Will Myanmar’s unfolding Rakhine state conflict morph into a full-fledged insurgency akin to those long waged in the country’s northern and northeastern regions?
It is a question being weighed among regional security analysts after a series of attacks carried out on August 25 by the shadowy Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and a fierce Myanmar army response that has forced a flood of over 400,000 refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.
The answer to that question will rely largely on who’s in power in Bangladesh and the level of outside support local Rohingya militants can muster from foreign allies to sustain and escalate their shadowy hit-and-run campaign. While ARSA is a new armed group, disenfranchised Rohingya have a long history of militant activities with foreign support based in Bangladesh.
The leadership in Dhaka is no doubt well-aware of that militant history on its territory. Four days after the attacks in Myanmar’s Rakhine (Arakan) state, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s secular Awami League government in Dhaka proposed joint military operations with Myanmar against ARSA and declared that all refugees would be turned back.
The Awami League perceives Rohingya political organizations as a security risk because of their long-standing relationship with the fundamentalist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI), a political entity which is strong in the Chittagong area adjacent to Myanmar’s western Rakhine and an ally of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Hasina’s joint military operation policy, however, was reversed when the trickle of refugees became a flood. It was inconceivable that Bangladeshi security forces could stop without significant fatalities the tens of thousands of people who were daily streaming across their border.
When massive demonstrations in support of the Rohingya were held in several cities in Bangladesh, Hasina changed her tune. On September 12, she even visited one of the camps along the border where she said that Bangladesh would offer the refugees temporary shelter and aid while insisting that Myanmar should soon “take their nationals back.”
Bangladesh will hold elections some time next year and no later then January 28, 2019. A return to power of BNP, which formed coalition governments with BJI in 1991-1996 and in 2001-2006, could change the situation dramatically and allow for a more Rohingya-friendly policy, including turning a blind eye to the establishment of sanctuaries for the militants in border areas.
Following a 2013 court order, BJI is barred from participating in the next election on grounds that its party symbols violated local laws. But if the Awami League fails to win the next election, BJI and like-minded fundamentalist groups could still wield considerable influence over a potential elected BNP-led government.
Myanmar’s Rohingya resistance, previously dominated by the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a militant organization formed in 1982 in response to a large-scale Myanmar military operation, has long used Bangladesh as a cross-border refuge. RSO was known to maintain a huge camp near the town of Ukhia in southeastern Bangladesh, though the group is now largely defunct.
The first Muslim resistance army in the Rakhine area was set up in 1947, even before Myanmar, then known as Burma, achieved independence from colonial rule. Those Myanmar Muslims, however, did not call themselves ‘Rohingya’ – a name that had not caught on at that time – but rather mujaheeds. Led by Jafar Hussain, aka Jafar Kawwal, a local popular singer, they aimed to merge Muslim dominated areas of Rakhine with newly independent Pakistan, of which today’s Bangladesh then formed the country’s eastern part.
Myanmar Muslim leaders, however, disowned the movement. As early as May 1946, as the separatists were gathering strength but had not yet resorted to armed struggle, U Razak, a Myanmar Muslim and one of the national heroes who was assassinated along with independence leader Aung San on July 19, 1947, issued a warning to the country’s Muslims not to show sympathy towards the then proposed state of Pakistan.
U Razak wanted Myanmar’s Muslims to be a strong and respected community in the land of their birth – and that has been the stance of Myanmar’s Muslims ever since, including during the present crisis. On September 9, the All Myanmar Islamic Religious Organization condemned ARSA and pledged cooperation with the government, interfaith groups and the public to prevent terrorism.
The mujaheed movement petered out by the 1950s and in 1961 the last remaining rebels surrendered after an agreement with the government which led to local autonomy for northwestern Rakhine, which was dubbed the Mayu Frontier Administration. But that entity was abolished and all Rohingya organizations banned when the military seized power in a 1962 coup that initiated decades of uninterrupted military-dominated rule.
Some of the Muslim activists, among them a student leader called Mohammad Jafar Habib, went underground in 1963 to set up the Rohingya Independence Force, which in 1974 became the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF).
That armed organization did not carry out many activities inside Myanmar, however. It’s token armed force was based around Bangladesh’s southernmost city of Teknaf near the Myanmar border while its leaders resided in Chittagong, where they published bulletins, newsletters and booklets about the Rohingya struggle.
International interest in the issue rose after the Myanmar government launched its Naga Min (“Dragon King”) operation in Rakhine state in 1978 to weed out supposed “illegal immigrants.” The surge of 200,000 refugees in Bangladesh sparked an international outcry – and the arrival of the immensely wealthy Saudi Arabia charity Rabitat-al-Alam-al-Islami in border areas.
Apart from providing the refugees with aid, the charity built a hospital, a mosque and a madrasa at Ukhia, which became a meeting place for Muslim militants of various stripes.
As a consequence, more radical elements broke away from RPF to set up RSO. Led by a medical doctor from Rakhine, Muhammed Yunus, it soon emerged as the main and most militant of the Rohingya groups. It soon enjoyed support from like-minded entities in the Muslim world, among them BJI and it’s even more militant youth organization, Islami Chhatra Shibir.
RSO also received support from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan and Hizbe-ul-Mujahideen in Kashmir. Afghan military instructors were sent to RSO’s Ukhia camp, while nearly 100 RSO militants went to Afghanistan to undergo military training with Hizb-e-Islami in the province of Khost. The RSO acquired later acquired automatic rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers on regional black markets.
In the early 1990s, Bangladeshi media gave extensive coverage to the rebel build-up near the border. But it soon became clear that it was not only Rohingya who underwent training in RSO’s camps. Many, it turned out, were members of Islami Chhatra Shibir from the University of Chittagong who used the RSO camps as cover for their own militant activities.
The RSO was, in fact, engaged in little or no fighting inside Myanmar. Videotapes from those camps later showed up with Al Qaeda in Kabul, where the US cable TV network CNN obtained them after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The tapes were marked “Burma” in Arabic and were shown worldwide in August 2002. It was assumed that they were shot inside Myanmar instead of across the border in Ukhia.
The RSO is now largely defunct, and there are no more known open resistance camps in Bangladesh-Myanmar border areas. But a gradual radicalization of Rohingya political organizations can clearly be seen from the early days of the RPF to the RSO – and now ARSA, with its sophisticated public relations apparatus and international contacts which extend far beyond RSO’s outside links.
Now, for the first time since the 1950s, attacks are being carried out by Muslim militants inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Before ARSA, Rohingya groups did little more than hold military parades in Ukhia and become involved in political work in Chittagong together with other Islamic domestic groups in Bangladesh.
ARSA’s first battlefield test will come when its unilaterally declared one-month ceasefire expires on October 10 and if by then the group has managed to amass enough arms to carry on an armed struggle inside Myanmar. But ARSA’s fate will also depend on the attitude of Bangladesh’s government and if a change at the ballot box leads to more sympathetic treatment for the militant group’s cross-border operations.