The now-in-hiding Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY) fighters are practising extreme caution these days when speaking with any outsider.
Getting in touch with them took a lot of effort and perseverance – this correspondent spoke with four contact persons to gain their approval for a meeting.
On the day of the meeting, the most recent contact person met with this correspondent and set some ground rules.
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A Myanmar military official (centre) briefs Myanmar Vice President and head of the Rakhine State Investigation Commission, Myint Swe (2nd man on the right, in blue jacket) during his December 12, 2016 visit to Gwazon, a Muslim majority village in Maungdaw located in Rakhine State near the Bangladesh border where a military officer was killed by a group of attackers on November 12 AFP
“You cannot reveal our names, locations and the time of the meeting,” he warned.
He took this correspondent to an unknown place on a motorcycle, where another man was waiting.
After a meticulous body search, the first man asked this correspondent to turn off his mobile phone and to put on a blindfold. The next part of the journey was on foot for two hours.
The final meeting place was set among forest in the no man's land between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Taking the blindfold off, this correspondent came to meet three other HaY members, one of whom claimed to be the second-in-command of Ata Ullah, the HaY spokesperson as seen in videos released by the group.
The Second-in-Command began the conversation by claiming that HaY was not a terrorist group.
“We agreed to speak with you only to make our motives clear,” he said. “We are not terrorists. We formed this group for revolutions, to save our existence in Arakan [Rakhine]… We are waging a movement against the oppression of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government.”
When asked whether they had any connection with other insurgent groups – local or international – the Second-In-Command was vehement in his denial.
“We never conducted any attacks on people of other religious groups. Our fight is only against the Myanmar government.”
Speaking in Arkanese and broken Bangla, the Second-In-Command had to communicate with this correspondent through an interpreter, another HaY fighter.
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Ata Ullah, self-proclaimed leader Harakah al-Yaqin group Collected
He admitted that HaY was, in fact, responsible for the series of attacks on Myanmar Border Guard Police outposts along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border on October 9.
“Our aim was to loot their arms and ammunition for our guerrilla training,” he said. “We were all a part of the attack.”
He said they were trained by Ata Ullah and some other senior leaders of HaY who are skilled in modern guerrilla war tactics. They visited Rakhine several times in 2015 to provide the training, he added.
“We have 25-30 members who are trained in modern guerrilla tactics.”
In the four months before the attacks, Ata Ullah and his men also tried to convince local villagers to support their movement, the Second-In-Command claimed.
“You cannot imagine how some of the Rohingya villagers cooperated with us. Some even joined us in the attacks with bamboo,” he claimed.
All the arms and ammunition gave them a stronger footing in Rakhine, but in two weeks – according to the HaY leader – they took a hit when the Myanmar Army launched the crackdown on Rohingyas.
“The army also attacked HaY hideouts at Hargoizzapara, Zammoinnapara and SotoGozobil areas in Maungdaw with helicopters,” the leader said. “We were not equipped to fight the aerial attack and were forced to retreat.”
Who are Harakah al-Yaqin?
Formed after the 2012 riot, Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY) is led by a committee of Rohingyas living in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingyas, according to Brussels-based group International Crisis Group (ICG).
HaY is represented by Ata Ullah, who was born in Karachi to a Rohingya father and grew up in Mecca. He is also identified as Hafiz Tohar by the Myanmar government, presumably an alias, according to ICG.
He is part of a group of 20 Rohingyas who have international experience in modern guerrilla warfare and are leading operations on the ground. After the military crackdown began, the Myanmar president’s office issued a statement claiming that some 400 members of Aqa Mul Mujahideen, a little-known Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaeda and Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), had conducted the attack.
Aqa Mul Mujahideen or Huji-Arakan is another Rohingya-backed militant group. It is not clear whether HaY and Aqa Mul Mujahideen are the same. Some of the HaY leaders have repeatedly claimed to the Dhaka Tribune that they have no connection with RSO or any other terrorist groups.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s Bangladesh offshoot Ansar al-Islam as well as banned militant outfit Hizb ut-Tahrir have extended their support to HaY and urged Muslims around the world to fight the Myanmar government's oppression in Rakhine.
International terrorist group Islamic State revealed its plan to attack Buddhist-majority Myanmar establishments through a statement published in Dabiq magazine in April 2016.
In late November last year, a pro-Islamic State Telegram channel suggested that Muslims in the UK who can not go to Myanmar can attack the country’s embassy and ambassador at home.
The Afghan Taliban on November 30 reiterated its call to Muslims as well as Islamic charitable organisations to take action in support of their brethren in Myanmar.
He claimed the army knew they would not be able to face the rebels on the ground, so they used helicopters.
Now weakened, HaY members went into hiding in the villages and the border areas, frequently changing locations.
“Some of us managed to flee to Bangladesh,” he added.
The Second-In-Command took a pause and offered this correspondent some wild potatoes and bananas. “This is all we have to survive,” he said.
Also Read- Inside the Rakhine State insurgency
All five HaY fighters were jittery and scanned the area for any suspicious movement during the entire conversation.
“The military crackdown also turned local Rohingyas against HaY,” the Second-In-Command continued.
“When the army raided and tortured innocent Rohingyas, they became scared and lost faith in us. They began to flee Arakan,” he said.
Asked whether any Rohingyas refugees from Bangladesh had joined their group, the leader said: “We have Rohingya brothers from everywhere.”
Sources in the refugee camps and some HaY members said some refugees left Bangladesh to join the group, and no one knows where they are now.
Some HaY followers in Cox's Bazar said they were instructed to remain in hiding and wait for further instruction. “But the instruction never came,” said one of the followers. “After a while, we gave up and came back.” They also said they had no intention of re-joining the insurgent group, now hated by most Rohingyas.
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Myanmar Rohingya refugees bury the body of six-month-old Alam in a refugee camp in Teknaf, in Cox's Bazar district, on November 26, 2016 AFP
Back in no man's land, the leader claimed losing the grounds and followers had not broken their spirit.
“Our Rohingya brothers around the world are trying to negotiate with world leaders to put pressure on the Myanmar government, but it is not working. So that makes us bound to do armed revolution against the government for our rights.”
He said there was no question of surrendering. “We will fight until the last drop of our blood is spilled.”
This is where the leader ended the conversation.
Issuing another warning to not reveal their names and locations, the fourth contact person brought this correspondent back to the first rendezvous point the same way.