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In Central Asia, Sympathy And Solidarity For Rohingya

  • Farangis Najibullah

As the latest crisis unfolded for Burma's beleaguered Rohingya Muslims, with tens of thousands fleeing fresh violence, authorities in faraway Kyrgyzstan scrapped a soccer match over "heightened terrorist threats."

The Kyrgyz government said the event, an AFC Asian Cup qualifier scheduled for September 5 in Bishkek, had been suspended "to ensure security" and prevent potential "mass riots on the grounds of interreligious hostility."

It was a rare intrusion by Southeast Asian affairs on daily life in Kyrgyzstan, whose 6 million citizens are generally more attuned to events in neighboring Kazakhstan, Russia, or China, all of whom are major trading partners.

It also reflects concern in a region where post-Soviet governments -- some with autocratic leanings -- routinely cite the threat from Islamic radicalism to crack down on expressions of dissent within their predominantly Muslim populations.

"If we don't treat this issue with caution, it could play into the hands of the religious radicals," Faridun Hodizoda, the head of the nongovernmental project Religion and Dialogue, in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL in a reference to official and media handling of developments in Burma.

A Rohingya refugee woman falls as she walks through the water after crossing the border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on September 1, 2017. Picture taken September 1.
A Rohingya refugee woman falls as she walks through the water after crossing the border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on September 1, 2017. Picture taken September 1.

The United Nations says nearly 150,000 people have fled Burma's Rakhine state to neighboring Bangladesh in the past two weeks amid renewed tension in a decades-old conflict. The Rohingya number around 1 million and are denied citizenship by Buddhist-majority Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Rohingya refugees have accused government troops and Buddhist mobs of abuses, including burning down villages and killing civilians to drive them out of the region. The Myanmar government says its forces are fighting Rohingya militants who are attacking civilians.

Social-Media Concern

While authorities in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have largely remained silent on the Burmese crisis, officials in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have been more vocal in condemning the violence.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdurakhmanov said his country was "seriously concerned" about the situation of the Muslim community and what he described as the "negative trend of Islamophobia" in Burma.

Unlike in Moscow and the Chechen capital, Grozny, where people took to the streets to express concern for the Rohingya, there have been no major public demonstrations in Central Asia.

But social media have become an avenue for public figures and others to voice their opinion on the crisis.

Qasymzhomart Toqaev, the head of Kazakhstan's upper house of parliament, took to Twitter to urge the United Nations to "voice its principal position to alarming events in Myanmar."

He added that "so many innocent [Muslim] people [have] become victims of brutal repressions."

Kazakh celebrities, including popular TV presenter Nurlan Koyanbaev and actor Taukel Muslim, used Instagram to voice sympathy for Rohingya Muslims and generated thousands of "likes."

Fears Of 'Radicalization'

Secular governments in Central Asia's five postcommunist republics have struggled to keep a lid on what they say is a very real threat from extremists in the region.

A string of attacks and alleged foiled plots on government targets have been blamed on Islamic extremists.

And while the majority of comments under news reports or on social media on the Burmese crisis express sympathy for Rohingya Muslims and call for prayers and an end to the violence, there are calls for caution among Central Asians to avoid allowing religious extremists to exploit the crisis to incite hatred or violence.

"Just days ago, many people here didn't know where Myanmar was. Now there are alarming calls on people to go and fight there," Anara Asanova, a civic activist who works for an international NGO in Bishkek, tells RFE/RL.

Thousands of Central Asians have left their homes and families in recent years to join militant Islamist groups abroad, including Islamic State (IS), according to government figures.

"I've seen some disturbing comments on social media," says analyst Faridun Hodizoda, who lives in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, "including one who urged, 'Let's go and fight in Myanmar.'"

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah with contribution by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Gulaiym Ashakeeva
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent who focuses on Central Asia.

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