By Richard C. Paddock, Ellen Barry and Mike Ives
January 19, 2017
The insurgent group announced its existence with a predawn attack on three Myanmar border guard posts. Hundreds of Rohingya militants, armed mainly with knives and slingshots, killed nine police officers and seized weapons and ammunition.
It was about time, Naing Lin, 28, said of the October attack near his village, Kyee Kan Pyin.
“The government is torturing us,” he said by phone this week. “The aim of the group is to protect our rights. That’s all. They are doing what they should do.”
The beginning of an armed resistance is just one of several developments that are reshaping the conflict over Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority with potentially far-reaching consequences.
The group that attacked the border posts, Harakah al-Yaqin, is believed to have several hundred recruits, substantial popular support and ties to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. Separately, there has been a surge of international humanitarian and political support for the Rohingya cause, mainly from Muslim countries that have cast the Rohingya as the Palestinians of Southeast Asia.
The combination threatens to internationalize and escalate a long-simmering conflict. The Myanmar government has responded to the attacks with a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign that witnesses and human rights groups say has included the killing of hundreds of civilians, the burning of villages and the systematic rape of women and girls.
In addition, some analysts fear that turning the Rohingya into a transnational Muslim cause could draw foreign jihadists of varying stripes to Myanmar, adding terrorism to an already combustible mix and giving the Myanmar military a convenient excuse for a draconian response.
But after decades of persecution and violence, to which the rest of the world largely responded with a shrug, some Rohingya say an armed response is overdue.
“They are doing good things,” Mr. Naing Lin said of the insurgents. “They are protecting our rights. If it’s needed, I might join them.”
The attack on the border posts in Rakhine State was a “game changer,” according to the International Crisis Group report.
Harakah al-Yaqin, Arabic for “Faith Movement,” is directed by about 20 Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and led on the field by another 20 or so Rohingya with international training and experience in guerrilla warfare, the report said. It is well connected in Pakistan and Bangladesh and appears to be attracting financial backing from the Rohingya diaspora and major private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, the report said.
The militia enjoys growing support from many Rohingya in Myanmar who see it as the only alternative to government repression, the International Crisis Group said. The organization warned that a continued heavy-handed approach by the military would backfire, leading more Rohingya to back the militants and possibly inspiring foreign Islamic groups to join the conflict.
There have already been signs of interest by the Islamic State, or ISIS. In November, Indonesian authorities arrested three men who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State and were accused of planning to bomb prominent sites across Jakarta, including the Myanmar Embassy.
This month, Malaysian authorities detained a man who the government said was an Islamic State follower heading to Myanmar to carry out attacks.
“All this clearly demonstrates I.S. slowly and steadily making inroads to influence the Rohingya issue,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “You can even say it’s an attempt to hijack the Rohingya agenda.”
The Myanmar government has largely denied allegations of human rights abuses, and it says it is responding to the situation according to the rule of law.
The government has barred journalists and aid workers from entering the conflict area, in northern Rakhine State just over the Naf River from Bangladesh, and accusations that the military is carrying out a campaign of murder, rape and arson have not been independently verified.
But the reports and images of violence there have fueled the concern of other countries in the region, especially Bangladesh and Malaysia.
On Thursday, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a coalition of 56 countries, will hold an emergency session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where it is expected to call for an immediate halt to military operations in Rakhine State, an independent investigation into accusations of human rights abuses, and humanitarian aid to the affected areas.
At the same time, countries in the region are wary of escalating violence in their backyards.
Bangladesh, struggling to contain the spread of Islamist extremist networks within its own borders, is concerned about the rise of an insurgency next door and the prospect of Rohingya militants using Bangladesh as a base to carry out attacks in Myanmar.
Refugees fleeing the crackdown in Myanmar have been “pouring over the border” into makeshift settlements, said Shafqat Munir, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. “If there is a risk of potentially radicalized people coming in, that presents quite a challenge.”
Still, in contrast to previous crises, there has been little effort to stem the flow by sending refugees back to Myanmar. About 65,000 Rohingya are believed to have arrived in Bangladesh since October, joining about a half-million already living in the refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar.
Islamist organizations, including the powerful Hefazat-e-Islam, organized large rallies in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, in November and December, urging the government to give the Rohingya shelter.
Madrasa students have journeyed to the refugee camps from far-flung cities to help build temporary shelters. Others travel halfway across the country from Dhaka and beyond to hand small gifts of cash to the once-reviled Rohingya.
Mohammad Yunus, 26, whose family fled to Bangladesh in 1992, is astonished by the change.
“Bangladeshis once had hatred for us,” he said. “They would call us names. They used to say we were Burmese, with a bad tone, and swear at us in different ways. But now they have the idea that we are persecuted.”
Bangladeshi television is broadcasting sympathetic news coverage of Rohingya suffering in Myanmar, and images purported to be of atrocities carried out by the Myanmar military are circulating on social media, including on WhatsApp and Facebook.
Mohammad Imam Hussein, whose mosque near the Myanmar border provides aid to hundreds of refugees, said the videos have brought the conflict home for Bangladeshis.
“They’re seeing with their own eyes what is happening to them,” he said. “Earlier, there was no interaction between us, and I didn’t have the same feeling. But now I have seen it with my own eyes. I have seen people being killed.”
That Malaysia is taking a leading role in promoting the Rohingya cause is not entirely unexpected, given that it is the largest officially Muslim nation in Southeast Asia and that it has taken in tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
But a rally led by Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur in December to protest Myanmar’s military crackdown was extraordinary in a region where leaders rarely criticize each other and countries largely mind their own business.
Mr. Najib called the military campaign “genocide” and called out Myanmar’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, for not doing enough to prevent the bloodshed. “Does she really have a Nobel Peace Prize?” he asked.
While his motives may have been less than pure — critics said he was trying to distract attention from allegations that he stole $1 billion in government funds and to rally voters in Malaysia’s Muslim heartland ahead of coming elections — his voice has been strong.
Malaysia, along with Saudi Arabia, is also home to Rohingya Vision, a satellite broadcaster and advocacy group that has helped circulate videos and news from Rakhine State.
Muhammad Noor, its Saudi-born managing director, says the station has 30 paid citizen journalists in Myanmar and is financed by Rohingya donors from across Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He says the station reaches at least 150,000 viewers with its app, social media channels and websites in English, Arabic and Burmese.
“We’re trying to tell the story to the world that the amount of persecution is in a very extreme level,” he said.
Another Malaysian group, the Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organization, is trying to organize an aid flotilla along the lines of the ill-fated one that tried to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010. The group, hoping to draw attention to the Rohingyas’ plight, says it will set sail early next month.
Whether the confluence of international attention and militarization ratchets up the pressure on Myanmar is hard to fathom. Despite her dual roles as state counselor and foreign minister, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has little authority over the military under the power-sharing detailed in Myanmar’s military-imposed Constitution. But she has so far resisted international pressure to use her position to criticize the violence, speak out for the Rohingya or even call for an independent investigation of the allegations of atrocities in Rakhine State.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights organization, says that increased international attention may attract extremists but could also pressure the government to seek a long-term solution.
“Without pressure,” she said, “nothing will happen.”
Richard C. Paddock reported from Bangkok; Ellen Barry from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; and Mike Ives from Hong Kong. Saw Nang contributed reporting from Mandalay, Myanmar, and Maher Sattar from Cox’s Bazar.