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The Rohingya armed groups and a failed revolution

Guest contributor

Shafiur Rahman

The narrative of the Rohingya armed struggle is a tragic tale of betrayal, misdirection, and co-option. The Rohingya armed groups, namely the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), and the Arakan Rohingya Army (ARA), have strayed far from their original objectives, becoming entangled in a web of alliances that undermine the very cause they purported to champion.

This analysis looks into the origins, evolution, and failures of these groups, highlighting how they have been manipulated by external actors and why a credible Rohingya fighting force remains a distant dream.

The current situation in Arakan State is chaotic and dire. The region is a battleground for various armed entities, including the Myanmar military, the Arakan Army (AA), the junta-collaborationist Arakan Liberation Army (ALA), and the Rohingya armed groups—ARSA, RSO, and ARA. 

This crowded scene has resulted in forced conscription, ethnic tension, massacres, bombings, displacement of tens of thousands, and the burning of entire villages and towns.

In this perplexing landscape, Rohingya armed groups have inexplicably aligned themselves with junta forces, raising questions about their intentions and integrity. Their interactions with the junta, AA, or Bangladesh have witnessed changes and seem to be conjunctural, determined by local calculations, including financial gains or instructions by the states which control them.

ARSA: From self-defence to co-option and criminality

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) burst onto the scene in October 2016, attacking Myanmar police outposts. The military’s brutal response to these attacks resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingya. 

ARSA resurfaced dramatically in August 2017, launching attacks on police outposts once again, which led to an even harsher military crackdown and the displacement of three-quarters of a million people. 

Maung Zarni, a human rights activist advocating for the Rohingya, initially characterised them as a group borne out of “systematic abuses of genocidal proportions” by the Myanmar military.

It was seen as a desperate self-defence group rather than a terrorist organisation. Zarni described them as “hopeless men” protecting their people in conditions akin to a Nazi concentration camp.

However, ARSA’s initial characterisation evolved as the group became involved in abductions, torture, and assassinations of camp residents who opposed them or were seen as threats to their power. ARSA’s dominance in the camps was challenged by other criminal groups, leading to violent conflicts. 

They clashed with every variety of gang or armed group in Bangladesh, including the Nasrullah group, Rohingya Islami Mahaz, Munna group, Shamiya group, Islam group, and Tuha group. 

Despite these conflicts, ARSA enjoyed impunity for several years, with the authorities supporting their activities to further policy objectives such as Rohingya relocation and repatriation. 

ARSA’s ability to build a base in the No Man’s Land border encampment under the noses of the authorities would have been impossible without their consent. This location later became a flashpoint, reflecting the complex dynamics and the shifting allegiances in the Rohingya armed struggle.

There has long been suspicion surrounding ARSA, with some believing it could have been a creation of the Myanmar army as a false flag operation. By aligning with the junta, ARSA has further damaged its reputation, despite their claims of simultaneously fighting against both the AA and the Myanmar military, who are both seen as oppressors of the Rohingya.

RSO: The original and its transformation

The RSO was formed in 1982 with the primary objective of establishing a Rohingya autonomous state. Over the years, the RSO split into factions and disappeared from the scene. 

The RSO of today, resurrected by the Bangladesh government in 2021, operates under a different paradigm. The shift in Bangladesh’s support from ARSA to RSO indicated a strategic move by the authorities. 

The violent clashes between ARSA and RSO, along with other criminal activities, have led to significant insecurity within the camps. The Rohingya refugees are often caught in the crossfire, exacerbating their suffering and instability.

RSO became an instrument of Bangladesh and Myanmar military policy, demonstrated by the attack on the No Man’s Land refugee encampment in January 2023. This attack displaced around 4,500 refugees and was carried out to remove ARSA from the encampment. 

The incident shows how both groups, initially formed with the intention of defending their people, have been manipulated and co-opted by external powers, leading to further fragmentation and violence among the Rohingya community.

Throughout this year, RSO has flip-flopped on its relations with the AA, first fighting against them, then making overtures on Bangladesh television, and ultimately – upon instructions from Bangladesh – joining forces with the Myanmar military to fight against them.

ARA: The new entrant

The ARA emerged from borderland gang operations led by Nobi Husson. Their bases in the Naf River islands of Tuta Diya and Lal Diya were initially used for drug smuggling operations and running a fish farm. 

In 2021, Nobi Husson refashioned himself as the leader of ARA. Their relations with other groups have been changeable and opportunistic, driven by immediate survival needs rather than any political commitment, extending to patronage by the Myanmar junta, the AA, border guards of both countries, and businessmen in both countries for drug and human trafficking operations.

ARA’s recent activities include forced recruitment in the Rohingya camps, often in collaboration with RSO. They have been accused of terrorising the camps, forcibly recruiting refugees to fight alongside the Myanmar military. This betrayal of their own people, driven by external manipulation, highlights the group’s descent into gangsterism and opportunism.

The persistent failure and descent into gangsterism

The trajectory of ARSA, RSO, and ARA is a narrative marred by manipulation and betrayal, revealing a descent into gangsterism that has undermined their original intentions. The involvement of external actors has been pivotal in this downward spiral, with both the host and home countries playing significant roles in the distortion of these groups’ missions.

In Bangladesh, the manipulation of these armed groups has been a calculated strategy to serve the country’s geopolitical interests. By providing covert support, Bangladesh has managed to ensure that ARSA, RSO, and ARA align with its own strategies. 

This support, however, has often come at the expense of the Rohingya cause. Instead of bolstering their fight for rights and autonomy, it has led to these groups being used as pawns in a larger game, where the priorities of the state overshadow the needs of the Rohingya people.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar junta has not remained passive. They have infiltrated these groups, sowing discord and weakening their cohesion from within. It is also a double-edged sword. By portraying ARSA, RSO, and ARA as terrorist entities, the junta justifies its brutal crackdowns, further manipulating these groups for its own ends. 

This portrayal helps the Myanmar junta and the AA to delegitimize the Rohingya struggle on the international stage, while simultaneously discrediting any genuine resistance that might emerge from these factions.

The revolutionary void

Despite the presence of armed groups, there has been a persistent failure to form a credible and unified Rohingya fighting force. This failure is compounded by the lack of serious discussion and planning within the Rohingya diaspora organisations. Despite intentions and sporadic efforts, such as the formation of the Arakan Rohingya National Alliance (ARNA) in 2022 with a tacit understanding for military support from Bangladesh, nothing has materialized.

The diaspora organisations focus on pleading their case at various forums rather than laying the groundwork for a revolutionary movement. These organisations have not even mobilised the progressive community, including student organisations, trade unions, and political parties. So the prospect of a revolutionary force remains decidedly distant.

Secret messenger groups within these organisations bemoan the lack of willingness among youth to undergo training. However, without a clear mechanism or path towards forming a fighting force, it is unsurprising that the youth are reluctant to take up arms. 

The revolutionary groundwork has not been laid in Malaysia, Thailand, or Bangladesh, where the combatants are likely to come from. 

A tragic tale of betrayal

The story of the Rohingya armed groups is one of betrayal, manipulation, and missed opportunities. ARSA and RSO, initially formed to fight for the rights of the displaced Rohingya, have become pawns in a larger geopolitical game. 

Their actions have often undermined their own cause, leading to further suffering and instability for the Rohingya population.

The lack of a principled and united front, coupled with external manipulation, has prevented the emergence of a credible Rohingya fighting force. 

The diaspora organisations’ failure to engage with progressive communities and lay the groundwork for a revolutionary force has further compounded this tragedy.

In the end, the Rohingya armed struggle remains a story of unfulfilled promises and shattered dreams. It highlights the complex and often tragic reality of armed resistance against overwhelming odds.

Shafiur Rahman is a documentary filmmaker working on Rohingya issues. 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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