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ARSA: Expanding Menace Bangladesh
Image: Pixabay

ARSA: Expanding Menace

By Afsara Shaheen | @indiablooms | 03 Jul 2023, 06:36 pm

Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management

On June 19, 2023, a Rohingya youth, identified as Iman Hossain, was killed and another was injured in a gunfight between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) at Balukhali Rohingya Camp-8 in the Ukhiya Upazila (Sub-District) of Cox's Bazar District.

On June 13, 2022, one person, Bashir Ullah, was killed in a gunfight between ARSA and RSO at the H/32 block of Camp-10 in Ukhiya.

On June 5, 2023, a group of eight to ten ARSA operatives shot dead a madrassa (seminary) student, Mohammad Bashir, at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhiya.

According to partial data compiled by the by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), at least nine persons have been killed in ARSA-linked violence in 2023 (data till July 2), including four ARSA cadres. There were four such fatalities in 2022 (including one ARSA cadre) and one (ARSA cadre) in 2021.

Meanwhile, SFs have arrested at least 31 ARSA operatives in Bangladesh in 2023, four in 2022 and 10 in 2021. Some of the recent arrests included:

June 12, 2023: An ARSA operative and also an accused in six murders, Sabbir Ahmed aka Lalu, was arrested by the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) from Balukhali camp in Ukhiya.

May 21, 2023: A suspected ARSA operative, Rahmat Kabir, was arrested with a firearm by the APBn from Camp-9 in Ukhiya.

May 10, 2023: A top ARSA ‘commander’, Mohammad Zubair, was arrested by the APBn in Ukhiya.

ARSA was formed following the riots in the Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2012, in which ethnic Rohingya Muslims were targeted by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. It, however, first came into prominence in October 2016 when it attacked three police outposts in the Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships in Myanmar, killing nine Police officers, provoking massive retaliatory violence by state Forces and fuelling a wave of distress migration of Rohingyas into Bangladesh.

Reports in 2018 indicated ARSA was responsible for two 2017 massacres in which up to 99 Hindu residents in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar were murdered, including children. Further, reports of ARSA targeting the small Christian Rohingya community living in the Bangladeshi refugee camps as well as Rohingya civilians working with international humanitarian organisations surfaced throughout 2019 and 2020. ARSA has also come under fire for its claimed role in the 2016–2017 killings of moderate Rohingya community leaders in Rakhine State, a trend that continues in the camps in Bangladesh. ARSA was widely implicated in the high-profile September 2021 murder of Mohib Ullah, a moderate Rohingya leader who was shot dead outside the office of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, the organisation he led. However, ARSA denied any involvement in the killing.

During 2016 and 2017, ARSA leaders had started visiting certain Rohingya areas in Myanmar to recruit locals. They would then ask each community to ‘contribute’ five to ten individuals for ‘basic training’. After completing their initial training, new ARSA members went back to their communities to carry out ‘security responsibilities’, promote active religious observance, and allegedly use violence to silence Rohingyas who opposed their actions or were seen as being too close to the authorities.

For internal communications and recruiting, ARSA used text messages from mobile phones and shortly, the encrypted WhatsApp, while it used Facebook and Twitter to spread its message more publicly. In 2017, Facebook classified ARSA as a "dangerous organisation," which basically put an end to the group's Facebook activity. ARSA maintained a consistent posting schedule on its @ARSA_Official Twitter account, which is still active on the social media site.

Myanmar's Anti-Terrorism Central Committee, meanwhile, declared ARSA a terrorist group on August 25, 2017, in accordance with the country's counter-terrorism law. ARSA is also considered a terrorist group in Malaysia.

ARSA is led by Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi aka Hafiz Tohar, a Rohingya born in Karachi, Pakistan, who grew up in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.  Bertin Linter in the report “ARSA linked to foreign extremist groups”, mentions ARSA’s second-ranking leader, as a person known only as ‘Sharif’, who comes from Chittagong in Bangladesh and does not appear in any of the group’s propaganda videos. Sharif reportedly speaks with an Urdu accent, the official language of Pakistan. Other members of the ARSA leadership include a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia.

ARSA claims it is fighting on behalf of more than a million Rohingya, who have been denied the most basic rights, including citizenship, in Myanmar; as well as against the 'inhuman' condition of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. In a statement on May 10, 2023, Ataullah declared,

ARSA's ultimate objective is to repatriate the entire Rohingya community to their Ancestral land. Yet the current repatriation plan of the Genocidal Burmese Territory Military Regime is nothing but a scheme to mislead both the Rohingya and the International Community. The proposed establishment of temporary camps for a limited number of people only serves to relieve them from international pressures and avoid accountability for the Genocide committed against the Rohingya people.

The statement maintains that the only viable option for the safe repatriation of the Rohingya people is the establishment of a 'Safe Zone' under the 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P).

ARSA operates in the Rakhine State and inside Bangladesh refugee camps.

A February 15, 2023, report placed before the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Defence Ministry of Bangladesh, stated that ARSA was among 10 terrorist and dacoit gangs active in the Rohingya camps. The report added that Tambru's Konapara Camp, on the ‘zero line’ (Bangladesh-Myanmar border), had become the centre point for ARSA’s organisational operations, training, and control of drug smuggling and terrorist activities, due to a lack of regular patrolling and surveillance. The report stated that ARSA is active in Ukhia, Balukhali, Palangkhali (Ukhiya Sub-District) and Whykong (Teknaf Sub-District) of Bangladesh. Noting that ARSA controlled most of the camps, the report stated that ARSA and the Nabi Hussain dacoit gang often engaged in clashes over dominance and control, resulting in a series of murders.

In a February 24, 2022, interview, ARSA leader Ataullah claimed that his group had a cadre strength of 14,000 in Bangladesh and 2,000 in Myanmar.

Little is known about the financial backers of ARSA, but the International Crisis Group believes funding originates from an unnamed group of supporters in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Four banks, including the Islami Bank, Al Arafa Islami Bank, Western Union, and Pubali Bank, which are located in the Rohingya refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar District, have been used by ARSA to receive international funding.

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 (drugs trafficking), to raise revenues.

Interestingly, ARSA has revealed that it had received training from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). ARSA and the Bangladesh-based Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) are also linked and videos of joint undergoing arms training have surfaced on social media. Indeed, a statement by Ambassador Hau Do Suan, Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the United Nations, on Agenda Item 109 "Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism", at the Sixth Committee of the 74rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, read:

We are concerned about the link between ARSA and international terrorist groups, including FTFs (Foreign Terrorist Fighters). Since its inception, ARSA has been reportedly guided and supported by foreign terrorists such as Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The threat to security from ARSA in Bangladesh, principally in the Rohingya refugee camps and surrounding area in Cox's Bazar District, has increased manifold in the recent past, as this group has intensified its efforts to establish its dominance in these areas. The resultant clashes with Rohingya camp leaders as well as other insurgent/criminal groups, have enormously vitiated the security environment, and it is likely that this sort of violence will continue.