The Irrawaddy

Behind the ‘Textbook Example’

Rohingya refugees, who arrived after crossing Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through Bay of Bengal, are seen at the shore of Shah Porir Dwip, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain - RC16A2FCA5C0

The world is focusing too much on the moral grounding of one woman as a Nobel Laureate rather than as a politician and is forgetting that there are two sides to the conflict in Rakhine.

Suspicious video footage of the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was released a few days after attacks on police outposts on Aug. 25. In the footage, ARSA Commander Ata Ullah said loud and clear: “Arakan belongs to Rohingya.”

Obviously, the ARSA leader was unwise to demand the country’s territory and sovereignty and was probably aiming to irk the Myanmar Army. The footage was withdrawn by the group within hours.

It reappeared the next day with an inserted clip and paraphrased subtitles with accusations of war crimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing. The link to the edited footage was found within a few hours by an international aid worker.

In the cut-and-pasted clip, the words were paraphrased: from “Arakan belongs to Rohingya” to “This land is called Arakan and belongs to Rohingya,”—toning the claim down a bit.

The subtitles said: “We are warning the oppressive Burmese government and brutal Burmese military regime to immediately cease their heinous and dehumanizing international crimes (i.e. War Crime [sic], Genocide and Crimes against Humanity).”

It was interesting to hear an ill-equipped guerilla group using terminology better suited to the UN human rights council.

Farmers-Turned-Fighters

In one of the AFP reports, it was mentioned that some self-identifying Rohingya accused the rebels of provoking the army into revenge attacks and inviting nothing but misery upon the long-persecuted minority.

AFP quoted a prominent self-identifying Rohingya at a Bangladeshi camp as saying: “These regular farmers-turned-fighters with few weapons will bring nothing but more woe to Rohingya Muslims.”

He is absolutely right. Without any capacity to protect their people, ARSA made things worse and created a situation whereby almost 400,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh soil.

It is very interesting to look at how ARSA came to social media and who are listed among its online network.

ARSA established a Twitter account on March 31 this year. ARSA posted its first tweet linking to an exclusive interview of its leader—Ata Ullah who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia—with Reuters news agency: Exclusive – Rohingya rebel leader challenges Myanmar’s Suu Kyi, vows to fight on.

“If we don’t get our rights, if one million, 1.5 million, all Rohingya need to die, we will die,” he said in the Reuters interview. It is an awkward thing to see a Pakistan native leading the self-identifying Rohingya and commanding whether more than one million people live or die.

ARSA follows 27 accounts on its twitter. Among them are strong self-identifying Rohingya activists Tun Khin, Maung Zar Ni and Ro Nay San Lwin who are based in the UK and Europe.

The account also follows major rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights and the UN humanitarian aid agency and a few activist journalists such as Adil Sakhawat who recently wrote the exclusive Journey into Rakhine for the Dhaka Tribune in which he travelled into ARSA-occupied territory.

Among others who ARSA follows are US president Donald J. Trump, the Prime Ministers of India and Malaysia and Myanmar Army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Looking at ARSA’s tweets, we can see the group has done several interviews with international media including Reuters, CNN, and the Dhaka Tribune.

Pressure on a Moral Figure

While ARSA’s leader is positioning himself as more of a freedom fighter than a terrorist leader through international media, the world’s attention has quickly focused on the “silence” of moral figure Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

She has come under considerable pressure as increasing numbers of self-identifying Rohingya Muslims flee the country.

But, with the formation of a 15-member committee to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and a government investigation commission led by vice-president U Myint Swe, her attempt to find solutions is not completely out of the frame.

Within two weeks, the number of self-identifying Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh reached almost 300,000—75 percent of Muslim population living along the border.

In the same period, Rakhine, Hindu and thousands of minority ethnic individuals were displaced inside Rakhine State, according to the government.

In a recent AFP report, a UN refugee agency spokesman said: “In the current security context, the majority, if not all, of these people crossing from Myanmar into Bangladesh are believed to be fleeing insecurity,” he said.

Many have questioned why Daw Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t stopped military operations in Rakhine State.

The answer is very clear: She has no control over the military due to the 2008 constitution, which gives power only to the commander-in-chief to control the military.

Media Coverage from Different Areas

Due to limited access in northern Rakhine, news stories from international and local media tend to only cover one side: Either from self-identifying Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh or displaced minorities in Rakhine.

Underreporting either side can be blamed on either the heavy military operation or the barbaric militant attacks. Arson is rife in northern Rakhine State—committed either by the Myanmar Army or local militants, depending on who you listen to.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said this week: “We have received multiple reports and satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages, and consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians.”

He said the Myanmar Army operation in northern Rakhine State was a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. It will be discussed at the 72nd regular session of the UN General Assembly later this month.

It was the same phrase used by ARSA’s leader just two weeks earlier, as the plight of this huge number of people began.

Mon Mon Myat is an independent journalist and graduate student at the Department of Peace Studies in Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.