The deadly attacks on three Border Guard Police (BGP) bases in Maungdaw and Rathedaung towns near the border with Bangladesh on 9th Oct 2016 and a serious escalation on 12 November when a senior army officer was killed, signify the emergence of a new Muslim insurgency in Northern Myanmar’s Rakhine State. According to the authorities, nine police and eight attackers were killed.
The attackers, numbering some 400, were armed mostly with knives, slingshots and about 30 firearms but looted weapons and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition from the police posts. One of their targets was BGP headquarters in Kyee Kan Pyin, just north of Maungdaw; it was overrun in a multi-phase attack; the group planted an improvised explosive device (IED) and set an ambush on the approach road to the headquarters, thus delaying reinforcements and damaging vehicles.
The two other targets were a BGP sector headquarters at Nga Khu Ya in north Maungdaw and a BGP outpost at Koe Dan Kauk in Rathedaung, just south of Maungdaw town. Several further clashes occurred 10-12 October, including one on 11 October in which four soldiers were killed.
These attacks marked a major escalation of violence in Rakhine and reflected an unprecedented level of planning in a conflict that had seen little organised violent resistance from the Muslim population. They caused widespread fear in both communities, particularly among Buddhist Rakhine villagers, who are the minority in the northern part of the state; some 3,000 of them fled to towns.
The current violence is qualitatively different from anything in recent decades, seriously threatens the prospects of stability and has serious implications for Myanmar as a whole. The government faces a huge challenge in calibrating and integrating its political, policy and security responses to ensure that violence does not escalate and inter-communal tensions are kept under control. It requires taking due account of the grievances and fears of Rakhine Buddhists.
Failure to get this right would carry enormous risks. While the government has a clear duty to maintain security and take action against the attackers, it needs, if its response is to be effective, to make more judicious use of force and focus on a political and policy approach that addresses the sense of hopelessness and despair underlying the anger of many Muslims in Rakhine State. Complicating this is the fact Aung San Suu Kyi has under the constitution no direct control over the military.
The insurgent group refers to itself as Harakah alYaqin (HaY, Faith Movement in Arabic). The government calls the group Aqa Mul Mujahidin, (Communities of fighters in Arabic).
HaY was established and is overseen by a committee of some twenty senior leaders headquartered in Mecca, with at least one member based in Medina. All are Rohingya émigrés or have Rohingya heritage. They are well connected in Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Some or all have visited Bangladesh and northern Rakhine State at different times in the last two years.
The main speaker in the HaY videos is Ata Ullah (alias Ameer Abu Amar, and, within the armed group, Abu Amar Jununi, the name mentioned in a number of the videos); the government identifies him as Hafiz Tohar, presumably another alias.
His father, a Muslim from northern Rakhine State, went to Karachi, where Ata Ullah was born. The family then moved to Saudi Arabia, and he grew up in Mecca, receiving a madrasa education. This is consistent with the fact that on the videos he shows fluent command of both the Bengali dialect spoken in northern Rakhine State and Peninsular Arabic. He disappeared from Saudi Arabia in 2012 shortly after violence erupted in Rakhine State.
There are indications that Ata Ullah went to Pakistan and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare. Some twenty Rohingya from Saudi Arabia (separate from the leadership committee), including Ata Ullah, are leading operations on the ground. Like him, they are thought to have experience from other conflicts, possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Since 9 October, several hundred young Rohingyas from Bangladesh have joined the fighting. However, the main force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organised into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise. These cells are mostly led by local young Mullahs or Hafizs (scholars).
HaY has sought religious legitimacy for its attacks. At its prompting, senior Rohingya clerics and several foreign clerics have ruled that, given the persecution Muslim communities face in Rakhine State, the campaign against the security forces is legal in Islam, and anyone opposing it is in opposition to Islam.
Fatwas to this effect were reportedly obtained after 9 October in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and several Muslim countries with a significant Rohingya diaspora. These Fatwas have significantly influenced many Muslim religious leaders in northern Rakhine State to endorse HaY despite earlier feeling violence to be counterproductive. A senior Rohingya Islamic scholar from Saudi Arabia, Mufti Zia bur Rahman, is with HaY in Maungdaw; he has authority to issue fatwas. His presence is said to give religious legitimacy to HaY operations.
Two Saudi-based senior leaders spent a month in the Rakhine State, around Aug 2016.
HaY recruits have been instructed in Rakhine State by both Rohingya and Pakistani or Afghan trainers, according to members of the group and local people.
The Rohingya cause has been used by international jihadist groups for several years. Example: Threats against Myanmar by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (2012); calls by an Indonesian extremist leader for Muslims to wage jihad in Myanmar (2013); threats by the IS leader to take revenge on Myanmar and several other countries for abuses against their Muslims; promises to rescue Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere from “injustice and oppression” in the formation announcement of “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”; frequent citations in speeches as recently as 2015 by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, to the “atrocities on Rohingya Muslims” and calls for revenge; offers of resources and training facilities by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in June 2015 to help Myanmar Muslims “take up the sword”; and a call in the April 2016 issue of IS’s Dabiq magazine by Bangladeshi militant Abu Ibrahim to help oppressed Muslims in Myanmar in every possible way.
The short point is that HaY is getting solidarity from the jihadi groups like Jammat-ud-dawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad of Pakistan. In fact, the JUD chief Hafiz Saeed has been at the vanguard of a campaign to mobilise international Islamic support. Even before the present phase of violence in Rakhine. Taliban and JuD besides al Qaeda are said to have established contact with local groups and provided to some of them training at their bases in Pakistan.
As of now one thing is clear though. If the government mishandles the situation, including by continued use of disproportionate force, it could create, as International Crisis Group (ICG) says in its latest situation report, conditions for further radicalising sections of the Rohingya population that transnational jihadists could exploit to pursue their own agendas in Myanmar.
A heavy handed security response that fails to respect fundamental principles of proportionality and distinction will be deeply counterproductive. It will likely create further despair and animosity, increasing support for HaY and further entrenching violence.
—Based on ICG report, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State”