Will Myanmar’s Rohingya rebels respond?
The Rohingya militant group that triggered the country's unfolding refugee crisis has numbers but lacks weapons to mount a credible insurgency
Ever since Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, swept through northern Rakhine state villages in a campaign of terror and destruction that has displaced well over half a million people, the Rohingya Muslim insurgents whose fumbling assaults on local police posts on August 25 that triggered the atrocities have been largely missing-in-action.
During what they described as a month-long ‘humanitarian pause’ in hostilities from early September to early October, the lightly armed and poorly trained fighters of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) reportedly focused their efforts on assisting columns of traumatized and desperate civilians who have trekked through jungle and mountains to the safety of Bangladesh.
At the same time, the rebels were also busy establishing an organized presence in the sprawling refugee camps that have sprung up inside Bangladesh offering a modicum of shelter to over 620,000 new arrivals.
Now, despite a reported and unsurprising surge in new recruits, ARSA has shown no sign of even a tentative return to the battlefield. Indeed, an almost eerie silence emanates from the charred villages, lush paddy fields and rain-drenched hills south of the border.
The lack of response almost certainly has more to do with constraint than strategy. ARSA, which first gained international attention through attacks on border police outposts in October 2016, today faces two daunting obstacles – neither of which it will be able to surmount in the coming months. Combined, they call into question the future viability of any effective insurgency.
The first is a desperate shortage of weaponry required to turn new recruits into combatants capable of prosecuting even a low-intensity hit-and-run campaign against Myanmar security forces. The group has recently made claims that it now has more than 5,000 recruits, according to informed sources.
But anecdotal evidence supported by photographs taken at ARSA training areas earlier this year suggest that only a portion of the group’s hard core of several hundred partially trained cadre have access to modern firearms.
Best ‘guesstimates’ among security analysts and intelligence officials attempting to monitor the situation put that number at one or two hundred assault rifles, probably acquired earlier this year. ARSA is not known to field any heavier weapons such as machine-guns or rocket launchers that are critical to sustaining, let alone expanding, any insurgency.
The August 25 assaults were ill-planned ad hoc affairs in which crude petrol bombs and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs) backed by hastily mobilized villagers wielding machetes and swords played a far greater role than firearms. The results were predictable: 12 security force members were killed while over 70 insurgents died in the battles.
Following the wave of graphic, global publicity generated by the Myanmar military’s atrocities, it is safe to assume that funding from an extensive Rohingya diaspora concentrated in Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states will not be difficult to generate.
Indeed, it is likely that financial assistance will also flow from sympathetic Muslim sources beyond the Rohingya diaspora and not necessarily connected to or supportive of transnational jihadist terrorism.
But turning money into weapons shipments from arms black markets is time-consuming and potentially treacherous – something that ARSA’s leadership has already reportedly learned to its financial cost in earlier failed efforts to acquire munitions in Pakistan’s underground arms bazaar.
For newly arrived amateurs, illicit weapons procurement is a business best undertaken with assistance from middle-men professionals with close but invisible connections to the security services of sympathetic states. Whether any such states are yet willing to facilitate an active Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine state remains to be seen.
The second major constraint confronting ARSA turns on the policy of the Bangladeshi government, which to date has been consistently and predictably unsympathetic.
Notwithstanding the deep and potentially destabilizing crisis thrust upon it by the Tatmadaw’s terror-spree across northern Rakhine, Dhaka has been at pains to maintain relations with its eastern neighbor that while far from cordial but still business-like.
Beyond feeding and housing a massive influx of refugees, Bangladesh’s most immediate priority has been to secure an agreement on repatriation as soon as possible while it can still count on international attention and pressure on Naypyidaw.
In this regard, the November 23 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by Myanmar’s Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor Kyaw Tint Swe and Bangladeshi foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmood marked an important, if preliminary, step forward.
The corollary of this policy has been an effort to block ARSA from becoming an obstacle to the return of the refugees and a pretext for prevarication and stalling on the part of Naypyidaw.
While it has been impossible to prevent unarmed ARSA cadres establishing a presence in the camps, their movement in the zone along the 208-kilometer long Bangladesh-Myanmar land border has reportedly been constrained.
The position of the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed has been also colored by perceptions that ARSA — like other militant Rohingya groups before it – may have or develop links to local Islamist parties ranged on the side of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP).
Deeper on the extremist spectrum, links to underground jihadist groups, not least the Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), elements of which were involved in the Holey Artisan bakery terror attack in Dhaka on July 1, 2016, could also be established.
Tellingly, in late August, within days of the eruption of the crisis, Dhaka was reportedly offering Naypyidaw cooperation in a joint “anti-terrorist” campaign against both ARSA and the Rakhine Buddhist Arakan Army (AA) – an initiative pointedly ignored by Myanmar.
In theory, all of this provides both Naypyidaw and Dhaka with a window of opportunity in which to initiate a credible program of repatriation and lay the groundwork for a broader resolution of the Rohingya crisis.
Given its present military weakness, it is even conceivable that ARSA might be persuaded to support a comprehensive settlement that guarantees basic Rohingya rights within Myanmar.
Inevitably, however, the devil will be in the details. To be viable, any repatriation program will require good faith on the part of Myanmar authorities, the military included.
That will mean practicable registration procedures rather than insisting on unrealistic requirements for documentation as a mechanism for obstruction and delay aimed at limiting the process to only a small number of refugees or spinning it out indefinitely.
Repatriation will also need to ensure that refugees are permitted to return to their villages of origin rather than being concentrated in new holding camps; that they are provided with assistance in rebuilding their homes; and that credible international monitoring mechanisms are in place on an ongoing basis.
Given its present military weakness, it is conceivable that ARSA might be persuaded to support a comprehensive settlement that guarantees basic Rohingya rights within Myanmar
In light of recent events, skepticism understandably abounds. It has been compounded by statements from Myanmar’s powerful military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing suggesting that the concurrence of Rakhine’s viscerally anti-Rohingya Buddhist community should be a precondition of repatriation, and by the wording of the MoU which requires returnees to “establish bona fide evidence of their residence in Myanmar.”
Under these circumstances, time is almost certainly on ARSA’s side. Most immediately, it will permit the militants to extend their influence in, and possibly control over, the sprawling refugee camps.
Further out, frustration engendered by procrastination and delay will also widen the prospects of ARSA translating its international linkages into shipments of weapons, and possibly benefitting from a security environment on the Bangladeshi side of the border more permissive than that exists today.
It is not for nothing that Myanmar’s Tatmadaw is now scrambling to repair old border fences, build new ones and lay landmines.