The Rohingya insurgency is starting to gain traction.
Pogroms and low-level anti-Muslim violence erupted in 2012 during Myanmar’s democratic transition. In large part this was allowed to fester because the international community was trying to support the new democratic government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
It was no surprise that after years of systematic human rights abuses, including the denial of citizenship rights or any other legal protections, and with the government limiting the ability of Rohingya people to work or to have food and medicine coming in, that a full-on insurgency broke out.
The insurgency was nascent for much of 2016 and the first half of 2017. It began as Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), led by Attullah Abu Ammar Jununi, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia before he returned home to lead the struggle.
The group publicly refers to itself as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Low-level attacks began to occur on a more sustained basis in 2016. Much of the violence in Rakhine state was perpetrated by government-backed vigilantes, as state security forces did little to curtail them.
But ARSA was clearly responsible for some of the violence. And, very clearly, it seemed to provoke heavy-handed responses. In October 2016, ARSA, armed with machetes and other primitive weapons, staged attacks on police posts.
The government responded with pogroms, including attacks on civilians and arson attacks in Rohingya villages. The United Nations estimates violence in October and November 2016 led to about 87,000 Rohingya refugees to cross into southeastern Bangladesh, where about 400,000 had settled previously.
Earlier this month, two days after U.N. Special Representative Kofi Annan issued his report on the Myanmar government’s alleged mishandling of the 11 million Rohingya, about 150 ARSA militants attacked 24 to 30 police outposts in Rakhine state. ARSA claims the attacks were pre-emptive and done in self-defense.
Those attacks were a tactical failure: about 77 militants were killed, compared to only a dozen police, in the fighting. But the attacks were not meant to be tactical successes. They were meant to be a strategic victory.
ARSA knew all too well that the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) could respond only one way: with an extremely heavy-handed “clearance operation” and total disregard for human rights. By Aug. 28, the death toll reached at least 104.
In the days after, thousands of refugees crossed into Bangladesh, with an additional 20,000 stuck in no man’s land along the border. Earlier, about 6,000 refugees, mainly women and children came under fire from the Tatmadaw as they tried to cross the frontier.
Human rights monitors witnessed Rohingya villages being set on fire. Human Rights Watch reported that in the four days following the Aug. 25 attacks, the number of villages burned down was significantly larger than the number burned last October and November.
‘Do they have any other choice?’
The fear is that the government’s abusive policies will further recruitment into ARSA. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy of extremists.
ARSA claims that it was founded three years ago. Because it was so small and extreme, few supported it. One would have to be mad to be willing to support a small poorly funded group against the Myanmar military, currently the world’s 11th largest with a long track record of repression.
But with no legal recourse available, many are compelled to join the insurgents. As one Rohingya village leader said about 30 young men had just volunteered for ARSA.
“Do they have any other choice? They chose to fight and die rather than be slaughtered like sheep.”
And in the squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh, joining ARSA is now becoming “farj” – a religious obligation.
Videos that emerged recently on pro-ARSA websites and social media show what appear to be evidence of extremely brutal attacks by government forces and paramilitaries.
The government of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has officially labeled ARSA as “extremist Bengali terrorists.” Some government officials have accused ARSA of using violence to establish an “Islamic State.” Clearly, the group’s origins in Saudi Arabia, and the Arabic name, prompted it to rebrand itself ARSA in 2017.
Fighting ‘dehumanized oppression’
In an Aug. 18 video statement, Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi, made it clear that ARSA was established only in response to government and paramilitary abuses against the Rohingya community.
“Our primary objective under ARSA is to liberate our people from dehumanized oppression perpetrated by all successive Burmese regimes,” he said.
He went out of his way to state the group was independent, with no ties to any international terrorist organization. He also stated ARSA received no funding from external organizations.
He called on the Rohingya diaspora to support ARSA, but to “obey and abide by the laws of the land” of their host countries. HaY was founded by a group of 20 Rohingya emigres in the Middle East. It seems highly unlikely they are not tapping into the larger diaspora network and financial resources from overseas.
In the 19-minute video that has since been removed, the ARSA leader flanked by six masked and armed men concluded his statement with an implicit threat to Rakhine Buddhists. He warned that there would be repercussions if they engaged in vigilantism or supported the Tatmadaw.
While he denied any links to Islamic State (IS) extremist group (though not named), and he called on fellow Rohingya to not be seduced into joining terrorist organizations, the fact is we do not know if there are any material connections. Clearly, he wants HaY/ARSA to be the vanguard organization.
And it is very clear that he has a nationalist, not a transnational agenda.
Links to IS?
But up against a wall, could that change? Or do covert ties already exist?
A more pressing concern is that whether ARSA asks for support from external organizations or not, it gets it. The plight of the Rohingya is big news in the Muslim world, and their cause is being championed by politicians, the middle class and hardline Islamists.
Indonesian authorities have broken up two terrorist plots by pro-IS militants to blow up the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, while IS has begun to refer to the Rohingya in its (albeit diminished) media. Across the region, there also has been a surge in arrests of Bangladeshi nationals in connection with pro-IS groups.
In the Aug. 18 video, Abu Ammar Jununi went out of his way to praise the support of host countries, in particular Bangladesh. He stated that in pursuit of “our legitimate self defense,” ARSA would “respect Bangladesh’s interests.”
But, of course, this is fanciful. Bangladesh’s patience with the influx of refugees, as it is beset by its own poverty and natural disaster, is running out.
What probably took ARSA by surprise, though, was the speed in which the Bangladesh government publicly offered to engage in joint military operations with the Myanmar military. Without de facto support from Bangladesh, ARSA may be compelled to look to assistance from sub-state actors.
My sense is that, like the Patani Malay militants in southern Thailand, ARSA seeks to remain focused on targeting security forces or Buddhist vigilante organizations, in order to provoke reprisal attacks.
That would allow them to maintain the mantle of “freedom fighter” and not alienate key backers in the international community. But if an attack was done in the name of the Rohingya, with or without ARSA’s knowledge, approval or support, the group would invariably be tied to terrorism.
Even if that does not happen, government operations against ARSA and the Rohingya population are only expected to escalate. Buddhist nationalists have been enraged by the attacks, and demanded that the security forces take further action. In firebrand sermons, hardline Buddhist clergy, such as Ashin Wirathu, have called on Buddhists to defend themselves.
The Myanmar military has every reason to comply. Meanwhile, the government of Suu Kyi, whether for retail political reasons or simply an unwillingness to stand up to the military, has signed off on such attacks. That will only drive more men into ARSA’s ranks, propel the organization, and create a downward spiral of violence and revenge attacks.
In an Aug. 26 interview, an ARSA representative told the Asia Times that until Rohingya demands for the restoration of full citizenship rights within Myanmar were met, there would be “open war” and “continued [armed] resistance.”
Neither the Myanmar government nor military is likely to accede to that demand. And with no political solution in the offing, there can only be violence.
“They grew up witnessing humiliation and persecution, so the current consensus among the Rohingya community is unless you fight, they’re not going to give us any of our rights,” a Rohingya activist who lives in Bangladesh told Agence France-Presse.
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 or the National War College. He wrote this commentary for BenarNews, an RFA-affilated on-line news service.