The international community is rightly focused on humanitarian issues in northern Rakhine State. If the situation is not resolved in the near future, there is a danger that the region will become destabilized, leading to further violence. There is no military solution to the crisis in Rakhine State; we must find political solutions and compromises.
Nor should we lose sight of the activities of the militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), or Harakah al-Yaqin.
In fact, ARSA initiated the latest violence with attacks on innocent civilians and security forces on Aug. 25, provoking a heavy-handed military response.
ARSA’s leader is Ata Ullah, believed to have been born into a Rohingya family in Pakistan and now wanted in Myanmar. He conveys his orders and instructions to the group verbally or through audio-video recordings. He and his terrorist group are believed to have sympathizers in the Middle East and beyond.
It has been reported by several news publications that most of ARSA’s funding comes from Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, with additional support coming from other Middle Eastern countries with small Rohingya communities.
According to eyewitness accounts from refugee camps in Bangladesh, foreign donors believed to be based in the Middle East and elsewhere are distributing cash to refugees, and ARSA militants roam freely.
Ata Ullah’s whereabouts are unknown. The terrorist chief is believed to be on the run but he has several deputies who manage day-to-day operations and communicate with media and donors.
Observers have noted that ARSA’s propaganda machine is wide reaching; the militants and the group’s propaganda wing are fluent in English and make effective use of social media platforms. They are adept at making themselves appear moderate and reasonable. They are not.
ARSA militants, according to several reports and accounts published in recent months, mingle with villagers and wear civilian clothes. ARSA’s tactics more closely resemble those of the Muslim insurgents in southernmost Thailand, adjacent to Malaysia, than they do the methods used by Myanmar’s other ethnic armies. Their preferred mode of operation is to mobilize hundreds of villagers armed with homemade weapons for attacks on state positions in the middle of the night.
ARSA militants are not well armed but have undergone intensive training in the hills and forests near the border with Bangladesh. The training includes use of firearms and explosives as well as physical exercises.
Video footage shows that these militants do have some AK-47, M-16, G3 and G4 assault rifles. They also recruit desperate Muslim villagers to launch attacks on army outposts. During clearance operations the police and army have faced massive numbers of villagers – in some cases they have been encircled by them – who were aided by militants, forcing security forces to return fire. The number of militants killed during the operation is believed to be high; the Bangladesh side has said over 3,000 were killed but Myanmar government estimates put the figure at hundreds killed in August and early September.
At a meeting with Bangladeshi officials in Naypyitaw this week, senior Myanmar police officers presented a list of over 1,000 terrorists believed to be taking refuge in Bangladesh and asked that they be handed over. So far Bangladesh has sent back four alleged Rohingya militants to Myanmar.
In October last year ARSA launched well-coordinated attacks on Myanmar Border Guard Police outposts, escaping with dozens of assault rifles and ammunition. It has been reported that since the attacks in August, ARSA has received a large amount of donations from groups in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, as well as international media coverage. However, the Myanmar government officially considers the group a terrorist organization, shutting the door to talks with them.
ARSA leaders claim they are fighting to secure the rights of the marginalized Rohingya people and to end decades-long oppression at the hands of the government. (In the early 1950s, Myanmar faced a mujahideen rebellion in northern Rakhine State by militant Muslim separatists. The Myanmar Army launched decisive operations against the mujahideen in northern Rakhine. The mujahideen leadership eventually surrendered to government forces.)
This week, ahead of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit, the army continued to deny atrocities and use of excessive force against Rohingya Muslims during clearance operations.
The report on an internal investigation led by Inspector-General of Defense Services Lt-Gen Aye Win was released on Monday. It stated that a team spent nearly a month on the ground gathering information and interviewing nearly 3,000 people, including Rakhine, Hindu and “Bengali” people (the term used for Rohingya in the report and by many others in the country to imply they are interlopers from Bangladesh).
The findings of the investigation stated that “all security members abided by the orders and directives of superior bodies, especially the rules of engagement-ROE in connection with the rights of self-defense and in discharging duties during the armed conflicts and anti-terrorist operations.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement saying the army’s claim is contrary to a growing body of evidence to the contrary, and repeating calls for a UN fact-finding mission to be permitted entry to the region.
“The Burmese military’s absurd effort to absolve itself of mass atrocities underscores why an independent international investigation is needed to establish the facts and identify those responsible,” said HRW Asia Director Brad Adams. “The Burmese authorities have once again shown that they can’t and won’t credibly investigate themselves.” HRW is right to say that the findings lack credibility.
But even as we condemn the human rights abuses and humanitarian problems in northern Rakhine State, insist on accountability from the army and government, and ask that independent organizations and media be allowed to travel to the restive region, we should not lose sight of the activities of ARSA and its network, its links to extremist groups, its financial resources, or the donors and political and strategic support groups standing behind it.
ARSA has connections with foreign extremist groups, despite its blanket denials of such accusations. For instance, Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Pakistani of Rohingya descent, the group’s mentor based in Karachi, has called for “jihad” in Myanmar and has well-documented links to Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Righteous), one of South Asia’s largest Islamic terrorist organizations, whose operations are based mainly in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba was founded in Afghanistan in 1987 with funding from now deceased Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Abdus Qadoos has even appeared at meetings with Lashkar-e-Taiba supremo Hafiz Mohammed Syed.
Myanmar’s neighbors India, China and Thailand, along with several other Asean countries, have been assisting Myanmar and its security forces on this issue, as they recognize the danger of terrorist operations and networks.
To combat terrorism, Myanmar’s security forces will need assistance, intelligence sharing and training from neighboring countries that have gone through their own dark times with terrorists striking innocent people.
Like any government or armed forces, the Myanmar government and military has a responsibility to defend itself and its people, but innocent civilians must not be targeted.