BALUKHALI, Bangladesh— Nazir Hossain, the imam of a village in far western Myanmar, gathered the faithful around him after evening prayers last month. In a few hours, more than a dozen Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) fighters from his village would strike a nearby police post with an assortment of handmade weapons.
The men needed their cleric’s blessing.
“As imam, I encouraged them never to step back from their mission,” Hossein recalled of his final words to the ethnic Rohingya militants. “I told them that if they did not fight to the death, the military would come and kill their families, their women and their children.”
They fought—joining an August 25 assault by thousands of the group’s fighters against Myanmar’s security forces—and the retaliation came down anyway. Since then, Myanmar’s troops and vigilante mobs have unleashed a scorched-earth operation on Rohingya populations in northern Rakhine state in Myanmar, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes in a campaign that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.
From its start four years ago as a small-scale effort to organize a Rohingya resistance, Arsa—which is known locally as Harakah al-Yaqin, or the Faith Movement—has managed to stage two deadly attacks on Myanmar’s security forces: one in October and the other last month.
But in lashing out against the government, the militants have also made their own people a target. And they have handed Myanmar’s military an attempt at public justification by saying that it is fighting terrorism, even as it has burned down dozens of villages and killed fleeing women and children.
This radicalization of a new generation of Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority country, adds fuel to an already combustible situation in Rakhine, Myanmar’s poorest state.
Increasingly, there is also concern that both the relatively few Rohingya who have taken up arms, and the broader population—hundreds of thousands of whom are crowded in camps in neighboring Bangladesh—will be exploited by international terrorism networks, bringing a localized struggle into the slipstream of global politics.
Arsa’s attempt at insurgency politics has been disastrous—a cease-fire they declared this month was rejected by the military, and they are reported to have suffered lopsided casualties compared with the government’s. But the men caught up in the cause insist that resistance is worth the steep cost, even to their families.
“This fight is not just about my fate or my family’s fate,” said Noor Alam, a 25-year-old insurgent whose family was sheltering in a forest in Myanmar after their village in Maungdaw Township was burned. “It’s a matter of the existence of all Rohingya. If we have to sacrifice ourselves for our children to live peacefully, then it is worth it.”
Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country for nearly half a century, has systematically persecuted the Rohingya, subjecting them to apartheidlike existences and stripping most of their citizenship.
The nation’s civilian government, led since last year by Aung San Suu Kyi, has justified the recent violent crackdown in Rakhine as a counterstrike against “extremist Bengali terrorists”. Although the Rohingya claim long-held roots in Rakhine, the official narrative in Myanmar holds that they are recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“We’ve talked about the risks of radicalization for years, and the writing was on the wall for some sort of militant activity,” said Matthew Smith, a cofounder of Fortify Rights, a human-rights watchdog based in Bangkok. “In our view, the best way to deal with risks of extremism and radicalization is to promote and respect the rights of the Rohingya, which is not what the Myanmar military is doing.”
Since August 25, these operations have caused more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Rohingya who have tried to escape the latest violence have also had to contend with Arsa insurgents who want young men to stay back and fight. Rohingya informers, who may have leaked details of the August 25 strikes to the Myanmar military, have been executed, according to rights groups.
Arsa has also been accused of killing other ethnic populations in Rakhine, such as Hindus and Buddhist Rakhine. At least a dozen non-Rohingya civilians have been killed since August 25, according to Myanmar’s government, along with at least 370 Rohingya militants.
The radicalized population in Bangladesh’s overcrowded refugee camps does not hide its fervor.
“Even if I stay in my home, I could get killed by the military,” said Abul Osman, a 32-year-old madrassa instructor and Arsa fighter who spent three months hiding in the jungly hills on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border after the group’s attack in October. “I might as well die fighting for my rights, as directed by my almighty God. My sacrifice will earn me a place in heaven.” But not everyone wants to be sacrificed. When vigilante mobs and Myanmar’s soldiers burned down his village, Noor Kamal, 18, tried to flee with his 6-year-old brother, Noor Faruq. Both were hacked in the head by ethnic Rakhine armed with machetes and scythes.
At a bleak government hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Noor Kamal shivered with outrage at the Arsa insurgents from his village in northern Maungdaw Township, who attacked a local police post last month. “We are the ones who are suffering because of Al Yaqin,” he said. “They disappeared after the attack. We were the ones left behind for the military to kill.”
The besieged villages in Rakhine and squalid refugee settlements in Bangladesh, where at least 800,000 Rohingya now live in desperate conditions, make for fertile ground for transnational militant groups looking for recruits—even if Arsa said this past week that it had no links to such groups.
“We have seen how democratic and nationalist movements can be taken over by transnational terrorist groups,” said Ali Riaz, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University who studies Islamic militancy in Bangladesh and surrounding areas. “The presence of legitimate discontent, despair and desperation among hundreds and thousands of people, growing radicalization of a movement, asymmetry of forces engaged in the conflict and a religious dimension to the crisis all provide a conducive environment.”
Riaz noted how in the southern Philippines, the Islamic State had grafted itself onto a local separatist insurgency, dispatching foreign fighters and creating a ripple effect that threatens regional stability.
“Neither the Myanmar government nor the regional powers should let this situation happen with the Rohingya,” he warned.
In a video message this month, a leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen urged Muslims in Asia to show solidarity with the Rohingya by launching attacks on “enemies of God”.
The military has only intensified its retribution in Rakhine. As international outrage mounted, Suu Kyi blamed the Rohingya and their supporters for creating an “an iceberg of misinformation”. Myanmar’s military has accused Rohingya of burning down their own homes to garner international sympathy.
Arsa, which was founded by a Rohingya named Ataullah, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, does not yet have the kind of firepower that can pose a serious threat to one of Asia’s biggest armies. Its August 25 strike involved thousands of men but killed only about a dozen security officers. Its first assault, in October, killed nine police officers.
By contrast, other ethnic rebel forces, which have battled the state for decades, have clashed far more violently with the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is known. The Arakan Army, an insurgency fighting for ethnic Rakhine rights, killed at least 300 soldiers in the first half of last year, according to a military document.
Unlike ARSA, neither the Arakan Army nor other ethnic militant groups have been designated terrorists by Myanmar’s government.
“Why does Burma call us terrorists?” asked Dil Mohammed, a university-educated Rohingya now sheltering in Bangladesh, using the former name for Myanmar. “It’s one word: Islam.”
ARSA was formed four years ago, in the wake of sectarian clashes between the Rohingya and the Rakhine. Dozens were killed, mostly Muslims. Since then, many Rohingya have been barred from leaving their villages or sequestered in ghettos. Young men have no jobs. The military shuttered mosques and madrassas, leaving the faithful idle.
The military’s heavy-handed response to the ARSA strike in October served as a turning point. Nearly every Rohingya village in northern Rakhine now has an ARSA cell with at least 10 members, according to fighters who fled to Bangladesh.
“We realized that it’s only through Al Yaqin that we can get our message to the international community that we exist,” said the 70-year-old father of an ARSA fighter who arrived in Bangladesh with two bullet wounds. “Otherwise, we will all just die.”
During their strikes, ARSA insurgents often dress in black and rouse themselves with the chant “Speak loudly! God is the greatest!” In their initiation rites, the militants promise that their families will not object if they die as martyrs. A dearth of weapons, beyond homemade explosives and crude knives, has increased the chances of such deaths.
Mohammed Jalal, whose cousin is the village ARSA chief and is still fighting back in Rakhine, said he was willing to forfeit his son for the cause. “It is dangerous, but if he dies for his people and his land, then it is Allah’s will,” he said.
Next to him, Mohammed Harun, 10, nodded. “I would go to fight,” he said. “I am not scared.”
Image credits: Adam Dean/The New York Times