When a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state triggered a humanitarian crisis that sent more than 500,000 Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was quick to blame Rohingya insurgents.
The army was carrying out ‘clearance operations’ in response to an attack by militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA on police outposts and an army base in the early hours of August 25, officials in Naypyidaw said.
Rohingya men, women and children who have fled Rakhine to escape the army crackdown, however, tell a different story.
Interviews with dozens of Rohingya families that have arrived in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar indicate that the army’s ‘clearance operation’ started well before August 25. Up to three weeks before the ARSA attack, soldiers and army-backed Rakhine militias started going from village to village rounding up Rohingya men, especially teachers, businessmen, and religious leaders. Many Rohingya villages were emptied with residents taking shelter in other villages.
“The soldiers came to our village fifteen days before Eid,” said Salma, a 25-year-old Rohingya woman from Buthidaung district in Rakhine. “They told everyone to squat on the ground with heads between our knees. They grabbed men by the hair and asked, ‘are you a moulvi?’”
She said moulvis, or religious leaders, and other people of influence were targeted and taken away by the troops. “The soldiers shouted that we were Bengali and would be killed if we didn’t leave the village,” she said. “We fled to a village where we thought we would be safe.”
‘They wanted to force us out’
Salma and other Rohingyas said the first army operations took place up to several weeks before Eid ul-Adha, which was observed on September 1 this year. They said troops and militias looted cattle and other property, set fire to homes and beat villagers who went to fish in the river or to work in the fields.
“They wanted to force us out,” said Nasiruddin, a Rohingya man from Maungdaw district.
Up to three weeks before the ARSA attack, soldiers and army-backed Rakhine militias started going from village to village rounding up Rohingya men, especially teachers, businessmen, and religious leaders. Many Rohingya villages were emptied with residents taking shelter in other villages
Such accounts are consistent with a new report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which says the Myanmar army’s “clearance operations started before August 25, and as early as the beginning of August.”
There was a coordinated plan “to drive out Rohingya villagers en masse through incitement to hatred, violence and killings, including by declaring the Rohingyas as Bengalis and illegal settlers in Myanmar,” the OHCHR report said.
The pressure applied on the Rohingya villages appears to have prompted ARSA insurgents to plan a desperate attack on security forces, security analysts say.
“They told us that we must fight back since the Myanmar government was starving us, denying our rights and killing us slowly,” a 23-year-old Rohingya man from the Maungdaw area said.
Formerly known as Harakah al-Yaqin or Faith Movement, the group came out of nowhere to stage attacks on Myanmar police posts, killing nine policemen in October 2016. That attack sparked a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army and military-backed Buddhist militias. Even though the army’s tactics, which drew accusations of a scorched earth policy from human rights groups, forced nearly 80,000 Rohingya men women and children into neighboring Bangladesh, the alleged atrocities perpetrated by security forces served to solidify support for ARSA.
The decision to strike back came on August 24, hours after a government-appointed Advisory Commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan submitted its final report, recommending that the government act quickly to improve socioeconomic development in Rakhine state and take steps to resolve violence between Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority. The report, however, did not mention the Rohingya by name, or criticize the army, something that angered many in the Rohingya community.
Suu Kyi’s government said that ARSA’s attacks were intended to coincide with the release of the Commission’s report.
ARSA also referred to the report, but blamed the military, claiming that army units in previous weeks had stepped up activity in order to derail any attempt to implement Mr. Annan’s recommendations, forcing the group’s hand.
For several nights before the attack, ARSA supporters took stock of the situation around the army post, noting troop strength, weapons and duty shifts.
Refugees said the group had received little actual military training. They had trained with sticks and knives but no firearms, they said.
The description was consistent with information gleaned from interviews with other refugees arriving in camps in Bangladesh which portrayed ARSA as a ragtag band of villagers armed with farm tools, axes and knives.
Myanmar experts say the group’s actions more closely resembled a loose peasant rebellion than an armed, well-commanded insurgency. Villagers carrying agricultural tools were motivated to go up against trained soldiers armed with guns and mortars.
“ARSA’s strategy appeared to be an attempt to spark a popular uprising,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst in Myanmar. “The group managed to motivate the villagers to embark on an almost suicidal mission, made up of men who were willing to take enormous risks because they felt they had no other options left.”
The response by the Myanmar army was to launch a brutal “clearance operation” the next day, modeled on its infamous “Four Cuts” strategy of targeting civilian areas to deny insurgent groups food, funds, recruits and information.
Pioneered by former military dictator General Ne Win, the “Four Cuts” policy was used in the 1970s against rebel groups such as the banned Communist Party of Burma and the Karen National Liberation Army in eastern Myanmar, often with devastating consequences for civilian populations.
“The group’s leaders must have known that the attack would spark a scorched earth response by the army,” Mr. Horsey said. “It was a cynical calculation.”
The blow fell hardest on villages like Tulatoli in northern Rakhine. Rafiqa, a 20-year-old Rohingya woman who goes by one name, said she was feeding her baby on the morning of August 30 when the army swept in.
“They shot people, kicking them to see if they moved and then plunged long knives into their chest,” she said at a makeshift camp in southeast Bangladesh.
Rafiqa said soldiers dragged young women into huts to be raped and then set fire to the huts. She doesn’t know how many villagers were killed that day but says only a handful made it out alive. Her husband was among the dead.
“They seized him by the beard and cut his throat,” she said.
Rafiqa said she crawled into the bushes with her child and after the soldiers left, joined other villagers on a three-day trek to Bangladesh.
Tulatoli is among nearly 200 villages that have been targeted by the army, forcing more than 400,000 Rohingyas into neighboring Bangladesh. An estimated 3,000 people have died at the hands of the military and army-backed militias.
From a military perspective, ARSA’s decision to counterattack the army appears to have backfired. But analysts like Mr. Horsey believe they have gained from a political and propaganda standpoint and would be able to recruit from embittered Rohingyas in the refugee camps.
“They group will find many willing recruits now,” he said. “Unless there is a political process that gives the Rohingya some hope, we will see a long-drawn out conflict.”