A silhouetted Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army fighter against the rebel group's flag. Photo: Youtube
A silhouetted Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army fighter against the rebel group's flag. Photo: Youtube

As armed conflict rages between the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, killing scores of civilians and displacing tens of thousands in incessant artillery and air strikes in Rakhine and Chin states, another largely forgotten armed group has re-entered the fray.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the shadowy group that launched fateful August 2017 attacks on Myanmar border outposts that sparked the Myanmar military’s retaliatory “area clearance” operations now widely condemned as genocide against the Rohingya, has apparently reformed around the Rakhine state town of Maungdaw along the Bangladesh border.

ARSA has at least militarily been out of sight for several months. Its reappearance begs questions as to why it’s purported mobilization on the border has gradually intensified, how the Myanmar security forces will respond, and what impacts it will have on the Rohingya communities still in Rakhine state.

Myawady Daily, the Myanmar military’s media mouthpiece, reported on May 2 that “ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists” ambushed Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) near Border Pillar (BP) 41 on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, wounding two police troopers in the alleged assault.

Days before, in the same area, authorities alleged that a firefight resulted in “(t)he security forces found two dead bodies of ARSA (sic), and seized narcotic drugs, IEDs and related accessories from the scene”, according to an April 3 statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

On April 15, an armed encounter with ARSA and the BGP at Khamaungseik village in Maungdaw reportedly left one trooper dead.

In a statement released on April 9, ARSA said their fighters had engaged security forces four days previously “involving 5 to 7 guards some distance from the headquarter at Kyi Kan Pyin…in that encounter of our counter-defense, all of the burmese Terrorist (sic) army were put to death.”

In one of the largest reported Tatmadaw-ARSA engagements since the violence of August 2017, ARSA claims that 11 out of 13 “[B]urmese Terrorist (sic) military personnel were eliminated by our self-defense fighters” on March 30 at Laing Zero Wa village.

On April 9, security forces claimed to have discovered a “temporary camp” of ARSA terrorists, claiming the armed group has been preparing for acts of sabotage. As terrorist camps go, it wasn’t exactly a prize haul.

The Myawady news report claimed to have located from “tip-offs” two tents that contained ten rounds of 5.56mm ammunition, a walkie-talkie, binoculars, one camouflage uniform, assorted other clothing, a Koran, an ID card from a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar identifying 26-year old “Beli Amin” and sacks of rice.

The haul also included the Tatmadaw’s favorite smoking gun of ARSA’s alleged collusion with Western aid agencies: World Food Program (WFP) high energy biscuits and sunflower oil, the biscuits containing a Japanese flag and the stamp “From the People of Japan.”

This was hardly a newsworthy event. But it further revealed the Tatmadaw’s compulsion to portray ARSA’s threat to Myanmar national security out of all proportion, and justify the security forces’ ultra-violent overreaction to the group’s attacks in 2017.

Why has the Tatmadaw continued to keep an almost insignificant security threat on such a slow boil? There are a number of possible reasons why connected to an international drive for accountability, the much more serious AA conflict, and the specter of ARSA’s resurrection.

The rising number of reported incidents from ARSA are not necessarily connected to the Covid-19 crisis, but are more likely timed to coincide with the Myanmar government’s reporting to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in May over alleged acts of genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya in 2017, when ARSA attacks against security forces sparked a violent overreaction that killed thousands and drove 700,000 into Bangladesh.

As made abundantly clear in the farcical government-directed Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) report made public in January, an assessment which mimicked State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense of the Tatmadaw’s actions at the ICJ in December, ARSA’s attacks are the cornerstone of the government’s justification for what they now admit were war crimes, a sly dodge to refute allegations of genocide.

A Myanmar border guard stands in Buthidaung township village in the country’s restive Rakhine state on January 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/Richard Sargent

The ICJ’s order of provisional measures from January 23 necessitated a Myanmar government report within four months on steps it has taken to ensure protection of the Rohingya from further abuses. The recent reports of ARSA attacks are curiously timed to be included in such a report.

Second, ARSA are a useful smear ingredient to further discredit the real existential threat to the Tatmadaw: the Arakan Army. Fighting between the AA and Tatmadaw has become the most savage in Myanmar in a generation, displacing thousands in Rakhine and Chin states.

The government formally designated the AA a terrorist organization on March 23 under the 2014 counter-terrorism law, making the group the second to be publically designated. ARSA was the first.

This places AA and ARSA on a legal, if not moral, equivalence, and feeds government and military propaganda that asserts collusion between the two armed groups. That narrative incenses Rakhine political leaders and the AA, who vociferously deny any links, military or political, with ARSA and see such official statements as designed to discredit their more “legitimate” ethnic Rakhine armed resistance.

Compared to the AA, which fields over 10,000 fighters and has inflicted serious punishment on the Tatmadaw in heavy fighting since January 2019, ARSA is little more than a lightly armed irritant.

The Rohingya militants have for the past two years been licking their wounds in the teeming refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, and any initial fears that these camps would become a rich source of material support and a pool for recruits has so far not eventuated.

This is due to a mixture of Rohingya community animus at the hell it endured in the 2016 and 2017 attacks, which diminished ARSA’s credibility; competition from other armed groups, many of them a mixture of crime gangs, drug dealers and erstwhile extremists; the logistical challenges of significant cross-border incursions; and the Bangladesh security services interdiction of access to arms and training that would make this feasible.

Rohingya refugees shout slogans at a protest against a disputed repatriation program at the Unchiprang refugee camp near Teknaf on November 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar

ARSA’s once energetic social media pretensions have been episodic. As Asia Times reported in May 2018, the groups once prolific Twitter account, geared towards a receptive Western audience with a regular stream of “official” statements, went into a curious hiatus for several months.

But soon after it reemerged, namely to condemn Amnesty International for a critical report the group published detailing ARSA complicity in massacres of Hindu civilians. This effectively put paid to foreign activist arguments that ARSA was a construct of the Myanmar security forces to justify a murderous pogrom against the Rohingya.

From May 2018, ARSA resumed regular statements and religious holiday greetings. In early 2019, it went on to issue critiques of reporting it didn’t like, including from the International Crisis Group (ICG), South China China Morning Post, and the “unsubstantiable (sic), baseless damaging criminal accusations by [rights group] Fortify Rights.”

On March 25, ARSA released a series of audio messages calling on Rohingya to abide by public health recommendations to stem the spread of Covid-19. In early 2019, the group released a 69-page report “Reviving the Courageous Hearts”, a compendium of historical injustice and denial of Rohingya identity in Myanmar, and a contemporary mobilization of the ARSA militants.

The report’s profile of ARSA leader Attah Ullah came at a time when rumors were rife of his ousting and replacement by a militant known as Khalid. It was the latter who allegedly led a dramatically filmed attack on a police vehicle in Maungdaw in January 2019, wounding several officers. Reports of ARSA attacks then sharply declined for unknown reasons.

From a security threat perspective, ARSA is little more than a circle-jerk of wannabe jihadis. Still, recent fighting indicates they at least have the ability to conduct rudimentary cross-border incursions and target blithely casual security personnel. As a convenient bogeyman to justify mass murder and further besmirch the AA, the Tatmadaw need to have them skulking around in the shadows to fuel the imagination of their propaganda.

For the remaining Rohingya in Maungdaw and central Rakhine state, the reappearance of ARSA places them in a perilously invidious position caught in a three-sided conflict. If the doomsday scenario of a Covid-19 outbreak in Bangladesh’s teeming refugee camps eventuates, driving Rohingya refugees back across the border into a charnel house, it could spark yet another wave of violence against the beleaguered minority.

David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst