By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On June 22, 2022, unidentified assailants shot dead an Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) cadre, identified as Mohammad Shah, at the Modhurchora Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhiya Upazila (sub-district) of Cox’s Bazar District.
On April 12, 2022, a group of nearly 40 to 45 ARSA cadres, under the leadership of Jubair, barged into Camp-2W in Ukhiya, and attacked two persons including the Head Majhi (leader) of Block-A10 (Camp-2W), under the suspicion that they were informers of the Armed Police Battalion. No casualty was reported.
On February 13, 2022, ARSA cadres killed Abul Kalam, a Majhi of Block-B/8, Rohingya refugee Camp–2 East, in Cox’s Bazar District.
On February 12, 2022, ARSA cadres injured Mohammad Amin, the head Majhi of Block-B/8, Rohingya refugee Camp–2 East, with sharp weapons after dragging him out of his shelter.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), at least six ARSA-linked incidents of violence have been reported in Bangladesh in the current year, thus far (data till July 3, 2022). At least three persons (one civilian and two militants) have been killed and another three (all civilians) injured in these incidents.
According to partial data compiled by the ICM, at least 13 ARSA-linked incidents of violence have been reported inside Bangladesh since March 2017, including the current year. At least 24 persons (10 civilians, and 14 militants) have been killed and another 31 (three civilians and 28 militants) injured in these incidents. Some of the other incidents included:
September 29, 2021: ARSA cadres killed Master Mohibullah, a prominent Rohingya leader and Chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, at his office at Kutupalong, Cox’s Bazar District. On June 13, 2022, Public Prosecutor Faridul Alam named 36 ARSA members in the killing of Mohibullah.
October 22, 2021: At least six Rohingya refugees were killed and eight were injured, when an armed group of ARSA cadres attacked the Darul Ulum Nadwatul Ulama Al-Islamia madrassa (seminary) inside a refugee camp in Ukhiya. Of the six deceased, two were madrassa students, two were teachers and two were madrassa volunteers. According to reports, those killed were followers of Master Mohibullah.
February 21, 2021: Suspected militants shot dead one Rohingya paramedic and injured a computer technician at the Muchuni camp in the Teknaf sub-district of Cox’s Bazar District.
Significantly, on October 12, 2016, Harakah al-Yaqin claimed responsibility for the October 9, 2016, attacks on Myanmar Security Forces (SFs) that left nine SF personnel dead in the Rakhine Province, Myanmar. Later, in March 2017, the outfit renamed itself ARSA.
ARSA is led by its ‘commander-in-chief’ name=”_Hlk107678958″>Abu Ammar Jununi aka Ataullah, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia. Ataullah claimed that ARSA was fighting for the rights of the Rohingyas. In an interview on February 24, 2022, with Jamuna TV, a Bangladesh based channel, he declared that the group sought the repatriation of Rohingyas (including one million in Bangladesh) back to the Rakhine State in Myanmar. These Rohingyas left Myanmar in three phases – 1978, 1992 and 2017-18. Rohingyas are not recognized as Myanmar nationals. The 1982 citizenship law of Myanmar recognizes only those who trace their residence in the country to before 1823, or those belonging to the majority Burman, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan ethnic groups, for full citizenship, and a list of 135 ethnic groups, compiled in 1982 also did not include the Rohingyas. Myanmar, instead, calls them ‘Bengali Muslims of Chittagong descent.’
In a February 24, 2022, interview, Ataullah claimed that ARSA had a cadre strength of 14,000 in Bangladesh and 2,000 in Myanmar. Since March 2017, ARSA-linked violence has resulted in 143 fatalities and injured 16 in Myanmar.
Hashim, a Rohingya with Pakistani links and stated to be ‘second-in-command’ of ARSA, who was reported to have been arrested on October 26, 2021, by the Rapid Action Battalion from Rohingya refugee Camp-11 of Balukhali-2, was found dead at Rohingya refugee Camp-22 in the evening of November 2, 2021. Unconfirmed reports suggest that, subsequent to his arrest, police might have released him and he was later lynched. Security agencies blamed factional rivalry and infighting among various Rohingya militant groups for his death.
ARSA’s activities in the Rohingya refugee camps are currently being managed by Nur Kalim and Abu Bakar, both residents of Camp-9.
ARSA has reportedly been receiving foreign funds through four banks located in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District – (i) Islami Bank, (ii) Al Arafa Islami Bank, (iii) Western Union, and (iv) Pubali Bank.
Moreover, according to a recent report Rohingya Camps Near the Border — a New Source of Insecurity? released on May 26, 2022, the Bangladesh police described ARSA as the ‘kingpins’ of the illegal trade across the Bangladesh–Myanmar border. The report added that, though ARSA was a Burmese terrorist organization, the group uses Bangladesh for their arms and Yaba trade, to raise revenues.
Bangladeshi authorities acknowledge the presence of 14 criminal gangs in Rohingya refugee camps. These groups are reported to be involved in crimes ranging from smuggling of Yaba and gold to abduction, extortion, and human trafficking. According to the Rohingya refugees, the majority of the armed gangs in the camps belong to ARSA.
According to reports, Voice of Rohingya, an ARSA sub-group, is active in the Rohingya refugee camps in the Ukhiya and Teknaf. It supervises the over-ground activities of ARSA in these camps. ARSA uses this sub-group for its propaganda and perception management activities.
Meanwhile, subsequent to the killing of Mohibullah, Bangladesh security agencies intensified their combing operations in the Rohingya camps where ARSA operates. One ARSA militant was killed and 117, including two top leaders, have been arrested, since. On March 5, 2022, Police arrested Moulvi Zakoria, the alleged chief of the ‘Ulema Council’, a council of powerful clerics tied to ARSA, from Lambasia camp. On January 16, 2022, Police arrested Mohammad Shah Ali, cousin of ARSA’s ‘commander-in-chief’ Ataullah, along with weapons and drugs.
Nevertheless, ARSA cadres, who had escaped to the ‘zero-line’ camp in late 2021 to evade operations, have been returning to their shelters in various camps. After their return, the cadres are on a vigorous look-out for informers of Bangladesh security agencies amongst the Rohingya refugees, on whose tip-offs several of the group’s cadres were arrested. They have resorted to violence to avenge these arrests. ARSA has been strengthening its cadre base inside the refugee camps and is maneuvering to launch operational activities in an attempt to establish dominance over the Rohingya refugees.
In a video released on April 24, 2022, to win Rohingyas support, Abu Anas aka Hafez Maulana Faiz-ul-Kabeer Arakani aka Iqbal Chowdhury, an ARSA leader, appealed to young Rohingya refugees to support the group’s struggle for the betterment of the Rohingya community. In his appeal, he pointed out that many insurgent groups of Myanmar were fighting against the Government to restore the rights of ethnic people, and were receiving support from their own people, while the ARSA was receiving no support from the Rohingya refugees. The video pointed out that just a few leaders who projected Rohingya problems at international fora and collect funds were praised by the Rohingya refugees, but ARSA cadres, who were fighting for the community from the jungles of Myanmar in in-human conditions, were being dubbed useless, with no meaningful engagement. The video claimed that, in coming times, what the ARSA could actually do would be demonstrated.
Ataullah also raised the issue of the financial crunch for the group, but dismissed all allegations of extortion from Rohingya refugee camps. He appealed to the Rohingya communities/members and sympathizers to donate funds, to help ARSA augment capabilities and capacities.
On March 14, 2022, ARSA held a meeting at the Kutupalaong Rohingya Camp-7 to chalk out its plan of action against anti-ARSA groups. The meeting was attended by around 100 ARSA members. In the meeting, ARSA reiterated that its leaders were committed to launch attacks under any circumstances and, if situation demanded, they would even confront the Bangladesh Security Forces, if the latter tried to intervene.
On the other hand, Rohingya militant groups, including the Islami Mahaj and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), among others, are working hard to challenge ARSA’s dominance in the camps. The Islami Mahaj conducted training and motivational lecture sessions in the name of providing an Arabic Grammar Course, Tadrib, in the Rohingya refugee camps during Ramadan. RSO recently recruited around 100 new cadres and was training them in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border areas.
In such a situation violence is likely to escalate.
Bangladesh needs to augment security in the Rohingya refugee camps. Moreover, unless repatriation of the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar starts soon, their enduring stay is likely to provide ARSA and other Rohingya militant groups opportunities to expand their influence and activities.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management