COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Finding one of the commanders of the Rohingya people’s fighting force is no simple task among the wave of humanity that has engulfed the border areas of Bangladesh.
Darkness has fallen over a crowded and hilly section of a refugee camp, a maze of makeshift shelters with muddy paths and a heavy lingering smoke in the air.
At the very top of a crest, overlooking the entire crudely constructed city for the displaced, a canvas welcome mat is rolled out onto the dirt and Muhammad Rafik emerges and sits down cross-legged.
A small crowd gathers around the soft-spoken 30-year-old with a short beard. They are his compatriots, far from their Rakhine home.
Rafik said he is a deputy commander of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the militant force that sparked the latest wave of violence and brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military.
He claims he was there on Aug 25, for a deadly midnight ambush of an army outpost, fighting alongside 50 other men from his village.
“Dying fast is better than dying slowly. They had been torturing us day by day so we had no alternative. That’s why we acted,” he said.
“We knew this would happen. We united and we decided to do this.”
Coordinated attacks carried out by groups of ARSA fighters followed throughout the state. Since then, hundreds of villages have been burned and more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border to Bangladesh.
ARSA members were scattered among the exiles, Rafik said. He cannot be sure how many of them survived but believes the group’s leadership is largely intact.
The group was poorly armed, badly trained and under-manned. It was in effect a death mission for the fighters and the Rohingya population. But it was necessary for the world to see the “torture and suffering” they had been subjected to by the Myanmar authorities, said Abul Alam, a fellow combatant.
“We never thought that we would be refugees in Bangladesh,” he said.
“But honestly, we did think if we attacked the military then they must attack back. And then the world will see and recognise what is going on with the Rohingya.
“We knew that we didn’t have enough weapons to fight the Myanmar army. We also know that if we fight, even with a stick, then the world would know and learn a lot.”
ACCUSED OF CRIMES
ARSA has been accused of heinous crimes against other local populations. Mass graves of mostly Hindu women were discovered on Sunday (Sep 24) by the military and pinned on the group it labels terrorists.
Alam said the Rohingya people have no conflict with other ethnic groups and denies that any ARSA members were responsible for such atrocities.
“It is totally wrong. There are so many young Hindu boys from our generation who are friends with us. If some of them observed us, we told them that ‘you are not our enemy. Our enemy is the government. You never tortured us, you never hit us, you never killed us’. We are all victims.
“Other religions are like brothers and sisters. It is not time to hate each other. We are fighting for our rights. But we will not direct our attacks against any other religion or people, only the government,” he said.
Neither side’s words can be independently verified. A propaganda war is also raging and journalists have not been able to freely access northern Rakhine to verify the claims of both sides.
While ARSA has been fractured and separated, and Rohingyas unable for now to re-enter Myanmar, Rafik said the fight will not end here. He suggested, however, that the group would disassemble if their aims were achieved.
“We will continue our fighting, our struggle, if the torture by the military or authority of Myanmar continues. We have no other option. We will not disband the group. But if they stop the torture then automatically we will be dismissed,” he said.
CREATED FOR, UNITED BY ROHINGYAS
Links have been drawn between ARSA and extremist Islamist groups. Its apparent leader Ataullah Abu Amar Jununi, who has appeared in several videos on social media, is believed to have spent time in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia seeking support from other militant groups, according to a fresh AFP report into his movements and motives.
“Sources from multiple militant circles who saw Ullah in Pakistan in 2012 said he left the country a committed nationalist with a lingering distrust of the jihadi outfits who paid lip service to the Rohingya’s plight but refused to offer tangible support,” the report read.
ARSA has strongly denied any links to Al-Qaeda, Islamic State or any push to establish an Islamic caliphate or launch a religious-driven insurgency, while some experts have speculated that foreign fighters could be attracted to the area to fight.
They changed their name in March from Harakah al-Yaqin, seen as a ploy to distance themselves from those groups, solicit more support from the global community and draw comparisons with similarly named militant movements in other ethnic regions of Myanmar.
“We are created by Rohingya and united by Rohingya. We are fighting only for our rights. This is our only target,” Alam countered.
Neither men said they had any knowledge of assistance, funding or weapons being provided from Bangladesh. It is believed one of the senior members of ARSA, known as Sharif, is from the Chittagong region.
District police gave assurances late last week that ARSA was not operating in the area. "I want to say very confidently that we are not at all worried about them. We are not at all afraid of them," chief Iqbal Hossain told reporters.
The fighters placed blame for the deteriorating human rights situation squarely on State Counsellor and de-facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Many Rohingyas had forecast their plight worsening ahead of the 2015 election, in which they were unable to vote.
“We blame her. After she was elected, since then the government has started torturing us more than before,” Rafik said.
As for the pain and suffering inflicted on the Rohingya population as a result of their actions, their decision to initiate violence, Alam argued that the argument is not logical given the oppression they say they feel day to day.
“Who is happy or sad? It doesn’t matter. We have been feeling torture,” he said.
“We have already been sad about the situation so it doesn’t matter how they feel now.”
(Additional reporting by Muktadir Rashid)