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Rohingya crisis may spur militant response in Southeast Asia

Action by the mainly Buddhist Myanmar military against the Muslim Rohingya people for a border attack may rekindle pro-Rohingya sentiments in the region among Muslim militants

On Oct 9, some 200 men crossed from Bangladesh into Myanmar's Rakhine (Arakan) state by boat to attack three border guard posts in Maungdaw township.

The attackers killed nine policemen and took away more than 50 guns and thousands of bullets.

Days later, YouTube videos revealed the emergence of the Bangladesh-based Harakah al-Yaqin militant group, which is also known as the Faith Movement.

On Oct 10, the New York Times reported that seven villagers were shot dead by Myanmar forces. Human Rights Watch reported that the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, burned down 1,250 buildings. Reuters and Myanmar Times also reported that "Burmese soldiers" had raped Rohingya women in the affected areas.

The United Nations has weighed in to call for an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses in Myanmar.

That the Myanmar military is made up largely of Buddhists and the Rohingya are Muslims has added a religious element to the situation.

A Rohingya family viewing the remains of a market, which was set on fire, in their village, outside Maungdaw in Rakhine state, on Oct 27. The Rohingya issue is fast developing into a security threat with an adverse impact on peace in the region. Thei
A Rohingya family viewing the remains of a market, which was set on fire, in their village, outside Maungdaw in Rakhine state, on Oct 27. The Rohingya issue is fast developing into a security threat with an adverse impact on peace in the region. Their longstanding grievances and allegations of human rights abuses need to be looked into. PHOTO: REUTERS

As a result, what is happening in the Rakhine state in Myanmar has drawn the attention not just of human rights groups, but also extremists and militant jihadists from South-east 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, and is spawning stronger reactions than those over the alleged blasphemy by the governor of Jakarta, MrBasuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok. Some social media users in Indonesia have even declared their readiness to be suicide bombers for the sake of the Rohingya.

The Rohingya issue is 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 alleged violence against the Rohingya was through militant action.

At the time, 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 (S$1 million) - to purchase weapons to equip his thousand- men expeditionary force. In 2013, two Rohingya leaders reportedly travelled to Indonesia to meet hard-line groups to "shop" for "fighters, guns, cash and bomb-making instructors".

Regional online extremists have also begun pledging their support through profile pictures with the flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a hashtag saying "Pray for P_A_R_I_S", which refers to the conflict areas of Palestine, Africa, Rohingya, Iraq and Syria.

The Indonesian online jihadist community even furnished its Facebook pages with various Rohingya-related propaganda posts and pictures, including a map which provides a possible travel route for potential Indonesian militants to enter Myanmar via Aceh.

Malaysians too are reacting to the Rohingya crisis. Muhammad Wanndy, a Malaysian ISIS fighter linked to the Puchong grenade attack, called on his supporters to prove that they are not keyboard warriors by killing any Buddhist- Myanmar person they may find in Malaysia or Indonesia.

Just this week, a protest march took place in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, involving top political leaders, including the Prime Minister, in support of the Rohingya. This would indicate that due to the perceived persecution of the Rohingya, the South-east Asian radicals have been able to exploit it as part of their struggle in the region.

STRATEGIC FAILURE

The Tatmadaw may not have expected that reports of its alleged human rights abuses would become fodder for militant jihadi recruitment. The emerging security threat to Myanmar may have a ripple effect across the region - and if so, it would not be the first time this has happened.

In August 2013, a bomb exploded in the Ekayana Buddhist Vihara in Jakarta, injuring three people: The bomb attack was in response to the sectarian conflict in Myanmar. In May that year, there was a failed plot to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta to avenge the killing of Rohingya Muslims.

The Tatmadaw has inadvertently allowed the media to frame its counter-insurgency in a way that fuels radical propaganda. Before this crisis, the Rohingya cause was already featured in ISIS and Al-Qaeda magazines, reaching the tech-savvy extremist communities growing in South-east Asia.

Considering that 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 alone may not be sufficient as more could easily be formed to replace them or to pick up from where they have left off.

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 Rohingya's citizenship status and grievances, and working with the Rohingya as a strategic partner to alert the authorities of terrorist or insurgent activities.

According to Myanmar's Ministry of Information, interrogations revealed that the detainees were "forced to attend terrorist training" and "threatened with death" if they refused. This is further proof that there may have been an opportunity to win over the Rohingya.

Beyond security issues along the northern borders of Myanmar, South-east 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. It would be unfortunate if these refugees, in their desperation, become members of terrorist organisations or commit terrorist acts in their host countries.

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 impact beyond Myanmar, reaching Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

• Jasminder Singh is a senior analyst and Muhammad Haziq Jani a research analyst, with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

• An earlier version of this article first appeared in RSIS Commentaries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2016, with the headline 'Rohingya crisis may spur militant response in S-E Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe