On October 9, some 200 men crossed from Bangladesh into western Myanmar’s Rakhine state by boat and attacked three border posts in Maungdaw township, killing nine policemen and seizing guns and ammunition.
The main suspect for the attacks is the Bangladesh-based Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement) militant group.
On October 10, the New York Times reported that seven villagers had been shot dead by Myanmar forces, while Human Rights Watch reported soldiers had burned down 1,250 homes and buildings. Reuters and the Myanmar Times also reported that “Burmese soldiers” had raped Rohingya women in the affected areas of Rakhine.
The United Nations has called for an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses in Myanmar.
That the Myanmar military is made up largely of Buddhists, while the Rohingya are Muslims, has added a religious element to the situation.
As a result, what is happening in the Rakhine has drawn the attention not just of human rights groups, but also extremists and militant jihadists from Southeast Asia.
Online extremists in Indonesia have expressed their desire to mount jihad on behalf of the Rohingya, with some supporters hoping that the mujahideen will be able to smuggle themselves into Myanmar.
The Rohingya crisis is becoming a rallying cry for jihad, overtaking even reactions to alleged recent blasphemy of the governor of Jakarta. Some social media users in Indonesia have even declared their readiness to become suicide bombers for the Rohingya cause.
The Rohingya issue is thus fast developing into a security threat with an adverse impact on peace in the region.
Rohingya crisis triggering new jihad
In May 2013, following the 2012 Rohingya refugee crisis, Indonesians like Chep Hermawan of Gerakan Reformis Islam (Garis), Jakfar Shidiq of Front Pembela Islam (FPI) and Bernard Abdul Jabbar of Komite Advokasi Muslim Rohingya-Arakan (Kamra) decided that the only solution to the violence against the Rohingya was militant pushback. Jakfar claimed that a thousand Muslim youths were ready to enter Myanmar to defend the Rohingya. He also claimed that by Ramadan that year, there would be enough money – 10 billion rupiah (Bt25 million) – to purchase weapons to equip his 10,000-men expeditionary force. In 2013, two Rohingya leaders reportedly travelled to Indonesia to “shop” for “fighters, guns, cash and bomb-making instructors”.
Now, regional online extremists have also begun pledging their support through profile pictures with the flag of the Islamic State and the hashtag “Pray for PARIS”, which refers to the conflict areas of Palestine, Africa, Rohingya, Iraq and Syria.
Malaysians too are reacting to the Rohingya crisis. Muhammad Wanndy, a Malaysian IS fighter linked to June’s Puchong grenade attack, called on his supporters to prove they are more than keyboard warriors by killing any Buddhist-Myanmarese they find in Malaysia or Indonesia.
The emerging security threat in Myanmar now risks triggering a ripple effect across the region. It would not be the first time this has happened.
In August 2013, a bomb exploded in the Ekayana Buddhist temple in Jakarta, injuring three people – a revenge attack in response to the sectarian conflict in Myanmar. In May that year, the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta was targeted for a bomb attack to avenge the killing of Rohingya Muslims.
The Myanmar military has inadvertently allowed the media to frame its counter-insurgency in a way that fuels radical propaganda. The Rohingya cause has featured in IS and al-Qaeda propaganda material for years now, reaching tech-savvy extremist communities growing in Southeast Asia.
Considering there may be significant foreign involvement in the emergence of the Faith Movement and Aqa Mul Mujahidin, defeating these militant groups thriving on the back of the Rohingya crisis may merely be a prelude to the mushrooming of more such outfits.
Rather than appearing to be the antagonists after the border attack, the Myanmar government and security forces would have done better by securing its borders, addressing the Rohingya’s citizenship status and grievances, and working with them as a strategic partner to alert the authorities to insurgent activities.
According to Myanmar’s Information Ministry, interrogations of the alleged October 9 attackers revealed they were “forced to attend terrorist training” and “threatened with death” if they refused. This is further proof there may have been an opportunity to win over the Rohingya.
Beyond security issues along the northern borders of Myanmar, Southeast Asian countries must be vigilant. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have significant Rohingya refugee populations. These countries must guard against the possible recruitment or radicalisation of the refugees.
Beyond this, a long-term solution is urgently required to address the plight of the Rohingya minority.
Their longstanding grievances and allegations of human rights abuses need to be looked into. The alternative is more internal unrest, massive displacement of Rohingya, and foreign militant intervention - all of which will have impacts spilling over from Myanmar and into Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani are analysts with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.
Published : December 08, 2016
By : Jasminder Singh, Muhammad Haziq The straits Times Asia News Network