KUALA LUMPUR: For years, Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic minority eschewed violence, fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian countries each time the country’s military threatened them.
That was until October 2016, when a ragtag insurgent group armed with machetes and crude weapons calling themselves Harakah Al-Yaqin (HAY), or Faith Movement, staged two attacks on police posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, killing nine policemen and making off with 62 firearms.
“They (Rohingya) had been very, very patient in dealing with a very unjust situation … they had not resorted to arms for a very long time - until October last year,” said political scientist Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Movement for a Just World (JUST).
“Other ethnic minorities like the Karens, Kachins … they resorted to taking up arms against the government a long time ago,” Chandra added.
The Karens have been fighting for an independent state since 1949, while the Kachins have been fighting since 1961. Both groups have signed ceasefires which are regularly broken.
Sometime this year, HAY rebranded itself as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), led by Attullah Abu Amar Jununi.
On Aug 25, ARSA staged a second and bigger attack targeting 30 police posts in Rakhine, killing 12 members of the security forces. The attack involved about 150 to 200 militants in a pre-dawn raid.
The military responded with a ferocious crackdown, sending 420,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh. The violence has resulted in the deaths of 400 people.
Myanmar’s government promptly declared ARSA a terrorist organisation.
ARSA’S ATTACKS DESIGNED TO PROVOKE A RESPONSE: REPORT
Pit against Myanmar’s powerful military, ARSA is outgunned and outnumbered.
“Joining ARSA is like committing suicide,” 28-year-old Rohingya refugee Mohamed Imran told Channel NewsAsia.
“I am not interested in joining them (ARSA) but there are some young people who do because they are angry and frustrated with the Myanmar government,” added Imran, who came to Malaysia in July.
According to Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington DC, ARSA’s attacks were meant to provoke a heavy-handed response to gain international attention and sympathy which in turn would aid recruitment and weapons procurement.
ARSA had launched the attacks knowing full well the military would respond with “clearance operation” and “egregious violations of human rights", Prof Abuza wrote in an upcoming report seen by Channel NewsAsia.
“The government’s abusive policies will further drive recruitment into ARSA. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy of extremists,” said Prof Abuza who specialises in insurgencies and militant groups in Southeast Asia.
“Only people with nothing left to lose would be willing to defy the odds and join a poorly funded group against the Myanmar military, which is the 11th largest in the world with a long track record of repression against ethnic minorities,” Prof Abuza added.
A regional security source familiar with militant groups in ASEAN concurred.
“With the violent Myanmar’s military crackdown, ARSA now has the international attention it wants to further its cause,” said the regional source who declined to be named.
Asked whether it was a terrible price to pay to draw attention to the plight of Rohingyas, he said: “Yes, it is. But for ARSA, it feels it does not have too many much choices.
"Without an armed group, some Rohingyas feel they would not have much traction with Myanmar or even the international community."
In the meantime, joining HAY/ARSA is now becoming “farj” - a religious obligation in the squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh, according to Prof Abuza.
“ARSA also stands to benefit from the precariousness of life for the 600,000 people now living in squalid refugee camps. People often join militant groups for protection against gangs, and in the hopes of additional food and medical supplies,” Prof Abuza added.
To date, ARSA is largely a homegrown organisation with little or no links to international terror groups.
“It is only a question of time before it attracts funding from the Middle East and elsewhere,” said the regional source.
WHO IS HAY/ARSA?
HAY was founded by Attullah Abu Amar Jununi, who was born in Karachi to Rohingya parents and raised in Saudi Arabia.
He came to Bangladesh following the 2012 pogroms against Rohingyas in Myanmar and began to organise the group.
Attullah claims that HAY was founded in 2015 with support by a large network of nearly a million Rohingya emigres, spread from Malaysia to the Persian Gulf. There is little evidence of the group before mid-2016, wrote Prof Abuza.
HAY is thought to be run by a 20-person council based in Saudi Arabia. And it has worked assiduously to recruit from across the Rohingya diaspora, calling on religious leaders to issue fatwas endorsing their leadership.
Attullah joined forces with Hafiz Tohar, a Pakistani-trained militant who founded the Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM), the Faith Movement of Arakan
In 2017, HAY and AMM merged and rebranded themselves as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), ostensibly to appear less Islamist and as a legitimate ethno-nationalist group fighting in self-defence,” wrote Prof Abuza.
Despite the Saudi and Gulf roots of HAY/ARSA, to date there has not been sufficient evidence to link HAY/ARSA to the broader jihadist community, according to Prof Abuza.
ROHINGYA CRISIS GALVANISING INTERNATIONAL TERROR GROUPS
To date, ARSA has taken pains to disavow links with international terrorist organisations in a statement posted on its official Twitter account on Sep 14.
“ARSA feels it is necessary to make it clear that it has no links with Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Laskar-e-Taiba or any transnational terrorist group and we do not welcome the involvement of these groups in the Arakan conflict,” said Arsa.
But as footage of gruesome killings of Rohingyas spread, it has caught the attention of Al Qaeda who last week issued a call to Muslims to wage jihad against Myanmar’s military to defend the Rohingyas.
“While security forces in the region need to be on alert for militants traveling to join HAY/Arsa, a more pressing concern is that whether HAY/ARSA asks for support from external organisations or not, it (will) get it,” said Prof Abuza.
“The plight of the Rohingya is big news in the Muslim world, and their cause is being championed from politicians, to the middle class and hardline Islamists,” Prof Abuza added.
On Wednesday, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman warned that the precarious situation pertaining to issues on the Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state must be addressed urgently, or else it will provide a fertile breeding ground for the recruitment of extremists.
"Should this happen, Malaysia and neighbouring countries would bear the brunt of serious instability to the region (ASEAN)," said Anifah during the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Contact Group’s session on the Rohingya issue in New York.