Following deadly attacks on three police outposts that killed nine police officers along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, speculation about the perpetrators has spread wildly, both from the Myanmar government and the media. The attack was apparently carried out by a massive group estimated at 400 people that coordinated simultaneous assaults on three separate border guard police posts near the city of Maungdaw, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The attackers were believed to belong to the country’s long oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority. Speculation has been rampant in the wake of the attacks and subsequent military crackdown, ranging from claims that the assailants were trained by the Pakistani Taliban, to those in opposition claiming the entire affair has been orchestrated by the military to seize resources, regain control of the government, and expel the Muslim minority. What seems clear is that much of what happened and who is behind it is lying in plain sight, but very few have been willing to acknowledge it.
The initial speculation by government and media sources was that the attack was carried out by the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), even though that group has been defunct since they were disarmed by the Bangladeshi government in the early 2000s. Rumors have abounded that the group in fact remains active, even as the RSOs leadership – and indeed the leaderships of nearly all Rohingya militant groups – have gone into exile and taken on more diplomatic roles. Whatever remnants of the RSO do remain in Bangladesh are a toothless version of what once was. This doesn’t eliminate the potential for militarization of Rohingya in the region, but relies heavily on rumors to explain what might be happening.
Within a few days of the attack unconfirmed videos began to appear online of men insinuating their connection to the attacks, calling for Muslims and Rohingya to join them in combat against the military and government. The group identified itself as al Yakeen in several of the videos, and elsewhere as Harakat al Yaqeen, which was translated to me by fluent Arabic speakers as well as Rohingya familiar with the group as “The Movement of the Faith” or alternatively “The Movement of Hope.” In the first videos released several adult men in civilian clothes can be see holding assault rifles and small pistols. In a later video they appear marching and say their emir, or spiritualist leader, has been injured but is continuing on while asking for others to join them. The camera then pans to show a wider shot of the entire militia walking. Their numbers are so great they are unable to show all of them, but they are apparently in the hundreds. What is beyond striking, though, is that only a handful of the men are adults with guns; the rest are children who appear to be 12 years old or younger armed with swords, sticks and farm tools. The feeling quickly sinks in that these children are being marched to their deaths for something they aren’t even old enough to understand. Frankly, it is horrifying.
The president’s office later released a statement regarding the attacks which attempted to clarify previous unconfirmed statements in a single account of facts. The statements described the leadership of a little known group called “Aqa Mul Mujahadeen,” whom they said was trained by the Pakistani Taliban over the course of six months through an RSO contact. “Aqaa Mul Mujahideen” means “Those who stand as Mujahideen (Muslim warriors)” in Arabic, and reads more as a generic reference than any kind of official name. The statement said that this organization was funded by Middle East backers.
The trouble with these statements is that they make very little sense in light of what information is available. While the government is describing an overwhelming force of well trained and well funded Taliban-tied militants, the reality for them is far more embarrassing: Their police posts were overrun by a militia composed mostly of small children led by downtrodden men armed with farm tools, who stole their guns and quickly vanished. Neither the military nor the police can find them. The insurgency the government is trying to identify is more of an uprising, albeit a well coordinated one. Evidence of funding and links to clandestine groups may prove true over time, but at the moment evidence suggests the attacks were local to the areas near the Naf river, the attackers were only armed with swords and tools before robbing the police posts of their guns, and that their initial tactics were sophomoric at best. The Rohingya they’re fighting now are living in the same conditions as the Rohingya who knowingly fled with human traffickers two years ago that could – and often would – kill, rape and sell them in to slavery, in the hope they might escape the circumstances inside of Myanmar and the Bangladesh refugee camps. It is not a jihadist invasion of Myanmar; It is an act of desperation. But unlike the Rohingya who fled on boats, those fighting believe they preserve some sense of autonomy and dignity after decades of having been denied both.
In one of the videos posted on a channel called “The Faith Movement,” the same men seen in the previous videos appear, but a voice is dubbed over, and seemingly modulated perhaps to hide the identity of the speaker. The dubbing is in English and calls for a restoration of rights and that a number of grievances be immediately resolved. They deny any links to terrorists groups, or any outside influence at all. They clearly express a feeling of abandonment by the international community, and perhaps most unexpected of all they call on the Myanmar government to end its civil war with the ethnic minorities in the country, many of whom have been fickle allies, if not outright political opponents to the Rohingya. While the dubbing of this video can’t be verified yet, when compared to what facts on the ground are known they stand well enough to take seriously. Within all the chaos that has happened since the initial attacks no Buddhist civilians have been targeted or attacked. Whether or not the video itself can be verified, it does seem that those involved in this conflict do want to avoid the label of terrorists, and like the other ethnic groups, they may be seeking to gain legitimate political power through guerrilla fighting as the Kachin Independence Organization and Karen National Union have done in the Kachin and Karen ethnic regions.
As few facts emerge about the conflict journalists have also scrambled to gather information on the militants, but with limited success. Surely if hundreds of men and boys left to go fight the government someone would know about it. Yet, the Rohingya have remained incredibly silent on the issue, and one has to imagine how disheartening it must be to be approached by journalists who have often ignored or minimized cries for help from the community but are suddenly now are interested in a sensational story that risks demonizing them even as they watch dozens of their own die in the crackdown. It confirms in the worst way that their grievances are taken more seriously by the world when they are armed than when they are victims.
On October 11, four Burmese soldiers were reportedly killed in a skirmish in Maungdaw. Accounts varied between government and Rohingya sources about who initiated the fight, but given the high number of casualties of well armed Burmese soldiers it seems likely they were ambushed, which may be a dreadful sign of things to come.
In my conversation about the insurgency with Rohingya I feel swept with guilt for exactly this, and few would open up to me, though they were plainly aware of exactly who al Yakeen was. A small few did agree to talk, and it’s with regret they see their people having run out of options. It is desperation, pure and simple. It can’t be justified, and while listening I am painfully aware of how significantly these events will worsen the suffering of the Rohingya, but it is still imperative to understand where these beliefs came from, how they spread, and how they might be resolved.
As the military and government seek to calm the situation and restore order, they are operating with a heavy hand. Civilian casualties are already high, and credible reports are emerging of Rohingya men dying in police custody, under circumstances that are questionable at best. The situation could easily worsen as resentment and hopelessness increase among the population. The Rohingya have long tried to address their grievances through political means, and the vast majority would prefer to still do so, but lack any course or mechanism. If State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s new government wants to legitimately restore peace they should be aware their best tool now is compassion. Any acknowledgment of the Rohingya’s humanity, of their suffering, and an offering of a way to dignity and autonomy will do more to reduce violence than any army is capable of. Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy need only to have the courage to do so.
Richard Potter is a researcher with the Burma Human Rights Network.