This is the final part of the five-part series on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for which Dhaka Tribune’s Adil Sakhawat interviewed almost 20 ARSA members. The series has scrutinised the emergence, leadership and structure of the insurgency, and its goals
It has been nearly two months, 57 days to be precise, since the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked Myanmar armed forces outposts, igniting the biggest humanitarian crisis in the region in decades. Nearly 590,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh after the government forces began massacring village after village.
While refugees keep pouring into Bangladesh, ARSA has gone quiet. When they first appeared as Haraqah al-Yaqin in October 2016, the same scenario played out. A well-coordinated attack on Myanmar police camps put them on the map, but no other known operations took place till August 2017.
ARSA chief Ata Ullah Abu Ammar Al Jununi remains on the run with his guerillas in the hills and forests of Rakhine, which prevents him from communicating to direct queries.
In his lieu, there are four deputies who are empowered to speak on his behalf and operate as they see fit per Ata Ullah’s orders.
Maulvi Mostakim and Maulvi Noman coordinate recruitment and financing from Malaysia, Abul Kalam Haidery operates in Saudi Arabia and Abu Abdul Wahed works out of Thailand.
The Dhaka Tribune reached out directly to each of the four lynchpins, but only Abu Abdul Wahed relented to the interview.
He said: “How long must we remain silent? For over 70 years, the Burmese have been oppressing us. Until we fight back, this culture of oppression will not end. We will keep fighting till the global community forces Myanmar to ensure our civil and human rights.
“We have never been considered citizens, always marginalised and ignored. The only attention we ever received was when they came to ruin our lives,” Abu Abdul continued.
He said just as the whole world is keeping an eye on the Rohingya issue in Myanmar, they too are looking at the global leaders’ stance on the matter, assessing how much favour they have, in order to make a move. It appears that ARSA lit a spark, and is waiting for the world to sustain it or put it out altogether.
Abu Abdul vowed that ARSA will see the matter to the end, in particular what role the global community plays in pressuring Myanmar to negotiate.
Surrender is always on the table
The ARSA deputy says they are always ready to surrender, but only under their terms and conditions.
Firstly, Myanmar government has to ensure a safe zone for Rohingyas in Rakhine, policed by UN peacekeepers. Only when UN peacekeepers are actively ensuring the security, ARSA will lay down its arms.
“If the world fails us and does not respond to the cries of help from the Rohingya community, then we will keep fighting. We will not let a single Myanmar soldier sleep in peace.
“There is no point for us to fight if we are given the chance to live like any other ethnic groups in the country. This fight is out of desperation, this was never our first choice,” Abu Abdul explained.
When asked about the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh, and how it affects their operational capabilities, he replied: “The Myanmar army is strong, they are many, but we are not afraid to die. We will fight until our last breath. Our people led a life of enslavement and misery. Many of our people have fled, but that does not mean ARSA is dead.”
How the Kofi Annan Commission report fell apart
On August 24, Rakhine Commission led by former secretary general Kofi Annan submitted its final report including recommendations for resolving the brewing Rohingya crisis.
ARSA carried out its attacks that very night. Many have pointed out it was a blatant disregard for the commission’s attempts to implement peace. After the attack, the Myanmar government busied itself with retaliating and the report was pushed out of the picture.
When Abu Abdul was asked if that was ARSA’s stance, he firmly denied it, saying it was because the Myanmar government had been tipped off about their operations, forcing them to play their hand earlier than they preferred.
“Everyone is talking about how we attacked on August 24, but has anybody bothered to find out what life was like for every common Rohingya in Rathedaung from the first week of August? People were trapped inside their houses. Thousands of young men were arrested and driven away, never to be heard from again. Where are the questions about our missing young men?” he said.
He also said they gave the Myanmar government notice of their attack on Twitter right before the attack itself.
Rohingyas suffer, world ponders, ARSA watches
The Dhaka Tribune again reached out to several ARSA senior commanders over the past two days and was able to learn that the insurgent group has formally adopted the “wait-and-see” approach.
A senior commander who is in charge of communications said ARSA is working around the hour despite their silence.
He said ARSA has not carried out any operations recently so that the international community can get a chance to make things right.
“We are doing what needs to be done. But the world has to play its part too.”
When asked about the immense loss of life and the mass displacement of Rohingyas, his response was grim.
“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!” he said.
Misappropriation of funds creates trust deficit
The Rohingya community in Saudi Arabia communicates with Abul Hasan Haidery for any and all ARSA-related matters. Lately, they have noticed a very noticeable change in Haidery’s daily life, which has raised eyebrows at the very least and caused several donors to reconsider future donations.
“After the October attack, he bought a brand new car, of the latest model. He moved to a posh neighbourhood and lives a very visible luxurious life. It bothers us to think, what is happening with ARSA,” said several Rohingyas living in Saudi Arabia who have contributed to ARSA’s war chest.
The Dhaka Tribune tried to contact Haidery several times to no avail. One of his aides responded afterwards and offered “financial reparations” for not being able to talk to the media. Furthermore, it has been learned that many among the community openly distrust Haidery, and do not invite him to major community meetings.