ARSA: The Insurgency Threat That the Rohingyas in Bangladesh Face From Within
In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, ARSA has reportedly terrorised the Kutupalong refugee camp.
"I am living under the knife of a fearful and depressing life. I came to Bangladesh from Myanmar because I would be killed there. Here, also, there are no guarantees for a safe life."
These are the words of one Mohammed (full name not being used for security purposes), a refugee at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, The New York Times reported on Sunday, 14 November.
Within the last month, eight people have been allegedly murdered because they stood up to and spoke out against the gangs and militant groups that are trying to forge their own empire over the shanties that make up the world's largest refugee camp.
Amongst these groups, the largest and the most feared is one called the ARSA, or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgency made up of Rohingya Muslims who claim to be the torchbearers of the oppressed community.
The dominance of the ARSA in the camp has led to a situation where refugees who fled persecution and mass-murder in Myanmar, and who were already dealing with alleged abuse at the hands of the Bangladeshi police, are now trembling in fear of being slaughtered by insurgents belonging to their own community.
ARSA's Grip on Kutupalong
It is important to note that the initial exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar in late 2017 was catalysed by an ARSA attack on military bases in Rakhine State, something that is discussed in the subsequent section.
The insurgency group came into being in 2013, after the 2012 riots in Rakhine State between the Rohingyas and the Rakhine people, which led to nearly 100 deaths and the displacement of thousands, according to The Economist.
The ARSA, which started out by protecting mosques while the Rohingya Muslims prayed, eventually shifted to attacking the police and military personnel, who it accused of "all kinds of atrocities" under the orders of "successive tyrannical Burmese regimes", according to a video released on 17 October 2016.
Between 2016 and now, the ARSA has sporadically carried out armed attacks on Myanmar's law enforcement, but to no real effect as it is neither large in size nor modern in capability, with most reports claiming that its primary weapons are bamboo sticks and machetes.
It is this group, which claims to fight for the rights of the now-displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh, that is reportedly trying to create its own order in the refugee camp in Kutupalong.
The insurgents of the ARSA claim that it is they, and not the NGOs or the human rights activists, who have the moral and political authority over the well-being of the refugees whose lives have already been devastated due to the 2017 conflict between ARSA and the Tatmadaw (the official name for the military of Myanmar).
The controversy surrounding the ARSA's insistence on being the leader of the Rohingyas exploded last month when Mohib Ullah, a community leader for the Rohingyas who had been documenting the crimes of armed forces of Myanmar Tatmadaw for the whole world to see in an international court, was shot dead in Kutupalong, aged 46.
Habib Ullah, brother of Mohib, has accused ARSA insurgents of planning and implementing the assassination out of envy and insecurity. He has also claimed that he was familiar with some of the assassins and recalled how they had threatened Mohib with death after asserting that it was them, and not he, who led the Rohingyas.
"I afraid too much because the ARSA group holding different kind of attacking tools which is very dangerous," Mohib Ullah had even written to the Bangladeshi government asking for protection a month before his murder.
Even the reporter who conducted Habib's interview has gone into hiding after receiving death threats from the insurgents.
ARSA, however, has denied any involvement in Mohib's murder.
In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to weaker security measures and has also kept humanitarian workers out of the picture, ARSA has reportedly terrorised the camp, not only demanding recruits, but also extorting money from families that refuse to contribute to their 'cause'.
Moderate leaders in the Kutupalong refugee camp are now afraid to go about their community work and rarely speak on the record. Fake names are used during interviews.
Mohib Ullah was one of the few who resisted the ARSA's bullying, and he met a cruel ending, allegedly at the hands of its fighters.
Now that the ARSA's current activities at Kutupalong have been described, it is pertinent to remember why it was created in the first place, and how one million Rohingyas ended up in Bangladesh.
A Quick Recap of the Exodus
Since the 1962 Burmese coup d'état that led to the rise of the military as most dominant political force in Myanmar, the Rohingyas have faced endless discrimination and extreme persecution.
The 1982 Citizenship Law denied Rohingyas of the same, after the Myanmar government refused to, by law, recognise them as one of the 135 ethnic communities whose members could become Burmese citizens.
"In Myanmar, membership of a national race has surpassed citizenship,” according to Nick Cheesman of the Australian National University.
"Consequently the Rohingya try to be recognised as such, which makes other groups in the country angry."
Based on the 1982 law, the Rohingyas could only register as temporary residents with "white cards" that gave them limited but important rights, like the right to vote.
Card-holding Rohingyas were therefore allowed to vote in the 2010 elections and Rohingya candidates from the military-backed Buddhist ultranationalist Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) even managed to win parliamentary seats, the Council on Foreign Relations reported.
The right to vote, however, was stripped off them and by 2015 a National Verification Card scheme was introduced that human rights groups have compared to legal institutions used by the state during apartheid in South Africa.
A human rights group called Fortify Rights published a report that accused the Myanmar government of using these white cards to erase the Rohingyas' identity.
The continuous and explicit discrimination faced by the Rohingyas culminated into clashes that began when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked army posts and police stations in Rakhine on 25 August 2017.
In response, the Tatmadaw began a brutal campaign to catch insurgents, but in the process it unleashed a wave of mass-killings that forced 7,00,000 Rohingyas to flee their homes within three months and seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.
For almost four years now, since early 2018, the Kutupalong refugee camp, sheltering around a million Rohingyas, has been the largest of its kind.
No Respite for Rohingyas
"We cannot trust anyone; we cannot rise against them because we don’t know who in the camp is with them. They could come at night by covering their faces and take us out of the shelter and kill us. So we stay silent," a Rohingya man told Al Jazeera while talking about the clandestine style of the ARSA.
Another man, again anonymously, said that while it was hard to estimate the current size of insurgent group, he personally believed that it was “very big” and got financial backing from "Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Australia."
Reporters have found it difficult, if not impossible to verify these claims. But what they can confirm is the state of fear in which the Rohingyas now live in the massive and densely populated refugee camp where many have adjusted to a certain way of life involving schooling or odd jobs.
As if fleeing from what many researchers and activists have called "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" at the hands of Buddhists in Myanmar wasn't enough, now these refugees have reason to fear their own.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has urged Bangladesh's authorities to improve the security in the camp.
Even though the the Bangladeshi government vehemently denies that ARSA insurgents are prospering in the camp, and despite their claims that ordinary criminals engage in violence and drug trafficking in the name of the ARSA to succeed, Rohingyas in the camp insist that this is precisely how the ARSA succeeds.
The ARSA, reportedly, is operating with so much secrecy that, to quote a Rohingya Muslims talking to Al Jazeera, "the person you are sitting next to could be a member of ARSA."
(With inputs from The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and Council on Foreign Relations.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.