Understanding “ARSA” the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army

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What influenced the formation of such a group:

The ethnical minority Muslim communities have been discriminated against in Myanmar (Burma) since the British colonizers left the area in 1948. Myanmar being predominantly a Buddhist country has always seen the minority Muslims as outsiders living in their community. Hate speeches and rhetoric against these people are mongered by far-right Buddhist groups, who believe that the Muslims are mostly violent people, therefore, should be ‘contained’.

Even though there are different Muslim communities around Burma, the biggest population of Muslims live in the Rakhine state formerly known as Arkan state alongside the Naf river bordering Bangladesh. These Rakhine people are known as the Rohingyas. These people are known to be among the most discriminated community in the world. They are denied all forms of basic necessities such as education, health-care, marriage rights and even the citizenship of the country they were born in. They are stateless people living out their entire lives in oppression, trying to find refuge and spending their lives in on the sail searching for neighboring countries to find refuge.

The Myanmar government, its military along with the right-wing Buddhist groups alleges that the people living in the Rakhine state are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are Bangladeshis and they should be driven out of the country. The Myanmar government also formally denies all allegations against them of systematic killing and arson in the Rakhine state. Yet the results of their actions can be seen right here from Bangladesh, how the villages are burning and mass people are crossing the borders into Bangladesh and other neighboring countries.

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Satellite images show Myanmar military burning villages in Rakhine state.
Aftermath of Myanmar military systematically eradicating Rohingya Villages.

The killings and arson took a drastic up rise with the 2012 Rakhine state riots, it was a series of conflicts between sectarian groups of ethnic Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine where both blamed each other of atrocities.

It began on 8th June, 2012, Rohingyas started to protest againtst the sectarian disputes (including a gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman and subsequent killing of ten Burmese Muslims) after the Friday prayers and the police responded with violent retaliation and opening fire on the protesters. Many were killed in the firing in Mungdaw township. State of emergency was declared in Rakhine, allowing military to participate in administration of the region.

As of 22 August, officially there had been 88 casualties, 57 Muslims and 31 Buddhists. An estimated 90,000 people were displaced by the violence. About 2,528 houses were burned; of those, 1,336 belonged to Rohingyas and 1,192 belonged to Rakhine Buddhists.
Fights broke out again in October, resulting in at least 80 deaths, the displacement of more than thousands of people, and the burning of thousands of homes. After that the Rohingyas were not allowed to leave their settlements, officially due to security concerns, and are the subject of a campaign of commercial boycott led by Buddhist monks. These riots and persecutions of Rohingyas still continues.

Forming the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army):

The ARSA or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is a group of Rohingya insergents who claim to be fighting for the rights of the Rohingya people. It first formed back in 2013 with the name “Harakah-al-Yaqin” (Faith Movement) under the leadership of Atauallah Abu Ammar Jununi. ARSA came as a form of resistance against the military authorities and the opressions.

ARSA first formed around 2013 after the 2012 riots under the name “Haraq-al-Yakin”. The leader and founder of the group Ataullah Jununi had approached villagers since 2013, asking for five to ten recruits to join his group and telling them that the time had come to “stop the mistreatment of the Rohingya people”. ARSA had merely patrolled villages armed with bamboo sticks, making sure that villagers prayed at mosques back then. The International Crisis Group (ICG) also says the militants have trained abroad and released a report in 2016 saying the group was led by Rohingya people living in Saudi Arabia.
In this perpective the ARSA seems to be a group of fighters resisting their oppressors to establish their rights. This might be the case to some extent, however, the methods that they have used to resist the military and the government in general have somewhat been controvertial. They have carried out numerous attacks against the government, the defence forces and military bases of Myanmar which killed numerous border-police and military officials, the first large scale attack that they perpetuated was on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border police bases back in 2016. Again on July 2017, the Burmese government accused ARSA of murdering 34 to 44 civilians and kidnapping 22 others in reprisal attacks against those ARSA have perceived as government collaborators. ARSA denied the accusations.

On 25 August 2017, the group claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on police posts and an attempted raid on an army base. The government announced a death toll of 77 Rohingya insurgents and 12 security forces in northern Maungdaw following the attacks. These attacks were what really sparked the crackdown on the insergent group in the Rakhine state which triggered the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from the place. Allegedly, ARSA also plans to train their troops across the border inside Bangladesh to launch future attacks on Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Anti-Terrorism Central Committee declared ARSA a terrorist group on 25th August 2017 in accordance with the country’s counter-terrorism law. The Burmese government has alleged that the group is involved with and subsidized by foreign Islamist groups, despite there being no firm evidence proving such allegations.

ARSA released a statement on 28 August 2017, calling government allegations against it as “baseless” and claiming that its main purpose is to defend the rights of Rohingyas. Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi have openly challenged the Myanmar government and the leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Jununi simply known as “Ataullah” was born in Karachi, Pakistan into a migrant family who had fled the Rakhine state because of persecution back in the 1960s. At an early age, Ataullah’s family moved to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where he was enrolled in an Islamic school. In his later years in Mecca, Ataullah served as an Imam to the Rohingya diaspora community of around 150,000 residing in Saudi Arabia.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report that it interviewed members of his group. The think-tank said that the leader of the group has close links with Saudi Arabia. The ICG report released in December 2016 states that he left Saudi Arabia in 2012, shortly after religiously motivated violence erupted in Rakhine State. A Myanmar government press release claims Ataullah spent six months training in modern guerrilla warfare under the Taliban in Pakistan. The ICG report stated that though not confirmed, there are indications he went to Pakistan, and possibly elsewhere, and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare. Several members of the group also stated to ICG that he may have received additional training in Libya before his return to Rakhine State, but this remains unconfirmed.

On 9 October 2016, Ataullah led hundreds of insurgents to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, where they attacked Burmese border police posts. A week later, Ataullah appeared in a video online, claiming responsibility for the attacks. Ataullah led the second large-scale attack on 25 August 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 71 people.

The ideology they claim to follow:

ARSA’s leader, Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi, has stated:

“Our primary objective under ARSA is to liberate our people from dehumanizing oppression perpetrated by all successive Burmese regimes”.

The group has consistently insisted that it is an ethno-nationalist insurgent group and have denied being a jihadist group. ARSA has also denied allegations that they are an Islamist group, stating that they “have no links to terrorist groups or foreign Islamist” and that their “only target is the oppressive Burmese regime”. However, unlike other ethno-nationalist insurgent groups in Myanmar, allegedly ARSA follows many traditional Islamic practices such as having recruits swear an oath to the Quran, referring to their leader as an Emir and asking for fatwas from foreign Muslim clerics.

ARSA says its aim is to 'defend and protect' the Rohingya [ARSA video, screengrab from YouTube]
An image from a video released by ARSA (Ataullah in the middle) saying its aim is to “defend and protect” the Rohingya.
In contrast to other insurgent groups:

In contrast to other insurgent groups in Myanmar, ARSA is not organised like a paramilitary. While other groups have military ranks and uniforms, most members of ARSA have appeared in videos wearing civilian clothes. The group is also poorly-equipped; it was reported that during their attacks in Maungdaw District on 25 August, most of ARSA’s fighters were armed with machetes and bamboo sticks. The local authorities responded with automatic machine gunfire, heavily outmatching ARSA’s weapons. Analysts have compared the tactics used by ARSA to those used by insurgent groups fighting in southern Thailand, namely crossing the border from one country to another to launch small scale attacks, then retreating back across the border to a community that shares a similar ethnic and/or religious background.

Bangladesh’s stance on ARSA:

The attacks on security forces have prompted a crackdown from the military, who say they are fighting against civilian-attacking militants. Nearly 650,000 Rohingya people have fled their villages and crossed the border to Bangladesh in 2017, the numbers are much much larger now in the mid 2018 where the refugee camps are full to the brim. This mass sum of people rushing in is taking its toll on Bangladesh in a big way. Bangladesh is giving away its land, resources and wealth to these Rohingya refugees, but is really getting nothing back in return, and there has been no concrete decisions made on how to send them back to their home or whether they will even be allowed to return.

Managing all these refugees is becoming an overwhelmingly difficult task for the Bangladeshi authorities. The refugees are becoming a burden to Bangladesh. This issue has the potential to drain the country of its very little resources that it has even with the help of sufficient aid received from international bodies to aid the refugees, however, the increasing population among the refugees is a huge concern for the authorities. Reports have said that a large number of ARSA members have escaped and found refuge inside the borders of Bangladesh. Based on these reports, Myanmar has requested Bangladesh to extradite 1,300 members of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, claiming it has information that those members were attempting to disrupt the repatriation of the Rohingyas.

U Myint Thu, the permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement that, they have heard that these members are attempting to disrupt the repatriation process. they also claim to have photographic evidence of this. Myanmar said a list of the ARSA members was handed over to Bangladesh during the 4th Myanmar-Bangladesh Central-Level Meeting on Border Security and Law Enforcement Cooperation in November 2017.

An official from the Bangladesh side said that, Myanmar indeed raised the issue in the meeting and that Bangladesh is “looking into it”. The official also went on to say, “At the meeting, we told the Myanmar side that no terrorist will be allowed to use the land of Bangladesh” the official said preferring anonymity. Here it is very clear that the Bangladeshi authorities have no intention of letting the group settle in Bangladesh territories and use it for training camps or bases. Bangladesh would much prefer to etradite the ARSA members if captured.

If Bangladesh ever agrees to let the group organize itself within the its borders it will drag Bangladesh in to new challenges both internally and regionally. As Bangladesh might be seen as a country who harbors separatist and insurgent groups that are a threat to its neighboring country.

Conclusion:

The Muslim population in Myanmar have been oppressed and have been discriminated against for a long time, since the independence the minorities in Myanmar have become victims of the ruling party in central Myanmar. Among the biggest victim are the Rohingya people. They have been kept in inhumane conditions for decades. The Myanmar authorities kept their status as stateless which rendered them unable to receive the basic needs of life such as, citizenship, education, health-care and property ownership. When we look back at these conditions they are living in, we can certainly predict the reasons for forming insurgent groups such as ARSA.

Throughout recent history we have seen this kind of movements taking place, organized by people who want to change the way they are being treated. ARSA is just a small sum of a large population who wants to retaliate against the oppressive authoritative government of Myanmar and the communal Buddhist monks and finally get their recognition as citizens and most of all as people who just want to live like normal people do. Although ARSA has links with Pakistani security and intelligence agencies and Saudi Arabian funding their ideology remains a large case of concern.

On the other hand, when we do approach a group like ARSA we have to be cautious, as this can get out of control drastically. Their questionable ideology and support from foreign states is a cause of concern for both Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The views expressed in Qutnyti articles are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Qutnyti. Qutnyti will not be held responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in the articles sent by author(s). 

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