Bangladeshi activists  protest in Dhaka against the deaths of Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state late last year. Photo: Mohammad Ponir Hossain, Reuters
Bangladeshi activists protest in Dhaka against the deaths of Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state late last year. Photo: Mohammad Ponir Hossain, Reuters

Rohingya militancy is gaining momentum. Not only are Rohingya in Myanmar backing it far more strongly than in the past, but a growing number of youth are taking up arms too.

Importantly, this has attracted the attention of transnational jihadis; the plight of the Rohingya is becoming a jihadist cause célèbre and jihadist leaders are rallying fighters to join the Rohingya militants.

The looming possibility of a new jihadist battlefield emerging in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has set alarm bells ringing in South and Southeast Asian capitals.

The Rohingya are Muslim. Although they have lived in the northwestern corner of Rakhine state for centuries, Myanmar’s government and its Burman-Buddhist majority regard them as “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship, access to education and services, freedom of movement, and so on. A stateless people, they are often described as the world’s most persecuted minority.

In the past, the Rohingya were not a radicalized population, nor did they see any merit in violent means to address their grievances. Thus militancy enjoyed little support among the Rohingya people.

There were some Rohingya youth who took up arms against the state in previous decades but they lacked presence or support on the ground. This was the case with the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, for instance, which carried out several attacks in Myanmar in the 1980s and 1990s. Operating from small bases in Bangladesh and lacking local support among the Rohingya people, this group faded away without making much impact.

New phase

The present phase of Rohingya militancy seems different.

Local Rohingya support for armed struggle is growing. Brutal military crackdowns and the Myanmar government’s reluctance to rein in Buddhist militancy directed at the Rohingya has convinced a rising number of members of the community that violence is the only option to fight an oppressive state.

The current militancy appears to be better organized, too. On October 9 last year, militants attacked posts of Myanmar’s Border Guard Police, killing nine policemen. The assault was a complex operation that involved hundreds of militants and showed a higher level of coordination, planning and knowledge of basic military tactics than in earlier attacks.

The attack was reportedly carried out by Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), a militant organization that emerged out of the waves of anti-Muslim violence that have engulfed Rakhine since 2012.

While the current militancy has its roots in local despair, the push for organizing it is coming from abroad. Mecca-based Rohingya émigrés are said to be behind Harakah al-Yaqin’s formation. Its leader, Ataullah, is a Rohingya who was born in Karachi and grew up in Mecca.

Some 20-40 Rohingya with experience in fighting at other jihadist battlegrounds are in charge of the Harakah al-Yaqin’s military operations on the ground in Rakhine.

Hundreds of Rohingya youth are reportedly being trained in camps in Bangladesh that are run by various jihadist groups. Their numbers can be expected to swell in the coming months, for several reasons.

For one, Rohingya anger with the Myanmar military is bubbling over. The crackdown that the military launched in response to the October attacks on police border posts is said to have left about 1,000 Rohingya dead. Entire villages were burned down and around 70,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh. Indeed, the torture, mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya by the Myanmar military probably amount to crimes against humanity and possibly ethnic cleansing, United Nations officials have alleged.

This is likely to persuade more Rohingya not only to support the militancy but to join it.

In addition, groups like the Harakah al-Yaqin have gotten clerics to issue fatwas urging people to join the militants.

Jihadist solidarity

Videos and photographs that lay bare the terrible suffering of the Rohingya have come in handy for jihadist propaganda. Southeast Asian radicals such as Indonesia’s Gerakan Reformis Islam, Front Pembela Islam and Komite Advokasi Muslim Rohingya-Arakan have not only expressed solidarity with the Rohingya, but their Facebook pages are replete with propaganda posts and pictures of the latter’s plight, as well as calls to join the jihad in Rakhine. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the Islamic State group too are urging Muslims to join hands with the oppressed Rohingya.

So far the militancy in Rakhine is a Rohingya militancy. Its fighters are locals and their agenda is local. They want an end to the discrimination and repression they suffer in Myanmar. However, the agenda could change in the coming months as the militancy takes on a more Islamist agenda and the fighters are jihadist rather than just militants fighting for the Rohingya cause.

The Rohingya militancy is already being described as the world’s newest Muslim insurgency. There is a real possibility of Rakhine state emerging as a jihadist battlefield.

That may provide Rohingya militants with more funds, fighters and firepower. But it would come at a heavy cost as international sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya would decline. They would become even less welcome abroad.

Sudha Ramachandran

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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