“Our legitimate self-defense is a necessary struggle justified by the needs of human survival”- ARSA leader Mr. Ata Ullah
Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is operating in the western region of Myanmar. The Myanmar Government has declared this group as terrorist. Before ARSA, there were many others organizations based on Rohingya community in the history. The movement of these organizations started in the 1940’s, after world war-II and with the progress of time these organizations continued their movement sometimes in the form of procession or sometimes in the form of destructive activities. Due to various internal problems and lack of good leadership, most of these parties were abolished and some of those continued with a new shape and name. That means the Rohingya community has a history of countering the situation.
Since the independence of Burma (presently Myanmar) the Muslim communities lived in Arakan, especially Rohingyas were treated differently as they supported and worked for the British during World War II. Rohingyas supported the British with a hope of a separate land for the Muslims; even they wanted to be annexed with then East Pakistan (presently Bangladesh) during the process of discussion before the British left the Indian sub-continent. The Muslims were armed by the British so that they can create obstruction of Japanese invasion. After the independence of Burma many important positions within the country were occupied by the Buddhists. That time Arakanese Buddhists were much ahead in their educational background in comparison to the Muslims, moreover Muslims’ support towards the British during World War II might also be a consideration. Rohingyas and the then Muslim leaders foreseeing their detrimental future continued their movement against the Burmese Government in different forms. In 1946, the Muslim leaders of Arakan met with the leader of Pakistan, Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah and requested Arakan to be annexed with East Pakistan, which was denied. At the same time they also discussed with the Muslim League leaders in Karachi with a similar request of annexation of Arakan with Pakistan which went in vain. Their effort of same demand to the Burmese parliament was not also accepted. Failing of the political approach to their demands, local Mujahedeen members led by Mr. Mir Qasem started forceful movement which compelled a good number of Rakhine Buddhists to flee to East Pakistan. With the declaration of martial law in 1948, Burmese security forces took control over the region by June 1949; the Mujahedeen had to take shelter in the jungles near the then East Pakistan border areas. In the early 1950’s both Burma and Pakistan reached to a understanding of supporting each other on border security issues which ensured arrest of Mr. Mir Qasem and surrender of many of his activists. By 1961 almost all the Mujahedeen had to surrender to the Burmese Government but the Muslim Rohingyas who migrated from the Indian subcontinent during the British period or after the independence of Burma were not accepted by the Burmese.
There is a long history of Rohingyas getting organized in different names, in different times and protesting against the stand of Myanmar Government’s decision which used to go against the interest of the Rohingya community. The Mujahedeen campaign was started after the independence of Burma to gain autonomy or secede or to be annexed with then East Pakistan as many of them were already armed by the British since World War II. But most of them had to surrender to the Burmese Government by 1961. Mujahedeen leader Zafar Kawal, Abdul Latif and Annul Jauli continued their movement with more than two hundred of their activists in three different groups. But these groups were not supported locally or by any interested foreign agencies. It compelled them to do all criminal activities for their survival and very slowly had been taking preparation to organize a party.
In 1972, Mujahedeen leader Zafar Kawal organized the Rohingya Liberation Party (RLP) along with the previous activists he had. Abdul Latif and Muhammad Jafar Habib were other important leaders of this party. By 1974 the number of the activists of the party was increased from 200 to 500. But in mid-1974, the active posture of Burmese security forces compelled Zafar Kawal and many of his activists to take shelter in inaccessible jungles near the bordering areas. In the same year, Muhammad Jafar Habib organized another party named the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) with around 70 of his activists. Nurul Islam and Muhammad Yunus were the other important leaders of this party. In 1978, ‘Operation King Dragon’, conducted by Burmese Government, forcefully compelled many general Rohingyas to cross the border of Bangladesh but RPF remained intact up to 1982. Then this party was divided and came up with a new name the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) under the leadership of Muhammad Yunus.
In 1986 another party was organized by Nurul Islam, named the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF). But among those two parties, RSO was very active both militarily and keeping coordination with similar minded parties of Pakistan, India and Malaysia. In April 1994, RSO planted bombs created damage of a few buildings at Maungdaw town, Arakan. In 1998, ARIF and RSO were merged and formed a new party named the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO).This party used to maintain a separate armed wing, named The Rohingya National Army (RNA).
In 2012, a new party, Harakah al-Yaqin came up under the leadership of Ata-Ullah Abu Ammar Jununi, mostly known as Ata Ullah to protest Myanmar security forces torture basing on a rape of a Buddhist women by some Rohingya people. There were communal clashes between Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists on the follow up of that rape incident. Later on, Harakah al-Yaqin was renamed in English, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). But there is no information about the movement of ARNO or RNA now a days. It might so happen that these two parties are merged with ARSA. The meaning of ARSA’s previous name ‘Harakah-al-Yaqin” is faith movement. This group always claims their non-violent approach to work for the interest of Rohingya community. There are information about the location of the headquarters of Harakah-al-Yaqin is in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, being supervised by twenty senior leaders of Rohingya community background. The chief of ARSA, Mr. Ata Ullah (alias Ameer Abu Amar or Abu Amar Jununi or Myanmar Government identifies him as Hafiz Tohar) is basically from northern Rakhine. His father migrated to Karachi, Pakistan where he was born. Later on, his family was shifted to Mecca, Saudi Arabia where Mr. Ata Ullah grew up and studied in Islamic education (madrasa). The Myanmar Government spells “Hafiz Tohar” as “Havistoohar”. Myanmar Government opines that Mr. Ata Ullah has attended six-month Taliban training in Pakistan. There is some unconfirmed information that he went from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and from there he went possibly to Libya for further training. His way of talking and expression indicates that he is very fluent in Rohingya and Arabic dialect. There is also information that he received practical training on modern guerrilla warfare in Pakistan and might have ground experience to operate in Afghanistan as well. There are evidences of Mr. Ata-Ullah’s connection Abdul Qadoos Burmi, the chief of Harkat ul Jihad al Islami -Arakan (HUJI-A) although he (Mr. Ata-Ullah) has denied ARSA’s connection with any regional or global terrorist groups.
The time RSO was active in the 1990’s, there were information about various automatic weapons were in their possession. But in the case of ARSA, they are found using bladed weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in most of the incidents. From 2016 to January 2018, there were number of incidents that project the strength of ARSA. In October 2016 at least 40 people were killed due to clashes between Myanmar security forces and ARSA at the northern part of Rakhine. This time ARSA could take away a good number of weapons and ammunition from the border posts. In response the security forces of Myanmar tortured the general Rohingya people in the plea of search for the militants.
On May 4, 2017, an accidental detonation of an IED caused the death of seven ARSA activists including one instructor at Kyaung Taung village tract (north Buthidaung) during their training on IEDs. There are rumor about the instructor to be from Pakistan. On May 7, 2017, Myanmar security forces conducted investigation of the incident area of 04 May 2017 and found proof of the IED training materials. They also found the sign of five dead bodies including two foreigners. In response, the security forces conducted massive brutal operation in nearby villages which forced the general Rohingya people to leave their houses and take shelter in Bangladesh. On June 20, 2017 Myanmar security forces could kill three ARSA activists in Sein Hnyin Pyar village (South Buthidaung). The security forces claimed that incident has occurred while clearing a training camp of ARSA. On June 24, 2017, ARSA killed two Rakhine Buddhists and injured of one, in Kyun Pauk Pyu Su village (north Maungdaw) as they had been searching for planted bombs. On being informed, Myanmar security forces reached to the spot but found no proof of bombs. Before this incident ARSA never attacked on the civilian Buddhists. It might so happen that Rakhine Buddhists had false allegations against ARSA or they (ARSA) might have removed their bomb materials before the arrival of security forces personnel. On August 01, 2017, in Pan Taw Pyin village tract (Maungdaw) a house which Myanmar security forces claim it to be ARSA safe house, an IED was accidentally exploded and later on Myanmar security forces recovered IED preparing materials. On August, 2017, Myanmar security forces made responsible ARSA for the killing of eight members of the Mro ethnic group at Maungdaw Township which did not have any reliable proof. On August 16, 2017, ARSA uploaded a video, asking Myanmar military to demilitarize northern Rakhine State and stop mistreatments against Rohingya. ARSA leader Mr. Ata Ullah was seen in that video. He conveyed that his group has no connection with any of the global or regional terrorist groups and never want to target Rakhine civilians. On 25 August 2017, ARSA attack on some police posts and an army base in Rakhine state caused the death of 12 security personnel and 59 Rohingyas. Myanmar security forces responded very tough on this incident. It caused 700,000 Rohingya exoduses in Bangladesh.
On September 09, 2017 ARSA declared a unilateral ceasefire for one-month to allow aid groups and humanitarian workers safe access into northern Rakhine State which was denied by Myanmar Government addressing ARSA to be a terrorist organization. Since August 28, 2017 no video message has been released by Mr. Ata Ullah. On October 07, 2017 one Twitter message has been circulated announcing the end of its unilateral ceasefire. But there is no new attack from ARSA since then.
ARSA leader Mr. Ata Ullah has strongly denied any connection with any of the regional and global terrorist groups. But analyzing the history of more than half a century, various activities of Rohingya backed mujahedeen, the serious violence of Myanmar security forces, vindictive approach of Rakhine Buddhists and deadly traumatized experience of Rohingya people by Myanmar security forces might compel them to take over the path of terrorism in near future.