, but The Intercept has obtained documents and conducted interviews in Myanmar about three cases — one of them involves 12 people accused of having links to the alleged group, the second involves five people accused of plotting to plant bombs in several unspecified places in the country, and the third is against a man accused of funding the group. All of them were arrested between September and November.
“The accused have received training in Myanmar Muslim Army camps, which has been launched and is operating illegally,” reads one of the court documents obtained by The Intercept.
Officially, about 4 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, but the actual number is believed to be higher, perhaps as much as 10 percent. The largest Muslim population, the Rohingya ethnic group, is concentrated in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, while other Muslims are scattered all over the country. The Rohingya are the most persecuted group: the government has denied them citizenship for decades, and according to several human rights groups, they are the targets of an ethnic cleansing campaign that has helped prompt a desperate exodus by boat in which an estimated 300 people died in the first quarter of this year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But non-Rohingya Muslims also face discrimination even though they are citizens of Myanmar. In recent years, sporadic explosions of anti-Muslim violence have taken place outside Rakhine State. The Muslims accused of belonging to the “Myanmar Muslim Army” or plotting terrorist actions hail mostly from central and northern Myanmar.
After five decades of military rule, Myanmar launched in 2011 a process of political transition to what its generals have termed a “discipline-flourishing democracy.” A semi-civilian government made up of former generals was established, hundreds of political prisoners were released in successive amnesties, and the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was allowed to be elected to Parliament in by-elections held in 2012 after having spent 15 years under house arrest.
The transition has given the government a degree of international acceptance unthinkable a few years ago. In 2005, Condoleezza Rice, testifying at a Senate hearing to confirm her as secretary of state, included Myanmar in a list of “outposts of tyranny,” but in 2012 Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, where he praised the transition process. Hillary Clinton has also visited Myanmar and admitted in her 2014 memoir that it’s “hard to resist getting breathless” about the country’s progress. The Myanmar government has even hired the image-polishing services of Podesta Group, a lobbying firm founded by John Podesta, the chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, improvements in political liberties for the country’s Buddhist majority coincides with a deterioration in conditions for the Muslim minority.
Muslims in Myanmar are widely framed within the Buddhist-majority country as foreigners, because a large portion of them are descendants of migrants from the Indian sub-continent. They are being portrayed by state officials and extreme Buddhist nationalist movements as outsiders and a common enemy, a narrative begun long ago, critics say, in order to distract attention from political conflicts created by the military dictatorship, which lacked popular legitimacy.
It was only when the Bush administration launched its “war on terror” in 2001 that Myanmar’s Muslims began to be presented as a potential terrorist threat; this was seen as a bid to win international favor at a time when the U.S. government was trying to isolate the military regime. Yet there was a glaring problem with the military regime’s portrayal of Muslims: there is no record of any actual terrorist attack by Muslims within Myanmar in recent decades.
Now, with the country in a period of transition applauded by the U.S. and other former foes, and with crucial elections to be held in November, the former generals who make up Myanmar’s government need more than ever to legitimize their grip on power, both in the international arena and among the Buddhist-dominated electorate. The emergence of a new terrorist threat gives new life to long-held claims by the military that they are the only guarantors of security in what they term their “discipline-flourishing democracy.”
Soe Moe Aung’s whole family was asleep, when late on November 17, about six policemen broke into their house in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second biggest city. His mother, Nwe Ni Aung, recounted in an interview earlier this year that the police demanded the family hand over her 24-year-old son. She said neither the police, nor the soldiers who had surrounded the house, bothered to show them an arrest warrant. She didn’t see her son for about 10 days — he was in police custody and denied access to a lawyer — and learned only when his trial started that he was accused of belonging to the “Myanmar Muslim Army.”
“They accuse him of undergoing training in a camp, but I don’t think that’s possible,” she said in an interview in Mandalay. “He’s sick — he suffers from gout — so how could he have received any training?”
Soe Moe Aung’s lawyer, Nandar Myint Thein, is defending four additional suspects in the same trial in Mandalay; a total of 12 people are accused in the trial of belonging to the “Myanmar Muslim Army,” according to documents obtained by The Intercept. They’re charged under the Emergency Provisions Act, passed in 1950, and according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) “commonly used to arbitrarily detain activists or criminalize dissent.”
Nandar Myint Thein claims the prosecution didn’t submit any “real evidence” and the accused signed confessions after days of torture in custody. She says most of the defendants didn’t even know each other before the trial.
“When I asked the prosecution’s witnesses [from the Police’s Special Branch] for evidence about the Myanmar Muslim Army, they answered that they couldn’t speak about it before the court … that this information came from above,” Nandar Myint Thein said.
In a recent interview for this article, the director of the Myanmar president’s office, Zaw Htay, defended the government’s position. “The Home Affairs ministry has all the evidence on these activities, but we can’t make it public because this is a national security issue,” he said. When asked how the accused can expect a fair trial when the prosecution’s evidence is withheld in court, he answered, “They have the right to appeal in upper courts.”
Zaw Htay declined to say how many people are believed to be members of the group — he said national security concerns prevented him from disclosing more information — but claimed “there are many activities outside the country and they want to promote their terrorist attacks with some people inside the country, so right now we are doing a preemptive strike to protect ourselves against any possible attack.” Legal Aid Documentation Team, a civil society organization, claims that as of February, around 100 Muslims had been arrested on charges of terrorism since last year.
The existence of the “Myanmar Muslim Army” has not been confirmed by terrorism experts, human rights groups, or the U.S. State Department. Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, is the only one to have mentioned it, though fleetingly — he wrote in a recent report that “there also have been unconfirmed reports about the emergence of a new group called Myanmar Muslim Army (MMA), which is reportedly using Thai territory for training Myanmar Muslims.”
A State Department spokesperson said in an interview that the U.S. government “does not have any further information” beyond Gunaratna’s reference. Zachary Abuza, a specialist in security issues and politics in Southeast Asia, said he had never heard of the “Myanmar Muslim Army.” “Sounds completely fictitious to me,” he said. “I would doubt that any group fighting the state would even use the term ‘Myanmar’ as that legitimizes the regime.” Myanmar is the name given to the country by the military government in 1989, replacing Burma, and the new name is contested by critics of the regime. “Based on the name and the track record of the Tatmadaw [armed forces], there is a very high likelihood that their ‘confessions’ were extracted through torture,” Abuza added.
One of the three cases involves Khin Maung Shwe, also known as Yusuf, who is accused of helping to establish the “Myanmar Muslim Army.” The 44-year-old businessman was detained in Mandalay in October, but his lawyer, Aung Naing Soe, said the case against his client is founded solely on confessions extracted while in military custody from other detainees who gave his interrogators the name “Yusuf” and little else. Aung Naing Soe says there is no further evidence against his defendant.
The prosecution in these cases has the backing of the minister of Home Affairs, citing the Emergency Provisions Act. The Intercept has obtained the minister’s signed authorization for the case involving Khin Maung Shwe, and defense lawyers say the minister signed the same authorization for the Mandalay case. The Intercept has also obtained the minister’s authorization for a case involving five people accused of planning to make fertilizer bombs. “That’s a big burden for the accused, because the court is afraid of not following orders from the minister himself,” said Aung Naing Soe.
In the context of Myanmar’s judicial system, the direct involvement of the Home Affairs minister isn’t an innocent matter of oversight, it’s an expression of the overarching power the military continues to exert over all aspects of life in Myanmar. The constitution requires the Home Affairs minister to be a member of the military, nominated by the commander in chief of the armed forces, which are constitutionally shielded from any civilian oversight. As the International Commission of Jurists noted in a report published in 2013, “political and military influence over judges remains a major impediment to lawyers’ ability to practice their profession effectively. Depending on the nature of the case, judges render decisions based on orders coming from government and military officials.”
Sam Zarifi, regional director of Asia and the Pacific at the ICJ, explained that “there’s every reason to fear for the rights of the accused to receive a fair trial” in these cases, noting that “judicial independence has been undermined by the executive branch’s undue influence and interference, in particular, in politically sensitive cases, including criminal ones.”
Another case in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and former capital, involves Muslims allegedly planning to wage armed struggle. In September last year, five Muslims were detained over smuggling fertilizer. The prosecution claims the fertilizer was intended to fabricate explosives to plant several bombs in Myanmar. One of the accused is a shopkeeper who bought fertilizer from another defendant, according to his lawyer.
The lawyer, Robert Sann Aung, said the suspects were held by the military for three months and tortured to extract confessions. Like other lawyers interviewed for this article, he claims there is no evidence of a terrorism plot, other than the fertilizer itself and the confessions. When asked about his expectations, Robert Sann Aung gave little reason for optimism.
“I won’t win this case,” he said. “I would win if the judge applied the law, but law is not going to be applied.”
Carlos Sardiña Galache, a journalist based in Bangkok, has reported extensively on Myanmar. Veronica Pedrosa, also based in Bangkok, has covered southeast Asia for 25 years.
Photo: Soldiers march in ceremony in Yangon. (Khin Maung Win/AP)