The violent uprooting of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state threatens to expose members of the persecuted and stateless minority to recruitment by extremists, new Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu told an international symposium on counterterrorism Monday.
Malaysia was taking the threat seriously, Mohamad said, while the chief of the nation’s counterterrorist police special branch said Monday it had uncovered several cases in which Islamic State (IS) recruited Rohingya expats to wage a so-called holy war in Rakhine. Malaysia is home to a community of more than 100,000 Rohingya expatriates.
“We are concerned that the Rohingyas could be manipulated to become suicide bombers or recruited into terrorist cells in this region,” the defense minister said during the opening speech at a two-day meeting in Kuala Lumpur of the International Association of Counterterrorism and Security Professionals (IACSP).
At a news conference afterwards, Mohamad likened the displacement of the Rohingya to Palestinian efforts to fight for an independent state against Israel.
“In the end, many took the path of suicide bombers and it has become a serious threat. We are concerned that this, too, can happen in Myanmar where gross human rights abuses were reported,” the minister said.
“It will come to a point that they will not mind returning home and die fighting. That is why this issue is important. What has happened to the Palestinian people can happen to the Rohingya,” he said.
The threat of Rohingya drifting into terrorism will exist as long as the international community kept ignoring the plight of the stateless minority group, Mohamad said.
Some 1 million Rohingya refugees are sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh, including more than 720,000 people who fled Myanmar since August 2017 amid a brutal crackdown mounted against ARSA, a Rohingya insurgent group, which had launched deadly coordinated attacks on army and police outposts in Rakhine that month.
The United Nations and United States, however, have both branded the crackdown as “ethnic cleansing” because of mass atrocities allegedly committed against Rohingya civilians by Myanmar security forces during the counter-ARSA offensive.
On Monday, the U.N. called for top military leaders in Myanmar to be investigated for genocide in Rakhine state.
Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the Malaysian police’s counterterrorist chief who also appeared at Monday’s symposium, mentioned four cases since 2015 in which IS had recruited Rohingya expatriates in Malaysia.
At least four Rohingya were charged for their alleged involvement in terror-related activities and were currently incarcerated, he said.
IS recruited the Rohingya as well as Bangladeshi expats with the goal of sending them to wage holy war in Myanmar, according to a report by ChannelNews Asia, which cited Ayob.
“There is always a possibility that these Rohingya people will be exposed to Salafi jihadi ideology, get recruited and get sent back to Rakhine state to wage this so called jihad war,” the Singapore-based news website quoted him as saying.
“But we are monitoring this situation very closely. We will take necessary action. We won’t tolerate any attempt by any foreigners to use Malaysia as a base to attack foreign countries,” the head of the counter-terrorist special branch said.
‘We do not support terror activities’
Mohamad Sadek, a Rohingya who has lived in Malaysia for more than 10 years, took issue with the warnings from government officials that Rohingya expatriates could become radicalized.
The handful of arrests of Rohingya were isolated cases, he said.
“Hundreds of thousands of us are here but only four joined them. It shows that we do not support terror activities,” Sadek, who runs an NGO, told BenarNews.
“We only want to live in peace.”