Analysis: ARSA Conspicuous in Its Silence

By The Irrawaddy 15 May 2018

YANGON — On Jan. 31, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army posted a press statement on Twitter with the heading, “Notice to other armed groups, dacoit (bandit) groups, human trafficking groups, drug trafficking groups and some other groups commissioned by the Burmese terrorist government operating in disguise as ARSA.”

In its statement, the Muslim armed group, which earlier claimed responsibility for attacking 30 police outposts in northern Rakhine State in August last year, warned members of the abovementioned groups not to tarnish ARSA’s image in the eyes of the international community by disguising themselves as belonging to the Rohingya group.

ARSA’s attacks in August triggered clearance operations in the area by the Myanmar military that caused nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to nearby Bangladesh.

Since that post, the group — denounced by the Myanmar government as a “terrorist organization” — has been silent on Twitter, their sole public relations platform.

Yangon-based political analyst U Maung Maung Soe said ARSA’s silence was probably a reflection of the upper hand they had gained on the issue internationally.

He explained that ARSA is predominantly an instrument for Rohingya lobbyists at home and abroad to draw international attention to their movement.

“Now the issue is on the UN’s agenda. So ARSA has kept a low profile since the Rohingya exodus attracted huge international attention. If they kept promoting the armed group, it could draw criticism,” he said.

Despite the group’s silence, the Rohingya issue has continued to attract international attention. The EU and US have imposed sanctions against certain Myanmar military leaders. Recently, the UN Security Council dispatched a team to Bangladesh and Myanmar to investigate the issue. The delegation urged Naypyitaw to allow the safe return of the Rohingya.

U Maung Maung Soe’s comments on ARSA’s silence were echoed by another Yangon-based analyst, David Scott Mathieson.

In his recent Asia Times article “The Curious Disappearance of Myanmar’s Rohingya Rebels”, he writes: “Clumsy or revealing messaging could undermine its calls for an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the military’s abuses, or, as some have suggested, a possible UN intervention as seen in former Yugoslavia’s Kosovo that carves out a Rohingya homeland in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district.”

Mathieson observes that, while the rebel group’s initial statements espoused jihadist rhetoric, “much of its late 2017 statements were appeals to international organizations for assistance.”

He adds that ARSA’s aims and objectives — including “indigenous native ethnic status for Rohingyas, issuance of citizenship identity cards, allowances for ‘bona fide Rohingyas’ to return to Rakhine from diaspora communities worldwide, and the granting of full human rights, the ability to form political parties, employment in civil service jobs and return of confiscated land” — were in line with many international calls for the protection of the rights of Rohingya.

Mathieson continues that “ARSA’s social media silence coincides with an emerging narrative that ARSA never existed. Rohingya and Western rights activists are now spreading a narrative that purports the August 25, 2017 attacks were a so-called ‘false flag’ operation by the Myanmar security forces to justify its brutally disproportionate ‘area clearance’ operations.”

“That’s raising questions about the degree of cooperation or collusion between the armed group and outside ‘peaceful’ activists and whether the rebel group’s deafening new silence on its once active Twitter account is more of a collective than individual decision,” he said.

Another reason ARSA stopped tweeting, Mathieson says, is that “the insurgent outfit is regrouping and training in neighboring Bangladesh in preparation for a fresh round of assaults it doesn’t want to tip off through public communications.”

U Maung Maung Soe warned that ARSA may resurface once the international community’s concern over the Rohingya issue fades.

Daw Pyone Kathy Naing, a Lower House lawmaker and member of the International Relations Parliamentary Committee, warned that despite its current silence, the armed group could make a return at any time.

“ARSA is a key actor in the issue and their silence is quite weird. Myanmar and other regional countries should not lose track of it.”