When a previously unheard of Rohingya militant group struck border posts in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State last October killing nine police officers, the full fury of the country’s powerful military was released on the Muslim minority.
The group, then calling itself Harakah al-Yaqueen, OR “Faith Movement”, has since changed its name to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) – at least when it is communicating with the international community.
While initial statements from the group mentioned the word “Jihadi” in relation to defending the Rohingya people, it has since gone out of its way to declare it is not fighting for a religious cause and to portray its aims as “defence of the Rohingya people”.
Arsa has vowed not to target ethnic Rakhine civilians – saying its enemy is the Myanmar military.
The spokesperson for the group – a man believed to have been born into a Rohingya family in Pakistan who goes by the name Ata Ullah – has attempted to liken Arsa to other ethnic-armed groups in Myanmar, where organisations such as the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army and the Ethnic Rahine Arakan Army are engaged in ongoing conflict with the Myanmar military. In this, Ullah has failed, due to the conviction throughout Myanmar that since the Rohingya are not one of the country’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
After Arsa launched a fresh round of attacks on security posts - a hybrid of police station and border checkpoint set up in Rohingya areas - on August 25 killing 12 security personnel and an immigration official, the Myanmar government declared them to be a “terrorist” organization.
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Access to northern Rakhine is severely restricted making it impossible to independently verify reports but it appears the group has been responsible for the death for a small number of civilians during the recent fighting.
Clearer evidence for Arsa’s willingness to perpetrate violence against civilians comes from the Rohingya community itself. In the months leading up to August 25 several dozen village chiefs and others were killed – many beheaded – apparently by the insurgents in revenge for alleged collaboration with Myanmar authorities.
Since the recent attacks, fleeing Rohingya have told the human rights group Fortify Rights that Arsa had allowed women and children to escape to Bangladesh, but were forcing men to stay and fight.
The size of the group remains unclear. An estimated 1,000 insurgents were reported to have taken part in the August 25 attacks. The Myanmar military claims to have killed around 400 insurgents since then, but as the army has also stated it is having difficulty distinguishing between fighters and civilians, it is very unclear how many of those 400 were actually Arsa members.
According to various sources in the Rohingya community many of those involved in the recent attacks were young men who had fled Myanmar into Bangladesh following last October’s military reprisals, and saw the group as the only hope of winning basic rights.
One young Rohingya man told The National how educated people in his community fear Arsa and blame them for sparking the recent violence, but many others believe "reluctantly" that armed action is now their last chance of challenging their ongoing oppression.
International NGOs working in Rakhine suggest that the international community had failed to recognise the group was gaining increasing support. One Muslim rights activists described to The National how "charismatic" Ata Ullah is, adding "The way he speaks, it's like he's a human rights advocate".
Yet some observers have accused Arsa of being part of a wider and more sinister plot to provoke religious violence across Southeast Asia.
According to a December 2016 International Crisis Group report, Arsa is backed by a "committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics".
Following the October 9 attacks the Myanmar government itself stated that the group’s foreign funding appeared to come from individuals [mostly wealthy Rohingya in Saudi Arabia] rather than larger networks.
And the ICG recently warned that allegations of the group being backed by the likes of ISIL or Al Qaeda should be treated with “the utmost caution”.
“Rohingya communities have not typically been radicalised in this fashion and there are no indications that ARSA has been pursuing goals congruent with those of global jihadist outfits. While there may be domestic political imperatives or gains to be had for politicians in the region to make these claims, doing so is deeply dangerous,” the ICG stated.
Claims that Arsa are well-funded by international militant Muslim organisations with links to terrorist groups are also undermined by the paucity of the group's weaponry in the recent attacks – mainly knives and homemade explosives.
Nevetheless numerous observers have warned that the ongoing oppression and brutality against the Rohingya leaves them vulnerable to radicals seeking to exploit their cause.