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The Muslim militant at the heart of Myanmar's Rohingya exodus

The conflict is drawing the attention of foreign extremists. Al Qaeda's central leadership urged Muslims to travel to Myanmar and support the Rohingya

James Hookway | WSJ  |  Yangon, Myanmar 

Rohingya crisis: Myanmar key link to India's Look East policy
Rohingya refugees travel on a truck to Kutupalang makeshift refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Myanmar’s government calls the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army “extremist militant terrorists.”

The group, known as ARSA, and its founder, Ata Ullah, say it is defending Muslim Rohingya, highlighting decades of repression they have endured in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where most live along the border with Bangladesh.

The conflict is drawing the attention of foreign extremists. Al Qaeda’s central leadership urged Muslims to travel to and support the Rohingya.

“In the coming year will suffer from a full-blown insurgency unless it works with the community to resolve an escalating conflict,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of Studies in Singapore.

Indonesian Islamist groups are calling for volunteers to fight in In the southern Philippines, Islamist radicals are training militants from Southeast and South Asia for combat in Myanmar, an intelligence official there said.

Before the recent military purge, around 1 million Rohingya lived in Rakhine State. Myanmar’s government calls Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a throwback to British rule when migrants from the subcontinent began moving to what was then Burma. The Rohingya are denied citizenship as well as rudimentary schooling and health care.

Army commander-in-chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing recently called its campaign “unfinished business.”

Over the years, many Rohingya fled. Among them was the father of Mr. Ullah, the ARSA founder, who made his way to Karachi, Pakistan, where Mr. Ullah, now in his 40s, was born, according to the Brussels-based Crisis Group.

The family later moved to Saudi Arabia, where Mr. Ullah was educated in a madrassa, or Islamic school. In ARSA videos he speaks both the dialect used by Muslims in northern Rakhine State, and Arabic.

Then, in 2012, as tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists boiled over, Mr. Ullah left Saudi Arabia.

Myanmar’s military says he attended a six-month guerrilla-warfare training course with the Taliban in Pakistan. The Crisis Group has interviewed ARSA members who said he might also have sought training in Libya. Mr. Ullah, whom the government calls Hafiz Tohar, couldn’t be reached for comment.

When Mr. Ullah returned to the border area of Bangladesh and Rakhine State around 2013 he began recruiting young fighters under the banner of Harakah al-Yaqin, or the Faith Movement, later to become ARSA, the military says.

Overseen by a committee of some 20 Rohingya exiles in Saudi Arabia, the group has adopted an Islamic slogan and taken a new insignia featuring two semiautomatic rifles crossed before a map of Rakhine State.

Security analysts estimate the group to number several hundred fighters. Initially they were equipped with a few old rifles, staves and knives. As repression of the Rohingya worsened, ARSA grew more ambitious, carrying out deadly attacks in October 2016.

Then, on Aug. 17, Mr. Ullah posted a video in which he accused Myanmar’s military of sealing off the town of Rathedaung and starving the mostly Muslim inhabitants. He warned the army of reprisals if it didn’t relent.

“Our primary objective is to liberate our people from the dehumanizing oppression perpetrated by all successive Burmese regimes,” he said, flanked by four men cradling AK-47 rifles.

ARSA attacked more border outposts on Aug. 25—prompting military retaliation. In Hpa-an, five hours’ drive east of Yangon, influential Buddhist nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu used the Aug. 25 attacks to demand that all Rohingya leave the country—a sentiment that is becoming commonplace. “Terrorists go home!” he yelled. His audience cheered and held up signs saying “No Rohingya.”

The Crisis Group said the Aug. 25 attack was a calculated move. “[ARSA] knows that it is provoking the security forces into a heavy-handed military response, hoping that this will further alienate Rohingya communities, drive support for ARSA, and place the spotlight of the world back on military abuses in northern Rakhine State,” it said. 
Source: The Wall Street Journal

First Published: Thu, September 14 2017. 10:21 IST