Four months ago, while walking to his house from the mosque in his village in Maungdaw in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Rasheed Ali was approached by a mullah from the local madrassa, the same man who taught him to recite the Koran as a child, with an offer he literally couldn’t refuse.
The mullah, or Islamic teacher, implored him to join the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group originally known as the Harakah Al-Yakin, or “Faith Movement”, that came to public light last October 9 in a series of coordinated lethal attacks against Myanmar’s Border Guard Police (BGP).
“He told me that I had to join ARSA to defend our religion, which is under attack in our country, and that ARSA was also fighting for our rights so we could recover our citizenship,” Rasheed Ali, an ethnic Rohingya, told Asia Times from a safe house in a refugee camp in neighboring Bangladesh.
He fled to Bangladesh with over 600,000 other Rohingya after the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, launched brutal “clearance operations” in Rohingya-majority areas of northern Rakhine state in response to coordinated ARSA attacks on security personnel launched on August 25.
Rasheed Ali, a seemingly timid 21-year-old, says he was given few options but to join the insurgent group. “[The mullah] told me I would be branded as a traitor if I refused to join, [that] he would make sure that the community would shun me and that I could even be killed,” he recounted.
The young insurgent recruit claims he did not receive any militant training, nor was he given any explanation of ARSA’s wider insurgent strategy. He says he only knew seven other ARSA members, all from his village, and that he received marching orders solely from the mullah, without having any knowledge of the organization’s hierarchy beyond him.
He was given one task: to keep an eye on four local government informants and to report periodically on their meetings and movements. “You have to do it for God,” he said the mullah told him.
Since ARSA’s low-intensity insurgency first ignited last October, dozens of Rohingya village administrators and suspected government informants have been killed, with many pointing the finger at ARSA. Rasheed Ali said that none of the four informants he was asked to spy on has been killed and that they are now living in the same refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Around a month before Rasheed Ali was coerced into joining ARSA, Ahmad Jarmal, a 25-year-old shopkeeper, also joined the group in his village in northern Maungdaw. “People of Al-Yakin came to our village and asked us to join them,” he told Asia Times from Bangladesh. “We liked them because they assured us that they would get citizenship and rights for us. Some village elders knew people in the group and told us to join.”
Ahmad Jarmal estimates that around 100 people joined ARSA from his village, many of them his friends or acquaintances. He likewise did not receive any militant training and was in touch with only a few other members and his immediate superior, a man who he was told received his marching orders from the organization’s commanders.
“A famous mullah in the village also told us that it was the right group to join, because they keep religious practices and follow the Prophet,” he explained.
“When I joined, my task was to be a sentry in the village, to warn people if the BGP or the military approached the village,” Ahmad Jarmal said. “Another task was to make sure people fulfilled their religious duties, so we would tell them to go to the mosque before prayers if we saw them walking in the street.”
Both Rasheed Ali and Ahmad Jarmal claimed that they had no prior knowledge that ARSA would launch its attacks against Myanmar security forces’ positions on August 25, and that BGP posts near their villages were not targeted. They only learned of the attacks later, when the military and BGP attacked their villages in retaliation, an assault that has caused one of the largest mass movements of refugees in recent memory.
“The day after the attacks, the BGP came to our village and some [ethnic] Rakhine people joined them. We wanted to fight them, but we only had sticks and knives. We couldn’t defend ourselves and we ran,” said Ahmad Jarmal.
“My brother was shot by the BGP and I carried him, but he died when we reached the border. I saw four people shot by the BGP. All the people in the village fled, and the BGP and the Rakhine torched our houses.”
Rasheed Ali’s village was attacked by Myanmar security forces in the early hours of August 26; he says he was forced to flee alone. He found his family a day later hiding in a nearby pond and they subsequently traveled together to Bangladesh. After a grueling journey, they reached the border and were taken to one of Cox Bazar’s sprawling and overstretched camps.
Both ARSA members say they are deeply embittered about being uninformed about the insurgent group’s leaders’ attack plans. “If I could talk with the leaders I would ask them, ‘why did you do this? You knew we couldn’t win and that the Tatmadaw and the BGP would massacre us. Why didn’t you [just] kill us directly?’”, Rasheed Ali said.
Little is known about ARSA and its overall strategy. According to the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution outfit, the group’s leadership is formed in a committee in Saudi Arabia. Its on-the-ground leader, Attah Ullah, is a Rohingya male born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia.
In the group’s frequent public statements, ARSA insists that it is carrying out an ethno-nationalist struggle for Rohingya rights; the group’s unexplained sudden name change from Harakah Al-Yakin to ARSA, however, points to a desire to distance itself from religious connotations, at least in the international eye.
Ahmad Jarmal and Rasheed Ali’s accounts suggest that religion plays a bigger role in the insurgency than ARSA cares to admit, but at the same time do not necessarily imply a jihadist ideology. In public statements, ARSA studiously avoids association with transnational jihadist networks, a connection that the Myanmar government has hastily made in branding the group as “extremist terrorists”, despite the lack of hard evidence of such links.
While the Rohingya had shown little inclination for armed struggle for over two decades, ARSA’s emergence is a direct consequence of the oppression the group has long suffered. That oppression dramatically worsened after a wave of sectarian violence engulfed Rakhine state in 2012. Myanmar’s democratic opening after decades of direct military rule has only served to further disenfranchise the Rohingya.
Around 120,000 Rohingya have languished in internment camps since the 2012 violence. Meanwhile, racist vitriol against them in both mainstream and social media has spread widely. The group was not included in the 2014 census, and they were not allowed to vote in the 2015 elections that put the National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm of the civilian side of a quasi-democratic government.
Both Rasheed Ali and Ahmad Jarmal contend that ARSA’s insurgent actions have only worsened the situation for their people. The Myanmar military responded to the August 25 attacks with a savagery that has been as predictable as it has been shocking, a campaign that the United Nations and rights groups have said constitutes ‘ethnic cleansing.’
Rasheed Ali says he believes that ARSA “provoked the military deliberately” to elicit a reaction against its own people that they were hardly equipped to counter or resist. In retrospect, he says, that might be exactly what ARSA leaders intended.
In a recent investigation, the Bangladeshi newspaper The Dhaka Tribune quoted an ARSA commander as saying: “To gain something, you have to lose something. We have been dying for 70 years. At least now the world is taking notice of our deaths!”
ARSA has not launched any major attack since August, even after it ended a month-long unilateral ceasefire on October 9. While it is impossible to predict the group’s next move or gauge its capability to launch another stinging coordinated attack, it is equally difficult to know how much popular support the group enjoys.
Some refugees interviewed by Asia Times in Bangladesh blamed ARSA for their desperate plight, while others said they regarded the group as their freedom fighters. Either way, desperate conditions in Bangladesh’s refugee camps are fertile ground for ARSA to take cover and reemerge with fresh recruits drawn from a huge and mounting pool of frustrated, angry young men.
“They are our people and they are fighting for our Rohingya homeland and our rights,” said Fateemah, a 50-year-old woman from Rakhine state’s Buthidaung Township. “We are ready to die in the fight, for our future generations.”
Ahmad Jarmal, for his part, feels badly betrayed. Back in his village, he had asked his ARSA recruiter when they would receive weapons to fight the Tatmadaw. “They told us we didn’t have to worry, so we thought we would receive weapons at some point. But we never got them.”
Embittered and disappointed, Ahmad Jarmal says he no longer considers himself an ARSA member, regardless of the risks of abandoning the group. But when asked about his desire to fight back against Myanmar’s military, he replied: “I would join the struggle if we got weapons, wherever they come from.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Interviewees’ real names have been changed and the exact names of villages have been withheld for security reasons.