Burmese suspicions voiced earlier in 2017 that someone was supplying cash to buy arms and otherwise support Rohingya rebels turned out to be true as more became known about the origins of the ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army), its founder and why much of the cash came from Saudi Arabia.
The army prefers to call groups like ARSA Islamic terrorists but until ARSA and the Saudi cash showed up there had not been much, if any, religious aspect to the armed Rohingya resistance. The army has responded with continued searches for rebels or supporters and applied its usual methods of persuading northern minorities to cooperate. This includes lots of random violence and frequent blockades to keep out food and other essential supplies.
What is happening in Rakhine State is a side effect of the current worldwide outbreak of Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Burmese Buddhist nationalists have used the threat of Islamic terrorism to revive a decades old effort to expel most of its Moslem minority because many Burmese fear the Rohingya Moslems will be a source of Islamic terrorists. While Moslem majority neighbor Bangladesh has arrested a few Pakistan trained Rohingya Islamic terrorists the Rohingya in Burma have largely avoided Islamic terrorism. Bangladesh borders Burma’s Rakhine State which contains most of the Burmese Rohingya. Burma insists the Rohingya are Bangladeshis who are in Burma illegally. Bangladesh has never agreed with that. This is a dispute that goes back to the 19th century and is still unresolved.
ARSA is now openly calling for Rohingya worldwide to support a war against Burma for the bad treatment the Rohingya have received since 2012. The ARSA leader; Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi (or just Ata Ullah) has received more attention now that Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda are calling for its members to help ARSA and the Burmese Rohingya any way they can. In Pakistan government-backed Islamic terror groups are now admitting that Ata Ullah was born in Pakistan (Karachi) in the 1980s but that the family moved to Saudi Arabia where there was more work and Ata Ullah did well in school, particularly when it came to religious studies. Ata Ullah’s father was also a popular Islamic cleric and his son was noticed by Saudi clerics who saw to it that Ata Ullah got a good education in Saudi Arabia. Eventually Ata Ullah became an Islamic cleric and the religious leader for the 150,000 Rohingya living and working in Saudi Arabia. This was largely because Ata Ullah was popular with many wealthy Saudis and their families. Ata Ullah always condemned the poor treatment of Rohingya in Burma and after 2011 called for extreme measures (Islamic terrorism) to enable Burmese Rohingya to defend themselves. While that attracted financial support from wealthy Saudis and charities that supported Islamic terrorism, Ata Ullah says he was treated poorly when he went to Pakistan in 2012 to try and obtain assistance from government supported Islamic terror groups there. What Ata Ullah encountered in Pakistan was a reluctance to get involved with a long-shot Moslem expatriate who had grown up in Saudi Arabia and while pleasant came off as clueless.
Ata Ullah then went into hiding and sought to recruit Rohingya wherever he could find them in Burma or Bangladesh who were willing to help build the ARSA. While most Rohingya are in Bangladesh and Burma there is a large overseas community who over half a million in Pakistan and the Persian Gulf (mainly Saudi Arabia) where there are jobs and educational opportunities for able, ambitious and religions Rohingya. Via these expatriates was able to establish contacts in Burma.
Ata Ullah is one of these overseas Rohingya but of the generation born in exile and under the influence of some very conservative Islamic ideas. In Saudi Arabia local religious groups and clerics are encoruaged to help these foreign workers become more religiously conservative and eventually return to where they are from to spread the conservative form of Islam (Wahhabism) predominant in Saudi Arabia. Moslem majority nations like Pakistan have learned to be wary of this sort of thing since when transplanted to places like Pakistan Wahhabism tends to create local Islamic terror groups who want to establish a religious dictatorship in Pakistan. That is apparently why Ata Ullah received such a hostile reception when he first returned to Pakistan looking for help in forming an Islamic terror organization in Burma to support the Rohingya there. But now these same Pakistani Islamic terror groups are offering help and Ata Ullah is turning it down, apparently because he figured out that the Pakistani Islamic terrorists now see an opportunity to establish themselves in Bangladesh and Burma and do so at the expense of the Rohingya and their self-proclaimed Rohingya-exile turned leader. If this sounds like Syria, Libya and numerous other revolutions in Islamic nations it is. Islamic conservatives see situations like this as attacks on Islam, not just another ethnic dispute.
This upsurge of international Islamic outrage follows August 25 attacks against security forces in northwest Burma similar to those that took place in October 2016 when three guard posts along the Bangladesh border were attacked by over 200 Rohingya men armed with a few firearms and, for most of them, swords, spears and clubs. Nine border guards were killed and some weapons and equipment stolen. In August 2017 it was different as there were more attackers. Police reported 77 attackers killed along with a dozen police after an army base station and three police outposts were attacked by poorly armed men. This time the same person (Ata Ullah) took credit more convincingly and said the violence was a defensive action in 25 different locations to protect Rohingya civilians from police and army violence.
The ARSA tactics are not what the army is used to dealing with. Most of the armed opposition in the north is in the form of uniformed and well organized tribal militias, some of them armed and trained as well as the army. The army has long used tactics that emphasize attacking civilians to force the rebel militias to fight and similar tactics appear to be used against the ARSA. That means burning down Rohingya villages and forcing civilians to flee the country. The army also treats foreign aid organizations roughly, accusing the foreign aid workers of supporting the armed opposition. That is true in an indirect (and, very rarely, directly) sense because the armed opposition (or Islamic terrorist) groups depend on the aid to survive as well and are usually responsible for most of the attacks (to plunder, not chase away) on the foreign aid workers.
Ata Ullah will have a hard time finding a safe hideout in or around Burma. Neighboring Bangladesh is not only very hostile to Islamic terrorist groups but also very effective in dealing with persistent efforts by Islamic terrorists to establish themselves in Bangladesh. There are practical reasons for this attitude. Recently Bangladesh released details on an August 24th assassination against the prime minister (Sheikh Hasina). This effort involved seven members of the special unit assigned to protect senior officials. The government, with the help of Indian intelligence, managed to detect the plot (which apparently involved Pakistani Islamic terrorists) and the seven Bangladeshi troops were arrested before they could carry out their plan (which came very close to succeeding). Now Bangladesh is seeking more information on foreign support or Islamic terrorist activities in Bangladesh. This sort of support has been more noticeable in the last few years, which is why the Bangladeshis were already working with Indian intelligence. This is not the first time Islamic terrorists have tried to kill Sheikh Hasina, who has survived 11 assassination attempts since she took office (as prime minister) in 2009. Bangladesh is not a safe place for anyone connected with Islamic terror groups or “defending Islam” by any means necessary.
People Without A Country
The Rohingya are not a unique situation but are part of an ancient pattern that has become a common cause of large scale disorder. This is all about the existence of large stateless populations. This has become a more difficult problem since national states became a common form of government and it became common for there to be disputes over who belonged and who did not. The UN estimates that there are currently over ten million such stateless people.
Most of the stateless are that way because they don’t want to live where they, or their ancestors, came from. Thus there are a million Moslems in Burma who originally (often over a century ago) came from Bangladesh but don’t want to return there. They prefer to live in Burma, where most of the population is Buddhist. There is a similar situation in the African country of Ivory Coast, where 700,000 people (a quarter of the population) are migrants (or the descendants of migrants) from Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana. Over the last half century Ivory Coast encouraged these people to come work on coffee and cotton plantations. Unfortunately Ivory Coast never agreed to offer citizenship and that led to a recent civil war between the migrants and the natives.
In the Middle East you have over 100,000 stateless nomads in Kuwait. Called the bedoon, these people were not considered Kuwaitis in 1962 (when Kuwait became independent) because the nomads came and went as they pleased and did not seem interested. But as the oil wealth grew interest arose. At that point Kuwait decided it was not making anyone else citizens. In Syria and Iraq there have been government attempts to punish rebellious Kurds by declaring some of them not citizens. That has not worked out well and the question of who the Kurds are and where they belong is still a problem.
In Russia and former (after 1991) states of the Soviet Union there are over half a million people who ended up in a country that did not want them. About half of these “unwanted” are ethnic Russians who ended up outside Russia and liked being where they were but the locals did not want them. The other half were non-Russians who ended up in Russia but were not wanted. In Thailand there are over half a million tribal refugees from the numerous tribal rebellions in neighboring Burma. These people do not want to go back, would like to become Thai citizens but the Thais don’t want them.
In the Dominican Republic you have hostility towards migrants from neighboring Haiti which led to new laws making many migrants non-citizens. In Europe you have over 50,000 Roma (gypsies) who are nomadic and prefer to not register births with the state and not leave a paper trail. Many Roma have settled down, but enough have not to remain a problem.
There is a worldwide problem with illegal migrants going somewhere to find jobs, staying, not being detected for a while, if at all, and eventually their descendants demand citizenship. This often leads to violence and resists lots of solutions thus becoming long-term problems.
While Bangladesh accuses Burma for making this particular incident of statelessness worse India and China have sided with the Burmese government, in large part because India and China have faced this problem before and are still subject to additional outbreaks. This support is important because China has a veto in the UN and can stop any resolutions to sanction or otherwise persuade Burma to do whatever. There is no easy solution and the usual outcome is messy, murderous and satisfying to no one but media outlets who know this sort of thing is good for business, especially if you put emphasis on real or imagined atrocities. There is no shortage of either in situations like this.
India and China also backed the response of Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won international praise for her decades of efforts to get Burmese democracy revived in 2011 (with the removal of a military government). Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking out more forcefully against the treatment of the Burmese Rohingya. But all politics is local and Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese Buddhist who sympathizes with the plight of the Rohingya but recognizes that most Burmese feel less certain about who is at fault here. Aung San Suu Kyi also went against international opinion by agreeing with the Burmese military that major operations against the ARSA in Rakhine State had ended by September 5th and much of the media reports of subsequent military operations was invented or misinterpreted.
The Burmese Response
Since the August 25th attacks the government has moved more than 10,000 addition soldiers to Rakhine State. Across the border in Bangladesh local authorities report that as many as 400,000 additional Burmese Rohingya have arrived since August 25th but that the number arriving each day has declined considerably. Bangladeshi border guards believe that there are simply very few Burmese Rohingya still living near the border.
September 24, 2017: The government is backing complaints from Hindus in Rakhine State that on August 25th a group of armed men claiming to be ARSA attacked and looted a Hindu village sending hundreds of local Hindus fleeing for their lives. The army eventually showed up, reported they found evidence of such violence and the bodies of 28 villagers recently left in several mass graves.
September 23, 2017: India has ordered its border police to use “forceful” measures to stop Burmese Rohingya Moslems trying to enter India. There are already 40,000 Rohingya India is trying to send back to Bangladesh, where nearly half a million Rohingya refugees from Burma have arrived since 2012. Economic prospects for Rohingya are better in India but only the most determined Rohingya, with access to some cash, can move on from Bangladesh to enter India illegally.
September 22, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) a bomb went off in a mosque compound during weekly prayers. There were no injuries and police recover many components of the crudely built device. No one took credit for this attack.
September 14, 2017: In the north (Shan state) fighting broke out between TNLA rebels and soldiers in three different areas, leaving three soldiers dead. Some soldiers and rebels may have been wounded but no additional deaths were reported.
September 1, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) a week after the latest outbreak of mass violence here police say 370 ARSA men have been killed. Local Rohingya say many of these dead are just Rohingya men soldiers killed and then claimed the victims were ARSA members. In any event it is difficult to tell who is ARSA and who is not because most ARSA are armed with whatever sharp implements they can find and none carry identification of ARSA membership. The UN refugee officials on duty along the Bangladesh side of the border reported nearly 40,000 Burmese Rohingya had been detected crossing the border since August 25th.
Bangladesh complained to Burma about at least three instances since August 27th when Burmese military helicopters had briefly crossed the border.
August 30, 2017: In the west (Chin state) soldiers clashed with members of the AA (Arakan Army) tribal rebels near the Indian and Bangladesh border. The AA accused the army of entering AA territory without permission. This may have been because of the increased military effort to find those responsible for the August 25th attacks in nearby Rakhine State.
August 25, 2017: In the northwest (Rakhine State) there were attacks on 30 police outposts and an army base with ARSA taking credit.