Where to, ARSA?

A commentary by Zachary Abuza
2017-10-13
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Rohingya refugees walk through a shallow canal after crossing the Naf River as they flee violence in Myanmar to reach Bangladesh in Palongkhali near Ukhia, Oct. 16, 2017.
Rohingya refugees walk through a shallow canal after crossing the Naf River as they flee violence in Myanmar to reach Bangladesh in Palongkhali near Ukhia, Oct. 16, 2017.
AFP

The month-long unilateral humanitarian ceasefire issued by the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) expired at midnight Oct. 9. The pause meant little in terms of military affairs, and, one week later, no new attacks have been attributed to ARSA.

But the ceasefire proved to be an important public relations move. While ARSA has only the most rudimentary military capabilities, its public diplomacy and information operations have been far more sophisticated and in sharp contrast to the neo-authoritarian messaging of the Myanmar government.

During the ceasefire, a humanitarian catastrophe unfolded in full view of the world, though few governments took more than cursory note. More than 530,000 Rohingya civilians fled their homes crossing into Bangladesh, where some 400,000 Rohingya refugees had already been living in refugee camps since they began arriving in 2012.

Myanmar’s security forces and paramilitaries burned at least 288 Rohingya villages to the ground. The military has killed an estimated 3,000 people in what it terms counter-terrorist operations, but that intentionally targeted civilians in what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has termed “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

Scores more have drowned trying to swim across the river that divides the two countries or when their boats capsized. Both the Bangladeshi government and international community are overwhelmed by the scope of the refugee crisis, with nearly one million people living in squalid refugee camps, short of food, medicine, shelter, and security as monsoon season is upon them.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis seems to have caught even ARSA off guard.

The logic of small extremists groups is to provoke heavy-handed government responses, to garner more popular support and international attention. It is a calculated and cynical ploy.

But no one in ARSA likely expected either the Tatmadaw, the official name of the Myanmar military, to engage in such a brutal and sustained campaign, or the government of Western human rights icon and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to actively support their efforts.

ARSA’s written and video statements released since the Aug. 25 attacks for which it has been blamed and that led to the mass exodus, have been effusive in their thanks to the international community and focused on the need to address the humanitarian suffering.

To that end, in its Oct. 7 statement, ARSA offered to unilaterally extend its ceasefire if the government reciprocated and allowed international humanitarian agencies unimpeded access to northern Rakhine state. The government spokesman and Tatmadaw leadership were quick to dismiss the offer stating that they would not “negotiate with terrorists.”

ARSA’s information operations are far superior to its military capabilities. Its press statements, video messages, and affiliated network of on-line news organization’s that broadcast in Bengali, Burmese, Arabic, Urdu and English are well produced and on message, cataloging the egregious human rights abuses of government forces.

But at the end of the day, ARSA is a self-described militant organization that is committed to defending the rights and interests of its constituency.

Many Rohingya eschewed their tactics, rightfully believing that any violence would be a casus belli for the government to wage a lethal campaign to drive them from their homes. The reality is, now that they are living in exile with nothing left to lose, violence may be the only meaningful recourse.

The Myanmar government, despite a few statements that no one believes, is unlikely to accept the Rohingya home.

The Tatmadaw has not only deployed large numbers of troops and Burmese paramilitaries to northern Rakhine, and with 288 villages torched and more than half the Rohingya driven into exile, there are fewer villagers to hide among. The remaining Rohingya have every reason to not support ARSA for fear they will be next.

Travel and sanctuary in Rakhine will be a challenge. ARSA has few weapons and by most accounts from self-described ARSA militants, they attacked government forces with little more than spears and machetes, suffering high casualty rates, in their attempt to seize weapons and ammunition.

In contravention of humanitarian norms, the Tatmadaw laid land mines along the border and fenced portions to make infiltration from Bangladesh more difficult.

What to expect from ARSA militarily

There are a few lessons that we can take from other low-level insurgencies that have festered in Southeast Asia. First, they likely will focus on recruitment and indoctrination within the refugee camps since they have an ample pool of people with nothing to lose and who may seek the benefits and protections of being in a militant group.

This will be followed by setting up small units and engaging in rudimentary military training. The degree to which they can do this is dependent on the Bangladesh government, which, should it choose, could restrict most training. But giving ARSA space is one of the only points of leverage it has to get the Myanmar government to take back even some Rohingya.

The paucity of Rohingya left in Rakhine could prove advantageous to ARSA, which may be less fearful of retaliation and hence more emboldened in attacks. One would expect attacks on Buddhist civilians that would not require military-grade arms.

In southern Thailand, Malay insurgents beheaded civilians and desecrated corpses to terrify the local Buddhist community. Lacking weapons, the Thai insurgents have employed IEDs. Since 2004, more than 3,000 IEDs have detonated and hundreds more failed to go off or were defused. Since 2009, Thailand has seen an average of 14 IEDs each month.

The necessary technology is readily available and cheap. Most of the components (ammonium nitrate or other fertilizers, fuels, fire extinguishers or cooking gas cylinders) can be stolen easily.

After years of intentionally targeting Buddhist civilians, the Malay insurgents in Thailand increasingly focused on fewer but more targeted attacks on security forces. While the death toll has fallen considerably since the peak in 2007, there are no signs the insurgents have been defeated.

Instead, the insurgency has been a drain on Thai resources and would worsen should the insurgents target tourist venues.

Free Papua Movement

The Free Papua Movement (OPM) in Indonesia’s easternmost province has been engaged in low-level ambushes with government forces since the mid-1960s. Though its bid for independence is quixotic, OPM has not been defeated and continues to be an irritant to security forces in the resource-rich province.

More than 4,000 security forces reportedly have been killed and an estimated 45,000 forces are deployed in the province, which remains on media lockdown. With continued evidence of torture, forced disappearances, and human rights abuses, West Papua remains a blight on the Indonesian military and an impediment for the full consolidation of democracy and rule of law.

External support question

On Sept. 11, al-Qaeda issued a statement stating that fighting on behalf of the Rohingya was a religious obligation.

While that call must be seen as part of al-Qaeda’s competition with the Islamic State (IS), especially since its caliphate project has ended, it is clear the region is starting to attract foreign support. Militants have been arrested in Malaysia and India en route to fight on behalf of the Rohingya including some who have needed technical skills.

To date ARSA is an ethno-nationalist group not trying to secede, but simply to regain the legal rights and protections of its people. Beyond ideological differences, ARSA has every logical reasons to distance itself from transnational jihadist groups, which would compel Bangladeshi security forces to move against them.

And yet, in such a dire predicament, ARSA could feel it necessary to accept support from any quarter willing to provide it.

The targeting of Myanmar interests, such as embassies or citizens abroad, are unlikely to be conducted by ARSA. Increasingly, al-Qaeda and IS are likely to compete to be the vanguard defenders of persecuted Muslims. In Indonesia alone, there have been two active plots to blow up the Myanmar embassy since 2014.

ARSA is unlikely to ever pose a major threat to the Myanmar government, but is unlikely to go away soon. Its information operations and political campaigns suggest enough institutional sophistication to ensure ARSA will be around for a while and that’s not good news for those seeking a quick end to the humanitarian suffering of the Rohingya.

The lessons of southern Thailand, West Papua and Mindanao are clear – even low-level insurgencies can fester for decades and have devastating impacts on human development, by weakening governance and heightening human insecurity.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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