This is the second in a five-part series on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for which Dhaka Tribune’s Adil Sakhawat interviewed almost 20 ARSA members, including top leaders of the organisation. The series details the history, organisational structure, leadership, funding and affiliations of ARSA, and is a chronicle of the events leading up to the ARSA attack on Myanmar army outposts on August 24
On May 28, 2012, a Buddhist woman of Rakhine ethnicity was robbed and murdered near Ramree township in Rakhine. Among her three assailants, two were Muslims and the third was a Buddhist. Rumours spread that the woman was raped as well as robbed before being murdered. The local communities grew agitated, culminating in an attack on a bus which left 10 Muslims dead.
The attackers, of Rakhine ethnicity, believed the three attackers had been on board.
The subsequent communal violence that followed killed 80 and relocated 100,000 people, according to government figures. The survivors, however, put the number of deceased at around 150.
After the violence subsided, many Rohingyas who were studying found themselves without schools or colleges. They were rejected and expelled.
These young men who lost their ties to education, and with it their final hopes of escaping their status as oppressed people in Myanmar, would go on to form the ranks of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Over five years, they would grow from a social movement to a full-scale insurgency, taking the fight to the Myanmar armed forces in their outposts.
Based on testimonies from Rohingya refugees who are actively affiliated with the ARSA and others who support the group, the Dhaka Tribune has learned of the inception of the insurgency.
If you haven’t read Part 1 go here: Did the Myanmar Army intentionally allow the ARSA attacks to happen?
Old guerrillas, new armies
Back in 1992, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) was an active political faction. Although they had the training and weaponry, they never had the audacity or resources to mount successful attacks against the Myanmar armed forces.
Many former members of RSO went on to join ARSA. These field-level recruiters were dispersed throughout the region, drawing more and more to the cause.
A 55-year-old madrasa teacher from Maungdaw, who was formerly with RSO, said a group of well-trained Rohingya had planned on conducting an attack in Rakhine as far back as 1994.
“They lacked weapons and other resources to stand against the oppressive Burmese military forces,” he said. “The RSO was a well-trained organisation, but we never had a shot at success, something ARSA has managed in their two attacks.”
Two Rohingya men who claimed to be ARSA foot soldiers said they were trained by the RSO in 2002, but had no opportunities to do anything with the training. When they lost close family members in the June 2012 communal clashes, they were gripped by fury and sought out anything that would give them the means and the outlet to channel that frustration and rage.
By the time of the June 2012 riots, however, RSO was nothing but a pale shadow of its former self. The violence spurred many former members to consider banding together, but years of inaction had worn away their motivation and initiative.
The RSO veterans were a trained group, however; a ripe resource for the budding Rohingya movement. While the young men trained, invitations were extended to the RSO members. They were welcome to join anytime.
In 2013, a large contingency of RSO members heard rumours about a group without a name which was promising change to the Rohingya people.
This group attracted many RSO members. Some of them were students of the madrasa teacher from Maungdaw, who was formerly with RSO.
A movement without a name
A young man in a refugee camp bit his lips and shut his eyes in a gesture to ignore the question: “Are you an active ARSA member?”
He was not inclined to answer. But after showing him a video released by ARSA, where his face was visible, he mumbled an explanation.
“After the 2012 outbreak, our elders told us we needed to learn Kung Fu and Karate so we could protect our people from being harassed by the Mogh,” he began.
“The Mogh Buddhists would swoop down upon our villages like raiders and burn houses and attack people. Driven to the edge, we began learning self-defence. We did not learn from any dojo, we had to learn by ourselves. Later, we found out that it was not just in my village. Many other villages, even in different townships, were doing similar things.”
The Rohingya training videos show children – some as young as five – taking part in training themselves in self-defence.
On August 20, a young Rohingya man from the refugee camp had discussed taking part in the October 9, 2016 attack on the Myanmar Border Guard Police outposts near the border with Bangladesh – an attack that killed nine policemen and introduced the world to Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY).
He had reminisced that many young Rohingya men were taking part in the training in 2013, but nobody knew anything other than it being for self-defence purposes. Instructions were issued by community elders, who were mostly madrasa teachers.
Camp refugees singled out the young Rohingya man as a recruiter for ARSA, based on his stirring, inspirational speeches to other young Rohingyas in the camp. However, he flatly denied being an ARSA recruiter.
“Sometime in 2015, we came to know of two things that would change our fate forever: Harakah al-Yaqin and Ata Ullah,” he said in broken English learned over 10 years of schooling in Rakhine.
Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY) was a stronger successor to the RSO, while Ata Ullah was an almost mythical Rohingya leader.
“They shone like a beacon. We were eager to be part of something that would help and protect us, and would be in our best interests. In a world where a Rohingya adult has to pay the government a huge sum of money to get married, a platform where we could all stand together was welcomed with open arms.”
The young man left the meeting and the camp. Nothing more was heard from or of him.
Enter Harakah al-Yaqin
On a desolate beach somewhere in Cox’s Bazar, two Rohingya men met with this Dhaka Tribune reporter. Their steps reverberated with trepidation, while anxiety and fear were etched on their faces. Frantic eyes darted here and there, perpetually on the lookout for threats, especially intelligence agencies.
“2012 was the second consecutive year of the Burmese oppression of the Rohingya,” one of them said. “It was a trial run at ethnic cleansing. It was obvious they wanted to kill every single one of us. We knew we had to band together to survive (so) by late 2013, Harakah al-Yaqin was making itself known.”
HaY had many things RSO lacked – huge funding and charismatic leadership.
The funding from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries with Rohingya communities made HaY a legitimate contender for Rohingyas to band around. Around 700 RSO veterans officially joined HaY.
But more than anything else, the movement grew because the man who brought them together – an “Ameerul Mumineen” by the name of Ata Ullah.
“We heard stories of him, this mythical figure whose followers knew how to make explosives and guns,” the Rohingya man continued. “Our elders had always told us to do our part, do the best we could, in protecting our people. We wanted to join him, help him in protecting our people.”
In this new group, the “elders” were still young men. Regardless of the age, both RSO veterans and young HaY recruits looked up to Ata Ullah. His arrival had sent shockwaves through the Rohingya community in Rakhine, even if their full impact would only be felt years later.
In August 2017, just before the second coordinated attacks on Myanmar security outposts, HaY reinvented itself as ARSA. The two Rohingya members who met this reporter had never seen Ata Ullah in person, but it was the stories surrounding him that cemented the reputation of this dashing, audacious leader.