In postwar Burma, now known as Myanmar, the rule of law has always been in flux. From democratic governments to autocratic military dictators to military-industrial oligarchies, the regime has always been rigid in its views on what it means to be Burmese.
Persecution of non-Bamar (majority) or non-Buddhists was always a constant. Sometime in the 1960s, a Rohingya family fled from Buthidaung township when the Burmese military attacked their village. The family fled to what was then known as East Pakistan. From there, they travelled by road to Jessore, and then to Kolkata in India.
From Kolkata, the family travelled all the way to Kashmir, from where they crossed the border into Pakistan, settling in a refugee camp in Karachi along with thousands of other Rohingya refugees.
A boy was born into this family in this refugee camp. Little did his family know that this boy, estranged from the land of his fathers, would one day march into that very land with fire and blood.
This boy, after several decades, would become known to a group of devoted followers, and then the world under the nom de guerre of Ata Ullah Abu Ammar Al Jununi.
Very little is known of his early life. The boy who would be Ata Ullah was sent to Saudi Arabia for education and employment. Going back over half a century, there have always been many Saudi patrons for displaced Rohingya refugees.
A commander of delicate tastes
Young Ata learned and worked. As he reached adulthood, he found employment with a mosque on Highway 40, the 1,359km long tract of road that traversed the vast Arabian Peninsula and connected Jeddah to Riyadh via Makkah. Ata had grown up to be a well-spoken Muslim scholar who was equally liked by his peers and superiors. He would regularly take part in Rohingya community meetings, where his eloquence won him admiration and attention.
The Saudi sheikh, who was the patron of the mosque, paid Ata 3000 Saudi Riyals per month. His time in Saudi Arabia taught him to enjoy the comforts of life, something that would certainly not be possible within the confines of the refugee camp.
According to some of his confidants in the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Ata Ullah exhibited many of these traits as a result of interactions with many Saudi sheikhs.
While Ata Ullah wore a traditional Saudi “thobe” (a Saudi cloak for men which covers their entire bodies to the ankles) and a “keffiyeh” (Saudi men’s checkered headscarf) during his life in the peninsula, he began to dress in military fatigues after beginning the insurgency operations in Rakhine.
Man or myth?
One of the most interesting aspects of Ata Ullah is that even after he became a major figure in the volatile region of Rakhine, there was nothing concrete about his emergence. When did he return to Myanmar? Was he a visitor trying to see the land of his fathers, or a rebel commander reconnoitering the battleground? Nothing is known for certain.
So far there have been three distinct accounts: two hotly supported by the Rohingya people and the ARSA members; the third disputed by the Rohingya community in Saudi Arabia.
Some say Ata Ullah visited Rakhine immediately after the June 2012 communal violence that left at least 150 dead and relocated an estimated 100,000 Rohingyas. But no eyewitnesses have been found to corroborate this claim.
Others say he set foot in Rakhine in late 2013 to begin recruitment for Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY).
Rohingyas living in Saudi Arabia say they had seen Ata Ullah working in the mosque as recently as 2015, when he returned to Pakistan before retracing his family’s footsteps to Kashmir, India and Bangladesh, finally entering Myanmar in 2016.
One of the Rohingyas who had been living in Saudi Arabia for 15 years said the Rohingya community in Saudi Arabia knew of his visit to Pakistan and then to Myanmar.
“He went to Rakhine only a few months before the attack on Myanmar border police in October 2016,” the Saudi-resident Rohingya said.
ARSA refused to shed light on Ata Ullah’s first visit to Rakhine.
Ata Ullah was first seen worldwide when ARSA released a video in October 2016 after the attack on Myanmar’s border outposts. Since then, he has been issuing instructions and statements via encrypted social media messaging apps.
Vengeful Rohingyas flocked to the Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY) banner after the 2012 riots. HaY, which would become ARSA in 2017, was comprised of seething, angry young men whose lives had been destroyed by the Myanmar armed forces. A precursor group, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), had many members in its heydays, but it never pulled off any operations. The young and old alike found themselves in awe of HaY, and its charming commander, Ata Ullah.
What man inspires others to fight, to die?
Very few foot soldiers and recruiters have seen Ata Ullah in person. Only four ARSA members and 10 civilians are confirmed to have seen Ata; the rest have only heard stories. These stories that surround Ata Ullah are crucial to understand the Rohingya perception of the insurgency and how ARSA operates.
The Rohingyas had never had an outspoken leader stand up for them. No major figures have been of note in the time since they have been refugees. Until Ata Ullah.
He did not ask that they follow him; rather, he led and they followed. The throngs of trained Rohingya men who sought purpose found in him a guide. Ata Ullah, with his eloquent speeches refined with years of scholarly discussions in Saudi Arabia, was mesmeric for the awed crowd.
In one of his more famous recordings, Ata Ullah said: “I am here only to return to you your rights as Rohingya. The rights which nobody else could. You have seen the evidence of what we can do. Help us and listen to us.”
But it was not bloodless. Actions warranted more faith than words. Ata Ullah’s HaY cracked down on Rohingya informants of the government. At least 10 informants were killed by HaY between 2015-2016. The bloodshed gave him legitimacy to the people.
The October 2016 attack established him as an authority. People saw him travelling from one village to another on a motorbike, heralded by armed scouts who would clear the routes of Myanmar threats. People went to him for arbitration in all matters. Ata Ullah banned people from paying taxes and bribes to the Myanmar authorities, a decisive move to assert his authority over his people.
But the master stroke was when he called for all Rohingyas to refrain from dealing drugs, in particular yaba. The notorious yaba trade on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border had painted the Rohingyas as a fringe group which could only survive by selling drugs.
Ata Ullah’s command aimed to change that image. He appealed to their piety, asking that they “do only that which Allah has permitted, and nothing else.”
People responded earnestly, but the yaba trade had too many trapped in its web for the whole ethnic group to escape its clutches.
Ata Ullah proved to be a smart administrator, installing deputies and putting them in charge of regions while he became a phantom - seldom seen, but always heard of.
His directives are issued after cross-checking with the Quran and the Hadith, to ensure it can be used as a driving force in any argument. Many clerics would use the Friday prayer to appeal to the devotees in the mosques to spread his message – be loyal and be supportive.
ARSA foot soldiers and Rohingya clerics look at him with awe, because of his perspective on a unified Rohingya people.
A paragon of politeness
His confidants in ARSA, his devoted followers among the Rohingya, and his acquaintances from Saudi Arabia all unanimously describe Ata Ullah as one of the politest and softest-spoken people they have ever known.
“We have never heard him shout or rebuke any of the soldiers,” said an ARSA member.
“He treats every one of us like we are brothers, with his right hand over his chest and head slightly bowed in a show of reverence.”
How did a softly-spoken Islamic scholar living a cozy life in Saudi Arabia become a fulcrum for one of the largest refugee crisis in the 21st century?
Even the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was an Islamic scholar who was rocketed to the top of the group after the death of his predecessor Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi.