The international community has largely accepted the root causes of escalating violence along Burma’s western border. Whether a government-appointed investigative commission tasked with independently determining those core motivating factors will do so in good faith, however, remains to be seen. If its preliminary findings about the ongoing security operations in northern Arakan State — the commission said this week it could find no evidence that human rights abuses had been committed, despite mounting evidence to the contrary — are any indication, there is reason for pessimism.
Experts have warned that decades of treating the Rohingya as a thorn in the nation’s side is tantamount to doing the legwork for forces that would seek to radicalise the next generation of the stateless Muslim minority.
A report by the International Crisis Group released on Thursday confirms these fears, saying a new extremist organisation is already in operation, citing interviews with alleged members of the group, Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement).
On 9 October, coordinated attacks against police outposts in Maungdaw, a township in the north of the restive state, kicked off the latest round of violence. Nine police were murdered in the onslaught. According to ICG, Harakah al-Yaqin has claimed responsibility for planning the attack and training members. The militia was reportedly founded in the ashes of the deadly 2012 riots between Muslims and Buddhists in Arakan State. It is believed that ethnic Rohingya who fled to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, after those clashes now head the organisation.
The government’s response to the 9 October attacks was swift and harsh. The “clearance operations” — as state media has described the government’s hunt for the perpetrators — commenced almost immediately, displacing thousands of villagers in the process. Human rights organisations back villagers’ claims that scores of Rohingya men have been killed during the crackdown.
The military also stands accused of raping Rohingya women and razing villages. Satellite photographs published by Human Rights Watch showing destroyed communities failed to convince the government that security forces were acting improperly. State media has published near-daily denials of any wrongdoing on behalf of the Burmese army.
Rape allegations made by many women have likewise been dismissed out of hand. Local MP and chairman of the state-level Rakhine Investigation Commission Aung Win told a BBC reporter that Tatmadaw soldiers could not have raped the women, saying, “They are very dirty. The [Bengali] women have a very low standard of living and poor hygiene. They are not attractive, so neither the local Buddhist men nor the soldiers are interested in them.”
Nowhere to turn
Ko Shine, leader of the Interfaith Youth Movement in Burma, told DVB that growing up without rights and education will lead to a radicalised youth with “nowhere else to turn” sooner rather than later.
“If this situation is maintained for 10 years they [young people] will become a new terrorist group. They have lost their hope, their everything. I can definitely say that. All over the world, if you look at terrorist communities that encourage young people to join them, it is when the young people are oppressed,” he said from Rangoon, days before ICG released its report.
His words echoed a warning issued by Daniel Russel, the United States’ assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He told AP earlier this month that “if mishandled, Rakhine [Arakan] State could be infected and infested by jihadism, which already plagues neighbouring Bangladesh and other countries.”
Numbering approximately 1 million, most of whom live in grindingly poor Arakan State, the Rohingya are well and truly a persecuted minority in a country of around 52 million. Their plight has not gone unnoticed by radicals overseas — most recently a November attack at Ohio State University, in which a student stabbed 11 people before being killed by police.
Ko Shine said locking Rohingya youth out of education opportunities plays into the hands of international extremists, making young people easy to influence. “If people don’t have education, they can go crazy,” he said.
Although the Rohingya have seen their rights eroded over decades, as a group they have remained largely nonviolent while working to further their cause. But patience among some factions has obviously run out.
Ronan Lee, a researcher on Arakan State, says it was only a matter of time.
“In recent decades the situation in Rakhine State has not been like this. Despite suffering appalling rights restrictions by Myanmar’s authorities, the Rohingya Muslims have held to a strategy of seeking to improve their lot by peaceful ends. The Rohingya community remains supportive of Myanmar’s transitions toward democracy despite having their voting rights removed before the 2015 election,” he told DVB via email.
“Despite the Rohingya’s decades-long support for improved rights via peaceful democratic means, they remain subject to deplorable conditions and government-imposed restrictions.
“In these circumstances it was probably only a matter of time before outside groups sought to take advantage of the deplorable conditions forced on the Rohingya by Myanmar’s authorities,” he added.
Gerhard Hoffstaedter, an Australian academic who specialises in refugee issues, said the growing international coverage of the Rohingya issue would also attract jihadists looking to capitalise on discontent within the Muslim diaspora.
“The growing media attention of the plight of Rohingya will also attract the jihadists [already operating in Bangladesh and Malaysia] to seek to recruit vulnerable and suggestible people eager to increase awareness and sympathy to their cause.
“My argument would be that the long silence by regional [Muslim] countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia on the Rohingya issue, may push some toward the more action-oriented radical fringe,” he said from the University of Queensland in Australia.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak controversially waded into the issue by attending a Rohingya solidarity rally in Kuala Lumpur on 4 December, sparking a diplomatic row between the two ASEAN member nations. However, Hoffstaedter points out that the Malaysian government has done little itself to improve the lives of Rohingya refugees in Najib’s country.
“The sooner leaders like Prime Minister Najib Razak can make good on his recent rhetorical flourishes of support for the Rohingya and intervene in ASEAN, OIC [the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] and the United Nations on their behalf, the better. He could also provide the approximately 250,000 Rohingya living in Malaysia with some legal status.
“This real support would bolster against Rohingya searching for other supporters to help end the violence in Rakhine,” Hoffstaedter said.
At present, Harakah al-Yaqin efforts appear to be squarely focused on furthering the cause of the Rohingya in Burma — no indications have yet emerged of a regional focus. However, continued restriction of rights and opportunities heighten the risk of the group expanding transnationally, posing a risk to the broader ASEAN region.
ICG warns: “It is necessary to be careful not to over-interpret the significance of the international links noted above or leave unchallenged efforts by some Myanmar officials, politicians and other leaders to portray HaY as part of the global jihadist movement. Nevertheless, the longer violence continues, the greater the risks become of such links deepening and potentially becoming operational.”
Domestic lawmakers and nationalists that have fanned the flames of ethnic divide stand accountable for the violence erupting on both sides. In a country already struggling to hold together a much-promised national peace deal, it represents a series of shameful public proclamations and policies based on prejudices and historical wounds.
Instead of directing resources toward reconciliation and aid, the government has approved a project spearheaded by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture which aims to conclusively prove the Rohingya were never an indigenous ethnic group in Burma. The project was announced earlier this week, signalling an indifference to the international condemnations piling up at the feet of the government.
The government must act urgently to safeguard marginalised Rohingya youth from influences that will place them in even greater peril. Policies prioritising healthcare access, education and training should be enacted now. The long-running debate about citizenship should not infringe upon the Rohingya’s basic human rights, for it is the gross and systematic violation of those rights that is fuelling the fire of extremism in Arakan State and beyond — a danger long-flagged and confirmed in this week’s ICG report.
The existence of an insurgency in the region should not be used as justification for a violent and far-reaching crackdown and continued assaults on human rights. Rather, the state must work with Rohingya leaders to address the factors that fuel radicalisation. Working against them has created infinitely more complex problems at the expense of durable solutions.