BANGKOK – Rohingya insurgents armed with sticks, machetes and firearms stormed 30 police posts on Aug. 25, triggering an aggressive response from the Myanmar army and an ongoing humanitarian crisis.
The attack was claimed the same day by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), and the subsequent military crackdown by Myanmar’s military which by Tuesday had led to at least 313,000 Rohingyas fleeing across the border to Bangladesh, according to UN estimates.
Funded and led by the Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the armed group’s membership has grown significantly in less than a year.
The ICG in a report released in August said that the desperate situation of the Rohingyas in Myanmar was one of the factors that explained this growth.
Prior to the Aug. 25 incident, ARSA, which was founded in 2012 and has been sporadically active in the western state of Rakhine (formerly known as the Arakan), home to the Rohingya population, was only known for one coordinated attack.
It took place in October 2016, on three police posts near the border with Bangladesh, and involved some 400 guerillas, according to Myanmar’s government.
This incident also led to a tough response by the military, which at that time was already accused of murders, torching houses, looting and rape.
The insurgents are led by Ata Ullah, identified by the government as Hafiz Tohar, an ethnic Rohingya born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Flanked by hooded men, Ullah, 27, appears in videos posted on social networks urging the defense of the Rohingyas in the face of “brutal” oppression by the Myanmar army.
ARSA fighters have been trained in guerrilla warfare in camps in Bangladesh, and some have fought in the Afghanistan and Pakistan conflicts.
The army calls the insurgents “extremist Bengali terrorists” and accuses the rebels of being responsible for killing civilians, allegations which ARSA rejects.
Lilianne Fan, director of the Geutanyoe Aid Foundation – which provides aid to Rohingyas – during a conference in Bangkok, when asked about an investigation carried out by independent agencies, questioned whether the allegation of attacks on civilians should be taken seriously.
“There isn’t yet sufficient evidence to show ARSA is systematically attacking civilians,” said the expert on conflicts, adding that its modus operandi does not match the criteria of the international definition of terrorism.
The actual number of members of the guerrilla group is unknown, but it has a limited capacity due to its lack of weapons.
The army says, in the two attacks, it has killed more than 400 insurgents and detained around 100, while the armed group killed 21 policemen and soldiers.
Since October 2016, about 400,000 Rohingyas – almost half the Rohingya community – have crossed into Bangladesh fleeing the violence in Myanmar.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, warned on Monday that ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas could be taking place in Myanmar, as well as possible crimes against humanity.
ARSA declared a temporary ceasefire on Sunday to allow the entry of humanitarian assistance but Naypyidaw rejected it.
It is estimated that more than 1 million Rohingyas who have been living in Rakhine have been victims of growing discrimination since the outbreak of sectarian violence in 2012, which left at least 160 dead and some 120,000 displaced.
Myanmar denies the Rohingyas citizenship, because it considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.