Myanmar security officials stand guard in a pool of mud on July 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Simon Lewis
Myanmar security officials stand guard in a pool of mud on July 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Simon Lewis

The surprise wave of lethal attacks by Rohingya militants on police and army posts in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, their largest operation to date, was a defensive move aimed at pre-empting an escalating security force crackdown on both the rebels’ military wing and Rohingya civilian communities, a senior militant official has told Asia Times.

Speaking in an exclusive interview on the day after the attacks of August 25, the militant official said the campaign of Myanmar military suppression and the rebel counter-punch has now pushed the majority Muslim northern region of Rakhine state into a state of “open war.” He vowed “continued resistance” until Rohingya demands for the restoration of citizenship rights within Myanmar are met.

In a wide-ranging interview, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) representative who identified himself simply as ‘Abdullah’, insisted that the military crackdown had gathered pace following the reinforcement of security forces by an estimated 400 troops of the crack 33rd Light Infantry Division on August 10-11.

He said it had left the militants no choice other than to strike back in defense of civilian communities facing what he described as further killings and abuses by security forces.

Involving what one Myanmar military count estimated at around 1,000 insurgents, the coordinated wave of attacks marked a dramatic improvement in ARSA’s tactical capabilities when compared with its first attacks on October 9 last year.

On that day, three Border Guard Police posts were stormed leaving nine police dead and triggering a weeks-long ‘area clearance operation’ by the military which international organizations estimate left several hundred, mostly civilian, Rohingya dead, entire villages burned and some 75,000 refugees pushed across the border into Bangladesh.

It’s a security operation the United Nations believes may have involved “crimes against humanity.” The Myanmar government has consistently refused visas for a proposed UN fact-finding team.

Members of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) command Rohingya people in ‘No Man’s Land’ between Bangladesh-Myanmar border to stop in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

This time, synchronized ARSA assaults launched at around 1:00 am on August 25 struck between 25 and 30 police posts across the two northern townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung. An army base at Taung Bazaar in northern Buthidaung also came under attack by as many as 150 insurgents, according to military sources quoted by Reuters.

In addition to storming posts, militant teams also reportedly blew up bridges and mined roads with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which were also used as hand grenades.

Against a backdrop of recent reports suggesting that one or more consignments of assault rifles had reached ARSA earlier this year, it remains unclear whether the small-arms used in the latest assaults were more numerous or more modern than the small numbers of firearms used last October. Abdullah denied that any new firearms had reached the group.

According to official figures, the death toll in the clashes has now reached around 100 with at least 80 insurgents killed along with 10 police, one army soldier and an immigration official. Six civilians were also reported to have been killed.

“In the two days before the attacks the military was preparing to strike ARSA bases across the region,” said Abdullah. “We had no choice but to take defensive measures.” He claimed that military raids on villages in Maungdaw and Rathedaung, the third majority-Muslim township in northern Rakhine, saw teenagers and men rounded up and over 25 shot dead. Asia Times could not independently confirm the claim.

A Myanmar border guard police officer stands guard in Tin May village, Buthidaung township, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar July 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Simon Lewis

Abdullah said one major source of Rohingya alarm that drove the decision by ARSA commanders to launch a counter-offensive was the sealing off of Zay Di Pyin village in Rathedaung by security forces and armed Buddhist civilians from surrounding hamlets.

Beginning in late July, after the killing of a local Buddhist which was blamed on Muslims, the Rohingya section of the mixed village of some 700 people was surrounded and restrictions imposed on the movement of Muslim villagers seeking to work outside the village as well as on food supplies going in. Parts of the village were later reportedly burned down.

The interview with Asia Times was given on condition that in the interests of militant security its location not be disclosed. However, Abdullah noted that he had been directly authorized by ARSA “commander-in-chief” or “emir” Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi to set out the militants’ current position and objectives. Asia Times was able to confirm through reliable independent sources that the ARSA representative and the rebel commander are indeed in daily contact.

An urbane, middle-aged man with a polished command of English, who Asia Times understands has been associated with the Rohingya cause for many years, Abdullah was accompanied to the interview by two younger Rohingya associates in their late twenties.

In discussing the backdrop to the rebel offensive of August 25, Abdullah asserted that the widening military crackdown and the blockade of Zay Di Pyin had been deliberately timed to provoke clashes and undermine the findings of the commission on the Rakhine crisis headed by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.

“Knowing that Kofi Annan was doing good work, the military had a clear plan to jeopardize it and derail the report,” he said.

Kofi Annan, chairman for Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, talks to journalists during his news conference in Yangon, Myanmar August 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Nevertheless, the specific timing of a complex and obviously carefully planned rebel offensive within hours of the August 24 release of the commission’s final report clearly suggests that ARSA also either sought to exploit the release of the report with a dramatic show of strength at a time when international attention was focused on the Rohingya crisis; or, at very least, did not see the report and its likely findings as grounds for restraint in the face of mounting military attacks.

The Commission’s report urged the Myanmar government to loosen restrictions on citizenship and movement of the stateless Rohingya community in Rakhine which are written into the controversial 1982 Citizenship Act. The report criticized the restrictions as not in accordance with international conventions to which Myanmar is a signatory, while warning of the dangers of further violence in the region.

Turning to the future of the conflict, Abdullah conceded that the stark disparity in military capabilities between still poorly armed rebels and the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, in a relatively small geographical region made any prospect of protracted military resistance problematic. A political solution based on the restoration of Rohingya citizenship and basic civil rights within Myanmar was ultimately the only solution, he said.

“In the short term our army is sending a message to the world that the injustice we have been subjected to is deep-rooted,” he said. “We need justice and we are hopeful that the international community will be there with political pressure. We are now at the final stage before full-fledged genocide, so we have to defend our civilian population.”

An armed Myanmar border police is posted in a cemetery in Maungdaw during a funeral for the nine police killed Rakhine State on October 9, 2016 near the Bangladesh border. Photo: AFP/Stringer

“We are not though looking to develop a long-term guerrilla struggle. In the longer term, our military and political wings will work together to push for dialogue. Even if political reconciliation does not seem viable at the moment, we should not lose spirit and stop our struggle. Our message to Arakan-born Rakhines is that we can live together. Arakan must be enjoyed by Rohingya and Rakhines together.”

Throughout the interview, Abdullah touched repeatedly on the historical record that details a Muslim presence in the Arakan going back hundreds of years and the role of Muslims in the court, army and civil bureaucracy of the Arakanese kingdom of Mrauk U, which was overrun by Burman armies in 1784. “Mrauk U was built by Rakhines and Muslims together,” he said.

Abdullah conceded, however, that while the presence of an elected civilian government in Myanmar served positively to balance off hard-line military policies, the position of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was not in the short term likely to facilitate political dialogue.

“She does not have good, direct channels of information,” he said. “She’s trapped between the army and Rakhine members of the (governing) NLD (National League for Democracy) who are feeding her distorted information. She does though have a moral duty at least to go and see for herself.”

For her part, Suu Kyi called the rebel offensive “a calculated attempt to undermine the efforts of those seeking to build peace and harmony in Rakhine state.” On August 27, the government proscribed ARSA as a “terrorist organization”, while the Office of the State Counsellor warned the media against “writing in support of the group.”

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