Transnational Terrorism and ARSA's Fight for a 'Just Cause'

By Bidhayak Das 17 February 2018

Sitting in their dilapidated ground floor apartment near the Indian city of Ghaziabad, Khalimullah and Faizal were discussing the fate of more than 700,000 Rohingya living in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps in Bangladesh when they were distracted by the television. There was news of a Jan. 5 ambush by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Myanmar security forces in Rakhine State.

Khalimullah and Faizal are Rohingya who made their way a year ago to India, where they have been watching the developments in Rakhine from afar. Their lives, if not ideal, are much better than of those living in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. They want to return to their homes in northern Rakhine and for the Myanmar government to fulfill the demands that have been spelled out by those living in the camps. But unlike the many Rohingya refugees who seem to support ARSA, they feel differently.

A few days after the Jan. 5 attack, Khalimullah approached a journalist friend of mine in Delhi and told him that ARSA’s involvement in the conflict has worsened the plight of the Rohingya. “The more ARSA — which has been declared a terrorist group by Myanmar — tries to project itself as the savior of the Rohingya cause, the more it will mess up the entire situation,” he said. One is forced to agree with Khalimullah, for no matter how small an ARSA-led assault may be, it is bound to provoke a major response from the military and have a huge political impact as well. The same concerns have been expressed by knowledgeable political analysts such as Yangon-based Richard Horsey in his recent interview with the New York Times.

The Myanmar military has of late cut a sorry figure many times as it continues to deny the brutal atrocities it has unleashed on Rohingya civilians in retaliation for the ARSA attack of Aug. 25. The recent discovery of a mass graves could also prove true the UN’s concerns of a genocide targeting the Rohingya population. However, while we call for an independent investigation into the allegations — and there can perhaps be no substitute — there is an equally urgent need to go after ARSA and prevent it from adding fuel to the fire. It is debatable what ARSA represents today. But when leading international media call the outfit a “resistance” or even a “rebel” group, it does sound a bit ridiculous to say the least.

It is indeed a matter of great curiosity that a resistance group should have links to, and get support for its “secret trainings” from, well-known terrorist outfits such as Jamaat-Ud Daawah, another name for the Pakistan-based Laskhar-e-Taiba. Indian intelligence agencies have more than once sounded this out in the media. Actually these trainings are not much of a secret anymore as ARSA cadre have been openly telling the media about them and issuing press handouts to support its claims.

That the outfit started out as a faith movement in Pakistan in the shadow of Laskhar and Jaish-e-Mohammed only to later change its name to ARSA, and the fact that it has been openly issuing statements threatening to launch more attacks perhaps also lend credence to the view that the outfit has no intention of working toward a solution for the millions of displaced Rohingya.

Even Khalimullah, who once supported rebellion, does not see ARSA as even close to representing one. He is perhaps better informed than many by the Indian media, which has taken pains to trace ARSA’s links to US-designated and banned Islamic terrorist groups such as Jaish and Laskhar.

Over the past few years, the Indian media have regularly highlighted that ARSA leader Ata-Ullah was born in Karachi and formed the terror outfit Harakah al-Yaqin. Dossiers of his links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and other Pakistan-based groups, and records with Indian intelligence services of his recent telephone conversations with some Rohingya men in India have led the Indian establishment to take a firm stand in favour of deporting Rohingya refugees from India.

Much has already been written and said in Indian and international media about ARSA, including incriminating evidence of its involvement with various terrorist groups. For example: Aqa Mul Mujahideen is well connected to the “faith movement” formed by Ata-Ullah after the 2012 riots between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists; Harakat ul Jihad al-Islami-Arakan, led by a Rohingya who goes by the name Abdus Qadoos Burmi, is said to have been instrumental in fostering international support for ARSA; Al-Qaeda offshoot Answar Gazawat-ul-Hind, in Kashmir, has been actively campaigning for the Rohingya in India.

So it is not without reason that the Indian government and most of Indian civil society are worried about the terror aspects of the Rohingya debacle. Their alarm is only natural and has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of Islamophobia, as some may claim for the mere sake of argument.

Therefore, when international media — as in the case of Al Jazeera in its report “Myanmar’s ARSA: Freedom fighters or ‘terrorists’?” — describe India as backing Myanmar’s “clearance operations” against the Rohingya, they reflect a very misplaced and myopic view that refuses to see the problem in its entirety. India, or China for that matter, is not by any measure helping Myanmar with its crackdown on the Rohingya.

Recently, professor Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank, said that “external forces fomenting insurgent attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingya’s current plight.” I would argue that he has hit the bulls eye in many ways, for there are too many coincidences linking ARSA to external forces that preach hate and use terror as a weapon to realise their goals.

But even going with the milder “resistance group” tag for the sake of pacifying the international media, would it be wrong to say that the presence of ARSA has done more harm than good?

Without ARSA to worry about, it would certainly have been easier for Aung San Suu Kyi and her government to grab the opportunity to address the more serious allegations of ethnic cleansing. That opportunity vanished with the ARSA-led attack two days after the report was submitted. Continuing ARSA attacks and the military’s response to them also limit the opportunity for a more democratic and transparent process of repatriation and for the protection of the returning Rohingya.

The pressure on the Myanmar government and Aung San Suu Kyi to allow an independent investigation and access to northern Rakhine for humanitarian agencies and media must continue. But what must also start sooner than later is a push for international pressure to rein in ARSA and its violent ways.

There are contradictions galore in ARSA’s claim of fighting for the cause of its people. The proliferation of arms in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar via ARSA, with possible help from broader Islamist terror networks and militants in Bangladesh, raises questions about ARSA’s real agenda. These arms have been used to silence the voices of the more than half-dozen Rohingya camp leaders killed for promoting repatriation.

Khalimullah summed it up well when he said, “Of all the different narratives that are coming to the fore, the role of ARSA in fomenting the trouble and leaving innocent men, women and children to die and suffer in their camps cannot be ignored.” Surely this gory tale, a vital component of the crisis in Rakhine, cannot and should not be overlooked if a comprehensive solution is to be worked out, one that not only deals with repatriation but provides justice for all, especially for the thousands of people killed by the security forces and Rakhine Buddhists.

The author is a former senior journalist who has worked for national and international news media in India and elsewhere. Currently he is a contributing editor for The Irrawaddy.

Nilesh Kumar, a journalist based in New Delhi, contributed reporting to this article.