As the violence in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state escalates, Rohingya families stream across the border into Bangladesh, bringing with them stories of killings, rape and torture at the hands of Myanmar soldiers.
The sound of gunfire floats across the Naf river as desperate men, women and children with bullet wounds and other injuries seek refuge and treatment in Bangladesh. What was a tale of persecution and systematic marginalisation is rapidly turning into a full-scale guerrilla war in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Although Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has denied reports of atrocities committed by the army, and accused the Rohingya of setting fire to villages and using child soldiers, independent observers, aid workers and UN officials have condemned what they say is a disproportionate response to Rohingya attacks on police outposts.
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The attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an armed group which says it is fighting to regain basic rights for the Rohingya, began last year and marked a significant escalation of the long-simmering conflict between the Rohingya minority and the Myanmar government.
Ataullah, the leader of ARSA, told a Dhaka Tribune correspondent that his group only attacked military targets. Although the group receives support from Rohingyas living abroad, its leaders insist that it is a home-grown movement.
Conflict experts warn that Myanmar’s campaign to clear Rakhine of rebels could lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the broad Naf river into Bangladesh, as they did in the 1970s and 1990s when military operations triggered a refugee crisis.
The Burmese army’s crackdown risks increasing support for the newly-formed Arakan Salvation Army, formerly known as Harakah-al-Yaqin, which already has backers among the Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere.
The problem on the border could also hurt regional stability. Bangladesh, which is battling the rise of militant groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State on its territory, has long expressed worry that international terrorist organizations could seek to exploit the Rohingyas’ anger.
“It could create conditions for further radicalizing sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit to pursue their own agendas in the country,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report last year.
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For years the Rohingya have been repressed, a Muslim minority in a mostly Buddhist nation where their sole political goal is to be allowed to exist. They are denied citizenship and the right to travel freely. Over 100 were killed in sectarian clashes in 2012. Recent articles in state media have described the crisis in Rakhine as being caused by “human fleas.”
The latest violence, though, is qualitatively different from earlier outbreaks as some Rohingyas seem to be getting organized to fight back.
In retaliation, human rights groups say, the army is targeting civilian populations in what amounts to collective punishment. Satellite images last year showed widespread destruction in Rohingya villages and U.N. officials spoke out about “daily reports of rape and killings of Rohingya”.
Although ARSA doesn’t appear to have a transnational jihadist agenda, according to International Crisis Group’s report published last year, a brutal counterinsurgency could radicalize some of the million-strong Rohingya, most of who live in congested, decrepit camps for internally displaced people.
Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights, a human rights group that has worked in Rakhine for many years, says the fledgling militant outfit was “born out of persecution.”
This was echoed by Rohingyas who have fled Rakhine in recent days. “We have lost everything,” one man said. “We want to fight back. We are all ARSA.”