ARSA has at least militarily been out of sight for several months
As armed conflict rages between the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar military, killing scores of civilians and displacing tens of thousands in incessant artillery and air strikes in Rakhine and Chin states, another largely forgotten armed group has re-entered the fray.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the shadowy group that launched fateful August 2017 attacks on Myanmar border outposts that sparked the Myanmar military’s retaliatory “area clearance” operations now widely condemned as genocide against the Rohingya, has apparently reformed around the Rakhine state town of Maungdaw along the Bangladesh border.
ARSA has at least militarily been out of sight for several months. Its reappearance begs questions as to why it’s purported mobilization on the border has gradually intensified, how the Myanmar security forces will respond, and what impacts it will have on the Rohingya communities still in Rakhine state.
Myawady Daily, the Myanmar military’s media mouthpiece, reported on May 2 that “ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists” ambushed Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) near Border Pillar (BP) 41 on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, wounding two police troopers in the alleged assault.
On April 15, an armed encounter with ARSA and the Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) at Khamaungseik village in Maungdaw reportedly left one trooper dead.
In a statement released on April 9, ARSA said their fighters had engaged security forces four days previously “involving 5 to 7 guards some distance from the headquarter at Kyi Kan Pyin…in that encounter of our counter-defense, all of the burmese Terrorist (sic) army were put to death.”
In one of the largest reported Tatmadaw-ARSA engagements since the violence of August 2017, ARSA claims that 11 out of 13 “Burmese Terrorist (sic) military personnel were eliminated by our self-defense fighters” on March 30 at Laing Zero Wa village.
The rising number of reported incidents from ARSA are not necessarily connected to the Covid-19 crisis, but are more likely timed to coincide with the Myanmar government’s reporting to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in May over alleged acts of genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya in 2017, when ARSA attacks against security forces sparked a violent overreaction that killed thousands and drove 700,000 into Bangladesh.
The recent reports of ARSA attacks are curiously timed to be included in such a report. Fighting between the AA and Myanmar military has become the most savage in Myanmar in a generation, displacing thousands in Rakhine and Chin states.
The government formally designated the AA a terrorist organization on March 23 under the 2014 counter-terrorism law, making the group the second to be publically designated. ARSA was the first.
Compared to the AA, which fields over 10,000 fighters and has inflicted serious punishment on the Myanmar military in heavy fighting since January 2019, ARSA is little more than a lightly armed irritant.
This is due to a mixture of Rohingya community animus at the hell it endured in the 2016 and 2017 attacks, which diminished ARSA’s credibility; competition from other armed groups, many of them a mixture of crime gangs, drug dealers and erstwhile extremists; the logistical challenges of significant cross-border incursions; and the Bangladesh security services interdiction of access to arms and training that would make this feasible.
From May 2018, ARSA resumed regular statements and religious holiday greetings. In early 2019, it went on to issue critiques of reporting it didn’t like, including from the International Crisis Group (ICG), South China China Morning Post, and the “unsubstantiable (sic), baseless damaging criminal accusations by [rights group] Fortify Rights.”
On March 25, ARSA released a series of audio messages calling on Rohingya to abide by public health recommendations to stem the spread of Covid-19.