In an apparent bid to raise his profile as Russia’s most influential Muslim, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital Grozny on Monday to protest what he called the “genocide of Muslims” in Myanmar.
Violence over the past few days in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has killed nearly 400 people and prompted thousands of ethnic Rohingya refugees to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. The Russian government has not been clear in its stance on the Myanmar violence, giving Kadyrov an opportunity to criticize it for inaction.
State television footage showed tens of thousands rallying in Grozny’s main square to support the Rohingya. Chechnya is predominantly Muslim.
In his address to the rally that was interrupted with shouts of “Allahu akbar” (“God is great!” in Arabic), Kadyrov compared the violence against Rohingya to the Holocaust.
Kadyrov, who has ruled the republic for more than a decade, keeps a tight grip on Chechen society, and any public displays there are carefully orchestrated.
Local police authorities reported that 1.1 million people attended the rally. The entire population of Chechnya is 1.4 million, according to official statistics.
In a video released earlier, Kadyrov issued a vague threat to “go against” the Russian government if it does not act to stop the violence.
“If Russia were to support the devils who are perpetrating the crimes, I will go against Russia,” he said.
On Monday, police arrested 20 people for disturbing public order outside the Myanmar embassy in Moscow, Russian news agencies reported. On Sunday, some 800 people held an unauthorized protest outside the embassy.
Russia has developed military ties with Myanmar in recent years. Russia’s defense minister hosted Myanmar’s commander in chief in June, and Russia has been selling arms to the South Asian nation including some of its most advanced fighter jets and artillery systems.
Kadyrov fought with Chechen separatists in a war with Russian forces in the 1990s, but switched sides in the second war that began in 1999.
In recent years, Kadyrov has cultivated ties with several leaders in the Muslim world and has recently used Russia’s involvement in Syria to position himself as Russia’s most influential Muslim. Kadyrov’s opaque charitable foundation has been sending humanitarian aid to Syrian children and offering funds to restore Aleppo’s oldest mosque and other landmarks.