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Militancy in Arakan State
By Bertil Lintner — Guest Columnist , 15 December 2016
Ongoing violence in Arakan State has captured the attention of the outside world in a way that no other ethnic conflict in Burma has ever done. But are Muslim communities in the northwestern corner of the state subjected to ethnic cleansing verging on genocide — or is it, as two writers from the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested in an article in Time magazine, and elaborated in a longer report, “the world’s newest Muslim insurgency?” Either way, the events that have unfolded in Arakan State since conflict erupted in June 2012 are a tragedy, and widespread allegations have circulated regarding severe human rights abuses committed by Burma’s security forces during counterinsurgency operations. Satellite images of the area show that entire villages were burned and thousands of people fled to neighboring Bangladesh since militants launched a series of attacks against border police stations on Oct. 9, prompting the Burma Army to intervene.
The origin and meaning of the name Rohingya is uncertain. Support groups often refer to writings by the Scottish geographer, botanist and zoologist Francis Buchanan-Hamilton who in 1799 wrote that a people called “Rooinga” lived in what is now northwestern Arakan State. But it far from certain that those “Rooinga” are the same people as those who today call themselves Rohingya. According to Moshe Yegar, the author of The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, published in Germany in 1972 and still one of the best sources on Burma’s Muslim communities, the meaning could be “the compassionate ones” or perhaps a distortion of the words rwa-haung-ga-kyar, “tiger from the ancient village” which equals “brave” and was the name given to Muslim soldiers who settled in the area after the Burmese conquest in the 1780s. Until 1784, Arakan was an independent kingdom and the Burmese king Bodawpaya used his Muslim soldiers to conquer the area. If that theory is correct, there is no connection between the “Rooinga” of 1799 and today’s Rohingya, who speak the Chittagonian dialect of Bengali. The Muslim soldiers who remained behind in the area soon adopted Burmese names and their descendants speak Burmese or the Arakan dialect, although they have retained their religion.
The militants, who killed nine police officers and captured more than 50 guns from the outposts, were poorly armed, but the manner in which they carried out the attacks showed clear signs of coordination and knowledge of basic military tactics. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that there is more to the conflict than that the Muslims in the northwestern corner of Arakan State—known as the Rohingya—are the most persecuted minority in the world, as they are often described in the international media. Without ignoring the suffering of the local people, evidence is emerging of a more organized, Islamist-inspired militancy in the area — and the army’s ferocious response to it could have far-reaching consequences. “The authorities are playing with fire,” said a diplomat familiar with the issue. “There’s widespread sympathy for the militants in the Muslim world.” Or, as the ICG says, unless properly handled, this could well be the beginning of a new religiously motivated insurgency with outside support.
A central figure behind the scenes in the conflict is said to be a man called Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Pakistani of Rohingya descent. Based in Karachi, Pakistan, he has appeared in videos that have spread on social media as well as in bulletins issued by his group, Harkat ul Jihad Islami-Arakan (HUJI-A), which may be part of a broader network usually transcribed from the name in Arabic as Harakah al-Yaqin, or “the Faith Movement”. Qadoos Burmi, who was born in Pakistan to parents from Arakan State, is reported to be closely associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), “the Army of the Righteous” and its political wing, Jamat ud Dawah (JuD). Both organizations are banned in Pakistan but continue to operate more or less openly. According to a US diplomatic cable dated as early as Aug. 10, 2009, and made public by Wikileaks, LeT and its “alias” JuD are affiliated with the international terrorist network al-Qaida and have raised funds for its activities from so-called charities in Saudi Arabia.
Using social media, the Rohingya support network has been busy releasing photos and videos of alleged atrocities committed by the security services in Arakan State. While not denying that atrocities have been carried out, veteran human rights observers are appalled by the dissemination of a flood of fake images coming from the area. Most recently, pictures of a Cambodian child being tortured by a Dutch man and two Cambodian men appeared in the British newspaper the Daily Mail claiming that it was a Rohingya toddler being tortured by Burmese soldiers. Pictures of victims of the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis and an earthquake in the Chinese province Sichuan, also in May 2008, have been peddled as evidence of violence against the Rohingya as well. Pictures of Christians laid in an open field and killed by Islamic militants in Nigeria were said to be dead Rohingya. Even a picture of a Muslim man killed in a traffic accident in Thailand was portrayed as a victim of violence in Arakan State.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has released genuine pictures of villages that have been burned down in Arakan State and other confirmed reports of abuses, has had to be careful to sort fact from fiction. According to David Mathieson, who has covered human rights abuses for HRW for 15 years, said many photos and videos they had been sent were “crude fakes.” By doing so, some Rohingya-support groups are actually undermining the work of internationally-recognized human rights organizations such as HRW. “One bad set of reporting gives the government ammunition to smear serious rights reporting and discredit professional reports,” said Mathieson. “It also shows that social media can be misused as a platform for transmitting information of complex human rights issues and users should automatically question every report and image instead of immediately posting anguish and invective. Too often people feed off their emotions during crises, and don’t rely on balanced reporting.”
The violence in Arakan State—accurate reports and rumors included—has been the main focus of the international media to the extent that many foreign reporters have equated ethnic conflicts in Burma with the Rohingya issue — while a fiercer and much more serious civil war between government forces and several armed ethnic groups is raging in the north of the country. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1994, has been under attack since June 2011. More than 100,000 people have been internally displaced and are living in makeshift camps in Kachin State while KIA camps and outposts, as well as civilian villages, have been bombed from the air. In central and northern Shan State, fighting is raging between government forces and the KIA, as well as the Palaung, Kokang and Shan rebel forces. Helicopter gunships, attack aircraft and heavy artillery have been used in the heaviest fighting Burma has seen since the 1980s—at the same time the government has announced a “peace process.” Burmese journalists who tell foreign colleagues that they cover the country’s decades-long ethnic conflicts frequently get the response, “ah, so you are writing about the Rohingya!” ##