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The heroes of the Rohingya

Image credit: Firdaus Latif (Flickr: Creative Commons)

On 16 February 2017, Myanmar’s military announced the end of a four-month clearance operation in the Rakhine state. Since October last year, the military has conducted a clearance operation in response to a series of border attacks committed by Rohingya-based insurgency group Harakah al-Yaqin along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, which killed nine police officers. The United Nations (UN) condemned the clearance operations as an act of ethnic cleansing, with UN’s Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee uncovering widespread human rights violations such as mass killings and rape during her 12-day visit to Myanmar. Human Rights Watch satellite imagery also captured the widespread destruction of villages caused by Myanmar’s military, which has resulted in over 66,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh since October last year.

While the military crackdown on the Rakhine state may have ceased, the future prospects for Myanmar’s Rohingya remain bleak. Myanmar’s continued persecution of the Rohingya will see further deterioration of its national security landscape: the plight of the Rohingya is a powerful narrative for insurgency movements, such as Harakah al-Yaqin, to gain support and challenge Myanmar’s government. With this in mind, Rohingya-based insurgency may intensify with the onset of increasing external forces willing to exploit Myanmar’s deteriorating security landscape.

Myanmar’s relationship with the Rohingya is based on a combination of highly complex and intertwined factors, which have seen the deterioration of security for the Rohingya. In June 2012, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman became the catalyst for sectarian-fuelled conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya. Buddhist nationalists burned Rohingya homes, killed more than 280 people and displaced over 120,000. Masses of Rohingya have fled Myanmar, which triggered the migrant crisis in 2015 that saw Southeast Asian countries play human ping-pong with more than 8000 refugees stranded in boats on the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits.

According to the International Crisis Group, Harakah al-Yaqin was formed following the 2012 riots in an attempt to end the persecution of the Rohingya and help secure their human rights as Myanmar citizens. Harakah al-Yaqin insurgency operations are directed by Ata Ullah operating in Rakhine, who’s supported by a steering committee of roughly 20 Rohingya émigrés in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Ullah was born in Karachi, Pakistan to a Rohingya father and subsequently educated in Mecca. Having disappeared from Saudi Arabia in 2012 following the sectarian riots in Rakhine, Ullah allegedly travelled to Pakistan to receive training in modern guerrilla warfare and subsequently joined Harakah al-Yaqin.

The Harakah al-Yaqin is a significant game changer in Myanmar. It enjoys support from the local Rohingya communities, receives significant religious support, as well as access to foreign-born fighters’ expertise and international linkages. The Harakah al-Yaqin is largely comprised of young men from local Rakhine villages, hundreds of Rohingya men from Bangladesh, as well as more than a dozen foreign-born fighters with extensive international training and experience in guerrilla warfare. They also enjoy religious support from Muslim leaders in Rakhine thanks to the attainment of fatwas shortly after the October border raids from countries with significant Rohingya diaspora, including Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The presence of a Saudi Arabian born Rohingya senior Islamic scholar Mufti Ziaburn Rahman also significantly strengthens the group’s religious legitimacy as Rahman has the authority to issue fatwas. The group is extensively connected to Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan and India to a lesser extent.

Harakah al-Yaqin’s international linkages suggest that Myanmar could see an increasing involvement from external forces seeking to exploit the plight of the Rohingya and the country’s deteriorating security environment. In January 2017, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak warned that Myanmar’s continued persecution of the Rohingya might open opportunities for global jihadists, such as the Islamic State, to ‘fan the flames of Islamic extremism’. This is unsurprising, since groups such as Al-Qaeda have identified the plight of the Rohingya as a key target since 2014. With the threat of external influences remaining credible, countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia are already witnessing radicalised individuals seeking reprisal for the injustices suffered by the Rohingya.

The plight of the Rohingya will undoubtedly persist as a powerful narrative to garner support and legitimise insurgency movements such as the Harakah al-Yaqin. The Myanmar government’s ignorance and unwillingness to address the root grievances of the Rohingya issue, despite international denouncement, will not see peace in the foreseeable future. The continued persecution of the Rohingya and an intensification of violence will see increased displacement, irregular migratory flows, and the growing influence and involvement of international jihadists. As Myanmar continues to systematically deny basic human rights to the Rohingya, insurgency movements such as Harakah al-Yakin will increasingly emerge as the heroes of the Rohingya by offering an alternative pathway to self-determination for a minority that faces no other choice.

Reginald Ramos is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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