Report links Myanmar’s Rohingya insurgency to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan

A security personnel stands guard after catching thirty eight Rohingya Muslims illegally crossing at a border check point in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 21, 2016. (Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

Leaders of the the Rohingya Muslim insurgent group behind two recent deadly attacks in Myanmar have links to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) revealed, sparking fears of further radicalization if the government fails to diffuse the ongoing violence.

Members of the the group, which calls itself Harakah al-Yakin (HaY, or Faith Movement), have claimed responsibility for an Oct. 9 attack on a border post that killed nine policemen followed by a Nov. 12 attack that killed two soldiers. Security forces responded swiftly and brutally.

Reports and satellites images have since emerged from human rights organizations and aid groups accusing security forces of raping and abusing Rohingya, setting fire to their buildings and destroying their villages. At least 86 people have been killed and 30,000 displaced, most fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.

Because the government considers Rohingya illegal migrants from Bangladesh, they are denied citizenship, freedom of movement and other basic rights and have been described as “among the world’s least wanted and most persecuted people.”

The coordinated attacks by HaY “mark a dangerous turn” unlike anything in recent decades, said ICG officials, who interviewed six members of the group through secure messaging apps.

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According to the report, HaY formed in the aftermath of the 2012 communal bloodbath in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state between the majority Buddhist population and Rohingya Muslims. A committee of 20 leaders – all Rohingya emigres or of Rohingya heritage – oversees the group from Mecca.

For more than two years, Pakistanis, Afghanis and Rohingya Muslims with fighting experience quietly trained villagers in northern Rakhine for the Oct. 9 and Nov. 12 attacks.

But HaY – which the government generically calls Aqa Mul Mujahidin, or “communities of fighters” – kept its identity under wraps until others falsely claimed credit and began receiving large contributions from donors in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and the Rohingya diaspora.

ICG identified HaY’s leader, who appeared in several videos following the attacks, as Ata Ullah. The son of a Rohingya migrant, Ullah was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to Mecca as a child.

“Though not confirmed, there are indications he went to Pakistan and possibly elsewhere [after 2012], and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare,” the report said. Ullah is among another group of 20 leaders from Saudi Arabia coordinating operations on the ground.

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While HaY has sought religious legitimacy for its cause, the report noted, “its stated aim is not to impose Sharia (Islamic law), but rather to stop persecution of Rohingya and secure their rights and greater autonomy as Myanmar citizens.”

But as funding and support pours in from jihadi hotbeds, that could change, the report warned. Whereas Rohingya leaders traditionally denounced violence, gnawing desperation has cultivated sympathy for militant groups like HaY. And if things don’t improve, Rakhine could become ideal breeding grounds for transnational terrorist agendas.

“The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years rather than any sort of inevitability,” the report said.

To a degree, the government’s de facto leader, Nobel laureate Aun San Suu Kyi’s hands are tied, because the military operates autonomously. Going against the military may mean Suu Kyi loses power entirely.

However, ICG urged the government and military to quickly and carefully recalibrate policies that address the despair in Rohingya communities.

“Failure to get this right would carry enormous risks,” the report warned.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.