RANGOON — Regional security experts say it is possible that some militant Rohingyas have sought support from Indonesian hardline Muslim organizations, but they dismiss claims that an armed Rohingya insurgency is under way in western Burma’s Arakan State.
The experts reacted to recent reports on radical Islamic websites stating that a cleric and military commander of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) have met with hardline Indonesian civil society organizations to request funding, weapons and military training for an armed struggle.
The RSO members visited a rally of the Forum Umat Islam in central Jakarta on June 19, with the military commander Abu Shafiyah reportedly saying, “We need the Mujahideen from Indonesia to train and supply the Mujahideen in their training camp in Rohingya [sic], especially in bomb making,” according to one English-language radical Muslim blog.
Another website, called Arrahmah.com, posted 28 photos last week purportedly showing 300 “Rohingya Mujahideen” fighters receiving military training at a camp in northern Arakan State.
Sidney Jones, an Indonesia-based security analyst with the International Crisis Group, said it was likely that the supposed RSO members spoke at the Forum Umat Islam rally. “This is not a rumor, hundreds of people were there to hear them speak,” she added.
Jones said the Forum Umat Islam is not a Jihadist terrorist organization but a registered advocacy organization with a radical pro-Islamic agenda, adding that it sometimes engages in attacks on religious minorities in Indonesia.
Such Indonesian groups have thousands of members and have mounted an aggressive public response to the Rohingya issue in order to bolster their popularity in the Muslim-majority country.
The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, have suffered decades of persecution in Burma. During deadly clashes with local Buddhist communities last year, about 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, were forced to flee their homes and 192 people were killed.
Shwe Maung, a ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party member, rejected the claims that the photos showed RSO fighters in his region. “There is not a square meter without Nasaka [border guard] forces in northern Arakan,” said the MP, who represents the Muslim-majority Maungdaw Township in northern Arakan.
Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who has written extensively about insurgencies in Burma, said it was “very possible” that the RSO had been seeking support from Islamic militants abroad, adding that the group had worked closely with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh for years.
Lintner said, however, that the published photos did not show an RSO fighting force in Arakan State. “The pictures are genuine but old and were taken near Ukhia between Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf in Bangladesh. The RSO has never had any armed presence inside Burma,” he wrote in an email.
Lintner said many of the pictured fighters were not from Burma, but from Jamaat-e-Islami’s youth wing, which used the RSO camp for training many years ago. This youth wing has carried out bomb attacks and religiously motivated assassinations in Bangladesh in the past.
The RSO is a militant Rohingya organization founded in the early 1980s after Burma’s military launched violent operations in Arakan State that pushed about 250,000 Rohingyas over the border into Bangladesh.
It was a relatively small insurgency group with a few camps in Bangladesh near the Burma border and did not pose a serious threat to the authorities in Arakan. In 2001, Bangladesh authorities cracked down on the group, and little is known about its activities since.
“As far as we know the RSO still exists with three factions but none have been militarily active for years, and certainly not in Arakan State with the current heavy presence of the Nasaka and the Burmese army,” said Chris Lewa, who heads the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group.
Bangladesh’s current government, she added, would not support the RSO.
RSO founder Muhammad Yunus, a medical doctor from Arakan, currently leads one RSO faction. He denied that his faction had sought support from radical groups in Indonesia.
“I have no armed activities since long and now I am actively involved in political activities,” Yunus told The Irrawaddy in an email, adding that he had joined the recent Arakan Rohingya Union conference in Saudi Arabia, where some Rohingya representatives reportedly gathered to discuss a political solution to the Arakan crisis.
Abu Tahay, a Rohingya leader and chairman of the Union Nationals Development Party in Burma, dismissed the claims of a militant Rohingya insurgency and said radical Indonesian groups were abusing the Arakan crisis to advance their own domestic goals.
“This is being created by bad persons taking advantage of the Rohingyas’ problems,” he said.
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said Indonesian radical Muslim groups “have been milking the Rohingya issue for everything it’s worth, seeking to use the misery and discrimination faced by the Rohingya as a recruiting tool for their own rights-violating, violent radicalism.”
He warned that Arakanese Buddhist nationalists in turn would use the unconfirmed reports of links between Islamic militants and the Rohingya to further fuel anti-Muslim sentiments in the state.
“Sadly, both the [Indonesian Muslim groups] and the extremist Rakhine [Arakan] response for ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya are two sides of the same coin of hatred and violence. Both should be condemned by the Indonesia and Burma governments,” he said.