The plight of the Rohingya has angered many Muslims in southern Asia, but some extremist elements are taking it a step farther, seizing on the suffering of this stateless people to rally for jihad.
Significant Rohingya expatriate and refugee communities in Malaysia and Bangladesh appear to be ignoring such calls, however.
“I address Burma’s youth: take up the sword and kill in the path of God. No doubt, God is with us,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for a hardline faction of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), said in an audio message disseminated on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse.
“Our training centers, our resources, training, people, everything is available to provide comfort
to you,” he added.
The Islamic State (IS) also took note in recent weeks as hundreds of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar desperately tried to reach Southeast Asian shores, after being abandoned by human smugglers and pushed away by regional navies.
IS has sent out messages via social media laying out a welcome mat for the Rohingya in the caliphate it has declared in parts of Syria and Iraq, according to Jasminder Singh, an analyst at the Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies in Singapore.
“There have been recent postings on social media such as Twitter and Facebook encouraging the Rohingyas to look towards IS, and the postings say that if no one accepts the Rohingyas and that Rohingyas are being persecuted, then living in the Islamic State is the ideal,” Singh told BenarNews via email.
“Rohingyas were previously associated with al-Qaeda. If we see them part of IS today or later, then this should not come as a surprise,” he added.
On IS’s radar
The Islamic State, in fact, has been paying attention to the plight of the Rohingya since well before images of hundreds of people fleeing religious discrimination and communal violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state dominated recent headlines.
In a speech last July 1 in which he declared the establishment of a caliphate, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi alluded to the Rohingya as among “oppressed” Muslim populations worldwide that IS was looking to lift up.
"So raise your ambitions, O soldiers of the Islamic State! For your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades,” he said according to a transcript of his speech posted online by IS’s media wing.
“It is enough for you to just look at the scenes that have reached you from Central Africa, and from Burma before that. What is hidden from us is far worse,” he continued.
“So by Allah, we will take revenge! By Allah, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator."
Commenting on al-Baghdadi’s speech, Singh said, “This gives a sense that the events in Myanmar are certainly on the radar of IS.”
Exploiting public anger
Across South and Southeast Asia, Muslim anger at Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya has boiled over in the streets.
From Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, Dhaka and Karachi, pro-Rohingya demonstrations have taken place, in which protestors have burned the Myanmar flag or effigies of Buddhist leaders from that country.
Muslim extremists and radical groups from as far away as the Horn of Africa have taken advantage of the situation, fueling the outrage by spreading propaganda about it.
In Somalia, al-Shabaab, a group linked to al-Qaeda, has condemned Myanmar’s policies toward the Rohingya.
“At the hands of the savage Buddhists, thousands of Muslims, including women and children, have fled their homes and are desperately trying to reach the shores of safety, their only crime being their adherence to Islam,” al-Shabaab said in a statement, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported on May 20.
“Welcome them, open your homes and give shelter to the fleeing Muslims,” al-Shabaab added.
“Mobilize men, money and resources to defend the honor of the persecuted Muslims and repel the savage attacks of the polytheists.”
And, according to a report published Tuesday in the Dhaka Tribune, Bangladeshi Islamist groups have been trying to instigate violence by posting fake pictures and false information about the persecution of the Rohingya.
“Reports say Jamaat-e-Islami and some local militant outfits including Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangaldesh (JMB), Harkat-il-Jihad al-Islami (Huji) and Ansarullah Bangla Team have been recruiting Rohingyas,” the newspaper reported.
These groups are linked to the militant Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), IS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Dhaka Tribune alleged.
The paper’s report could not be independently verified or confirmed.
Falling on deaf ears
There is no hard evidence that Rohingya are responding to the Islamist call to arms. In Bangladesh and Malaysia, Rohingya community leaders rejected such claims.
“We are living a floating life. We don’t have any connection with any foreign or local organization,” Mohammadullah, the general secretary at a refugee camp in southeastern Teknaf, Bangladesh, where 19,000 Rohingyas are registered, told BenarNews by phone.
“There are some vested interest groups who have [made allegations] about our connection but could never prove that. There are people who are playing games, taking advantage of our situation,” he added. “We are simply trying to somehow survive.”
Mohamad Nor Abu Bakar, chairman of the Kedah Rohingya Society in Malaysia, said people from his community were poor and “did not want to interfere with domestic politics and war.”
“We just want a better life and to live in a Muslim country,” he told BenarNews by phone. “Our people will never go to war.”
Nani Yusof and Shahriar Sharif contributed to this report.