On Friday, Abu Bakar Bashir (currently imprisoned for support of militancy in Aceh) issued a letter to the government of Myanmar, informing them of imminent war if they did not do something about the persecution of the Rohingya in Rahkine State. Like clockwork, members of Hizb ut-Tahrir protested outside the embassy of Myanmar declaring that they were,” ready to die to help our fellow Muslims in Myanmar [Burma]. A Jihad is the only way to stop this massacre”. I am not surprised that Bashir issued this letter threatening the government of Myanmar, as my previous posts suggested that Southeast Asian jihadists would probably provide at least rhetorical support to the Rohingya. What surprised me was the delayed nature of this letter since the Pakistani Taliban, Hizbollah and Iran all issued statements condemning the government of Myanmar a week ago. Though Bashir’s current imprisonment and other factors could have delayed his official response (it took several days to confirm legitimacy of the letter), I am still surprised that it took Bashir some time to issue a letter threatening the government of Myanmar.
Looking at the various declarations against the government of Myanmar, I think it is important to ask two questions:
1) What is the significance of groups like the Pakistani Taliban and Hizb ut-Tahir taking a stance on an issue that is outside of their strategic focus?
2) To what extent are jihadist groups using the Rohingya as a platform for jihadist rhetoric and saber rattling? (Are they 100% vested in serving the interests of the Rohingya or are there substantial political/strategic gains for them as well?
3) Keep in mind that Bashir has often made threats of this nature to actors like the US, but these threats have never taken shape as militant action against the US.
When considering the role of groups like the Pakistani Taliban, Hizb ut-Tahir, or JAT, one must examine the geographical area of operations for these organizations. The Pakistani Taliban focuses on weakening foreign actors primarily in Pakistan but also reaches into India and Afghanistan to support their interests in neighboring countries. While the Rohingya speak a South Asian language related to Bengali, Burma is geographically removed from their usual area of operations. Hizb ut-Tahir in Indonesia aims to create a caliphate in Southeast Asia, but usually does not include Burma on the list of potential countries to absorb (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand and the Southern Philippines). I believe that Hizb ut-Tahir’s support for the Rohingya will not go beyond rhetoric unless the Rohingya somehow fit into the goal of creating a Southeast Asian Caliphate. I see these declarations of violent reprisal as directly tied to the potential for “Accidental Guerilla Syndrome” as I described in my post last week. In this instance, external jihadists (many feeling the squeeze in their home country) seek an environment that would enable them to recruit soldiers and wage a holy war by aggravating existing frustrations within the population.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group suggested that Southeast Asian extremist groups were looking for resurgence and for revenge after raids on militant camps in Aceh (Indonesia) in 2010, which led to the arrest and trial of 200 militants. The raid crippled the regional jihadist network; leaving them bitter but wary of police infiltration and these networks are slowly being rebuilt upon the old ones, according to International Crisis Group. One of the 20 recommendations made by ICG, was to find ways to reduce the effects of radical sermons produced by people like Bashir. In light of Bashir’s recent letter, regional security and intelligence will need to be especially leery of early signs that militants are mobilizing to Burma. Again it is important to reiterate, Bashir’s role as a “spiritual” leader of Southeast Asian extremism and that his threats are not those of a military commander promising battle.
It will be interesting to see if the accusations and threats made by Islamists and militants in the past few weeks are in fact demands that are genuinely supporting the best interests of the Rohingya, rather than mere political pot-shots at Myanmar over sectarianism. Many Arab regimes and Islamist groups take every opportunity that they can to rhetorically attack Israel but very few are actually willing to support the statehood and rights that the Palestinians demand and desire. Will these groups act similarly in the case of the Rohingya? The notion of Rohingya statehood is a touchy subject as neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar is willing to carve out territory for them, so I would not be surprised if the demands for a Rohingya state are kept to a minimum. As more accusations, threats and declarations evolve in this conflict, it is critical to evaluate the objectives and possible political undertones of each party’s message.