A Rohingya group whose lethal attacks on security posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state triggered a brutal military crackdown and mammoth refugee crisis has thousands of fighters armed with weapons obtained from bandits and seized from government troops, according to a militant who was involved in some of the raids.
Nurul Islam, 28, who is living among 1 million Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, told BenarNews there were around 5,000 members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) involved in what he indicated was an organized insurgency.
“Each ARSA company comprised anywhere between 500 and 1,000 Rohingya villagers, who were armed with batons and knives, along with a handful of trained cadres who had guns and hand grenades. The idea of this was to intimidate the forces, to fool them into believing that they were outnumbered,” Islam said.
ARSA rebels were also armed with “home-made pistols, rifles and bombs,” most of which the group bought from local bandits or looted from Myanmar security forces, he said.
Not all of the nearly 5,000 ARSA cadres were trained for combat, with members working at “various levels,” said Islam, who joined ARSA about three years ago “to free the Rohingya community from decades of suppression by Myanmar government forces.”
“Only young Rohingya, who are physically and emotionally strong, undergo training to fight,” Islam told Benar. “The others are assigned duties such as recruiting, monitoring activities of Myanmar forces, organizing weapons and funds for the group, and providing help to poor and needy Rohingya.”
ARSA did not pay its cadres a salary, he said.
“We don’t have any state-of-the-art weapons,” he said. “Unlike what many people think, we are not associated with any terrorist organization.”
He agreed to a request for an interview, which was conducted on a muddy hill overlooking the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp, but on certain conditions.
BenarNews could not photograph his face or publish the names of his relatives. He also insisted on not being asked about the identities of ARSA’s commanders, and that he would not reveal details about the training of its cadres.
“No one but ARSA’s top brass is authorized to talk to the media. I don’t want to get into any trouble,” said Islam, who wore a purple T-shirt, off-white jeans and rubber flip-flops.
His worry corresponded with a statement issued last month by ARSA’s top leader, Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi, who prohibited “any person to be interviewed with any journalist on behalf of ARSA except its official spokesperson, Mr. Abdullah.”
“Nurul Islam” was, in fact, his real name and he didn’t mind sharing it because it was a “very common” among “some 5,000 ARSA cadres,” he said.
150 rebels have infiltrated refugee camps
Islam said he participated in ARSA raids on Myanmar police and army outposts in October 2016 and August 2017, in attacks that provoked violent crackdowns by the military.
On Aug. 25, Islam said he was part of a group that threw two bombs at a police post and then opened fire.
“I can’t be sure, but I think we killed at least five policemen. On our side, three ARSA members and seven villagers lost their lives,” Islam said in an interview.
“They started firing at us. The exchange lasted about an hour. Then, police reinforcements arrived and we were forced to retreat to a nearby village on the other side of the mountain where we hid until sunrise,” he said.
Some 15 police officers manned the post, he recalled.
The unit he belonged to that attacked the police post in Maungdaw township comprised 10 trained ARSA members like him “and about 500 Rohingya villagers,” Islam said.
“The next day, our informers told us that a total of 11 Myanmar security personnel and 26 ARSA men were killed during the entire operation. I don’t know how many Rohingya villagers [were killed],” he said.
Islam said about 150 ARSA members were scattered in all 15 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, a southeastern Bangladeshi district where around 1 million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar are sheltering.
Strike planned ‘months ahead’
More than three years ago, members of ARSA, formerly called Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), or Faith Movement, started going from village to village in Rakhine, where the Rohingya population is concentrated, Islam said.
They urged local youths to join their fight against Myanmar forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who allegedly collaborated with the military (Tatmadaw) in violence targeting Rohingya communities.
“They burn down our houses, rape our mothers and sisters, grab our land. Because we are Muslim, they call us Bangladeshis and tell us that we don’t belong in Burma. They don’t let us practice our religion. They have destroyed mosques and madrassas … our very ethnicity,” Islam said, using another name for Myanmar.
Apart from the attack on Aug. 25, Islam said he was involved in a similar attack on border police posts that killed nine security personnel on Oct. 9, 2016.
He described the August attack in great detail.
“About 150 ARSA cadres participated in the attack. Of them, 42 were trained [ARSA members]. We attacked 24 posts on the intervening night of Aug. 24 and Aug. 25.”
Hours later, the office of de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi issued a statement saying that 59 militants and 12 Myanmar police officers had been killed in the deadliest single-day toll since fighting between ARSA and security forces broke out in October last year.
The August attack was planned “months in advance,” Islam said without divulging details, adding that the date and time of the strike was “kept secret until a day before it was to be executed.”
Islam crossed into Bangladesh with his family about a week after participating in the attack.
As many as 615,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed over into Bangladesh since the military launched its offensive following those coordinated raids by ARSA in August.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has described the military’s crackdown in Rakhine as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Soldiers have been accused of killing, torturing and raping Rohingya civilians and burning their homes after the ARSA attacks.
On Monday, the Myanmar military issued a report saying that its own internal investigation had exonerated security forces of all accusations of atrocities.
Myanmar’s army published a 14-point post on Facebook about the findings of a team led by Lt. Gen. Aye Win, the inspector-general of the defense services, after investigators toured Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships – the epicenter of the ARSA attacks and security crackdown.
No ARSA in Bangladesh, says RAB
Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the police’s elite anti-terrorism unit, denied Islam’s claims.
“There is no organizational existence of ARSA here. Without proof, we cannot call anybody a member of ARSA. Anyone can claim a lot of things. To the best of my knowledge, there is no ARSA member in Cox’s Bazar,” Maj. Ruhul Amin, the RAB’s company commander in the district, told BenarNews.
Earlier this month, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews that during recent bilateral talks in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s government had furnished Bangladeshi officials with a list of names of about 500 suspected ARSA members believed to be hiding on the other side of the border. Myanmar sought help from Bangladesh to arrest those suspects.
Amin said his unit was on “high alert and any ARSA member found to have entered Bangladesh will be arrested.”
But that didn’t sit well with Nurul Islam, who insisted that ARSA cadres like him were “freedom fighters, not terrorists.”
“After so many years of quietly suffering brutalities at the hands of the Myanmar government and its security forces, we have finally picked up weapons to fight for our liberation. All we want is equal rights in Myanmar, our motherland where we were born, where our forefathers were born.
“We may be outnumbered by Myanmar forces. We may not have sophisticated weapons like them,” he said. “But we will fight with sticks and knives and die, if we have to, so that one day our children can breathe freely in their own country.”
Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, contributed to this report.