Sick, wounded, and traumatized, some 410,000 members of Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority have fled to Bangladesh in the past month, carrying horror stories of loved ones shot dead before their eyes, and whole villages burned to the ground.
The Rohingya have long suffered quietly at the hands of Myanmar’s government. But the recent emergence of a new jihadi-trained insurgent group has changed that. Last month, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched a series of deadly attacks on Myanmar forces, inciting a vicious state-sponsored retaliatory campaign that shows no signs of slowing down.
Now experts fear ARSA, whose fighters are estimated to number in the hundreds, has piqued interest from international terror groups and given Myanmar’s forces an open invitation to unleash their full wrath on the Rohingya. The situation has already proven disastrous, ushering in atrocities that a senior U.N. official has described as “textbook ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya and creating a massive refugee crisis that could destabilize the region far beyond Myanmar’s borders.
ARSA lights a fuse
Myanmar’s military launched its current scorched-earth campaign in Rakhine state in response to an attack by ARSA on Aug. 25, when the Rohingya militants struck about 30 police and army posts, killing 12 officers.
The attack was ARSA’s second major assault on Myanmar security forces, coming nearly a year after its first known operation, which killed nine border guards.
The scale of the violence that has followed the August attack indicates the conflict has firmly tipped toward ethnic cleansing, which will see the Rohingya population permanently driven from their homes to neighboring countries like Bangladesh, which has little means to support them.
Already, the violence has driven more than a third of the Rohingya population from the country, with nearly 40 percent of Rohingya villages standing completely empty and others partly abandoned, according to Myanmar’s government. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe has the potential to destabilize the wider region.
“The scale and intensity of what is happening in such a short space of time is stunning,” said Mark Farmaner, director of human rights group Burma Campaign U.K. “Soldiers, security forces, and militias are killing indiscriminately, burning people alive, raping, torturing and beheading people, even children, and… getting away with it.”
Amid the fierce communal bloodshed, Rohingya are increasingly at risk of being drawn into the militant insurgency against a much more powerful enemy. The Myanmar-focused human rights group Fortify Rights reports that ARSA is killing Rohingya suspected of being government informants, and preventing Rohingya men and boys from fleeing the conflict zone by threatening to kill them. And though ARSA claims it strikes the military only in self-defense, the International Crisis Group (ICG) says its sources have reported at least one case where the group has attacked a village of non-Muslim civilians.
ARSA’s rise also brings concerns of a greater Islamist extremist insurgency in the region, as the Rohingyas’ plight becomes a rallying cry for jihadi groups around the world.
Al Qaeda, for one, has already entered the fray, issuing a statement recently on the “savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers,” and vowing retaliation.
“The Government of Myanmar shall be made to taste what our Muslim brothers have tasted,” the al Qaeda statement said, according to the SITE monitoring group.
The birth of ARSA
ARSA steadfastly denies the government’s charges of terrorism, and insists it formed because of the failure of the international community to come to the Rohingyas’ aid in the face of long-standing oppression.
“We have been appealing to the world to help us regain our rights. Nothing happened,” ARSA leader Ata Ullah told CNN in an interview earlier this year.
Ullah isn’t exactly wrong on this point. Human rights monitors and international media have regularly reported the Rohingyas’ persecution since at least 2012, when the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men set off an eruption of sustained communal violence against the Muslim minority group. Since then the Rohingya have faced a cycle of state-sanctioned violence and repression, with as many as 120,000 forced to live in squalid internment camps.
International observers, including senior United Nations officials, are also in agreement that the group’s rise is a direct result of Myanmar’s abuses.
“Decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016, have almost certainly contributed to the nurturing of violent extremism, with everyone ultimately losing,” U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said after the latest outburst of violence.
Anagha Neelakantan, acting director of the Asia program at International Crisis Group, echoed the U.N. High Commissioner, saying given the military’s cruelty toward the Rohingya, “it’s not entirely surprising that the group has become more radicalized.”
ARSA’s international roots
Known initially as Harakah al-Yakin, Arabic for “Faith Movement,” ARSA was established by a committee of about 20 members of the Rohingya diaspora based in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, according to the ICG and Muhammad Haziq Bin Jani, an analyst at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The group’s leader, Ata Ullah, was born to a Rohingya father in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Mecca, where he was educated. He left Saudi Arabia shortly after the 2012 violence broke out in Rakhine. He and others travelled to Pakistan, where they received military training from veterans of the Taliban and al Qaeda networks.
“They knew exactly where to go to get their training in Pakistan and who would be able to give them training,” Bin Jani told VICE News.
The cadre then landed in northern Rakhine state, where it recruited local leaders and began training hundreds of Rohingya villagers, drawn primarily from younger generations. The Rohingya internment camps provided fertile recruiting terrain, said Neelakantan: “If you want to recruit people who haven’t got anything to lose, that’s the kind of place you’d go.”
“They only know how to do one thing, which is invite attacks by the Myanmar government.”
Their training involved weapon use and guerrilla warfare, and was funded by members of the Rohingya diaspora and private donors in Saudi Arabia. A number of Afghan or Pakistani jihadis were also involved in this training, according to ICG.
No plan for peace
ARSA’s original objective, according to ICG, was to carry out coordinated attacks to create a defendable, liberated Rohingya enclave around the township of Maungdaw, on the border with Bangladesh. But that shifted when security forces became aware of their activities, forcing the group to rush a series of attacks on security posts on Oct. 9 last year.
Records of popular Rohingya Whatsapp groups show the fledgling insurgent group drew considerable criticism from the Rohingya community for invoking a military crackdown, although some welcomed the emergence of a group that was finally fighting on their behalf.
The timing of the latest outbreak of violence is especially tragic, human rights observers lament. Hours before ARSA’s attack on August 25, an official advisory commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan released a report proposing new Rohingya rights, including freedom of movement and political participation. Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Rohingya advocacy group Arakan Project, called the report “the only small ray of hope in addressing the situation in Rakhine state.”
Instead, she said, “the attacks orchestrated by the armed group have shattered any possible progress,” with the military response they provoked unleashing “utter devastation on the Rohingya community.”
Bin Jani agreed, and said ARSA’s strategy has backfired spectacularly, to the great detriment of the Rohingya.
“Whatever they are doing is counterproductive,” Bin Jani said. “They only know how to do one thing, which is invite attacks by the Myanmar government.”