For the Rohingya, now at least, anger stops short of militancy

Outrage against Myanmar's military simmers in refugee camps, but could it eventually boil over?

Jahid Hussein, 33, cries as he recounts how he said he say eight members of his immediate family killed by members of the Myanmar military. Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 13 2018. Campbell MacDiarmid for The National
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Rahamat Ullah tears at the air when he describes how his two children, parents and a brother were killed by the Myanmar military a year ago.

In the time since, the 45-year-old has grieved. But his anger, unaddressed, boils.

"We're not strong enough to fight the Myanmar government, we have no weapons," he said, gesticulating violently in the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp for Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh, where he now lives.

"But if any country wanted to give us weapons, we would fight and we would die. They’ve already killed our families, burned our homes and taken our lands. We've already lost everything."

A year after around 700,000 ethnic Rohingya were driven from their homes into Bangladesh, untreated trauma and the limbo of exile is creating a potentially fertile ground for militant views to take hold. Although the Bangladesh government has cited its concerns, for now at least it appears that the frustration of Mr Ullah and others is unlikely to translate into action. The reason is that the outside material support he speaks of is not forthcoming.

The massive camp, near Cox's Bazar, is filled with stories similar to those of Mr Ullah.

Rohingya tell of persecution at the hands of the Myanmar government, arbitrary detention, rape, arson and murder by the military.

Rohingya children take shelter from the rain in the refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on August 13 2018. Campbell MacDiarmid for The National

The most recent influx of refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar began arriving in Bangladesh at the end of August 2017, ahead of an orchestrated military campaign in which entire villages were burned and an estimated 6,700 people killed.

The Myanmar government said the operation was counter-terrorism, in reprisal for an August 25 attack on its border guards by a group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Little is known about the group. In a 2016 report, the International Crisis Group, a war and conflict monitor, said ARSA's predecessor, Harakah Al Yaqin was "led by a committee of Rohingya emigres in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics".

ARSA's leader is said to be a Pakistan-born Rohingya who was raised in Saudi Arabia, who goes by the name Ata Ullah. The group says it has no links with Al Qaeda, ISIS, "or any other trans-national terrorist group".

In a statement published last month, ARSA said its "defensive attacks have only been directed against our legitimate target," meaning the Myanmar government.


Read more from Campbell MacDiarmid in Bangladesh:

Rohingya find their voice in exile but not an audience

Why neither Myanmar or Bangladesh wants to deal with the Rohingya crisis


"ARSA has never carried out and will not carry out any military activity against any [other] state or armed group," it added.

Nor does the group court media attention. Alleged ARSA members contacted in the Cox's Bazar area declined to be interviewed, citing orders from their superiors.

Its supporters in the camp suggest that the group is attempting to enter talks with Myanmar's government and has ordered its members not to talk to the media to avoid jeopardising their chances.

But the Myanmar government remains worried about potential attacks in Rakhine state, with the few remaining Rohingya communities there recently reporting increased persecution while the military carries out sweeping counter-insurgency operations.

Bangladeshi security sources downplay the risk posed by ARSA, with one senior official suggesting the group was simply a useful pretext for the Myanmar government to carry out ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. Bangladesh had proposed forming a joint search operation with Myanmar to hunt for militants along the border, the official said, but the offer was never accepted.

A sceptical view is shared by some Rohingya.

Rohingya men discuss their desire for justice in the refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on August 14 2018. Campbell MacDiarmid for The National

"We don't like ARSA, it was created by the Myanmar government," said Dil Mohammed, a 51-year-old community leader in the camp.

He argued that even before the August 25 ARSA attack last year, the Myanmar government had preplanned the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

"They had already deployed many troops from other parts of the country to Rakhine. They shut down the roads and blocked all communications."

But Mr Mohammed also expressed concern that with so many young men having lived through such persecution, refugee life could foster militant sympathies.

"If we stay like this for a long time in this dire situation, maybe our young people will be vulnerable to extremism. It will be so easy for extremists to exploit us."

Outside observers, however, suggest that without major external backing from foreign powers, ARSA is unlikely to represent a serious threat to the Myanmar government.

"The conditions of frustration are all there, but the conditions of frustrations alone do not turn a person into a killer or a guerrilla," said Liam Mahony, an independent researcher who has authored UN reports on the Rohingya. "It's not very easy to build an armed group in Rakhine state, there’s not guns floating all over."

Bangladesh's experience with homegrown militants has taught it to remain vigilant though, and law enforcement is active throughout the refugee camps. The government is being extremely cautious, a Bangladeshi official said. Two non-governmental organisations have already been banned from the country for espousing extremist views, the official said, without giving further details.

But Jahid Hussein, a 33-year-old Rohingya imam in the camp, reflects a different view from those who talk of an uprising.

He described hiding in a cemetery while Myanmar forces surrounded his village last year. As he watched from afar, he says he saw his wife and two children slaughtered on a riverbank. Despite this experience, he insists violence is not the answer.

"I'm the only one in my immediate family to survive. When I see the kids playing in the camp I think of my own children and I think it would have been better if I'd died too," he said.

"But in Islam we teach, if you are not able to get justice in this life, you will get it in the next."