YANGON – The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has rebutted the findings of the International Crisis Group (ICG) released on Thursday, which warned that Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are being increasingly operated with impunity by ARSA militants and gangs.
Nearly 1 million Rohingya who were expelled by Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, operations in 2017 have been in Bangladesh camps now for over 18 months. Returning to where they once lived in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State is still but a vague hope for them as fighting has intensified between the Arakan Army (AA) and government troops in northern Rakhine as of this month.
The United Nations has accused the military of acting against the Rohingya with “genocidal intent” and international rights groups are calling for the military chief Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his role in mishandling the crisis.
Amid numerous challenges for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, threats against camp leaders, civil society groups and political figures have become a major threat. The ICG’s recent report “Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh” claims ARSA militants and gangs mostly control the camps and often commit violence against the residents.
The report highlights the safety conditions of the camp’s Rohingya community leaders, the likelihood of the repatriation project agreed by Myanmar and Bangladesh authorities being carried out, and encouragements for authorities to lift the ban on the provision of formal education in the camps.
The ICG mentions that groups vying for control in the camps include ARSA, which it says is seeking to “deploy deadly violence to further its aims: informal networks of religious leaders; non-violent political and civil society groups: and a random assortment of criminal gangs.”
“Violent groups operate freely in the camps. As evening draws in and humanitarian workers withdraw to their bases in Cox’s Bazar town, security is in the hands of untrained and unarmed night watchmen appointed from among the refugees,” the report says.
ARSA announced its denial of the report findings via its Twitter account on Tuesday, stating it is based on hearsay and is baseless. It also accuses the ICG of trying “to defame and manipulatively discolor ARSA’s legitimate long-running struggle” for the persecuted Rohingya community in Rakhine.
ARSA’s Twitter page is used as a communication channel for the group and is where it posts strong English-language statements. It denied “any involvement in the act of intimidation and even likely extra-judicial killings as reported.” The post invited credible international organizations to investigate such “perceived crimes,” saying they are “ready to cooperate.”
ARSA wrote that its own objective is to defend, salvage and protect the innocent Rohingya, an indigenous ethnic community of Rakhine State, and said they have rights to defend themselves under international law. They say that is why their attacks mainly target the Myanmar military.
Despite ARSA’s denials, the ICG report stated that ARSA was likely responsible for the killing of Arif Ullah, a camp leader who was hacked to death in June 2018. Death threats against Arif Ullah made by ARSA had been widely circulated on Whatsapp, and accused him of being on good terms with the Bangladeshi army.
The ICG says refugees have expressed “serious concerns about their personal security” as the militants and gangs are “intimidating, kidnapping and killing with impunity.” It criticized homicides and other forms of deadly violence that commonly happen at night, saying that the police rarely investigate the cases and the perpetrators have almost never been brought to justice.
The ICG report says, “A determined and often violent struggle is currently underway for de facto control of the camps.” It quoted the expression of a prominent refugee leader that he was “unable to sleep at night” for fear of attack by militants and gangs.
The ICG suggested that the Bangladesh government ease restrictions on formal education in the camps, saying that local and international organizations are ready to provide such education. The report recommends the improvement of law and order in the camps by providing a regular and effective Bangladesh police service, investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.
Currently, Rohingya children largely rely on informal private “tuitions” in dwellings and networks of madrassas that purely teach the “Koran [and] do not adequately fill the formal education gap.”
The ICG said that banning education in the camp creates a risk of transnational jihadists groups gaining “a foothold in the camps.”
It claims the Chittagong-based Islamist movement Hefazat-e-Islam—which has publicly called for jihad against Myanmar—has considerable influence over the madrassa network in the camps, through the funding and religious scholars that it provides.
This is the second time ARSA has denied a report on the refugee camps following another publication titled “ARSA: End Abductions, Torture, Threats against Rohingya Refugees and Women Aid Employees” launched by Fortify Rights in March.
ARSA carried out a third ambush this year in Myanmar when they targeted a police van transporting officers in northern Maungdaw in Rakhine State last week. Myanmar’s state-owned newspapers reported a police officer was wounded during the attack. Footage of the incident, which later went viral on Facebook, was believed to show men wearing ARSA uniforms.
In January, six police officers including a police colonel were wounded in the first ARSA attack of the year near Wat Kyein Village in Maungdaw. The second attack five days later saw three officers wounded in an artillery assault on police outposts near Wai Lar Taung Village.