A young Rohingya refugee carries bamboo to build shelter at Kutupalong, Cox's Bazar. Events in Rakhine State are driving many Rohingya youth to join militant groups to fight Myanmar security forces. (ucanews.com photo)
The lush green hills of Maungdaw in northern Rakhine State of Myanmar, washed afoot by the Naf River that divided the country from Bangladesh, have always fascinated Muhammad Yusuf (not his real name), 23, a Rohingya whose family has lived in the area for generations.
Sturdy, with sharp eyes, Yusuf is a high school graduate who speaks fluent English.
Like others of his generation, he didn't just grow up watching the scenic beauty of Rakhine. For years, he has witnessed the plight of his community at the hands of successive Myanmar military regimes and Buddhist-majority Rakhines, who consider Rohingya as "Bengali interlopers" from Bangladesh.
This is despite the fact that the Rohingya presence can be traced years before the Burmese invasion and annexation of the independent Arakan kingdom (now Rakhine) and the pre-British colonial period.
Last year, Yusuf decided on something he considers "a landmark step" of his life — he joined Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group.
"For 10 months, I was in training with dozens of young Rohingya who are ready to die to save the community from the Burmese military and Moghs (Rakhines)," Yusuf told ucanews.com Sept. 14 at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
"I have no regrets as I felt that without joining the ARSA, I would do serious disservice to my community," he said.
Yusuf waited to be deployed in operations until Aug. 27, when his own village came under the Myanmar military's crackdown following the ARSA attack two days earlier on 30 police posts and an army base in Rakhine.
ARSA's attack sparked the ongoing deadly violence that has seen over 1,000 mostly Rohingya killed, women raped, houses razed in the Muangdaw district and over 400,000 Rohingya crossing the border into Bangladesh.
Yusuf crossed the border back to Bangladesh with his mother and only sister on Aug. 28.
The youngest of three brothers, Yusuf said his eldest brother was detained in Saudi Arabia for allegedly possessing a Bangladeshi passport. Myanmar police in Rakhine arrested the second brother on Aug. 27 and they have not heard of him since.
Yusuf said he would return to Rakhine to compete his "responsibilities" once the situation calms down.
"Our goal is to make Arakan independent because it is the only way for a lasting peace and I am ready to die for it," he said.
The young man also expressed dismay at a lack of unity among groups fighting against the Myanmar military.
"There are three groups including ARSA working for the same cause, but they work differently and it is painful," he said. "First we need to be united and then we can seek help from other states for our independence struggle," he added.
Smoke billows from Rohingya villages in Rakhine State following the Myanmar military's crackdown, as seen from Shah Porir Dwip Island at Teknaf, Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. (ucanews.com photo)
A new insurgency
The existence of the ARSA, formerly known as Harakah Al-Yaqin (faith movement), was first revealed in a report in November last year by Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group.
Formed in 2013, following bloody anti-Rohingya sectarian riots in Rakhine in June 2012, the group is commanded by a committee of Rohingya immigrants based in Saudi Arabia. It operates on the ground in Rakhine by Rohingya who have training and experience in modern guerrilla warfare tactics, International Crisis Group reported.
The ARSA says its aims are to "defend, salvage and protect" the Rohingya against state repression in Myanmar "in line with the principle of self-defense."
The group carried out its first mission on Oct. 9, 2016 with coordinated attacks on three Myanmar border posts, killing nine officers. The attacks pulled the trigger of what would be a months-long "clearance operation" by the Myanmar military.
The operations left hundreds of Rohingya dead, women raped, houses burned and forced tens of thousands to cross the border into Bangladesh.
Rights groups condemned what was described as a scorched earth operation, saying it was a crime against humanity. Some even dubbed it as genocide.
Describing the current violence, the United Nations Human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said the Myanmar military's campaign waged against the Rohingya is "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
On Sept. 10, the ARSA declared a month-long ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to Rakhine and welcomed talks with the Myanmar government to resolve the conflict.
Myanmar considers ARSA a terrorist organization and refused the call for dialogue saying it won't "negotiate with terrorists." Instead it tried to brand ARSA as Islamic terror outfit with links to global jihadi networks like the so-called Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
On Sept. 13, Al-Qaeda appealed to its members to support the causes of ARSA, but the Rohingya militants responded to that call by refuting it in a statement the following day.
"ARSA feels that it is necessary to make it clear it has no links with Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Lashkar-e-Taiba (Pakistan) or any transnational terrorist group, and we do not welcome the involvement of these groups in [the] Arakan conflict," ARSA said in a statement Sept. 14.
It also called upon the states in the region to intercept and prevent terrorists from entering Arakan [Rakhine State] and making a bad situation worse.
Jamal Hussain, a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee, bears a wound where a piece of shrapnel struck him as he fled an outbreak of violence in Aung Sit Pyin village in Myanmar, at the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. (Photo by Emrul Kamal/AFP)
Regional negative impacts feared
Despite ARSA's claims of having no connection with global jihadists, retired Major General Abdur Rashid, a Dhaka-based security analyst says the Rohingya insurgency might ultimately be "hijacked" by transnational terrorist outfits and go on to jeopardize the political and security landscape of South and Southeast Asia.
"As far as we know ARSA is under the scanner of global jihadists, especially Al-Qaeda, who would exploit their cause to recruit new members and thwart them from their nationalist agenda," Rashid told ucanews.com.
Theophil Nokrek, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission in Bangladesh, echoed similar views.
"We have already seen a rise in Islamic militancy in Bangladesh and how it threatens minorities as well as liberal Muslims," Nokrek said. "There are reasons to believe that ARSA might ultimately be linked to global extremist outfits, which will not only complicate lives of the Rohingya but also potentially the lives of minorities in South and Southeast Asia," Nokrek said.
Nationalist sentiment, aimed at the independence of Rakhine from Myanmar rule, has existed among Buddhists and Muslims for decades. The older generation of Rohingya, however, for the past two decades resisted any zealous aspirations, ushering a time of peace until the 2012 riots.
Now, things have drastically changed. Several young Rohingya in Bangladeshi camps like Yusuf told ucanews.com that they consider joining ARSA as a "holy duty" although, as yet, the group is not large or well resourced.
The military claims ARSA has 6,000 fighters while independent local and international researchers suggest they number from 1,500 to 3,000. Its crude weaponry is also no match for the combined forces of military, police and paramilitary groups according to a Nikkei Asian Review report that cited independent security analysts.
Muhammad Selim (not his real name), 25, from Buthidaung, claimed to be a ARSA operative for more than a year.
"For years, I have seen violence against the Rohingya, but violence in October changed my mind. When I saw my own house burn down and my neighbors brutally killed by the military, I was determined that I must join those fighting for the rights of the Rohingya," Selim told ucanews.com.
"For decades, the Rohingya have shed blood for no reason, but I think this time we have a legitimate cause to fight for and I believe we will succeed one day," he said.
Abu Ahmed, imam of a mosque in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, says he doesn't support what ARSA has done so far.
"Taking up arms is no solution, so ARSA's activities have further complicated the lives of the Rohingya. Instead of taking violent paths, the Rohingya in Rakhine and the diaspora must engage more with the international community to highlight their plight," Ahmed said.
"Revenge begets revenge, and it is unacceptable. What ARSA has done so far has brought more pain and suffering to the Rohingya and no sane Muslim can support violence to bring an end to conflict," he added.
Ahmed's views have little appeal on people like Yusuf and Selim.
"I won't regret even if I die in the fight for rights of the Rohingya. I believe my sacrifice would ensure a better, peaceful and prosperous life for the Rohingya," Yusuf added.