Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET on 2017-08-23
The leader of Southeast Asia’s newest insurgent group struck a diplomatic tone as he expressed gratitude to Bangladesh for hosting Rohingya refugees and pledged not to harm the country’s honor and interest, in a video uploaded to YouTube earlier this month.
Ata Ullah (also known as Abu Ammar Jununi), chief of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), said in a 19-minute video that his group would take “extreme care and caution” not to harm Bangladesh, describing it as a “great neighbor.”
“The government of Bangladesh leads all the host countries who did not think twice in extending their helping hands to our destitute people in this very needy time,” said Ata Ullah, who emphasized that ARSA was not affiliated with any foreign terror network.
On Oct. 9, 2016, militants launched coordinated attacks on police posts and killed nine officers in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state. ARSA, which was then known as Harakah al-Yaqin, subsequently posted videos on YouTube claiming responsibility.
More than 75,000 Rohingyas fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh after the attack, which resulted in a military crackdown in Rakhine, a state long riven between ethnic Rahkine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
Soldiers hunted for militants in torched villages as terror-stricken refugees fled on foot, witnessing gang-rapes of women and killings of children, according to a United Nations report.
In the video, Ata Ullah spoke while seated before a lush forest backdrop, guarded by four masked men clutching assault rifles. It was not clear where the footage was filmed.
“Our primary objective under ARSA is to liberate our people from dehumanized oppression perpetrated by all successive Burmese regimes,” he said.
He claimed that in late July, security forces and ethnic Rakhines sealed off a village in Rathedaung township in Rakhine state, “resulting in the eventual starvation of the villagers.”
Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, reported on Aug. 1 that Rathedaung township authorities had found three mutilated bodies in a river. They claimed Rohingya militants were targeting Muslim villagers who worked with authorities during and after the crackdown.
RFA tried to get in touch with officials in the Myanmar government Wednesday to respond to Ata Ullah's video post, but to no avail.
Min Aung, a spokesperson from the Rakhine state government, said the central government was the appropriate authority to respond.
Thousands more Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh since the latest military build-up in Rakhine earlier this month, Rohingya community leaders in Bangladesh were quoted saying by AFP Wednesday.
In Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw Wednesday, a government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, submitted its final report to President Htin Kyaw.
The commission had been tasked with proposing concrete measures for improving the welfare of all people in Rakhine state, uncovering lasting solutions for the conflict-torn region, and addressing deep wounds felt by Buddhist and Muslim communities in the region, it said.
Crossing into Bangladesh
Ata Ullah and ARSA, which formerly called itself “Faith Movement” (Harakah al-Yaqin), captured worldwide media exposure in December 2016 when the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) issued a lengthy report about the new armed challenge faced by Myanmar.
Ata Ullah, according to the ICG report, was born in Karachi, Pakistan to a migrant father who fled religious persecution in his native Rakhine State. His family moved to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where he was enrolled in an Islamic religious school.
The report said Ata Ullah claimed to have left Saudi Arabia in 2012 shortly after serious ethnic clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists erupted, killing more than 100 people.
“Though not confirmed, there are indications he went to Pakistan, and possibly elsewhere, and that he received practical training in modern guerrilla warfare,” ICG said.
“ARSA has been in Arakan for three years without bringing any harm or destruction to the life and properties of Rakhines,” Ata Ullah claimed in the video, which contains English subtitles.
Security analysts have not determined the exact number of ARSA’s forces and Myanmar has not officially acknowledged its existence. But BenarNews sources in refugee camps said militants had been crossing into Bangladesh.
“There are more than 150 members of Myanmar’s separatist Rohingya groups in Ukhiya-Teknaf areas, who go back and forth across the borders,” said a high-ranking source at a refugee camp who requested anonymity.
More than one million Rohingya Muslims live in northwestern Rakhine, where they are despised by the Buddhist majority, according to U.N. officials. Human rights activists said the Rohingya – who have been dubbed as “the most oppressed people in the world" – are denied citizenship, freedom of movement and access to basic services and healthcare.
A community leader at the Kutupalong refugee camp recently confirmed to BenarNews that ARSA supporters had been seen at the camp for a few days. The source declined to say if they were armed.
“But they do not do anything that might harm Bangladesh’s image,” the source said, referring to the insurgents.
Kutupalong is one of two UN-registered refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Its combined Rohingya population with Nayapara Refugee Camp is about 30,000, officials said. At least 350,000 more Rohingya refugees live in vast settlements nearby, according to estimates.
Myanmar, with almost 60 million people, sits in the corner of Southeast Asia between India and China.
Bangladesh security officials expressed doubts on the presence of insurgents in the area, telling BenarNews security forces on high alert would have blocked free movement.
“In this side, there is no activity of any Myanmar-based revolutionary group,” said Lt. Col. Ariful Islam, a border battalion official. “Stronger monitoring in the Rohingya camps is already in place.”
Policy of no interference
State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md. Shahriar Alam said he was not aware of Ata Ullah’s video and Bangladesh has no ties with insurgent groups.
“As per our foreign policy, we never interfere in Myanmar’s internal affairs,” he said. “The policy of the current government is that the land of Bangladesh is not for any militant group.”
Security analysts said ARSA is active in the jungles of the northern Rakhine State, where their presence could stoke religious tensions. They said ARSA’s emergence as an armed group signals a dangerous phase that could attract the attention of extremists in Pakistan and the Middle East.
On Aug. 14, Myanmar government ministers met 11 Buddhist monk leaders from the administrative capital Sittwe and discussed security issues in Rakhine, border affairs minister Lt. Gen. Ye Aung said.
The meeting came four days after the Myanmar government dispatched hundreds of soldiers from an army battalion to Rakhine to increase security in the region.
The military will use armored cars and helicopters in its operation against militants in northern Rakhine state, Ye Aung told reporters.
An earlier version of this story contained background about ARSA’s impact on Myanmar’s democratic transition that could not be confirmed.