Rakhine ambush could mark new phase for Rohingya insurgency
Posted December 6, 2017 8:22 p.m. EST
(CNN) — Rohingya militants have claimed responsibility for an ambush on Myanmar security forces that injured five, a sign the group may be reasserting itself after a long silence.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has been regrouping and recruiting and this attack could mark the beginning of an insurgency that could escalate tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh and draw the attention of international jihadi groups, experts say.
In a statement posted on Twitter Sunday, ARSA's leader Ata Ullah said the group had carried out an ambush against the Myanmar military at San Kar Pin Yin village in northern Maungdaw in Rakhine State on the morning of January 5.
The attack is the first the group has publicly claimed since the end of a ceasefire in October, the aftermath of which resulted in a brutal crackdown by Myanmar's military, and the exodus of more than 650,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
"Come February, March, if we saw the beginning of a hit-and-run, low- level insurgency, I wouldn't be surprised. It seems unlikely this ambush on January 5 was just a one-off," said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst who writes for Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor.
A military vehicle was attacked with an improvised explosive device by suspected terrorists, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Monday. It added that fighting between security forces and attackers took place at the scene. When contacted by CNN, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay didn't provide any more information.
Phill Hynes, head of Political Risk and Analysis at Hong Kong-based Intelligent Security Solutions, told CNN that the group would continue to escalate tensions.
"This year, I would expect to see guerrilla style tactics, lightening attacks, small-scale attacks, poking the nest. They want to keep the spotlight on their cause and turn it a rallying point," he said.
The US Embassy in Yangon condemned ARSA's attack, saying the "act of violence only serves to further undermine peace and security in northern Rakhine State and the region."
Myanmar's military portrays ARSA as a potent force that can muster up to 10,000 fighters and poses a serious threat to the country's stability.
Security analysts cast doubt on that assessment, suggesting the fighters are outgunned, under equipped and likely to only number in the hundreds, at least when the August attacks took place. The group itself is opaque, communicating mainly by infrequent posts on Twitter and YouTube.
ARSA first publicly emerged in October 2016, when the group claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on police border posts in Rakhine State that killed nine officers.
Then known as Harakat al-Yaqeen or "Faith Movement," they represented the first armed insurgency in decades to emerge from within the country's Muslim minority Rohingya, a group that has long been denied citizenship and discriminated against in Myanmar.
However, it was last year the group really grabbed the world's attention when on August 25, ARSA launched spontaneous attacks on 30 border police posts and an army base in northern Rakhine State, killing 12 security officials.
The catastrophic crackdown by Myanmar's military that followed the attack saw the Rohingya flee en masse, arriving in Bangladesh with chilling accounts of massacres, systematic rape and torching of villages.
The US and UN have described what unfolded as "ethnic cleansing" of the mainly Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country where few seem to have much sympathy for the Rohingya.
ARSA: 'Protecting the Rohingya community'
In an interview obtained by CNN and published in February 2017, the group's leader, Ata Ullah, said they decided to fight back against the government after 70 years of repression. The group has declined subsequent interview requests.
"We, the vulnerable and persecuted people, have asked the international community for protection against the atrocities by the government of Myanmar, but the international community turned its back on us," Ata Ullah said.
Ata Ullah expressed a similar sentiment in the statement posted Sunday: "At this juncture, ARSA has left with no other option but to combat 'Burmese sate sponsored terrorism' against the Rohingya population for the purpose of defending, salvaging and protecting the Rohingya community with its best capacities," the statement apparently signed by him said.
It's not clear whether or how the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, will respond militarily after the January 5 attack.
Davis said there's unlikely to be the same kind of "clearance operations" seen in 2016 and again, on a much greater scale, last year when Human Rights Watch said 354 Rohingya villages were burned down and 6,700 Rohingya were killed, according to figures provided by Doctors Without Borders.
However, Davis said there would be local follow-up operations. "They need to establish whether the attack team came from across the border and returned to Bangladesh or is still hiding out inside Myanmar territory."
Analysts say ARSA has to adapt to radical new circumstances if it is seeking to maintain an insurgency.
Prior to August 2017, according to a December report from the International Crisis Group, it was operating from cells within villages. Now, those villages are largely gone, burned down by the Tatmadaw.
"I imagine inside Myanmar they would be trying to establish a network of camps in the hills. The word camps tends to conjure up visions of various semi-permanent facilities but what we are talking about here is more likely to involve logistical jumping off spots for attacks on the military in the lowlands," said Davis.
"I would be surprised if at present they are able to sustain more than a couple of hundred combatants at most inside Myanmar."
Another long-standing constraint has been a lack of access to firearms.
According to the ICG report, many of the fighters in August 2017 were male villagers armed with sharp objects or IEDs. It added that they had been reassured that armed reinforcements had been dispatched but they never arrived.
"My best guess is that they probably don't have more than a few hundred modern rifles, and certainly no support weapons like machine guns, or rocket propelled grenades, which would be essential to take on a modern military in any serious fashion," said Davis, from Jane's.
It's not easy to assess how much support ARSA has among the Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has made clear it won't harbor or support terrorists, with the emergence of any kind of cross-border insurgency likely to jeopardize its main priority -- the safe repatriation of the Rohingya.
In media interviews, some Rohingya refugees have criticized ARSA for bringing more misery upon them, and say they are feared because they are reported to have killed Rohingya seen as informers or those with close ties to the Myanmar regime.
Others fault them for recklessly provoking conflict without being properly armed. Other interviews, however, clearly suggest a wellspring of support for the group, with anger instead pointed firmly at Myanmar's military.
Hamida Begum, a Rohingya refugee whom CNN spoke with in September, said she he had sent her son to fight -- though she didn't specify whether he fought for ARSA.
"I'm leaving him at the hand of almighty Allah. We are ready to face any situation. I'm not feeling bad for him," she said.
A 2016 report from the International Crisis Group said that Ata Ullah was born in Pakistan and has lived in Saudi Arabia, from where it said ARSA is run by a committee of Rohingya emigres.
Ata Ullah, in the interview obtained by CNN, denied reports that he was born in Karachi, saying he was the "son of Arakan" -- an old name for Rakhine State and denied ties to groups in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
However, it's this background that has fueled speculation that he might have ties to international jihadi groups, not the least by the Myanmar government.
The International Crisis Group said in its December 2017 report that a Pakistani instructor was killed on May 4, 2017 during an ARSA explosives training course. Myanmar media reported that two of the deceased were Pakistanis.
Hynes said estimates suggested that up to 150 foreign fighters were involved in the ARSA movement.
However, ARSA has repeatedly denied any ties to jihadi groups, and the ICG concluded that "there has been no operational sign of transnational jihadism in Myanmar yet."
"But clearance operations in the name of addressing terrorist threats could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and inspire international jihadist groups to take action," the International Crisis Group concluded.
Davis, of Jane's agrees with this assessment, characterizing the group as fighting on an "ethno-nationalist" basis like BRN, the Muslim separatist group in southern Thailand.
However, with jihadi groups like ISIS suffering defeats in their traditional strongholds in the Middle East and North Africa, and Ata Ullah's reported ties to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Davis says the group is potentially vulnerable to inroads by international jihadi elements.
"Given Ata Ullah's West Asian background, ARSA is less inoculated against jihadist influences. If things were to become more complicated, and elements in the group frustrated, it is not inconceivable that ARSA's current avowedly ethno-nationalist stance --- 'all we want is Rohingya rights' --- might shift. "