Myanmar has been in a state of constant internal turmoil since the late 1940s, and one of the deadliest conflicts has been between the majority Buddhist population and the country’s Muslim minorities, especially in Rakhine State. There has been a long history of contention between the two communities in the region.
As a result, more than a million Rohingyas have become refugees today, primarily in neighbouring Bangladesh, with others finding their way to Muslim-majority states like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Today, there are more Rohingyas outside Myanmar than remain inside the country.
Rohingyas in Malaysia
There are more than 100,000 Rohingyas in Malaysia, mostly living as refugees, and generally they are well-treated. A major plank of Malaysian policy has been to extend a humanitarian hand to the Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The Malaysian government, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak from 2009 to 2018, was welcoming to the Rohingyas and was one of the nations most critical of Myanmar’s hardline policy toward the community. Najib’s successor, Mahathir Mohamad, continued Malaysia’s critical policy towards Naypyidaw over its policies in Rakhine State. In July 2019, Mahathir said that Myanmar should either treat the Rohingyas as its nationals or give them a separate state.
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Over the years, the Malaysian security landscape has had to deal with some extremist Islamist groups operating in the country, such as the pro-Al-Qaeda Jemaah Islamiyah and elements that supported the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). There have been concerns raised about the possibility of segments of the Rohingya community in Malaysia coming under radical influence.
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Armed Rohingya Groups in Myanmar
An issue that has plagued Rohingya refugee communities is the possible infiltration of radical or terrorist groups (or individuals). Given the fierce inter-communal conflict in Myanmar, some Rohingyas have advocated violence against the government, either to prevent the Myanmar state and its proxies from harming them or to seek independent statehood.
While many members of the Rohingya diaspora remain in denial about this reality, a number of Rohingya groups have taken up arms, even though they remain largely weak and in no position to challenge the security apparatus in Myanmar. Some of these groups include the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO), Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF), Rohingya Solidarity Organisaton (RSO-Dr. Yunus faction), the Katiba al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO-Mohammad Zakaria faction) and its armed wing, the Rohingya National Army (RNA). Many of these groups operate in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh or along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Since 2017, one group has emerged as a key security concern for Myanmar, namely, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
There have been rising concerns that some of these armed groups may have penetrated the Rohingya refugee community in Malaysia. While one does not see the mass radicalization of refugees in Malaysia, there is apparently some level of ongoing radicalization. This can be largely attributed to ARSA’s penetration in the Rohingya community even though this is publicly denied both by the group and the Rohingyas in Malaysia.
Publicly, ARSA and its supporters have denounced the use of violence in achieving its political goal, which is to be the voice and sole representative of the Rohingyas. Despite that, ARSA has been blamed by the Myanmar security forces for several violent attacks on them along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. ARSA has also denied that it is linked to any transnational jihadist terrorist group such as Al-Qaida or IS and remains largely ethno-nationalist in its ideology.
ARSA’s Penetration of Malaysia’s Rohingya Community
Evidence is emerging that ARSA and its supporters have been targeting Rohingyas in Malaysia for recruitment. The view that ARSA is weak and ineffective in Malaysia in its outreach to Rohingyas can be partly debunked by the online penetration ARSA has been making in Malaysia. This has taken place largely through YouTube channels and Facebook pages.
The first example is a YouTube Channel called Rohingya Malay Kelas (Rohingya Malay Class) that was set up on December 23, 2019 and was recently renamed Rohingya Reality TV. Ostensibly, it is an instructional platform, aimed at teaching Malay and English language to the Rohingya refugees. Yet, when one analyses the more than 4,000 videos uploaded since 2019, there are several that propagate ARSA’s goals even if many others do not. On the whole, the channel’s videos have garnered more than 10 million views.
On Facebook, the page RO Malay Kelas was created on May 8, 2020. Before the page was shut down recently by Facebook, it had garnered 1,817 followers. Its associated YouTube channel, Rohingya ARSA Supporters, was established on April 22 of the same year and 396 videos had been uploaded as of February 2021. The channel has since been shut down. Many of the videos uploaded on the channel were songs which are related to Rohingya culture, but mostly depicting the sad and tragic lives of the Rohingya community. The Rohingya ARSA Supporters channel clocked up 2,909,829 views during the time of its operation.
YouTube and Facebook platforms are important means of ARSA outreach in Malaysia. This is evident from the fact that there are a number of video messages from the ARSA leader, Atta Ullah. The ARSA commander’s messages are mostly aimed at gaining support and legitimacy from the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, and seeking financial, political, and even personnel support to challenge the Myanmar authorities.
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In addition to conveying messages of support and assistance from the Rohingyas for ARSA, an important aim of these platforms is to undermine the policies of the Myanmar government and even to criticize Rohingyas who are prepared to collaborate with the Myanmar authorities. In the same vein, Rohingya leaders residing in Malaysia who are seen as an obstacle to the ARSA’s cause have also been criticized. One particular video targeted Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, the president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation in Malaysia. In the video, it was mentioned that Zafar Ahmad should refrain from referring to himself as a Rohingya community leader as he had no knowledge of the problems faced by the Rohingyas in Malaysia.
Implications for Malaysia and the Wider Region
Clearly, ARSA is active in Malaysia within the country’s Rohingya refugee community, and has been able to penetrate it through digital means. This suggests that ARSA is simply not an organization that operates in Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. Under the leadership of Atta Ullah, the group has carried out sporadic and violent attacks on Myanmar security forces along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
The ability of ARSA to spread its message through online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook shows its adaptability and the success of its outreach, not just in Malaysia but also probably elsewhere in Southeast Asia where Rohingya refugees are found, such as in Indonesia and Thailand. The use of online platforms has become even more important since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when more and more people are spending larger amounts of time in online spaces.
The fact that videos continue to be produced on a weekly basis demonstrates the activism of ARSA and its intent to spread its influence in Malaysia. The full impact of this will only be known after COVID-19 wanes, when ARSA renews its attacks on Myanmar security forces within the country or Myanmar’s vital interests overseas, including in Southeast Asia.
How deep, effective and dangerous ARSA’s radicalization and recruitment of these refugees is remains to be seen. However, as these measures and policies are being undertaken by ARSA, it only makes sense that Malaysia and the wider region should be on alert to anticipate the danger posed by this group.