Islamists claim new 'jihadis' will avenge Myanmar's Rohingya (UPDATED)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Photos on hardline Islamist sites will stoke the worst fears of those who despise the Rohingya, a maligned Muslim minority living along Myanmar’s western shores.

But veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, who has chronicled Burmese insurgencies for decades, says the images were taken years ago, and are from Rohinga militants in Bangladesh, not Myanmar.

Regardless, the photos are causing a stir in Myanmar.

They show scores of young men, in fatigues and green headbands, training with Kalashnikov-style rifles fitted with jumbo-sized drum magazines.

This newly formed brigade, according to an accompanying statement, has been assembled from mujahedin in Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar. They claim — without offering proof — to have already killed 17 soldiers along with three other men, including a Buddhist monk.

Having first surfaced last week on the Islamic news site Arrahmah, the photos are coupled with an ominous message. In the 7th century, the Prophet Muhammad used divine power to send a large army of idolaters and nonbelievers to their graves. “Will history be repeated?” the group asks, while warning of war against Myanmar’s “Buddhist army.”

Their stated motive: avenging the stateless Rohingya, who were driven out of their neighborhoods last year by angry mobs. The death toll from these attacks, according to government figures, nears 200. Human Rights Watch has called their ouster “ethnic cleansing.” Meanwhile, regional Buddhist political groups regard the Rohingya as invaders from Bangladesh intent on outbreeding and subverting Buddhism, the nation’s predominant faith.

But whether this jihadi faction exists in its stated form — and whether it is operational inside Myanmar — is difficult to confirm.

The photos of uniformed combatants training in a grove lined with banana trees offer few clues that would indicate their location.

“We have no idea about this or these people calling for jihad,” Nurul Islam, chairman of the London-based Arakan Rohingya National Organization, told GlobalPost. The group is active in pushing Myanmar to recognize Rohingya as citizens.

“We are a peaceful movement,” Islam said.

The Irawaddy, a publication focusing on Myanmar, quoted Myanmar expert Lintner as stating that the images were "many years" old and depicted the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a militant group formed after Myanmar's army pushed about 250,000 across the border into Bangladesh.

“The pictures are genuine but old and were taken near Ukhia between Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf in Bangladesh. The RSO has never had any armed presence inside Burma.” He added, however, that it was “'very possible' that the RSO had been seeking support from Islamic militants abroad," Irawaddy reported. 

Armed guerrilla factions drawn along ethnic lines are abundant in Myanmar. On most maps, the country appears as a unified nation the size of France, and wedged between China and India. But many of its far-flung hills and valleys are patrolled by organized groups who use the threat of force to fend off subjugation by the majority Burman ethnic group and the central army.

The Rohingya are unique in that they are defended by no organized armed faction.

Several groups have at times emerged with vows to fight for independence. The Rohingya Solidarity Organization — a ragtag outfit claiming ties to regional jihadi syndicates — is the best known. 

According to the Asia News Network, men linked to the organization recently sought guns and cash in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where police recently claimed to have foiled a jihadi plot to bomb a Myanmar embassy.

But it is telling that no well-armed resistance group emerged during one of the most frightening chapters in Rohingya history: the 2012 purge that saw whole Muslim quarters reduced to cinders and sent Rohingya fleeing to squalid camps where tens of thousands still reside.

The image that emerges is that of an impoverished group too impotent, outnumbered and friendless to protect itself. Reports in Myanmar’s media generally contend that the initial mob violence exploded after Muslim men raped a Buddhist woman in coastal Rakhine state in May 2012. That erupted into tit-for-tat violence before the outnumbered Rohingya were overwhelmed and driven into muddy pastures.

Outfits such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization exist only as a “really a radical fringe” that “don’t represent the majority of the Rohingya community,” said Sidney Jones, an Indonesia-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, in an interview with ABC Radio Australia.

“I think the bigger question is whether the government in Myanmar is prepared to take steps to end persecution of the Rohingya,” Jones said to ABC. “So that radical groups like this aren’t given additional fuel to undertake retaliatory activities.”