Ro­hingya cri­sis: Is there a Saudi role?

Deccan Chronicle - - EDIT - Saeed Naqvi The writer is a se­nior jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor based in New Delhi

He sat at the head of a long din­ing ta­ble, don­ning the grand­est head­gear, a com­bi­na­tion of tur­ban and hat, with neat, cas­cad­ing pleats. Grand Mufti Ahmed Bader Ed­din Mo­ham­mad Adib Has­soun, Syria’s high­est re­li­gious author­ity, held the am­bas­sadors and a sprin­kling of jour­nal­ists in his thrall. It was an un­stop­pable tor­rent.

Un­able to get a word in edge­ways, the guests at­tended, with ded­i­ca­tion, to the sort of elab­o­rate feast which has gone out of fash­ion in this era of spar­tan hos­pi­tal­ity even in diplo­matic cir­cles.

That the Mufti was not on a mis­sion of re­li­gious sight­see­ing alone was clear from his itin­er­ary. He had qual­ity time with home min­is­ter Ra­j­nath Singh and trav­elled to Sri­na­gar to meet chief min­is­ter, Me­hbooba Mufti. The of­fice of the National Se­cu­rity Coun­cil dis­cussed in some de­tail West Asia and Ro­hingya refugees.

Ac­cord­ing to him, the run­ning Ro­hingya-Bud­dhist con­flict is be­ing ag­gra­vated by the USSaudi com­bine to serve their in­ter­ests — to trans­form the mod­er­ate, Sufi-in­clined Ro­hingyas into Salafi groups. These would help desta­bilise a coun­try neigh­bour­ing China.

Ev­i­dence of Ro­hingya Mus­lims in Myan­mar’s Rakhine state since the 7th cen­tury is not ac­com­pa­nied by a nar­ra­tive of har­mony with the Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity in that coun­try through­out this pe­riod. But since 1970-80, in­creased re­pres­sion, eco­nomic depri­va­tion and de­nial of cit­i­zen­ship rights could pos­si­bly be be­cause of the re­ver­ber­a­tions fol­low­ing the Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion in 1979.

Saudi Ara­bia, par­tic­u­larly shaken by the emerg­ing, bipo­lar­ity in the Mus­lim world, took the lead in drum­ming up an anti-Shia hys­te­ria. Over time, Sufi Is­lam was also in the line of fire. Riyadh had an in­ter­est in di­vert­ing the world’s at­ten­tion to­wards Iran be­cause a much big­ger dan­ger had reared its head within Saudi so­ci­ety. An an­ti­monar­chy, rad­i­cal, Is­lamic group had oc­cu­pied Is­lam’s most im­por­tant mosque in Mecca for weeks al­most at the same time as the Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion. The Saudis needed to cre­ate Wa­habi en­claves wher­ever they could.

This brief back­ground is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand the an­tecedents to the cur­rent ex­o­dus of over 400,000 Ro­hingyas.

Amer­i­cans no longer deny that they have from time to time fallen back on mil­i­tants or ter­ror­ist groups as tac­ti­cal as­sets. In an in­ter­view to Chris­tiane Aman­pour, Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov made ex­actly that al­le­ga­tion. Nei­ther could Aman­pur risk a coun­ter­al­le­ga­tion, nor ask a fol­lowup ques­tion on that sub­ject. Heaven knows what beans Lavrov might spill on live TV.

Since the Mufti’s visit, a dis­turb­ing nar­ra­tive cir­cu­lat­ing in some cir­cles sug­gests that the present cri­sis was pre­cip­i­tated from out­side.

The story be­gins in 2012 when Prince Ban­dar bin Sul­tan, for­mer Saudi am­bas­sador to the US (nick­named Ban­dar Bush be­cause of his close friend­ship with then Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush), who had then been given the “Syr­ian port­fo­lio” by the late King Ab­dul­lah, in­vited a Ro­hingya named Hafiz Taha to his of­fice in Riyadh.

Taha was given the task of de­vel­op­ing “Is­lamist sleeper cells” in Rakhine. The idea was to pro­mote Is­lamism of the Wa­habi va­ri­ety among a peo­ple who were oth­er­wise in­clined to­wards a folksy form of Su­fism.

In her study on the Ro­hingyas for the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, Eleanor Al­bert’s ver­sion tal­lies with the Mufti’s nar­ra­tive on how the trou­ble started in Rakhine in Au­gust. Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army “claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for at­tacks on po­lice and army posts”. Is it any sur­prise that the gov­ern­ment de­clared ARSA a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion? It was then that the mil­i­tary mounted a “bru­tal cam­paign that de­stroyed hun­dreds of Ro­hingya vil­lages and forced more than 500,000 Ro­hingya to leave Myan­mar, ap­prox­i­mately half of the Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion out of the coun­try”.

Mil­i­tary bru­tal­ity on a scale never seen in his­tory was then un­leashed: the se­cu­rity forces al­legedly opened fire on flee­ing civil­ians and planted land­mines near the bor­der cross­ings used by the Ro­hingyas to flee to Bangladesh.

A long-sim­mer­ing con­flict, in­ten­si­fy­ing over the past decade, was cus­tom-made for out­siders to ignite and cause an ex­plo­sion. This pre­cisely is what ap­pears to have been pre­cip­i­tated in Rakhine state two months ago. “But why would sleep­ing cells be ac­ti­vated now?” Well, one les­son learnt from man­u­fac­tured ter­ror­ist groups is this: groups reared on lethal Is­lam can­not be de­stroyed. They have to be re­lo­cated. The de­feat of mil­i­tant groups in Syria has, iron­i­cally, cre­ated an­other kind of prob­lem. Trained with West­ern and Saudi help, these trained ter­ror­ists can­not be “ex­ter­mi­nated” or sent to the gas cham­bers. They have to be given work else­where.

In the Syr­ian who­dunit, the Amer­i­cans have ac­tu­ally been ad­mit­ting their mis­takes with en­dear­ing docil­ity. Re­mem­ber for­mer sec­re­tary of de­fence Ash­ton Carter, his face dis­tinctly in the lower mould, be­ing grilled by a US con­gres­sional com­mit­tee, then by the me­dia, for the clum­si­ness of US spe­cial op­er­a­tions in Syria? The “mod­er­ates” they were train­ing had left their weapons with the AlNusra Front and sought safe pas­sage. Mr Carter an­nounced, on live TV, that a $500 mil­lion train­ing pro­gramme had been dis­con­tin­ued.

Re­mem­ber Gen. Lloyd Austin ad­mit­ted to the Se­nate’s armed ser­vices com­mit­tee that “only four or five” fight­ers trained by the Amer­i­cans were “in the fight”.

In an in­ter­view to Thomas Fried­man of the New York Times in 2015, for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ad­mit­ted that he had not bombed ISIS when it first reared its head be­cause “that would have re­lieved pres­sure on Iraq’s Shia Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al Ma­liki” whose de­par­ture, and not ISIS’ elim­i­na­tion, was a US pri­or­ity.

The cake for flaunt­ing ter­ror­ism as an as­set goes to Ban­dar bin Sul­tan, who promised a “ter­ror­ism-free Sochi Olympics” in Fe­bru­ary 2014 to Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin at the Krem­lin if only the Rus­sians helped him show Bashar al-As­sad the door out of Da­m­as­cus.

The plight of the Ro­hingyas in the ex­o­dus is even more heart­break­ing as they have no clue of the Kafkian script which has ma­li­ciously af­fil­i­ated then with the ex­ter­nally-fi­nanced Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army, a group most of the refugees know ab­so­lutely noth­ing about.

The de­feat of mil­i­tant groups in Syria has, iron­i­cally, cre­ated an­other kind of prob­lem. Trained with West­ern and Saudi help, these trained ter­ror­ists have to be given work else­where...

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