A photograph released by Myanmar's Armed Forces on October 14, 2016 with a Myanmar soldier holding a banner with Arabic writing with pouches containing bullets and documents seized inside a house during military operations in search of attackers in Maungdaw located in Rakhine State. Photo: AFP/Myanmar Armed Forces/Stringer

The shadowy militant faction whose offensive late last week threatens to plunge Myanmar’s western Rakhine state into wider conflict, with real potential for large-scale communal violence, is committed to securing citizenship and basic civil rights within Myanmar for the state’s Rohingya Muslim population, a spokesman for its commander stressed to Asia Times in an exclusive interview.

He went on to pointedly reject suggestions that simply because it is Muslim the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has links with, or could be co-opted by, transnational jihadist terror groups.

“Out status as a recognized ethnic group within Myanmar must be restored,” said Abdullah, an authorized representative of Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, who heads ARSA. “As long as our demands are not met, resistance will continue and, if unfulfilled, those demands will be upgraded to another level.”

While declining to elaborate on what “another level” might involve, Abdullah stressed repeatedly that the ARSA’s fight is an ethno-nationalist one. “We are not jihadists. This is clear from ARSA’s modus operandi, the way it operates and is run, and the direction it’s moving in. None of this is in line with the goals of Pakistani or other jihadist groups. We are actually much more like any other (ethnic) armed group in Myanmar.”

In an extended interview with Asia Times one day after a wave of ARSA attacks on police posts and an army base across Rakhine state’s northern townships had left nearly 100 dead, Abdullah cautioned the international community against “any perceptions of us as terrorists” or “falling into the trap of the Myanmar government.”

Myanmar security officials with flag-draped coffins bearing nine bodies of border guards killed in raids  in Maungdaw, Rakhine State on October 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Khine Htoo Mrat

Myanmar officials routinely refer to ARSA insurgents as “Bengali terrorists” and on August 27 the government formally outlawed the group as a “terrorist organization.” The term “Bengali” implies the state’s marginalized Rohingya community of at least 1.1 million are illegal interlopers from Bangladesh rather than Myanmar citizens entitled to civil rights.

Abdullah ridiculed the proposition of illegal Bangladeshi migration into Rakhine, which the military and successive Myanmar governments have used to justify a policy of denying the Rohingya community citizenship and restricting basic rights of travel and education.

“For one thing there is a heavy security force presence including police and military all along the border, so how is it these numbers of people somehow manage to cross in? For another, why would anyone seek to migrate to what is in effect an open prison?”

“Life in Arakan (Rakhine) in many areas is like something out of the Iron Age. In many place there is no electricity from the government yet. Why would anyone risk his life trying to sneak into such a place?”

Since the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have in fact fled Myanmar to settle in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and the Middle East.

A Rohingya boy jumps over the border fence to enter inside Bangladesh border, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The controversial counter-insurgency campaign launched by the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, in October and November last year following ARSA attacks on three police posts pushed a further 75,000 – 80,000 civilians into Bangladesh, according to aid agencies. Since the latest upsurge of violence began on August 25, a further 4,000 have fled across the border, reports said.

Abdullah noted that ARSA began operating in Rakhine State in 2013 in response to anger and despair, particularly among Rohingya youth, following communal unrest in 2012. The rioting left scores dead and over 130,000 Rohingya confined to squalid camps for the internally displaced around the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, where they have languished ever since.

Against this backdrop, ARSA has developed as an essentially home-grown movement rather than an offshoot of earlier militant groups based in Bangladesh, most notably the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), which today is basically defunct.

“ARSA was a direct consequence of events in 2012 and reflects the emergence of a new generation – young people with access to social media who have experience of the world,” he said.

Policemen stand guard as firemen work to extinguish fires during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe June 10, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Part of that experience has clearly involved interaction with the wider Rohingya diaspora, from where its commander Ataullah Junjuni hails. Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, to a family of Rohingya refugees, Ataullah later moved to Saudi Arabia, where among a Rohingya diaspora community of around 150,000 he served as an imam, or prayer leader, in a mosque.

Currently in his early 40s, he returned to Rakhine in 2013 after being in contact with young people from the state and rose to lead what was first a movement called Harakah al Yaqin (or Faith Movement) and later a clandestine military force, said Abdullah.

Whether Ataullah’s background in Pakistan had any bearing on the emergence of ARSA as a clearly well-organized and tactically competent guerrilla force remains unclear. According to Abdullah, military instructors who have been conducting training for militant recruits in remote camps in Rakhine since at least since 2014 are Rohingya who earlier served in the Myanmar police and military. Ataullah himself was trained in Rakhine by this cadre, added the ARSA spokesman.

Independent analysts who spoke to Asia Times view this version of events as improbable given the blanket discrimination faced by Rohingya in Myanmar, particularly in terms of service with the security forces. Rather more likely, in their assessment, albeit speculative, is that sympathetic ex-servicemen from other countries in the region have been recruited or volunteered their services as instructors.

Both official Myanmar and ARSA accounts concur, however, that military instruction has taken place at camps in jungle or mountain locations across the three northern townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung and particularly in the Mayu range, a line of hills which stretches south from the Bangladesh border between the flatlands of Maungdaw in the east and of Buthidaung to the west.

According to Abdullah, following the induction of new recruits who are required to swear an oath on the Koran pledging allegiance to the Rohingya cause, instruction is conducted at two levels. Basic training using wooden rifles lasts just one or two weeks and is intended essentially to instill discipline and basic guerrilla field-craft. A second module of advanced training lasts two to three months.

A man suspected of being one of the attackers in deadly raids on border posts staged on October 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Abdullah provided no details on the content of the advanced training, but it is likely to include at very least familiarization with handguns, automatic rifles and machine guns and, importantly, skills in assembling improvised explosive devices (IEDS) of various types using different triggering methods.

It remains to be seen whether, as the conflict escalates and the Myanmar military focus operations in the Mayu Hills, ARSA is able to sustain the level of training it appears to have maintained since 2014.

Abdullah denied that ARSA had benefitted from consignments of weapons from across Myanmar’s border. However, as earlier reported in Asia Times, images of youths in sarongs and tee-shirts training with apparently new Kalashnikov assault rifles have been circulating in intelligence circles.

It also appears highly unlikely that the coordinated attacks of August 25 could have been launched on at least 25 security force positions without a far larger number of automatic weapons than was looted from three Border Guard Police posts attacked on October 9, 2016.

According to official figures released in the aftermath of the attacks, approximately 60-70 firearms were lost by the police in those attacks, some of which have been retrieved in subsequent raids and clashes.

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