Myanmar: Islamic terrorism rising in new threat to Suu Kyi’s government

A Rohingya militia group was responsible for attacks on border police that sent thousands in Rakhine State running for their lives late last year. They say their goal is rights for their community but they may open the door to something much darker.

By Francesca Ross

An ugly monster lives in the ghettos of Rakhine State. It has been created from decades of hate, mistrust and fear thrown at the so-called Rohingya people living in the northern edges of the country. The monster has taken the face of Islamic terrorism and has Myanmar in its sights.

The monster’s name is Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY). This group of militants has claimed responsibility for the attacks on border guards which killed nine policemen in October 2016.

The money and leadership comes from Saudi Arabia

These violent Rohingya advocates are led by a committee of emigrants living in Saudi Arabia, says a new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG). The group stepped into the spotlight late last year after other pro-Rohingya causes (allegedly the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation) laid claim to the attacks and started fundraising from wealthy donors in the Middle East.

HaY is a new breed of terror group. It says it does not want impose Islamic Sharia law and has no real religious sentiment. Its simple goal is protecting the so-called Rohingya community from persecution and securing them rights as Myanmar citizens. It is at heart motivated by local grievances rather than trans-national jihad like so-called Islamic State or al-Qaida, explained ICG’s Tim Johnston.

Fighters on the ground are united behind experienced guerrilla military leaders that have skills in making improvised explosive devices, the document adds. These commanders may have experience from conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The group’s high-level leadership of around 20 persons is based in Mecca. There are also established links to groups or individuals in Bangladesh, Pakistan and possibly India. Several hundred locally-trained members operate in northern Rakhine State.

Recruitment began in 2012 and was done on a local, personal basis

Recruiters came to U Shey Kya in early 2016, reports Reuters. They approached men who may be sympathetic to their cause and several agreed to training.

“Some villagers were recruited first, then these agents persuaded other people one-by-one,” said one man. “They would go to a grocery store or in the tea shop, they would talk to people.”

The roots of the organisation go back to the aftermath of the 2012 riots.  The so-called Rohingya community felt under increasing pressure and fear of further violence, says ICG.

Local leaders were recruited from 2013 and onwards. These people then trained hundreds of villagers. The men are mostly from Maungdaw township.

Their training was discrete and done in very small groups with men from a single village at a time, says ICG’s field researchers. This way no-one knew the scale of what was really happening. It was also harder for the authorities to get much information from a single leak.

The recruits deadly schooling covered using a weapon and guerrilla tactics. Making and using explosives was also high on the syllabus, said participants.

Frustrated young people are turning to the due to the government’s broken promises

The younger generation was behind this push away from non-violent resistance. So-called Rohingya communities had always held that discussion and engagement was the answer. The vote-stripping in the 2015 election, and a frustration with the lack of action from Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, is changing that perception.

Many young people have returned from the border camps to join the group. A registered refugee from Nayapara camp in Bangladesh stood beside one of the group’s leaders, Ata Ullah in one of the militia’s first public videos, the ICG said.

The north of the country is still on lockdown

The current response to the HaY threat is entirely in the hands of the military. Their plan is to eliminate the threat by shuttering off vast parts of the north and starving, slaughtering and terrorising the local population into submission.

Aung San Suu Kyi could call a state of emergency and wrestle away Army control but she will not work with the Committee that has the power to do so. She believes they are politically illegitimate.

The problem now brewing is that, although this is currently a local issue, external forces with money and grudges could become involved with groups in Myanmar. This escalates the threat considerably.

“By preventing aid groups and journalists from accessing the region, the government is creating a fog of uncertainty that will allow their enemies to create powerful narratives that will entrench violence,” added Johnston.

Better relations is vital to build a lasting peace

Local communities need help to maintain their delicate ethnic, political and social balance and cut the influence of recruiters to violent causes. This needs stronger and more positive ties between Muslim communities and the Myanmar state.

The government also needs to work better with its regional neighbours to share intelligence. The trade in arms, narcotics and human smuggling is rampant along Myanmar’s borders. It is easy cover for insurgent and jihadist groups to transport weapons, materiel, and personnel.

The so-called Rohingya will get the blame for the next round of bloodshed in this group’s fight for freedoms. It is not their fault. The fault is in the system that has pushed them to extremes. The monster is entirely of Myanmar’s leaders’ own making.