Police Search for ‘Terrorist’ Rohingya Suspects in Mon, Pegu States

By Nyein Nyein 11 November 2014

Burmese police said they have put security measures in place and are searching for four Rohingya Muslim “terrorists,” who authorities claim are hiding in Mon or Pegu states.

Pegu Division Police Force Col. Win Sein said on Tuesday that checkpoints had been set up on roads in the region to search for the men, who supposedly belong to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO).

He said his officers received orders from the National Police headquarters in Naypyidaw in recent days to search for suspects named Than Win, Dawit (also known as Osama), Amin (also known as Ahphat) and Zaw Win (also known Isami), adding that pictures of the men had been distributed among police officers.

Win Sein was unable to provide details as to why the men would be active in in Mon or Pegu states, or what indications there are of an imminent terrorist threat, saying only, “The information came directly from Naypyidaw.”

The police operations come during a time of heightened security measures in Burma ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and East Asia summits, which are held in the capital Naypyidaw on Nov 12-13 and will see many regional and world leaders visit Burma.

Zaw Lin Htun, secretary of the Mon State cabinet, said the state’s Security and Stability Committee was taking security measures and searching for the suspects, who police said could be hiding in Moulmein.

“Our State Security and Border Affairs Minister [Col. Htay Myint Aung] is leading the committee and information has been shared to every level, down to the lowest administrative level,” he said, before declining further comment.

Officers at the Moulmein Police Station in Mon State declined to comment on the operations. U Myint, a Moulmein resident, said he had noticed no security measures in the state capital and that the public had not been informed of any threat.

A Rangoon Division Police officer said security had been tightened in the region too, but declined to give details.

In recent days, several local newspapers published police statements about the search operations, including a raid on Monday on a Rangoon hotel that turned out to be a false alarm.

Police have offered scant detail to qualify the supposed threat and no explanation has been given as to why members of the RSO—which the government says is based on the Burma-Bangladesh border—would be in central and southern parts of the country.

Since early September, the Burmese government has said it is on alert after the radical Islamist group Al-Qaeda released a statement saying it would launch an “Al-Qaeda in South Asia” wing with activities in India, Bangladesh and Burma.

The RSO is not part of Al-Qaeda and was 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 small insurgency group with a few camps in Bangladesh near the Burma border. In 2001, Bangladesh authorities cracked down on the group, and little is known about its activities since.

Regional security experts have said that they believe the group is defunct, but the Burmese government repeatedly says the RSO poses a security threat—claims that have been difficult to independently verify. The RSO’s founder has told The Irrawaddy that he has denounced violence.

Burmese authorities have used the supposed RSO threat at times to justify a heavy security presence in northern Arakan State, where some 1 million stateless Rohingya are facing persecution and live under a range of government restrictions that have been widely condemned as gross human rights abuses.

Abu Tahay, a Rohingya political leader based in Rangoon, said he believed that the RSO had not been militarily active for many years. “As far as I know, there have been no people or organizations known as RSO in Myanmar since 1994, 1995,” he said, adding that most Rohingya reject the idea of staging violent acts or an armed rebellion against the government.

He said the police statements published in the local media appear to be aimed at painting the Muslim minority in a bad light with Burma’s predominantly Buddhist population. “Such news reports look like they are pushing the Rohingya population into this corner,” said Abu Tahay.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) said there are attempts under way by individual members of the Rohingya community in Arakan State to revive the RSO as an insurgent force, but it noted that there is little support for the efforts, neither from the Rohingya public nor in Bangladesh.

“[T]he vast majority of the [Rohingya] community is opposed to violence as a means of obtaining their rights. This stems from practical considerations more than principle: they believe that violence or even a threat thereof would be likely to prompt further discrimination against them,” the report said.

It added, “Even if the RSO is not a credible military threat, the group’s very existence could be used as an easy justification for increased discrimination against Muslims in Rakhine [Arakan] State.”

The ICG also said that international-style Islamic radicalization of the Rohingya is unlikely “for a number of reasons: they see Western governments as key supporters of their rights, which does not fit with the global jihadi agenda; they are not easy for global extremist networks to access; and it seems that most Rohingya religious leaders are not preaching violence.”

Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze.