The curious disappearance of Myanmar’s Rohingya rebels
Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has inexplicably stopped tweeting its press releases, grievances and demands. So does the shadowy group still exist?
For a shadowy armed organization, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) maintained an ostentatious social media presence, especially on the Western-centric platform Twitter. But for the past three months, ARSA’s tweeting insurgents have been notably silent.
The previous year had seen a regular stream of English language statements and press releases, with the group’s official Twitter account “@ARSA_Official” attracting 12,600 followers and following 29 prominent Western activists, Yangon-based foreign journalists and even the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee.
ARSA is the rebranded Rohingya armed resistance that first appeared in October 2016 as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), and which claimed credit for the attacks on Myanmar Border Guard Police outposts in Maungdaw of northern Rakhine state.
Those small-scale attacks motivated the Myanmar military’s brutal “area clearance” operations that have since driven over 670,000 mostly Rohingya refugees across the border into neighboring Bangladesh and sparked an international outcry over Myanmar’s “ethnic cleansing” of the minority group.
But in the last three months, ARSA has completely abandoned its social media campaign, a silence that has caused some activists to question whether the rebel group still – or ever did – exists.
UN investigators have even started using the qualifier “alleged” in their statements on ARSA’s supposed August 25, 2017 attacks, questioning of the veracity of official accounts of the violence.
The rebel group’s initial statements espoused jihadist rhetoric, but soon after transforming into the more legitimately labelled ARSA, their messaging in English soon became more attuned to righteous resistance than terrorism.
The group issued 27 statements from March 29, 2017 and ending on January 31, 2018. Some of the statements were carefully worded and politically nuanced, especially the list of ARSA’s 20 aims and objectives contained in its first press release on March 29, 2017.
These included the reinstatement of the “indigenous native ethnic status of Rohingyas”, issuance citizenship identity cards, allowances for “bona fide Rohingyas” to return to Rakhine from diaspora communities worldwide, and the granting of full human rights, ability to form political parties, employment in civil service jobs and return of confiscated land.
The list of demands was in line with many international calls for the rights of the oppressed minority.
On June 29, an audio message from ARSA commander “Abu Ammar” (meaning the father of creation, or builder, in Arabic), posted on the group’s Twitter account said “all the information and statements from the central command will be released through the Twitter page.” The message was posted with the photo of a man holding an AK-47 assault rifle and a pistol.
ARSA even assured “full security for the team members” of the UN-formed international Fact Finding Mission. In Press Release No. 5, the group cannily claimed it was working in the same tradition as other ethnic armed organizations in Rakhine state such as the Buddhist Arakan Army and other former anti-state armed groups, claiming the enemy was the “BURMESE BRUTAL MILITARY” (sic) and that ARSA pledged its “heartfelt sympathy and good will for all the oppressed people therein Burma.”
The group’s statements started warning of a military buildup and the siege of a Rohingya village in Rathedaung township in early August 2017. Then, hours after the release of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine report on August 24, 30 police and army outposts were attacked by thousands of men with rudimentary weapons coordinated over WhatsApp messaging, according to the government’s version of events.
Twelve police and an immigration officer were killed. By ARSA’s own accounts, posted to Twitter on August 24, “Currently, we have been taking our defensive actions against the Burmese marauding forces in more than 25 different places across the region. More soon!” And then on the same night, “This is a legitimate step for us to defend the world’s persecuted people and liberate the oppressed people from the hands of the oppressors!”
After the start of the military’s “area clearance” operations that in several stages over many months almost emptied Maungdaw district of all Muslims, ARSA accelerated its release of statements. On September 10, it announced a “humanitarian pause”, claiming in Press Release No. 10 “a temporary cessation of offensive military operations in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.”
The group felt it “necessary to make it clear that it has no links with Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Lashkar-e-Taiba or any transnational terrorist group.” Much of its late 2017 statements were appeals to international organizations for assistance.
In early 2018, ARSA claimed responsibility for an ambush on the Myanmar military in Turaing village on January 5, an incident reported in the state media. The final press release was ominously entitled, “Notice to other armed groups, dacoit (bandit) groups, human trafficking groups, drug trafficking groups and some other groups commissioned by the Burmese terrorist government operating in disguise as ARSA.”
The group’s statements had become routinely obsessed with the “real ARSA”, with a number of statements warning the media (and naming specific news organizations such as France 24 and Channel News Asia) not to be fooled by men in refugee camps in Bangladesh who claimed to be ARSA commanders.
One of its earliest tweets claimed that a Dhaka Tribune article interviewed fake ARSA members, and that an interview with CNN was the group’s first sanctioned media interview. It also attacked by tweet an article by Frontier magazine on its operations as “trash” and stated that “Propaganda by the Myanmar media will fall flat. We have a voice now.”
Glaringly absent from all ARSA’s press releases were any press contacts: a fundamental component of any media communication. The statements were all in English apart from one in the Burmese language, which may have been futile given the vilification against the group throughout Myanmar.
ARSA never created a Facebook page, the overwhelmingly crucial communication medium in Myanmar. But the Twitter account did express frustration about its videos being pulled, because of “Youtube Platform (sic) who are taking sides with Brutal Burmese regime.”
ARSA’s logo, a map of Rakhine state with two crossed AR-15 assault rifles (an unusual weapon for armed groups in the Myanmar/Bangladesh borderlands where there are not many of them) was on almost all the press statements, along with the words “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”
This was armed resistance branding of the committed kind. Most of the statements were signed in English “Atta Ullah”, the “Commander-in-Chief” of ARSA (aka Abu Ammar), the same person seen in several videos posted on the internet.
But now Atta Ullah and his ARSA colleagues have been totally silent on social media for three months, raising new critical questions about the group’s earlier campaign to project their grievances to a mostly Western audience.
ARSA’s social media silence coincides with an emerging narrative that ARSA never existed. Rohingya and Western rights activists are now spreading a narrative that purports the August 25, 2017 attacks were a so-called “false flag” operation by the Myanmar security forces to justify it brutally disproportionate “area clearance” operations.
A 2017 report from the Rohingya news group Kaladan Press claims that “the military clearance operation was carefully pre-planned, and that many, if not all, of the ARSA attacks may simply have been fabricated as a pretext for the assault.”
The October 9, 2016 lethal attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine is the forgotten dimension of the Rohingya crisis. These initial attacks, sparking an almost sneak preview of what would later befall the Rohingya if there were further coordinated assaults on security forces, drove 87,000 people into Bangladesh in a brutally disproportionate military counterinsurgency operation.
ARSA’s videos distributed after the first assaults seemed credible. An International Crisis Group (ICG) report in late 2016 was a comprehensive outline of the newly formed armed group. What followed was several months of ARSA assassinating suspected government informants throughout Maungdaw, as exhaustively documented in the state run media.
But the group hotly denied the killing accusations, claiming they were designed to “tarnish the noble image of ARSA.” State media also claimed to have found a number of rudimentary “terrorist training camps” in Maungdaw district during a series of security force search operations.
The Myanmar government is increasingly employing counterterrorist language and appealing both to domestic neo-populist narratives of Rohingya illegal immigration tied to violent Islamic extremism, and appeals to international counterterrorism fears and calls for more regional security cooperation on the issue.
Myanmar’s government has instructed the media and international groups to refer to ARSA as “extremist Bengali terrorists” rather than “insurgents” and certainly not “freedom fighters.” This has led to the collective guilt, and hence justified punishment, of all Rohingya.
The counterterrorist labeling reached another low point in early 2018 when state media newspapers issued a daily supplement series of mug-shots of wanted “members of ARSA terrorist group.”
Such is the international outrage over the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims that many journalists, activists, analysts and aid workers have failed to raise important questions about the nature, size, objectives and activities of ARSA, and importantly, what connection the group or its members have with the large Rohingya diaspora in Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
What is more confusing about this narrative is that many Rohingya acknowledge the existence of ARSA and are angry at their actions which supposedly sparked the security operation that compelled their forced expulsion.
To endorse the ARSA-as-myth argument is to give too much credibility to the Myanmar military’s Directorate of Public Relations and Psychological Warfare and Public Relations and its Tatmadaw True News Information Team, the latter of which specializes in blustering denials, outright racism and bunker mentality paranoia.
It’s thus doubtful that the Tatmadaw’s limited worldview could conceive and execute such a sophisticated ruse. Yet, as researcher Ray Serrato notes, the number of Twitter users in Myanmar dramatically surged after the August 2017 attacks, with the platform increasingly used for a cyberwar of words on political matters.
Many of those new accounts are strongly suspected to be bots or cyborgs (a bot with human control) directed by the military.
Australian scholar Andrew Selth notes that conspiracy theories are especially virulent in Myanmar, a symptom of the country’s long isolation that since 2011 has increasingly spread via social media. But, as Selth surmises, given the choice between a conspiracy or a cock-up, assume the cock-up in Myanmar.
A military information team investigation from November 2017 claimed that there were between 6,200 to 10,000 “terrorists” involved in attacks on August 25, 2017 and that after 12 days of fighting security forces killed 376 and arrested 78.
The report alleged that ARSA killed a total of 131 civilians, mostly ethnic minority people and Hindus. These claims are in dispute, but many informed independent observers agree that ARSA or its sympathizers indeed targeted civilians in a number of attacks on non-Rohingya villages.
So, then, why has ARSA stopped tweeting? One theory is that the insurgent outfit is regrouping and training in neighboring Bangladesh in preparation of a fresh round of assaults it doesn’t want to tip off through public communications.
Another is that ARSA’s social media messaging was in some instances adversely affecting its carefully constructed narrative of only innocent and pure Rohingya civilians being driven out by an abusive Myanmar army.
Clumsy or revealing messaging could undermine its calls for an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the military’s abuses, or, as some have suggested, a possible UN intervention as seen in former Yugoslavia’s Kosovo that carves out a Rohingya homeland in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district.
These are ideas that ARSA has raised before in its public statements, and it is odd now to hear similar messages arising from certain exiled Rohingya and international activists.
That’s raising questions about the degree of cooperation or collusion between the armed group and outside “peaceful” activists and whether the rebel group’s deafening new silence on its once active Twitter account is more of a collective than individual decision.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon based independent analyst