BANGKOK — Armed with machetes and rifles, a ragtag band of insurgents comprised of members of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority launched unprecedented attacks last week, triggering fighting with security forces that has left more than 100 people dead and forced at least 18,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh.
Here’s a closer look at the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the group that claimed responsibility for the attacks:
Origins of Arsa
The group was formed last year by Rohingya exiles living in Saudi Arabia, according to the International Crisis Group, which detailed ARSA’s origins in a report last year. It is led by Attullah Abu Amar Jununi, a Pakistani-born Rohingya who grew up in Mecca, and a committee of about 20 Rohingya emigres. ICG says there are indications Jununi and others received militant training in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan.
ARSA is believed to receive funding from the Rohingya diaspora and donors in Saudi Arabia, as well as other parts of the Middle East, ICG says.
Analysts blame Myanmar’s government for the conditions that led to the group’s creation. Successive governments in the predominantly Buddhist country have denied the Rohingya basic rights and citizenship, deeming most of them to be foreign invaders from Bangladesh, even though Rohingya have lived in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for generations. Bangladesh also rejects them.
The lack of a political solution to their plight, particularly after anti-Muslim violence in 2012 displaced more than 120,000 Rohingya, helped sow the seeds for armed rebellion. The disenfranchisement of Rohingya in the 2015 election, and a regional crackdown on human trafficking that cut off an escape by sea also left Myanmar’s Rohingya feeling boxed in.
Escalation of the Violence
In ARSA’s first known operation, on Oct. 9, 2016, hundreds of Rohingya men armed with knives, slingshots and rifles attacked three separate police posts in Rakhine state, killing nine officers.
The army responded with a savage counterinsurgency sweep that lasted months and, according to human rights groups, left entire villages burned to the ground. The United Nations accused security forces of gang-raping women and carrying out extrajudicial killings of children, even babies. The world body says some of the atrocities could amount to crimes against humanity.
The scale and scope of the latest violence is far greater. ARSA attacked at least two dozen police posts, and satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch indicates homes were set ablaze as well, in an area about five times larger than what was burned in 2016.
The coordinated attacks prove the insurgents’ abilities have grown significantly, and they may have adopted new tactics as well. Anagha Neelakantan, Asia program director for ICG, said it had received reports ARSA attacked Buddhist villages and killed civilians, in contrast to past assaults which only targeted the state. If confirmed, she said, “this represents a serious new development” that could escalate the conflict dramatically.
An Evolving Message
When the group was first established, the insurgents called themselves the Harakah al-Yaqin, meaning “Faith Movement.” In their first video, that name was overlaid with Arabic script, which helped fuel speculation they could be aligned with global terrorist groups.
Analysts say the group does not appear to have jihadist motivations, and ARSA has stated that it does not associate with terrorist organizations. In recent months, the group has tried to dispel that perception and bolster the argument that they are freedom fighters who took up arms only to defend their people, said David Mathieson, an independent analyst in Yangon, Myanmar.
The insurgents, who posts statements through a Twitter account, changed their name to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army — Arakan is another word for the Rakhine region. And in a video statement released Aug. 28, Jununi — standing beside two masked militants with assault rifles — described the insurgents as “the guardians and protectors of the oppressed Rohingya,” claiming they were waging “a defensive war with the brutal Burmese military regime.” It’s unclear how many fighters the group currently has.
After the latest attacks, Myanmar’s government has insisted they should only be referred to as “extreme Bengali terrorists.”
Prospects for Peace
It’s unclear how much support the insurgents have among the Rohingya population, which numbers about 1 million in Myanmar. Neelakantan said there are reports that ARSA has executed suspected informants as part of a brutal effort to boost the insurgent group’s influence and control.
Given the deadly military sweep that followed their attacks last year, ARSA must have known an even greater backlash would come this time, Neelakantan said.
“They’re clearly harming their cause more than they are helping it,” she said. “But if they wanted attention, they’re going to get it.”
The violence has already hardened both sides and deepened communal hatred. Mathieson said “things will get worse before they get better. Once the killing starts, it’s hard to put that back in the box.”
Story: Todd Pitman