Rohingya exodus: Myanmar at risk of becoming a magnet for global jihadists

Rohingya exodus: Myanmar at risk of becoming a magnet for global jihadists

Rohingya exodus: Myanmar at risk of becoming a magnet for global jihadists

Updated 25 September 2017, 6:15 AEST

The abuses against Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar could attract Islamic extremists from across the world, an expert on the crisis says.

The abuses against Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar could attract Islamic extremists from across the world, according to an expert on the crisis.

Key points

  • Myanmar expert says the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims could attract foreign fighters
  • The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is responsible for coordinated terror attacks in Rakhine state
  • The attacks prompted a brutal crackdown by the military, sending more than 400,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh

A coordinated attack by local insurgents on 30 police posts last month sparked a brutal crackdown by the security forces and the exodus of more than 400,000 civilian Rohingya to Bangladesh.

"My biggest fear is that Myanmar is now squarely on the map in the Muslim world as the pre-eminent current case of abuse of a Muslim minority," Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based consultant for the International Crisis Group, said.

"The Rohingya have become cause celebre for a generation of Muslims globally," Mr Horsey told the ABC.

"And that is an extremely dangerous situation for Myanmar at a time when foreign fighters are returning from Iraq and Syria … [and] the southern Philippines," Mr Horsey said.

"Myanmar could very easily become a target for international organisations — I think it already is a target.

While Al Qaeda issued a statement of support for the Rohingya insurgents this month, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has disowned any operational links to international terrorist groups.

"ARSA feels it is necessary to make it clear that it has no links with Al Qaeada, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Lashkar-e-Taiba or any transnational terrorist group," a statement on the group's official Twitter account on 14 September said.

"We do not welcome the involvement of these groups in the Arakan [Rakhine] conflict," the ARSA statement said.

Rohingya leader cheated by jihadists

Fresh information about the leader of ARSA suggests bad blood between him and terrorist groups in Pakistan, after they reneged on weapons deals.

ARSA's leader is Atu Ullah, although he goes by the alias Abu Amar Jununi in propaganda videos and the Myanmar Government calls him Hafiz Tohar.

Atu Ullah's father is from northern Rakhine State but the insurgent leader grew up in the Pakistani city of Karachi, before moving to Saudi Arabia, according to several different reports.

Richard Horsey said Atu Ullah probably fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This week, Pakistan-based Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist Gohar Abbas gave new insight into Atu Ullah, quoting un-named relatives and militants.

AFP reported that Atu Ullah decided to return to Myanmar after the 2012 communal violence that caused 140,000 Rohingya to flee their homes.

"He returned [from Saudi Arabia] to Pakistan with millions of dollars seeking guns, fighters and training from top jihadist groups, according to militants in Karachi who met him during the trip," Gohar Abbas wrote.

"He contacted figures tied to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Kashmiri separatist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, offering them large sums of cash in exchange for help, to no avail," Mr Abbas wrote.

"Most of the Pakistani militants snubbed or outright ignored the requests, while others stole the money he paid for weapons that were never delivered."

"Sources from multiple militant circles who saw Ullah in Pakistan in 2012 said he left the country a committed nationalist with a lingering distrust of the jihadi outfits who paid lip service to the Rohingya's plight but refused to offer tangible support," according to the AFP report.

This account gives a new perspective on ARSA's immediate dismissal of Al Qaeda's support.

"The calls for jihad in Burma [Myanmar] by various militant groups are nothing but a publicity stunt and a means to gain sympathy from Muslims," said retired Pakistani general Talat Masood in the AFP story.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army

There are other signs that ARSA wants to distance itself from international Islamic terrorist groups.

When they first emerged last year, the insurgents called themselves Harakah al-Yaqin, which means 'Faith Movement' in Arabic, but later changed the name to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Several analysts have described this as partly to appear more acceptable to Western democracies, framing their actions as a struggle for basic human rights rather than a clash of religions.

In its propaganda videos and Twitter statements, ARSA often calls on the international community and the United Nations to intervene, a stark contrast to global jihadists.

The insurgent attacks in October and August have targeted Border Guard Police posts.

But there have also been dozens of mysterious night-time assassinations of people suspected of cooperating with the army or Myanmar government; killings widely blamed on ARSA.

The militants' alleged use of Muslim villagers as informants and human shields has also blurred the line between civilians and combatants, with deadly consequences.

'Worst crisis in Rohingya history'

Richard Horsey said ARSA is overseen by a committee of about 20 Rohingya emigres in Saudi Arabia, with a handful of trained fighters leading operations within Myanmar, and various funding and propaganda cells around the world.

Ata Ullah said the recent attacks on police posts were meant to protect Rohingya people, after the army allegedy encircled a village in Rathedaung township.

But the tactic has backfired spectacularly — and predictably.

"The idea that this group is somehow protecting this population, when it's been responsible for the worst crisis in its history, is very difficult to square," Mr Horsey said.

Since 25 August, the Myanmar army, Border Guard Police and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes have reportedly killed hundreds of Rohingya civilians and systematically burned down their villages.

In a telling overlap of language, what the security forces call "clearance operations," the UN calls "textbook ethnic cleansing".

Myanmar's army chief Min Aung Hlein said soldiers are completing the "unfinished business" of World War II, during which Rohingya sided with colonial Britain and Rakhine Buddhists fought with the Japanese.

"The question now is how can Myanmar step back from the brink?" Richard Horsey asked.

"There is a human tragedy unfolding on the Bangladesh border … it's a tragedy the scope and scale of which will come to define international views about Myanmar for years to come."