Large-scale insurgency could be ‘just a few years away’ as more refugees in Bangladesh are willing to die for their cause
Rohingya refugees stage a demonstration for their rights on the day of Eid-ul-Fitr in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on June 16. (Photo by AFP)
Mohammed Karim, a Rohingya Muslim, spent over 30 years as a peaceful farmer living in Myanmar just 10 minutes from the Bangladesh border. Now he is marooned in a refugee camp baying for blood.
Last August, the Myanmar military came to his farm, destroyed his property and, he claims, looted all his valuables, forcing him and his family to flee to the neighboring country in fear for their lives.
Some 693,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled violence and persecution in Rakhine State, where many have lived for generations despite Myanmar never officially recognizing their status as citizens.
They now live in makeshift shanties in camps in places like Cox’s Bazar where opportunities to earn an income are extremely limited and even basic supplies can be hard to come by, further provoking some to turn to militancy.
“We have to fight to get our land back. We have to spill our blood for it. There’s no other way,” Karim told ucanews.com.
Some in the camps have lost everything — loved ones, friends, land, cattle, jobs, homes — and are getting frustrated as the months stack up.
Meanwhile, Myanmar seems reluctant to welcome them back despite eking out a repatriation deal with Bangladesh as the world watches.
Karim said he is ready to die to fight his “oppressors” and reclaim his home in Rakhine, but he has never held a gun or any other weapon of war.
“Maybe Pakistan or Bangladesh can help us in this fight,” he said optimistically. “Or maybe the U.N. can.”
Lal Ayub shares similar sentiments. The 88-year-old fled to Bangladesh in 1991 and hopes that his children will be able to return to Rakhine one day.
“Myanmar will never give us our land back if we don’t fight for it,” he said.
For the past few years, experts have warned that armed groups may benefit from the Rohingya’s growing sense of frustration, anger and lack of hope as such groups bend this perfect storm to their own radical agendas.
In a lengthy report, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State described the threat of increased radicalization in the region as “a real risk.”
“If the legitimate grievances of local populations are ignored, they will become more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists,” the commission wrote.
Shortly after the commission launched its report in August 2017 a number of police posts in Rakhine were attacked by members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
It was the biggest attack by Rohingya militants recorded in Myanmar in decades. It triggered an army crackdown, which was followed by the mass exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh.
Led by Rohingya men who grew up in Saudi Arabia, the ARSA rebels have been portrayed as a dangerous group at the vanguard of the battle to defend the rights of their people.
But conversations with people in the refugee camps suggest this may not entirely ring true. For a start, many of the Rohingya claim they have never heard of what is reportedly only a small and ill-equipped rebel group.
Others dispute its existence altogether.
“I don’t believe there are any ARSA terrorists,” Karim said. “This whole thing was created by the Myanmar government as an excuse to chase us out of the country.”
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote that a small number of ARSA leaders have entered the camps without being registered, allowing them to move about more freely than the other refugees.
Whatever the truth may be, the group has fallen quiet in recent months. The ICG suggested it’s preparing for a shift in tactics to cross-border attacks launched from Coz’s Bazar.
ARSA is still a small rebel group but its numbers will swell if the conflict is not peacefully resolved soon, according to Rohan Gunaratna, a professor of security studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
He said Rakhine can expect to see a large-scale insurgency within a decade and possibly as soon as the next few years unless the two sides can come to terms.
Although ARSA has denied having ties to bigger terrorist groups, experts say outfits like the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda can exploit the Rohingya crisis for their own jihadist goals.
But while the ICG wrote that such concerns are “legitimate” it qualified this statement by adding, “there is no evidence that such exploitation is happening.”
Last September, Al-Qaeda announced that Myanmar would be punished for its crimes against the Rohingya. The Islamist group then urged Muslims around the world to support this cause with aid, weapons and “military support,” Reuters reported.
“Terrorist organizations around the word have been reaching out to aggrieved and often already alienated Rohingya for decades,” according to Elliot Brennan, a Myanmar expert with the Institute for Security & Development Policy.
The warning was far from new.
So far these calls to radicalize the populace have received little support but things are changing quickly among the Rohingya, Brennan told ucanews.com.
“A large part of the formerly strong community links have been disrupted or destroyed during displacement. This, coupled with the gross indignity that the Rohingya are now living in, and the persecution they have survived, will only increase risks that some wretched and despondent individuals will look for new options,” he said.
But an armed struggle would only make things worse for the Rohingya, he suggested.
“They will only worsen the current state of affairs by reducing room for dialogue to improve the situation or leading to renewed persecution for those that remain in Myanmar,” he said.
To prevent further radicalization governments should focus on rebalancing their approach to education, he added.
Over the past six years Myanmar has banned most Rohingya from going to school or attending universities. That was a huge mistake, according to the professor.
“You now have a generation growing up without education. That’s an extremely vulnerable group. It’s essential to give them education and look after them,” Brennan said.
Back in the refugee camp, Mohammad Shaker, an imam or religious scholar at the Mosjide Osman Mosque, believes Allah (God) will show all Muslims the right path to follow — if they listen.
He has seen the resentment build among the refugees against the government and military in Myanmar, but he also believes there is no sense in spilling more blood.
“Allah doesn’t like fighting. The Quran says you have the right to protect yourself but it also says: If you kill one innocent man, you kill every man.”