A village headman assaulted by machete-wielding men in a tea-shop; six villagers stabbed and shot dead in their fields; a blast in a house as locals attempt to assemble a home-made bomb.
This month has seen a marked increase in violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and the unrest is sending security forces a blunt message: despite the ferocity of last year’s army-led crackdown which left scores of Rohingya civilians dead and sent over 70,000 refugees into neighboring Bangladesh, a renewed and almost certainly wider conflict is brewing.
Rohingya Muslim militants, who last October launched surprise attacks on three border police posts that killed nine officers, have stepped up preparations for a revived insurgency during the area’s rainy season that constrains major military sweeps.
That’s involved asserting control over local communities, accelerating recruitment and expanding military training activities across all three majority Rohingya townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung, the epicenter of last year’s militant attacks and military crackdown.
At the same time, regional intelligence sources who spoke to Asia Times note that external support in the forms of arms and funding have in recent months reached the militants via Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh.
The evidence of preparations for a widened revolt has been regularly reported in Myanmar’s state media, seen in a rising rate of targeted killings of mostly Muslim civilians apparently viewed as collaborating with the security services (such as interpreters) or local government administration.
To eliminate government intelligence assets and to instill an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, the killings have typically involved individuals being dragged from their homes after dark and stabbed or slashed to death by groups of men sometimes reportedly dressed in black fatigues and wearing face masks. Bodies of abducted individuals have on occasion been found decapitated.
Both the scope and tempo of the killing campaign, which began last year, has risen in recent months. Incidents which started in Maungdaw township where most of the violence in late 2016 was concentrated have now spread to include Buthidaung and Rathedaung, according to local media reports, and appear increasingly to involve brazen day-light assaults.
At the same time, the rate of attacks which early this year occurred roughly once a week or less frequently has now increased notably to several incidents a week. According to official figures from the office of State Counsellor Aung san Suu Kyi, over 50 individuals have now been either murdered or abducted between October and the end of July.
In what was originally an almost exclusively Muslim target-set, the number of Buddhists attacked is now ominously rising.
The arguably most striking incident came on August 3 with the killing of six Buddhist farmers and the abduction of two others in Maungdaw. In some cases, killings of Buddhists have triggered the flight of scores of Buddhist civilians to township centers where state security is assured.
The pattern of insurgent activity suggests a broadly centralized command and control structure on the part of a group which was first identified late last year as Harakat al Yaqin (HaY), or Movement of Faith, but which this year rebranded itself as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
As seen by several security analysts who spoke to Asia Times, the name-change was probably driven by the group’s desire to distance itself from any association with Arabic-sounding jihadist radicalism. HaY/ARSA is understood to have emerged from the extensive Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the Pakistani city of Karachi.
In its limited interactions with the international media the militant group has been at pains to project itself as an ideologically moderate outfit committed to securing the legitimate rights of an ethnic community of some 1.1 million which has been denied citizenship and basic civil rights by successive Myanmar governments.
Attracting less attention than the targeted killings but no less significant in terms of insurgent expansion have been efforts to revive recruitment and training activities for local youths.
This has involved the setting up of temporary camps in remote locations where basic instruction in guerrilla field-craft is imparted, apparently using mostly wooden rifles rather than real fire-arms. According to official sources, youths inducted into the ARSA training modules of one or two weeks are required to swear a vow of secrecy on the Koran and, at least in some cases, are said to be paid.
Much of the training activity has centered on the Mayu Range, a spine of jungled hills that runs broadly north-south between the arable flatlands of Maungdaw to the east and Buthidaung to the west, and is thus easily accessible from both townships.
On June 20, police responding to a tip-off of training activities discovered a camp in the hills a three-hour trek from the nearest village in Maungdaw. One of several now identified, the facility included a large tunnel measuring over four feet high, by five feet wide and 80 feet in length. In the ensuing operation, three militants were killed either in or near the tunnel, while police also retrieved 20 wooden guns, two homemade firearms and food supplies.
Training also appears to have focused on the production of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Probably for logistical reasons and given the smaller number of people involved, these courses have apparently taken place in safe houses in villages rather than the remote jungle camps. In recent weeks, there have been several cases of either security forces breaking up training sessions and triggering clashes or incidents involving apparently accidental explosions.
Several distinct facets of insurgent activity – a systematic campaign of targeted killings of perceived state collaborators and Buddhist civilians, establishing temporary camps for clandestine basic training courses, and ritual oaths of secrecy sworn by new recruits on the Koran – mirror almost exactly the tactics and methods of the Malay-Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, both during its preparatory phase and subsequently.
The extent, if any, to which ARSA militants and Patani-Malay insurgents of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) are in contact remains unclear. What is not in doubt, however, is that both groups have a significant organizational presence in Malaysia and share broadly similar ethno-nationalist objectives within Buddhist-dominated states.
The deteriorating security situation has caused widespread alarm across Rakhine state’s majority Buddhist community and beyond.
Following direct appeals by Arakan National Party (ANP) politicians to armed forces commander in chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, military reinforcements of an estimated 400 troops of the crack 33rd Light Infantry Division (LID) were airlifted into the state capital of Sittwe on August 10 and moved north to Maungdaw the next day.
Given the relatively small size of the reinforcements, the ongoing rains and an absence of any obvious military objectives it seems likely the airlift was intended more to reassure the state’s rattled Buddhist community and bolster local para-military police than as the prelude to immediate large-scale offensive operations.
With the onset of the dry season at year’s end, the traditional time of year for military offensives in Myanmar, expect a more robust security force response to the gathering threat and a potentially better-organized and more lethal militant reaction.