The long history of Rohingya Islamist militancy

Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

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Inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state: Members of the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which is aided by militant organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The current international narrative on the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority has failed to recognize the roots of the present crisis or the growing transnational jihadist links of Rohingya militants, who have stepped up attacks. Contrary to the perception that the Rohingya militancy has arisen from military repression in recent years, Myanmar’s jihad scourge is decades old, with Rohingya Islamist violence beginning even before Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

Rohingya militants have actually been in the vanguard of the global rise of Islamic radicalism since the early 1940s, when they joined the campaign to press the British to establish Pakistan by partitioning India. It was the British who earlier moved large numbers of Rohingyas from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in Burma, now Myanmar, which was administered as a province of India until 1937 before it became a separate, self-governing colony. Rohingya migrants settled mainly in Myanmar’s East Bengal-bordering Arakan region (now renamed Rakhine state).

Between 1942 and the early 1950s, a civil war raged in Arakan between Muslims and Buddhists. Communal hatred spilled into violence during World War II as the Japanese military advanced into Arakan in 1942 and the British launched a counter-offensive, with local Buddhists largely siding with the Japanese and Rohingyas with the British.

Britain recruited Rohingya Muslims into its guerrilla force — the so-called “V” Force — to ambush and kill Japanese troops. When the British eventually regained control of Arakan in 1945, they rewarded Rohingya Muslims for their loyalty by appointing them to the main posts in the local government.

Emboldened by the open British support, Rohingya militants set out to settle old scores with Buddhists. And in July 1946, they formed the North Arakan Muslim League to seek the Muslim-dominated northern Arakan’s secession from Myanmar. In the religious bloodletting that preceded and followed the partition of India, Rohingya attacks sought to drive out Buddhists from northern Arakan as part of the campaign to join East Pakistan.

Failure to achieve that goal turned many Rohingyas to armed jihadism, with mujahideen forces in 1948 gaining effective control of northern Arakan. Government forces suppressed the revolt in the early 1950s, although intermittent mujahideen attacks continued until the early 1960s. From the 1970s onwards, however, Rohingya Islamist movements re-emerged, with a series of insurgent groups rising and fading away. The aim of the groups was to establish an Islamist state within a Buddhist state, principally through demographic change and jihad.

Now history has come full circle, with the Myanmar military being accused of driving Rohingyas out of Rakhine state. But in a development that carries ominous security implications for the region, especially Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, Rakhine is becoming a magnet for the global jihadist movement, with Rohingya radicals increasingly being aided by militant organizations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The new breed of Rohingya insurgents is suspected of having links with ISIS, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda and even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Ata Ullah, the Pakistani who heads the Rohingya terrorist group, the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, reportedly returned to Pakistan from an extended stay in Saudi Arabia with millions of dollars to wage jihad against Myanmar after the 2012 deadly communal riots in Rakhine.

Against this background, India is legitimately concerned about the illegal entry of over 40,000 Rohingyas since 2012, with the government telling the Supreme Court that their arrival poses a “serious security threat” because of the links of Rohingya militants with terrorist outfits and the ISI agency. Some of these militants have become active in India, according to the government.

What is particularly disturbing is the organized manner in which the Rohingyas have sneaked into India from multiple routes and then settled across the length and breadth of the country, including in sensitive places like Jammu, Kashmir Valley, Mewat and Hyderabad. Rohingya settlements have come up even in New Delhi. Because they entered India unlawfully, the Rohingas are illegal aliens, not refugees.

Normally, those fleeing a conflict-torn zone tend to camp just across an international border. But in this case the Rohingyas entered India via a third nation, Bangladesh. And then large numbers of them dispersed from West Bengal and Tripura states to different parts of India. Many of them, as the government admits, have obtained Aadhaar and other identity cards.

Still, the government is reluctant to order an inquiry into the role of internal forces in assisting the Rohingyas’ entry, dispersal and settlement across India. Worse yet, it has passed the buck to the Supreme Court, with Home Minister Rajnath Singh saying the government would await the Court’s hearing and decision on the Rohingyas’ plea against possible deportation to Bangladesh, from where they entered. Thus far, New Delhi has been all talk and no action.

Make no mistake: India is a crowded country that, nonetheless, has generously admitted asylum seekers or refugees over the years from a host of places, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and mainland China. India is already home to some 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

But the Rohingya aliens pose a special challenge because of the escalating jihad in Rakhine and some Rohingyas’ militant activities on Indian soil. The external forces fomenting jihadist attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingyas’ current plight.

© Mail Today, 2017.

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