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Myanmar: The Invention of Rohingya Extremists

Rohingya refugees walking to a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, October 2, 2017. Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

By Joseph Allchin, The New York Review of Books

It is not hard to get guns on the Chittagong littoral. Or at least, that’s what my interviewee was telling me underneath a canopy of trees outside his house in the fishing village of Shamlapur, in southern Bangladesh. His men stood round carrying his cigarettes and laughing obediently at his quips. Connections with both the police and underworld were what my acquaintance had, and what makes the world turn in this Wild West corner of Bangladesh, where smuggling is the primary source of income and power. He was reflecting on a new phenomenon in this region: the prospect that a tragically displaced people, the Rohingya, would produce an armed resistance movement to challenge their persecution by the military in their homeland, across the border in Myanmar.

On August 25, a rag-tag group of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, appeared out of the darkness armed mainly with sticks and machetes and stormed some thirty police posts, killing about a dozen Myanmar security personnel in Rakhine State (also known as Arakan State) in western Myanmar. The Myanmar military responded with overwhelming force and brutality, reportedly killing and raping civilians indiscriminately and burning villages. Within a few weeks, under the pretext of “clearance operations” against a population it accuses of having immigrated illegally from Bangladesh and harboring extremists and terrorists, the military forced more than half a million Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they joined another half-million or so who have fled the apartheid-like conditions and periodic pogroms of recent years.

Myanmar’s government has faced numerous ethnic insurgent movements. For example, in the north of the country, the Kachin Independence Army is fighting a far better-equipped insurgency in the borderlands near China. Yet the Kachin people, who are often Christian, have faced no such comprehensive campaign of ethnic cleansing or accusations of being terrorists because of their faith. The difference is that the Rohingya people are mostly Sunni Muslim. Myanmar’s military rulers have long sought to portray the Rohingya as a fifth column of dangerous Islamist extremists with links to al-Qaeda.

The demonization of this Muslim minority as “extremists” or “terrorists” has proved effective for nationalist politicians with Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. But this othering of the Rohingya now risks dangerous secondary effects. Chiefly, that the government’s conjuring of the specter of a jihadist insurgency may prove self-fulfilling, with an embittered, radicalized Rohingya diaspora forced over the border at bayonet point into Bangladesh, where a coterie of Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir are using the Rohingya cause to whip up popular sentiment for their own political purposes.

The portrayal of the Rohingyas as an Islamist terrorist menace has deep roots. A full decade before Myanmar’s transition to democracy, the Myanmar intelligence community saw an opportunity in the “global war on terror.” On October 10, 2002, the same day that the US Senate approved George W. Bush’s ill-fated war on Iraq on the bogus grounds of Saddam Hussein’s purported connections to al-Qaeda and possession of weapons of mass destruction, the State Department received a cable from its mission in Yangon that relayed a rare example of intelligence-sharing from their Myanmar counterparts. This was a very unusual instance of cooperation since, at the time, Myanmar was under strict sanctions and the country at large was cut off from the international community.

The intelligence Myanmar provided claimed that two now-defunct groups, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization and the Arakan Rohingya National Organization, had met and received training from al-Qaeda operatives; the diplomatic cable also reported that these Rohingya groups were trying to establish connections with other Burmese ethnic insurgent groups based on the country’s border with Thailand. The US embassy believed that the Myanmar generals wanted “to bolster relations with the United States by getting credit for cooperation on the [counter terror] front,” and also to tarnish the reputation of other ethnic insurgent groups because of an association with groups seeking support from al-Qaeda. Most ethnic insurgent groups had an affinity with pro-democracy activists because of their shared struggle against the military. Historically, Myanmar’s armed forces have used divide-and-rule tactics to weaken their opponents and disenfranchised minorities.

But there was no evidence that any Rohingya group had successfully developed connections with al-Qaeda for operations in Myanmar. One of the purported Rohingya acquaintances of Osama Bin Laden, an activist named Salim Ullah, told me that when a Muslim picks up a gun in Myanmar, he is labeled a terrorist; when a Buddhist does so, he is making a cry for liberty. Prejudice against the Rohingya has become ingrained within a majority of the Buddhist population, including among many who have supported other ethnic armed groups. Even many former pro-democracy campaigners have adopted the military’s labeling of the entire Rohingya population as terrorists.

The tension between the majority population and the Muslim minority has been further whipped up by Myanmar’s ultra-nationalist monks. This hostility has elicited a growing online response from foreign Islamists. Groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements are now using the plight of the Rohingya to promote their own narratives of Muslim persecution.

Until recently, most of this propaganda saw the “liberation” of Arakan State in Myanmar, where most Rohingya Muslims traditionally live, as a notional aim, something to be done once neighboring Bangladesh had been “conquered” and a caliphate installed there. But now, groups like al-Qaeda seem to have more directly taken up the cause of the Rohingya. In mid-September, an al-Qaeda communiqué called for “all mujahid brothers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma [Myanmar] to help their Muslim brothers.”

There is no sign yet that the Rohingya insurgent group has allied itself with outside jihadist groups. Indeed, ARSA’s decision in March to drop its Arabic name in favor of a more secular-sounding English one suggests that ARSA has not been subsumed by any transnational Islamist extremist organization. The group’s charismatic leader, Ata Ullah, does have connections in both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and was brought up in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, believed to be where the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is being sheltered. But as is evident from ARSA’s modest capabilities and lack of weaponry, efforts by Ullah to solicit support from groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban have so far not borne fruit.

However, with the huge swell of anger over the clearance operations and vast exodus of Rohingya civilians, this could change. Already, Egyptian militants have bombed Myanmar’s embassy in Cairo. In Bangladesh, the country’s counterterrorism chief, Monirul Islam, echoes what my contact in Shamlapur told me: “Guns are available and [are] smuggled into Bangladesh from Myanmar or from India.” Islam claims that an AK-47 clone can be bought for a little over $1,000 on the black market; a pistol might cost just a few hundred dollars. Efforts to source weapons can open up militant groups to surveillance by local intelligence agencies; in Bangladesh, such movements generally rely on patronage from powerful quarters to avoid such attention.

Bangladeshi Islamists have been working hard to exploit the Rohingya’s plight, portraying the crisis as a grand, prophesied conflict between the forces of belief and unbelief. ARSA itself has also sought to gain popular support in Bangladesh for its insurrection. Indeed, a broad consensus of support for the Rohingya has developed, where previously they were dismissed as exploitable interlopers. Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has won plaudits for the compassion she has expressed—although her move appears a political necessity given the loud voice with which Islamists have jumped on the cause.

One purported ARSA commander recently argued that the Myanmar military had “been torturing us day by day so we had no alternative. That’s why we acted [on August 25] … We knew this would happen.” That message of inevitable conflict and existential struggle chimes with many Rohingya people. Even the women I interviewed in southern Bangladesh said, without prompting, that they would fight if they could; they had nothing left. A month-long ceasefire declared by ARSA will expire on October 10; it is likely that the group will resume its low-intensity attacks. When that happens, any Rohingya villagers still left in Myanmar can expect further vicious reprisals from the military.

Just as the Bush administration’s misguided war on terror helped to foster Islamist extremism all over the world, the Myanmar generals’ intentional exaggeration of largely imagined relations between Rohingya insurgents and international jihadist groups may result in similar unwanted consequences. While the Myanmar military originally sought to divide Rohingya insurgents from potential allies among other anti-government, pro-democracy ethnic groups by playing on historic resentments, its policy may well end up driving Rohingya militants, whether in form of ARSA or still more frightening expressions of rage, into the arms of the real extremists.