Two conclusions might be drawn from Najib Razak’s recent intrusion into the Rohingya situation in Myanmar: either the Malaysian Prime Minister is genuine in his concern for the hounded minority or he is using the situation to boost his own credentials at home. Sifting through the numerous articles and opinion pieces that have been written about the issue, the pile that considers him an opportunistic politician is certainly more altitudinous than the one that takes him at his word.
Following attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine state in October, which left nine officers dead, the Myanmar military engaged in what Amnesty International said on Monday could be considered crimes against humanity, committed against the Muslim Rohingya minority. This includes extrajudicial killings, rape, destruction of mosques and destruction of entire villages.
Amid all this, Najib decided to hold a rally on December 4. Responding to the Myanmar government’s claim that Malaysia should not interfere in its internal affairs, which would be a serious departure from ASEAN members’ usual protocol of non-interference, the PM said: “They warned me! But I don’t care, because I am standing here not as Najib Razak but I am here under the name of the Ummah (Muslim community) and as a Malaysian citizen.” He went on to describe what was happened in Myanmar as a “genocide” and asked “what’s the point of a Nobel Peace Prize,” referring to de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. His criticisms of the Myanmar government have continued throughout December.
Najib stands to do well at home by taking this stance. With elections due next year or in 2018, his weakened United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is keen to retain the Malay-Muslim vote, and to deflect from corruption allegations. That Najib shared a stage with Hadi Awang, leader of the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), got pundits talking about whether this was a rapprochement between the two parties ahead of the elections, which would certainly weaken the opposition coalition. An Op-Ed in the Straits Times on December 15 opined that Najib was “burnishing his credentials as an Islamic leaders [by] latching on to the latest humanitarian crisis on the Rohingya in Myanmar, which came at an opportune time for him.”
But for all of Najib’s characteristic faux naïf politics, his comments risk internationalizing an issue that ought to remain local. That he would exclusively call upon Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (rather than the premiers of other ASEAN countries) to stand in solidarity with him and the Rohingya people clearly shows he was hoping to turn it into a religious issue. One can only praise Jokowi for not taking the bait, which must be tempting for the Indonesian president considering the religious tensions currently mounting in his country. In fact, Najib even attempted to inflame these when he called upon the protestors who rallied against Jakata’s mayor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama to expand their fight to defending the Rohingya. “Do not just protest against Ahok,” Najib said. “The Rohingya should be defended in Indonesia.”
Despite his attempts at ventriloquizing for all Southeast Asian Muslims, Najib received a less than gracious response from Muslims in Myanmar. On December 5, a coalition of Muslim civil society groups penned an open letter condemning his protests. “We find the rally led by Malaysian Prime Minister was nothing but aiming at the political interest of Malaysia’s ruling party,” the letter reads. “We affirm that the unfortunate situation facing Myanmar needs not, and should not, be exploited for self-interest and political purposes.”
This juncture might be a good time to go back a little and remember what catalyzed the recent violent crackdown by the Myanmar military. In October and November, members of armed group Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement or Movement of Certainty) attacked a number of police stations in Rakhine state, killing nine officers in the process. (The state used be called Arakan and was changed by the military junta, though the two names remain in common usage).
We know this about al-Yaqin. It is thought the group originated when competition for recruits began between ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which operates in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and, allegedly, Myanmar. Al-Yaqin’s public face is a man known as Ata Ullah (who also goes by other aliases) who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a Rohingya father, and grew up in Mecca. The armed group is believed to be overseen by a committee of Rohingya based in Mecca. One estimate puts the number of fighters between 40 and 250, though this may be higher. Its members have been training local Rohingya recruits for two years and several hundred Rohingya refugees have traveled from Bangladesh to Myanmar’s Rakhine state to train with the group in recent months.
It also appears that the group is well-heeled in sophisticated maneuvers. On October 9, for example, it launched a predawn attack on three border police bases. At one, the headquarters, several hundred assailants overran the compound before planting IEDs on the road approaching the headquarters so that military reinforcements would be delayed. The assailants then made off with the base’s armory of 50 guns and 1,000s of bullets.
In an article published online by Time magazine on December 13, Tim Johnston and Anagha Neelakantan, of the International Crisis Group, provided a detailed account of the group. Allow me to quote it at length:
The emergence of this well-organized and apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the government’s efforts to address the complex challenges of Arakan state. Though there have been some small insurgent groups in recent decades, mostly based out of Bangladesh, in Burma… the Rohingya have never been a radicalized population, and the majority have eschewed violence, seeing it as counterproductive to improving their lot. But impoverished and oppressed, they struggle to survive and have little hope for their future; over the past year, the sense of desperation has been increasing. The fact that more people in northern Arakan are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years, rather than any sort of inevitability.
Writing in The Diplomat last year, Elliot Brennan and Christopher O’Hara were correct in pointing out that the threat of Rohingya militancy and Islam-inspired extremism can be a “convenient myth” for the Myanmar government to taint the ethnic struggle, and that a number of foiled terror attacks linked to the Rohingya “have been carried out by groups sympathetic to the Rohingya, but not by Rohingya themselves.” But this is the problem. By making the issue international and religious, as Najib has done, it not only risks dividing the region between Muslim and Buddhist, it also allows foreign groups to appropriate the Rohingya struggle for their own ends. It risks making Myanmar yet another spot on the map for international jihadists.
It is well-known that the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qaeda and Somalia’s al-Shabaab have in the past called upon Muslims to come to the aid of the Rohingya. And it was reported last year that ISIS has been trying to recruit from the Rohingya. Indeed, in April 2016, the online magazine of ISIS, Dabiq, published an interview with Bangladeshi jihadist Abu Ibrahim who called on others to join him in fighting for the Rohingya in Myanmar. He also warned that ISIS militants from Bangladesh would launch attacks in Myanmar in good time.
Then, in October, two videos appeared on YouTube in which militants, speaking Bengali, Arakanese and Arabic, said they had managed to cross over from Bangladesh to northern Rakhine state. It is believed they belong to Al-Yaqin, and they called on Muslim fighters to join the struggle in Myanmar. They also requested religious leaders to issue fatwas to legitimize their violence (it has been reported that Al-Yaqin has obtained fatwas from senior clerics in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and other countries). Other videos presumed to have been produced by Al-Yaqin have been circulated amongst Malay, Thai and Tagalog-speaking ISIS fighters, according to an October report by Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq Jani, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. The authors warned that “all parties cannot afford the political dispute between the Rohingya and the Myanmar state to be hijacked by global jihadism.”
I’ll leave the last thought to Tim Johnston and Anagha Neelakantan. The authors say that while “there are some indications of training and solidarity links with international jihadist organizations, the aims and actions of al-Yaqin involve insurgency against security forces, rather than being terrorist or transnational jihadist.” However, they warned that should the Myanmar government intensify the situation through excessive force (which is now happening) there is the danger that not only will more Rohingya consider joining al-Yaqin, entrenching the violence, but that “it may also create conditions for radicalization that could be exploited by transnational jihadists to pursue their own agendas in Burma.”