The bitter truth of the Rakhine conflict today is that there is zero tolerance between the two communities—Rakhine and Rohingya—and little chance to regain a certain amount of harmonious co-existence after orchestrated attacks by a Muslim militant group on Aug 25.
The current situation is the result of a vicious cycle of violence in the area.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army [ARSA] attacked 30 security outposts killing a dozen officers and seizing weapons. The military aggressively retaliated against the militancy. Hundreds or even thousands were indiscriminately killed by both ARSA militants and the government military.
Over half a million Rohingya refugees are now languishing in camps across the border in Bangladesh with tales of killings, arson, and rape by the Myanmar Army.
Behind this latest round of violence is the brutal attacks of ARSA—a group which claims to fight for the rights of the Rohingya people.
Analysts have observed ARSA’s attackers were a calculated move to provoke exactly the cruel military “clearance operations” that have occurred—creating a mass exodus of Rohingya and attracting serious international attention to the issue.
ARSA created the crisis now facing Myanmar, Rohingya refugees, and the international community.
But ARSA’s actions have not also worsened the already horrific plight of the Rohingya, they have broken any harmony between the two communities—Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists—and created a climate in which it is unlikely they will co-exist as in the past.
Many Rohingya—but certainly not all—seem to have supported ARSA’s moves.
The US-based NPR (National Public Radio) published a story called Rohingya Refugees Pour Into Bangladesh, And Many Questions A Militant Group’s Actions in early October. The story reported a narrative different from the majority of coverage from Western mainstream media.
Referring to Rohingya refugees in the camp, the story described how “ARSA overstepped, catastrophically. And innocent civilians are paying the price.”
The story quoted a 20-year-old woman with her nine-month-old baby whose father was recruited by ARSA and killed by the military during the attacks on Aug 25: “I am angry at the military for killing my husband,” she was quoted. “But I am also angry at those who told my husband to go fight for them.”
Another refugee who worked for an international nonprofit organization in Maungdaw Township before fleeing told NPR: “It was a big mistake. If ARSA hadn’t launched its attacks, the military wouldn’t have reacted as it did. And there wouldn’t be nearly half a million refugees here.”
Now the number has ushered the UN to call the situation a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” There is no doubt over the extent that Rohingya people are suffering.
Western countries rushed to heavily condemn both de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence and the military for its aggressive clearance operations after ARSA’s attacks.
But, after realizing that the de facto leader has zero control over the military, they switched their condemnation towards the military.
Many in Myanmar, however, feel the west failed to fully condemn ARSA, who they believe were responsibly for setting off this latest round of violence.
Western media downplayed militant group ARSA led by Ataullah Abu Amar Jununi, known as Ata Ullah, who was born among the Rohingya diaspora in Pakistan and moved as a child to Saudi Arabia.
Western media views are often different from analysts based in Asia.
Conversing with diplomats here in Myanmar, I’ve heeded that they all condemned ARSA and its terrorist attacks but failed to recognize the points of some refugees as recorded by NPR.
Some of the diplomats might have seen ARSA as “freedom fighters” for Rohingya people. A different from the perception of majority people of Myanmar.
Veteran Myanmar journalist and knowledgeable expert Bertil Lintner, however, wrote: “It would be naïve to think that US security planners are oblivious to reports of ties between ARSA and extremist groups and elements in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Arab countries.”
“ARSA has strenuously denied any such links, claiming that it’s only ‘protecting the Rohingya’ from Myanmar military abuses and that it is an ethno-nationalist group rather than jihadist organization.”
“But its original name, Harakah al-Yaqin, or ‘Faith Movement’, indicates otherwise, as do intelligence reports linking the group to radical elements in the Muslim World,” the writer continued to explain. “The group’s mentor, Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Pakistani of Rohingya descent, is close to Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the Army of the Righteous. The Pakistani-based group was set up in 1987 in Afghanistan with funding from now deceased al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and is now one of South Asia’s largest terrorist outfits.”
Myanmar government denounced ARSA as a terrorist group right after it launched its violent attacks on Aug 25.
Many ethnic Arakanese people do not see any difference between ARSA and Rohingya as they believe many of them support what has been labelled a terrorist organization.
It’s believed that a certain number of Rohingya are still committed to ARSA’s militant methods. In one of its stories in early October, Reuters quoted a dozen of Rohingya fighters who said they were ready to fight again.
It should be noted that despite their co-existence in the past, the communal strife between ethnic Arakanese and Rohingya is a simmering issue.
Trust between both communities has nearly collapsed as they have long faced three crises—development, human rights and security—as Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State described it.
With the latest organized attacks by ARSA in August, the trust has been totally destroyed.
As a result, many Rakhine feel that they are no longer safe to live side by side with Rohingya like in the past again.
Daw Khin Saw Wai, a Rakhine member of Parliament from Rathedaung Township, recently told The New York Times that “It will be impossible to live together in the future” as she believes, like other Rakhine people, “all the Bengalis learn in their religious schools is to brutally kill and attack.”
Ethnic Arakanese may take the latest ARSA’s attack as proof of this speculation.
Meanwhile, it’s understandable that many Rohingya refugees will not feel to come back after experiencing the military’s aggression.
In the mean time, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya civilian refugees are stuck—hungry, diseased, and distressed—in squalid camps in the Bangladesh. Although a repatriation programme has been discussed, the future is still incredible bleak for them.
That’s the real situation in Rakhine. At the moment, it seems that nothing can heal this antagonism between the two communities.
Repatriation of refugees and granting them citizenship by the Myanmar government as it has promised to do so looks like mission impossible at the moment.