Updated at 5:36 p.m. EST on 2017-09-18
Militant groups in Malaysia and Bangladesh have recruited fighters to join the Rohingya insurgency in Myanmar's Rakhine state, security officials said Monday, as outrage intensified over violence against the Muslim minority that U.N. officials have called ethnic cleansing.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's new police chief said a group of Malaysians was already "in Myanmar to fight against the oppression of the Rohingya there."
"Intelligence also detected that a group in Malaysia is currently attempting to sneak into Myanmar to join the fight. Counter-terrorism is determining how many of them are abroad and those who are still here," Police Inspector-General Mohamad Furzi Harun told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
"These jihadists are being recruited by those who are already in Rakhine and Malaysia. It is believed that those who are already there entered the country via Bangladesh and Thailand," he said.
In Bangladesh, the counter-terrorist wing of Bangladesh's national police recently convened an urgent meeting on how to contain cross-border movements by members of the Rohingya rebel group known as the Arakan Rakhine Salvation Army (ARSA), an official with the department told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
"[I]nfiltrating ARSA members have been trying to recruit new members from the Rohingya who have been staying here for long," the official said, referring to the 400,000 refugees sheltering the southeast of the country. That number has doubled since Aug. 25, according to the latest figures from the United Nations.
"We have information that they already recruited 50 members," he said.
"Some of the homegrown militants have been trying to fuel them. But the government policy is not to support the terrorists. Some of our teams have been working in Cox's Bazar and its adjoining areas," he added, alluding to Bangladeshi Muslim extremist groups.
‘I will sacrifice my life’
BenarNews also spoke to a Rohingya man who claimed to be an ARSA member who had not yet taken up arms for the insurgency. He fled Rakhine amid the recent surge in violence on Sept. 7.
“I did not get any weapons. I am not a senior leader of al-Yaqin. I am a junior fighter,” the 18-year-old who identified himself as Abdus Shukur, said during a Sept. 14 interview at a makeshift refugee camp in Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh. He was referring to ARSA by its older name, Harakah al-Yaqin (“Faith Movement).”
“I will return to my country again, and even fight if necessary. I will sacrifice my life for freeing my homeland,” Shukur told BenarNews, saying he had fled from an attack on his home neighborhood of Jhulaipara in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township.
Some 40 al-Yaqin members were from his neighborhood and the group was fighting for rights for Rohingya, who are not recognized as citizens in majority-Buddhist Myanmar, and who have been forced by the Mogh (local Buddhists), he said, to pay rent for land that Rohingya own.
“We have not been able to settle on our own land. We cannot work; we are not even allowed to go from one village to another. Al-Yaqin has been working for the betterment of those Rohingya. They have been fighting so that we can eat three meals a day,” Shukur said.
Abdus Shukur is shown during an interview at a makeshift camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh, Sept. 14, 2017. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]
Extremists could exploit situation: officials
ARSA claims to be fighting Myanmar’s security forces and Buddhist militia to defend the stateless Muslim minority, whose civilian population has been targeted in killings, burnings of villages, and other atrocities allegedly carried out by government forces and local militia, according to eyewitness accounts from refugees and research by international human rights organizations.
The latest cycle of violence began on Aug. 25, when ARSA insurgents mounted coordinated attacks on Myanmar police outposts in Rakhine.
Myanmar authorities also blamed the group, when it was still formally known as Harakah al-Yakin (HaY), for launching attacks on police posts in the state in October 2016. This precipitated a crackdown by the military that saw 87,000 Rohingya people flee to southeastern Bangladesh in the following weeks, according to U.N. estimates.
More than 800,000 Rohingya refugees, including those who fled earlier violence in Myanmar, are now sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh.
According to a report published last year by the think-tank International Crisis Group, a committee of Rohingya émigrés living in Saudi Arabia oversaw HaY and had connections to Bangladesh, Pakistan, and possibly India.
Last week, global terror group al-Qaeda announced that its fighters would help defend Rohingya Muslims against violence targeting their communities in Rakhine.
On Sept. 14, however, ARSA issued a statement in which it denied any link to al-Qaeda, Islamic State, or other terrorist organizations, although Myanmar’s government has branded the insurgents as “extremist Bengali terrorists.”
In Dhaka, Monirul Islam, Bangladesh’s police counter-terrorist chief, warned over the weekend that his department was “aware of opportunists who might” take advantage of the humanitarian crisis in the country’s southeast stemming from the violence in Rakhine to “instigate anti-state activities.”
“We have requested Rohingya refugees to stay inside the camp. There is a concern that some people may manipulate them by offering relief and use them in militant activities,” Bangladesh Police Inspector-General A.K.M. Shahidul Haque told a news conference.
Meanwhile, at least 20,000 members of a hard-line Muslim group, Hefazat-e-Islami, which has been staging protests against Myanmar over the new wave of violence against the Rohingya, took to the streets of the Bangladeshi capital on Monday to vent more anger.
“We’ll besiege the Myanmar Embassy to send a message to the Myanmar government that we won’t tolerate this genocide of our Muslim brothers in Arakan [Rakhine],” demonstrator Maolana Saifuddin told Agence France-Presse.
Thousands want to volunteer
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation where protests over the plight of the Rohingya have also been happening, an official with another hard-line group, the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), told BenarNews that at “at least 10,000” members had said they wanted to help the Rohingya as “humanitarian volunteers.”
“FPI is always serious about helping other Muslims,” Novel Bamukian, the general secretary of the group’s Jakarta chapter, told BenarNews, adding that some FPI members were not able to enter Myanmar but had made it to Bangladesh.
Elsewhere, Wawan Purwanto, the spokesman for Indonesia’s National Intelligence Agency (BIN), told Free Malaysia Today it had no information on whether Indonesian citizens had joined ARSA, but it was monitoring the situation.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.