Bangladesh: ARSA’s sanguinary footprints

The situation that exists in the Rohingya camps is complicated, with numerous elements contributing to the perceived threat that Rohingyas pose to peace and security in Bangladesh, as well as in the wider South Asian region.

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File photo of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a designated terrorist group

On December 5, 2023, three Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) operatives – Jobair, Anowar Sadik, and Abdul Kasim – were killed in an attack carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in the Ukhiya Upazila (Sub-District) in the Cox’s Bazar District of Chittagong Division.

On November 27, 2023, a Rohingya man, Mohammad Yunus, was shot dead during a gunfight between ARSA and RSO at a refugee camp in Ukhiya.

On November 19, 2023, a Rohingya man, Syed Amin, was killed in a gunfight between rival armed groups of ARSA and RSO in a turf war for dominance at Camp 3 in Ukhiya.

According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), at least 23 ARSA-linked incidents of violence have been reported in Bangladesh in the current year, thus far (data till December 7, 2023). At least 27 people (11 civilians and 16 militants) have been killed and another eight civilians and one militant were injured in these incidents. According to ICM’s South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, at least 36 ARSA-linked incidents of violence have been reported inside Bangladesh between March 2017 and December 7, 2023. At least 51 persons (21 civilians, and 30 militants) have been killed and another 40 (11 civilians and 29 militants) injured in these incidents. It may be recalled that, in March 2017, the Harakah al-Yaqin (Movement of Faith) renamed itself ARSA.

SATP data, based on open sources, however, underestimates the magnitude of the problem. As reported on July 7, 2023, according to the Police in Bangladesh as well as Rohingya leaders, at least 57 Rohingyas, including 17 community leaders and 11 ARSA operatives, were killed in clashes between January and June 2023 alone.

Harakah al-Yaqin was formed in 2012 following lethal riots between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012, which killed some 200 people and displaced over 120,000, almost all of them Muslims. Since then, Harakah al-Yakin obtained fatwas from clerics in countries with a significant Rohingya Diaspora, to justify the use of violence against the Myanmar Armed Forces, and it has carried out significant attacks on Security Forces, including multiple coordinated attacks on October 9, 2016, which resulted in the deaths of nine Police Officers in Rakhine State.

Harakah al-Yaqin renamed itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in March 2017. ARSA came into prominence on August 25, 2017, when the outfit claimed responsibility for attacks within Myanmar when at least 10 Police and one Myanmar Army personnel were killed in attacks on 24 border guard posts, Police Stations, and Army bases by militants in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in the northern Rakhine province of Myanmar. Earlier, on August 15, 2017, in a video uploaded to social media, Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi aka Ata Ullah, the ‘chief’ of the outfit, declared,

Our legitimate self-defence is a necessary struggle justified by the needs of human survival… ARSA has been in Arakan for three years and has not brought any harm or destruction to the life and properties of the Rakhine people and Rohingya.

Ammar Jununi is thought to be a Rohingya born in Pakistan but raised in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

The August 2017 attacks sparked Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims. The troops torched hundreds of villages and went on a rampage of slaughter and rape. Rohingyas were forced to flee from the volatile Rakhine province and later found shelter in Bangladesh. This was the third major exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh. Earlier waves followed military assaults on the group in 1978 and 1991-1992. Bangladesh now hosts nearly 1.2 million Rohingyas.

The Rohingya exodus from the restive Rakhine State has eventually brought ARSA operatives and sympathisers into Bangladesh. As reported on April 7, 2023, in a rare interview with an international media, Jununi declared that ARSA’s objective would be “open war” and “continued [armed] resistance” until “citizenship rights were reinstated” for Rohingyas in Myanmar.

ARSA is currently active in Buthidaung and Maungdaw in the Rakhine Province of Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar in eastern Bangladesh. In an interview published on February 24, 2022, its ‘chief’, Jununi, claimed that the group had a cadre strength of 14,000 in Bangladesh and 2,000 in Myanmar. Earlier, as reported on February 16, 2023, a report placed before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence (Bangladesh), Tambru’s Konapara camp on the zero line – the Bangladesh-Myanmar International Border – has become the centre-point for ARSA’s organisational operations, training, and control of drug smuggling and terrorist activities, due to a lack of regular patrolling and surveillance in the area.

Among the 10 active groups in Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, ARSA is active in Ukhiya, Balukhali, Palangkhali (Ukhiya Sub-District) and Whykong (Teknaf Sub-District); RSO and the Master Munna gangs in Ukhiya and Palongkhali; the Islami Mahaj and Jabu Dacoit gang in Whykong; and the Chakma dacoit gang, Nabi Hussain dacoit gang, Putia dacoit gang, Salman Shah dacoit gang, and Khaleq dacoit gang, are active in the Nayapara camp. Noting that ARSA controls most of the camps, the report stated that ARSA and the Nabi Hussain dacoit gang often engaged in clashes over dominance, resulting in incidents of murder.

ARSA operatives have been responsible for widespread extortion, kidnapping, torture and murder. The crimes are committed to collect funds for local operations in the world’s largest refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, in southern Bangladesh. Cash-starved Al Yakin, ARSA’s volunteer group, is responsible for most of the gang wars in the refugee camps, in its efforts to establish control over other non-militant groups. Its recruiters from sleeper-cells disseminate a message that joining ARSA or ‘Al Yakin’ was a farz (religious obligation). To fund ARSA, the foot soldiers are also involved in providing armed escorts to cross-border smugglers and drug traders. Funding is also mobilized from Rohingya living in Pakistan, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia.

 A February 17, 2023, report provides a comparison of crime statistics from 2021 and 2022, in and around the Rohingya camps, indicating that there were 77 reported incidents of theft in 2021, slightly decreasing to 75 in 2022. The number of shootings also decreased from 51 in 2021 to 18 in 2022. However, drug-related cases remained high, with 268 cases in 2021 and 249 in 2022. Of concern, however, is the noteworthy increase in murders, with 22 reported cases in 2021 and a sharp rise to 42 in 2022. Further, while violence earlier occurred only at night, militants using knives and locally made guns now roam the camps during the day, threatening residents and killing rivals.

In a July 25, 2023, report, intelligence sources disclosed that a substantial number of weapons had found their way into several Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, in an operation directed by a prominent ARSA leader, identified as Ustad Khaled. Intelligence sources indicated that the weapons were smuggled into the camps by Rohingya women and children. It was also stated that some were active in different Rohingya camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf Sub-Districts and were being led by Ustad Khaled.

The situation that exists in the Rohingya camps is complicated, with numerous elements contributing to the perceived threat that Rohingyas pose to peace and security in Bangladesh, as well as in the wider South Asian region. The existence of militant organizations, the participation of extremist groups, their susceptibility to criminal exploitation or involvement in the small-arms and drug trade, and the region’s geopolitical tensions, are all factors that need to be addressed, in order to reduce the possible dangers associated with the Rohingya crisis. Given the situation in Myanmar, there is little hope of their early rehabilitation in that country. The fullest measures to ensure their security and well-being in the refugee camps are, consequently, necessary.

Sanchita Bhattacharya

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India

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