Refugees question motives of groups like Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, as mission to end oppression leads to attacks that thwart peace talks
Thangkhali Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on March 19. Security analysts have called for the strict surveillance of Rohingya camps to curb the possibility of poor and vulnerable refugees being radicalized. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Thirty-year-old Nural Islam, a Rohingya Muslim, describes his life as rough but secure.
Islam lives with his wife and four children in a tent at the sprawling Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar of southern Bangladesh.
The camp sprang up in October 2017 when thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown in Rakhine State of neighboring Myanmar.
Refugees who failed to find a place in already established camps erected makeshift dwellings at Balukhali. It now provides sanctuary to about 200,000 refugees.
Islam was a well-off rice trader in Maungdaw, a Muslim-majority township in northern Rakhine.
But on Aug. 25 of last year the Myanmar military retaliated against Rohingya communities following attacks on security personnel by militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Arakan is the former independent kingdom that now forms Rakhine State.
Islam fled to Bangladesh after his home and rice-stocked shop were burned.
Many refugees blame ARSA militants as well as the Burmese military and irate local Buddhists for having been driven from their homes.
Islam initially viewed ARSA as a savior, however, he and many of his co-religionists have since had a change of heart.
Islam told ucanews.com that ARSA triggered the violence but that the militants are now nowhere to be seen as the Rohingya languish as refugees.
One 39-year-old, now a camp imam, questions the “real identity” and aims of the militants.
“Back at home I also wanted to join the group as I thought they were going to save Rohingya from oppression,” he said.
“But their identity and agenda seem mysterious as they carried out attacks on Myanmar security forces every time there was a peace initiative.”
Rohingya men wait for aid from voluntary groups at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on March 18. Many Rohingyas who once supported the militants have come to understand that violence just worsens the suffering of the beleaguered community. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
The imam came to suspect that members of ARSA were being used as agents of the military to keep the conflict going.
Alim Hossain, 21, a Rohingya from Rathedaung in Rakhine now living in Cox’s Bazar, has a more favorable opinion of the militants.
While not explicitly endorsing violence, he believes there is a need to bring global attention to the suffering of his fellow Rohingya.
“I don’t think the Myanmar government will ever grant us basic rights and citizenship unless foreign governments and the U.N. apply pressure,” Hossain said.
“I am ready to die for the freedom of the Rohingya and peace in Rakhine.”
Another Imam in Cox’s Bazar, who also asked not to be named, maintained that some radical Bangladeshi Muslims supported ARSA in order to advance their own interests.
“Due to decades of persecution, the Rohingya have their backs pressed against the wall, so they remain vulnerable to exploitation by militant groups. Governments need to monitor the issue seriously,” the imam told ucanews.com.
A shadowy group
ARSA was formerly known as Harakh Al-Yaqin (Faith Movement) and its existence was canvassed in a December 2016 report compiled by a Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group (ICG).
The ICG report stated that ARSA was formed in 2013 following deadly anti-Rohingya riots in Rakhine the previous year.
The group is commanded by a committee of Rohingya immigrants based in Saudi Arabia.
In Rakhine State, ARSA is led by Rohingya trained in modern guerrilla warfare tactics.
ARSA states that it is acting in self-defense against violent repression.
Rohingya Muslim refugees seen at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on March 16. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
The militants carried out their first operations in October 2016 with coordinated attacks on three Myanmar border posts in which nine officers were killed.
That triggered months’ long “clearance” operations by the Myanmar military.
A second ARSA attack in August 2017 on 30 security posts in Rakhine resulted in the deadliest military crackdown so far on beleaguered Rohingya communities.
The military’s so-called counter-insurgency operations in two phases left thousands of Rohingya dead, women raped and houses burned.
More than 770,000 Rohingya joined about 300,000 refugees already in Bangladesh.
Rights groups branded the crackdown “genocidal” while the United Nations called it ethnic cleaning.
Skeptical views from Myanmar
Hla Tun, a Rohingya from Myo Thu Gyi village in Maungdaw, said he only heard of ARSA when they carried out the August 2017 attacks.
After his village with 1,800 residents was burned to the ground by soldiers, Hla Tun and three siblings fled to a relative’s home in Maungdaw town.
While there had been no fighting between the military and ARSA in the village, security forces still set houses ablaze.
Tun said he did not wish to cast judgment on whether ARSA’s actions were right or wrong, but noted that decades of systemic oppression led some young people to take up arms.
He believed ARSA would not be able to again attack soldiers and police in Rakhine State due to a lack of “strength” and tight security measures.
Meanwhile some foreign governments fear the Rohingya are being “hijacked” by transnationalist terror groups such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda that have professed moral support.
ARSA denies any outside terrorist links and maintains it is motivated solely by nationalism.
However, retired Major General Abdur Rashid, a Dhaka-based security analyst, said Rohingya militants pose a regional security threat.
“Up to now, we know ARSA as a militant group but we are still in the dark as to who is funding and leading them,” Rashid told ucanews.com.
“It is a security threat to Bangladesh as we know ARSA held meetings and training on remote hills here and attacked security forces in refugee camps to loot weapons.
“If they can attack the Myanmar military, they can surely attack Bangladesh forces.”
He warned that the IS and Al-Qaeda could seek new fronts for conflict as they have suffered setbacks in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Rashid called for strict controls on camps in Bangladesh including surveillance to prevent the entry of local Muslim radicals.
“The Rohingya are poor and helpless so they are always ripe for exploitation by extremist groups,” Rashid said.