Report: Pro-ISIS Groups Lure Burma Refugees

By Saw Yan Naing 9 June 2017

RANGOON — Pro-ISIS groups in Southeast Asia are trying to recruit Rohingya migrants in Malaysia—who have fled persecution in Arakan State—to join Islamic militants fighting Philippine security forces, according to a recent report from a Jakarta-based research firm.

The Institution for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), which focuses on conflicts in Indonesia and the Philippines, stated the recent attacks in the southern Philippines city of Marawi indicates growing radical movements fueled by ISIS and population movements across the region.

In its report titled “How Southeast Asia and Bangladeshi Extremism Intersect,” published in May, IPAC states that developments in Syria, Bangladesh, and Burma, put the relationship of South and Southeast Asian extremists “on a much more dangerous footing.”

Syria has been in civil war since 2011. In Arakan, there has been a long-running denial of rights to the Muslim Rohingya, topped with an army crackdown in late 2016 that killed and displaced thousands.

“The persecution of Muslims in Burma adds to the potential for radicalization in diaspora communities and to the perception in extremist circles in Southeast Asia that Rohingya are ripe for recruitment,” read the report.

IPAC director Sidney Jones said, “It’s possible that ISIS could find support within a fringe of the diaspora Rohingya community, but the angry young Rohingya inside Myanmar are far more likely to join an ethno-nationalist insurgency than a movement linked to the global jihad.”

Some 70,000 people have fled Arakan State to Bangladesh since Burma’s military began a security operation last October in response to an attack on border posts in which nine police officers were killed.

A group calling itself Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), previously named the Faith Movement, or Harakah al-Yaqin, claimed the attack, according to a report released in December by the International Crisis Group, but the group has denied links with any international terrorist group.

The IPAC report, however, said ARSA leaders have turned to some South Asian extremist groups for help with training.

A UN body agreed in March to send a fact-finding mission to Burma over claims of killings, rape, and torture by security forces against Rohingya Muslims in the troubled state.

There are an estimated 1 million Muslims in the region who self-identify as Rohingya and who are today largely stateless. Many in the Buddhist Arakanese community and Burma’s government describe the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying that they are migrants from Bangladesh.

As of early 2017, UNHCR had registered some 800 Rohingya in Indonesia and nearly 56,500 in Malaysia, many of whom have lived there for decades.

It also stated that Indonesians, Malaysians and other sympathizers are seeking to assist the Rohingya in Burma through contacts with Bangladesh-based Rohingya groups.

“By and large, Myanmar has more to worry about from a Rohingya armed rebellion in the name of achieving basic political rights than from ISIS, and in a way that’s good news because it means there’s a real prospect for a political solution, if only the authorities in Yangon had the guts to act,” said Jones.

“There are other entry points to ISIS: one or two youths from the Rohingya boat people who ended up in radical Islamic schools in Indonesia or a few among the Rohingya community in Malaysia attracted by online appeals from Syria and Mindanao,” she added.

Some Bangladeshi students from middle-class families studying at Malaysian universities develop pro-ISIS sympathies, stated the report, either at home or while in Malaysia. Some use Kuala Lumpur as the take-off point for travel to Syria, and some meet each other as ISIS fighters in Syria or Iraq.

“The existence of an armed group on the border mounting attacks on Myanmar security forces could inspire pro-ISIS groups in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia to do more systematic recruiting among their respective Rohingya communities and individuals willing to carry out attacks on their own,” read the report.

Extremism is becoming increasingly “intertwined, making the traditional distinction between South and Southeast Asia obsolete,” in terms of counter-terrorism, according to the report.

Historically, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), which operated out of southeastern Bangladesh, reportedly had ties with Southeast Asian extremists in the late 1980s and 1990s, but is now thought to be defunct.