By Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
The festering problem of the Muslim Rohingya people in the Arakan State of Myanmar, has mutated from a forgotten ethnic conflict into semi-Islamist uprising with links to the global Jihadist network. The latest bout of violence broke out in October, when Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar border police stations, killing 9 police officers and looting tens of weapons. This led to reprisal attacks by the Myanmar military. Rohingya villages, suspected of harbouring militants, have been burnt and thousands of Rohingyas have fled for safety into Bangladesh which shares a border with Myanmar and has hosted Rohingya refugees for many years, in the contiguous area of Cox’s Bazaar, along the strip of land, south of Chittagong, where Bangladesh and Myanmar share a border along the Naf River. The Muslim Rohingyas are regarded as illegal Bangladeshi migrants by the Myanmar government and the majority of Myanmar’s Buddhist population. Most of them remain stateless, denied citizenship by Myanmar.
The Rohingya Muslims have been living in Myanmar’s Rakhine province for several centuries and they consider themselves as an ethnic minority of the country. However, they have not been listed among the various (135) indigenous ethnic minorities and the Burmese Nationality Law 1982 forbids the grant of citizenship to them. The Rohingyas have been forced to identify themselves as “Bengalis”. To acquire citizenship they have to prove that their ancestors arrived in Burma not after than 1823. Those who fail to provide such evidence are marginalized and forced to move into isolated and restrictive settlement zones.
The government of Myanmar, particularly its military, has been accused of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. Accusations of genocide have also been levelled against Myanmar’s security forces. The recent bout violence adds another layer to this conflict that has been going on since June 2016, acquiring a profile as a Muslim insurgency, with international Islamist dimensions. The October attack by Rohingya militants was not any random attack. It was clearly planned and coordinated in a manner which could only point towards some military training. The Rohingyas are regarded as a persecuted Muslim minority by the Islamic world and have aroused the sympathy of Muslims and Jihadi groups in several Islamic countries. It is, therefore, not inconceivable that jihadi groups in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are fuelling this insurgency.
A name that has surfaced in reports is that of Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Pakistani national based in Karachi. Burmi, as his name suggests, is of Rohingya origin from “Burma” the former name of Myanmar. He is known to have issued bulletins in the name of his organization Harakat ul Jihad al-Islami-Arakan (HUJI-K). Burmi is reportedly closely connected to Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jamaat-ud-Daawah (JuD), the ISI-sponsored jihadi terrorist organizations which have launched several terrorist attacks in India. The LeT and JuD have connections with Al-Qaida and operate freely within Pakistan which has long acquired the dubious distinction as the epicentre of global Jihadi terrorism. Operatives from these terrorist outfits have infiltrated into Myanmar via Bangladesh and Thailand, where Rohingya refugees live along the border. They are suspected to have organized arms and military training for Rohingya militants.
The main Rohingya terrorist group goes by the name of Harakat-ul-Yaqeen whose leaders are based in Saudi Arabia, all of whom are of Rohingya origin. They are well connected in Bangladesh and Pakistan and have visited Bangladesh and northern Rakhine state over the last two years. These jihadists have been canvassing other international jihadists to join the fight against the Myanmar’s military. Their appeal for medicines for foreign-based Rohingyas has been accompanied by appeals for sacrificing their lives for jihad. A prominent member of these jihadists is reported to be Ataullah (alias Ameer Abu Amar, Abu Amar Jununi). Born in Karachi, he is the son of a Muslim Rohingya and grew up in Mecca and Saudi Arabia and received an Islamic education. He disappeared from Saudi Arabia in 2012 and is reported to have gone to Pakistan and may have received training in practical guerilla warfare.
For India, already under periodic attacks by Pakistani state-sponsored jihadi organizations, it would be bad news, if this Islamist inspired and supported violence spills over into Bangladesh and India. This would open another front in the East of the sub-continent and add to security problems that years of insurgency in India’s north-eastern states, with an unstable Myanmar, battling its own insurgencies, providing the support base for Indian insurgents. The 1.1 million Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine State can become cannon fodder for Islamists whose agenda does not overlap with the issues that complicate lives of the Rohingyas. Simmering violence in the region is not new and can be traced back to the 1940s but did not gain much traction as an armed struggle. The Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), which spearheaded the Rohingya resistance movement, went into decline in the 1990s. The recent round of violence is sure to invite a harsh crackdown by the Myanmar military, leading to an upward spiral in violence and all its unintended consequences.
The Rohingyas are active on social media and are busy using fake news and pictures, purportedly showing atrocities on Rohingyas to motivate Islamists. A well-organized smear campaign is underway against the Myanmar government and its military, whereas a far more serious civil war continues to rage with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military. More than 1 lakh people have been internally displaced because of Myanmar government’s bombing campaign against the KIA in the Northern and Central Shan province, though the government-sponsored “peace process” has not been abandoned.
Rohingya militants have received arms training in camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and collaborated with the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) members from the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh. Videotapes from those camps later showed up with al-Qaida in Kabul, where the US cable TV network CNN obtained them after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The tapes were marked “Burma” in Arabic and were shown worldwide in August 2002. It was assumed that they were shot inside Burma instead of across the border in Ukhia where Rohingya refugee camps are located in Bangladesh.
The ICS functions as the militant arm of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and have been responsible for launching violent street demonstrations, attacking security forces, secular political rivals and secular individuals. The ICS has collaborated with other Bangladeshi Islamists to engineer attacks by Rohingya militants in Myanmar. The same combine is notorious for anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh, though the culpability of the Awami League (AL) Party members cannot be dismissed, particularly in the recent violence against the minority Hindu community in Brahmanbaria and Netrokona districts of Bangladesh. The persecuted Rohingyas were also recruited by Jihadi groups to fight in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In an interview with a Karachi-based newspaper (Umma), Osama bin Laden had, inter alia, referred to Burma where strong jihadi forces were present.
Recent attacks by Rohingya militants are showing signs of increased planning and coordination, raising fears of deeper Islamist penetration and cross-border forays to launch attacks against Myanmar’s security forces. Reports of military training in camps in remote border areas of Bangladesh and in Pakistan have surfaced. Funding has come from the usual culprits – Islamist and Jihadi organizations in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Rohingya links with Islamist groups in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines cannot be ruled out. Malaysia and Indonesia have spoken up against Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya issue. None of the Islamic countries care to speak up against minority persecution when it occurs against non-Muslim minorities. Such parochial approaches detracts attention and sympathy away from the persecution of the Rohingyas.
The Myanmar government has come under enormous pressure from international human rights organizations, including the United Nations. There is no dearth of advice from international HR groups which have issued warnings of enormous risks to Myanmar, if it failed to make more judicious use of force and focus on a political and policy approaches to addresses the problems of the Rohingya people in Rakhine State. It is indeed a complex challenge for the Myanmar government to address the longstanding discrimination against its Muslim Rohingya population, including denial of rights and lack of citizenship.
Rohingya militant attacks have led to the use of disproportionate force and punitive measures by the Myanmar security forces against the civilian population. Denial of humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced and vulnerable population and the absence of a political strategy to lay out a roadmap for future reconciliation, prevents lasting a solution and gives space to militants to carry on their attacks, no doubt with external Islamist and jihadi backing. This does not mitigate the momentum of radical violence and further displacement of the civilian population. Rohingyas have been migrating illegally to other countries like Thailand and Malaysia but these escape routes have been effectively blocked, leaving them to grasp the desperate option of an armed struggle.
Much was expected of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but under the constitution she has no direct control over the military. She still has the stature to deal with the Rohingya problem politically but as radical Buddhists in Myanmar become more aggressive, moderate responses recede into the background. Suu Kyi “Panglong-21” initiative did manage to include armed insurgent groups fighting the Myanmar government in the north-east. Given the delicate civilian-military balance of power, the Myanmar military feels relatively free to pursue its security agenda and Suu Kyi probably has little influence over their actions.
For Bangladesh and India, the Rohingya problem poses several layers of policy dilemma. Bangladesh finds itself under moral pressure to take in Rohingya refugees as fellow Muslims, as it had done in the past in the 1900s when over 5 lakh Rohingyas fled Myanmar under the onslaught of the military rulers. Many returned but a sizeable number did not and settled in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis are troubled by their own Liberation War when over 10 million became refugees in 1971 and should, therefore, have an emotional connect to refugees fleeing persecution. But reality bites when there is no guarantee that these refugees will return. Myanmar has consistently maintained that the Rohingyas are Bangladesh migrants and cannot be absorbed as citizens of Myanmar. Many Rohingyas, holding Bangladeshi passports, have been caught in labour importing Gulf countries for criminal offences. This has made Bangladesh wary of the Rohingyas since this impacts on Bangladesh’s image as a labour exporting country.
The Bangladeshi response to the Rohingya crisis has been largely diplomatic. It has canvassed various countries and has urged the international community to resolve the issue. Angry Bangladeshis have even started a signature campaign for a petition to demand that Suu Kyi be stripped off her Nobel Prize for doing nothing to ameliorate the situation of the Rohingyas. Suu Kyi has steered clear of the Rohingya issue for her own domestic reasons and this has rankled Bangladeshis the most, because she enjoyed a huge fan following Bangladesh.
India’s silence on the Rohingya issue has also come under critical scrutiny. Any public criticism of Myanmar has become a sensitive issue and many have argued that if India were to criticize minority persecution in other countries, particularly neighbours, then the persecution of Bangladesh’s Hindu minority and their migration into India, cannot be glossed over. With a BJP-led government under PM Modi in power, this argument has its own traction among policy makers. Moreover, India remains averse to absorbing any more Rohingya refugees, many of whom have entered India from Bangladesh, where they have come under pressure to move on.
Finally, India’s policy of shunning the military regime in Myanmar and supporting the democratic forces in an earlier phase, did not serve India’s interest. Myanmar’s isolation compelled the country military governmentto embrace China much against its will, to the detriment of India’s interest in a neighbouring country. Under the new constitution, the Myanmar military retains considerable influence and Suu Kyi is not in a position to intervene in the way the Rohingya issue is being handled. Moreover, extremist Buddhist opinion in Myanmar is virulently anti-Rohingya. Suu Kyi’s silence has a reason but is eroding her international standing. She is caught between a rock and a hard place. So far international voices have been muted. As for India, there is little probability of any overt move to criticize Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. The approach will be engagement and quiet persuasion. Bangladesh too may find India’s approach worth emulating instead of seeking international intervention.