The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya militant group, came to global attention once again last year after unknown gunmen killed Mohibullah, a prominent Rohingya leader, in one of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Mohibullah’s brother Habibullah claimed that ARSA might have been responsible, angered by his advocacy of a peaceful non-violent approach to solving the Rohingya crisis, even though ARSA denied any involvement with the killing.
The denial of Rohingya rights is as old as that of the Myanmar state. After Myanmar’s independence in 1948, it adopted a policy of viewing Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Consequently, it has engaged in a series of expulsions of Rohingya from Myanmar: Operation Nagamin (1978), Operation Pyi Thaya (1992), and a military “clearance operation” in 2017 all saw an exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The denial of the community’s rights was formally enshrined in 1982 with the passage of the Burma Citizenship Act, which helped transform the Rohingyas into the largest stateless community in the world.
The origin of Rohingya militancy dates back to the early days of the Myanmar’s independence, when violence was a tactic of mainstream political actors in Myanmar, including the central authorities (the national government and military) and various political and ethnic minority groups, including Rohingya Mujahid fighters. Even though these Mujahid wished to be part of the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), they eventually surrendered to the Myanmar central authority. This resulted in the establishment of the Mayu Frontier Administration (MFA) in Rakhine State, which brought political legitimacy for the Rohingyas in 1961. But with the military coup in 1962, the dream of the special status of the MFA ended and a new era of persecution and displacement began.
The post-1962 political situation in Rakhine State led to the creation of a range of Rohingya organizations, including the Rohingya Independence Force, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front, the Rohingya Solidarity Alliance, and the Rohingya Patriotic Front. Some of these groups chose the path of armed resistance, while others remained non-violent in their approach. Access to arms and support within Rohingyas were “extremely limited and factionalized.”
The latest Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), was initially known as the Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement). Experts contend that the group “is a result of many years of persecution of the Rohingya people in Rakhine.” This group attracted media attention after it allegedly attacked security forces twice in 2016 and 2017. These two attacks acted as a casus belli for the Myanmar government to unleash a disproportionate attack on Rohingya civilians, including women and children, even though these ARSA militants were not heavily armed. This resulted in the forced exodus of nearly 1 million Rohingyas to Bangladesh in 2017 and 2018. A United Nations fact finding mission later determined that this “clearance operation” amounted to possible genocide and foreign nations including the United States slapped sanctions on some military personnel in 2018.
Even before the ARSA attacks in 2016 and 2017, organizations such as the International Crisis Group, RAND Corporation, Counter Extremism Project, and individual scholars have expressed concerns about a forthcoming wave of Rohingya radicalization. Some scholars identify internal and external factors for the rise of Rohingya militancy. Internal factors include the trauma caused by torture in Myanmar, the denial of basic and fundamental rights, the dream of an independent Rakhine State, and the social structures of the refugee camps. External causes include ideas of Muslim brotherhood, jihadism provoked by transnational groups, prejudice against non-Muslims, and the convenient environment for the development of such organizations. As a result of these factors, the sentiment of ummah (Muslim community) could well grow among Rohingyas, given that they have “long suffered suppression and persecution by both the Myanmar government and extremist Buddhists.” Rohingyas’ contested identity has also been identified as a catalyst for radicalization.
These academic prophecies became reality after the expulsions of 2017, when transnational militant organizations started exploiting the plight of the Rohingyas. In September 2017, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged “all mujahidin brothers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma to help their Muslim brothers.” Some analysts contend that al-Qaida will “try to further expand to Myanmar, either by trying to absorb parts of ARSA or by creating its own local jihadist network.” In its magazine Dabiq the Islamic State mentioned that it “aims to develop a stronghold in Bangladesh and use it as a platform to launch attacks on Myanmar.” Hizb ut Tahrir, another transnational militant group, distributed leaflets in the city of Cox’s Bazar stating that “the only way to liberate the Muslims in Myanmar is by establishing and expanding Arakan (Rakhine State) as a caliphate.” It is worth mentioning here that ARSA has denied having connections with any transnational militant groups.
Surprisingly, none of the militant organizations have yet established a sound footing in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, although Bangladesh banned some NGOs from working in the camps in 2018, due to alleged connections to terror funding. What could be the possible reason for Rohingya resilience against militant provocation? I think the answer lies in the recent research exploring the drivers of radicalization in Bangladesh. One recent book claims that the current phase of militancy in Bangladesh is deeply influenced by the radical ideology of the global caliphate. That means the catalyst for this wave radicalization is global in nature and follows global trends. As a result, since 2018, as the Islamic State has lost its physical territory and its Caliph as well, it has not been able to attract as much attention in the Rohingya camps.
It would appear that the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar still offer fertile ground for radicalization, requiring just a seed – that is, an ideology having a global or regional element– to be fertilized. That said, Rohingya militancy has so far been more a myth than a reality, with ARSA militants having very limited successes. Therefore, too much emphasis on Rohingya radicalization might distract us from sustainable solutions to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Rather, all actors including national and international organizations must focus on finding respectful solutions for Rohingyas before they fall prey to radical ideologies.