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Myanmar’s Rifts Make Waves in Indonesia

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JAKARTA, Indonesia—Indonesian police increased security around Myanmar’s embassy and other diplomatic missions Friday after two Indonesian men were arrested on suspicion of plotting to bomb the embassy in retaliation for violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, underscoring the threat of sectarian conflict in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar spilling across its borders.

Indonesia’s antiterror squad arrested the men at separate houses in the sprawling capital and found homemade bombs, some of them “ready to explode,”‘ Jakarta police spokesman Rikwanto said Friday. Myanmar’s embassy was believed to be the target, he said, without specifying how imminent an attack might have been.

The two men were in police custody and couldn’t be reached for comment. They didn’t yet have lawyers and under Indonesian law can be held for seven days without legal representation.

Ranks of riot police backed by water cannon and armored trucks were deployed around Myanmar’s embassy, blocking hundreds of protesters who marched to the building after Friday prayers, carrying banners demanding an end to what they called genocide against the Rohingya. Police also increased their presence outside the embassies of the U.S., Australia and U.K. U.S. officials wouldn’t discuss security arrangements.

The arrests follow escalating incidents in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim majority country, stemming from violence between Myanmar’s majority Buddhists and Muslims that has left more than 200 people dead and displaced more than 100,000 in the past year. Last month, a brawl between Buddhists and Muslims from Myanmar left eight people dead at a detention center for illegal immigrants on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Days later, seven police officers were injured when Indonesian protesters gathered near the center to demand the release of the detained Muslims.

Ansyaad Mbai, Indonesia’s counterterrorism chief, said the two arrested men were part of an established network responsible for terrorist attacks on police and foreign missions in Indonesia. Terrorist groups have been severely depleted since a major antiterrorism push began here in the wake of large-scale attacks in the early 2000s, but the smaller networks persist even as their main leaders have been jailed.

“Now they’re making Myanmar a target too, because of the Muslim-Buddhist conflict there,” Mr. Mbai said. “Their basic formula is that wherever they see repression against Muslims, they will react. They don’t have any national boundaries, that’s the underlying teaching of Jemaah Islamiyah.” Jemaah Islamiyah was the main organization responsible for major terror attacks in Southeast Asia more than a decade ago, including the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people.

Analysts linked the two men to an organization that had planned to bomb police offices and other targets last year—al Qaeda Indonesia, a group led by Badri Hartono, who is currently in police detention. The two arrested men maintained a Facebook page calling for an attack on the Myanmar embassy, said Muh Taufiqurrohman, a terrorism analyst at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who had been monitoring the website. The site was taken down overnight.

“The reason they target the Myanmar embassy is to avenge their Muslim brothers and sisters who they believe are being massacred by Buddhists in Myanmar,” Mr. Muh said.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged Myanmar’s leaders during a recent visit there to address sectarian strife in the country.

“Indonesia seems to be the place with the most serious spillover, no doubt because refugees in large numbers are passing through,” Ken Conboy, a security consultant in Jakarta, said.

The ethnic Rohingyas are denied citizenship by Myanmar, which dismisses them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived there for generations. Sumatra lies along a route that many have used to flee Myanmar by sea. The flimsy boats often sink, killing scores this year alone. Others are captured or run aground, with survivors usually housed in detention centers.

Myanmar’s government is grappling with an eruption of ethnic and sectarian tensions as it evolves to civilian rule after decades of military dictatorship. The hostilities have been sharpest between Buddhists inflamed by extremist rhetoric and Muslims, who represent only 4% of the country’s 60 million people.

Published in Wall Street Journal on May 03, 2013 | Ben Otto and I Made Sentana

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