While Myanmar’s emergent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claims it’s like other ethnic armed groups fighting for self-determination across the country and should not be branded as a terrorist organization, the realities on the ground tell a different tale.
ARSA represents an entirely new type of insurgency, one which the Myanmar military has demonstrated it is wholly ill-equipped to combat. Other ethnic resistance armies in Myanmar, such as those from the Kachin, Shan, Karen or Mon, dress in military uniforms with the names of their respective groups prominently displayed and badges showing their ranks.
ARSA’s Muslim fighters, by contrast, mingle with villagers and wear civilian clothes. After their low-grade attacks on security force targets, ARSA insurgents are known to retreat across the border to neighboring Bangladesh, where people speak the same language and adhere to the same religious beliefs. In that sense, ARSA’s tactics more resemble the Muslim insurgents in southernmost Thailand, adjacent to Malaysia, than Myanmar’s other ethnic armies.
Without sharing the ideological doctrines of Nepal’s and India’s Maoists, ARSA appears to have aped their fighting techniques. Rather than facing Myanmar’s army in battles and ambushes, ARSA, like Nepalese Maoist insurgents did when they were active and the Indian Naxalites do today, prefers to mobilize hundreds of unarmed villagers to attack state positions in the middle of the night.
Defenders of the targeted state outpost, usually small and isolated, get the impression that they are being surrounded by a much bigger fighting force. The relatively small attacking party then moves in, kills the intimidated soldiers or police and escapes with their weapons. It’s a style of attack familiar in South Asia but altogether foreign until now in Myanmar.
After the attacks in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State on August 25, the Myanmar military claimed to have killed 400 insurgents. Most likely, however, nearly all of them would have been conscripted villagers. If that many ARSA fighters had been killed, almost the entire organization would have been wiped out, according to security analysts monitoring the group.
The same analysts say the strength of the organization is much less than what the rebels as well as Myanmar military authorities claim. According to insiders, ARSA’s strength is in the hundreds rather than thousands, with the total number of active trained combatants likely not exceeding 500.
While ARSA’s military capacities are limited, its propaganda machine is wide-reaching, with statements issued on Twitter and other social media platforms in surprisingly fluent English and in a language that aims to make the insurgent group appear moderate and reasonable.
In one of its first announcements on September 9, ARSA declared a month-long unilateral ceasefire to enable aid groups to reach Rohingya refugees and avert a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Aid groups have estimated over 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since ARSA’s August 25 attacks and the military’s brutal counteractions.
It was a bold declaration for a lightly armed group that is by no means a proper organized army. Many of the group’s attacks have been launched with machetes. At the same time, ARSA has failed to explain how attacks by their few and poorly equipped cadres facing the might of the Myanmar army could be seen as acts taken to ”protect the Rohingya.”
If reports from the area received by Asia Times are accurate, local people are furious with ARSA for giving the Myanmar military an excuse to “ethnically cleanse” the area of Rohingya and other minority groups.
On September 14, ARSA said it wanted to “make it clear” that it had no “links to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Lashkar-e-Taiba or any transnational terrorist group.” ARSA also wanted “it to be known by all states that it is prepared to work with security agencies to intercept and prevent terrorists from entering [Rakhine] and making a bad situation worse.”
Security analysts and terrorism experts are not convinced considering the group’s clear links to foreign extremist groups, including in Pakistan. ARSA’s leader, Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, also known as Hafiz Tohar, was born in Karachi and received madrassa education in Saudi Arabia.
There are hundreds of thousands of first, second and third generation Rohingya living in Orangi, Korangi, Landhi and other impoverished suburbs of Karachi. Nearly all of them are stateless, although they have lived in Pakistan for years and most by now were born there. The areas where they live are long-time hotbeds of extremist activity, with some known to have been recruited to fight in the wars in Afghanistan.
ARSA was initially known as Harakah al-Yaqin, or “the faith movement.” The moniker had clear religious connotations and notably did not contain the words Rohingya or Arakan (Rakhine). It was only last year it started to use the more ethnically oriented name ARSA, perhaps in an attempt to distance itself from the radical milieu in which the movement was born.
According to intelligence analysts, its mentor is Abdus Qadoos Burmi, another Pakistani of Rohingya descent. Likewise based in Karachi, he has appeared in videos spread on social media calling for ‘jihad’ in Myanmar.
Abdus Qadoos has well-documented links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the Army of the Righteous, one of South Asia’s largest Islamic terrorist organizations that operates mainly from Pakistan. The group was founded in 1987 in Afghanistan with funding from now deceased Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Abdus Qadoos has even appeared in meetings together with Lashkar-e-Taiba supremo Hafiz Mohammed Syed.
ARSA’s second-ranking leader is a shadowy man known only as “Sharif” who comes from Chittagong in southwestern Bangladesh and does not appear in any of the group’s propaganda videos. He reportedly speaks with an Urdu language accent, the official language of Pakistan.
ARSA itself may have been able to recruit angry and desperate young men among the Rohingya in Rakhine state and refugee camps in Bangladesh, but, according to security analysts, there also 150 odd foreigners among their rank.
Most of them are from Bangladesh, eight to ten come from Pakistan with smaller groups from Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand. Two are reportedly from Uzbekistan. Trainings held in the Myanmar-Bangladesh border areas have been carried out in part by older veterans of the Afghan wars, the security analysts say.
It is now clear that the simultaneous attacks on August 25 required meticulous planning. In the months before the attacks, as many as 50 people, Muslims as well as Buddhists suspected of serving as government informants, had their throats slit or were hacked to death in order to deprive the Myanmar military of intelligence in the area.
The timing of the attacks was hardly a coincidence. On August 24, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state, chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and commissioned by the Myanmar government, released its report suggesting peaceful means to end the conflict in the area.
Under the current chaotic and violent situation it will be difficult to revive its proposals, leaving the road open for more destabilizing militant activities.
Videos released by Islamist groups in Indonesia show groups of young men undergoing military training in Aceh, northern Sumatra, in preparation for a jihad in Rakhine state. Massive demonstrations in support of the Rohingya have been held throughout Bangladesh, where the influx of refugees has quickly become a domestic political issue pitting the ruling Awami League against a fundamentalist-backed opposition.
Given the Myanmar military’s ferocious reaction to ARSA’s first clash with security forces last October 9, an exchange and subsequent “clearance operation” which forced as many as 70,000 refugees into Bangladesh, analysts consider it inconceivable that the group did not anticipate an even stronger response to the more widespread attacks of August 25.
If the group’s goal was to “protect the Rohingyas”, as ARSA has claimed, its attacks backfired horribly. But the militants must have calculated the wider benefits that could be derived from the blowback. The international publicity surrounding the Rohingya’s plight has been unprecedented, promising new and potentially lucrative support from the Arab and Muslim worlds and more angry young men to recruit.
But the victims of this cynical game are the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and others who have been forced from their destroyed homes and now languish in squalid camps in Bangladesh or the inhospitable no man’s land along the two countries’ increasingly hellish border.