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Rohingya: divided by age and a desire for retribution

In the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, support for militants abounds among young refugees who grew up under repression

Rohingya: divided by age and a desire for retribution

A Rohingya refugee child in the Jamtoli refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on Dec. 4, 2017. (Photo Ed Jones/AFP)

The Rohingya crisis has raised the specter of a new generation of violent militants posing an international as well as a regional threat.

However, views among Muslim Rohingya are divided over whether acts such as the killing of Myanmar security personnel will help end oppression or just make it worse.

For hundreds of thousands of Rohingya residing in the packed refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, life is an everyday struggle to secure basic needs such as food, housing, medicines and clothing.

Adding to the stress is an all-pervading sense of uncertainty about when they might be able to return to their homes in majority-Buddhist Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state.

Most of the refugees fled to a squalid existence in Bangladesh in the wake of a brutal Myanmar military crackdown that began in late August.

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Others had left as a result of earlier strife. 

But it was the Aug. 25 killing of 12 Myanmar security personnel by shadowy Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents that triggered the bloodiest Myanmar military operations to date.

Retribution against Rohingya - in the form of killings, rapes and the burning of homes - forced more than 620,000 refugees to cross the border into Bangladesh.


No to militancy, yes to independence

Muhammad Shaker (not his real name), 20, from the Maungdaw area of Rakhine fled to Bangladesh on Aug. 30 and now lives with his 15-member extended family at Balukhali camp where there are about 200,000 Rohingya.

The camp sprang up after a military crackdown in Rakhine in October last year following the first attacks on border outposts by ARSA insurgents. ARSA at that time killed nine police. Some 80,000 Rohingya then shifted to Bangladesh when the Myanmar military struck back without mercy.

Aggrieved over an accumulation of atrocities by the army and Buddhist extremists, some young Rohingya were clearly intent on taking up arms with revenge on their minds.

Shaker hails ARSA members as freedom fighters, but says he personally believes the reported attack of Aug. 25 was stage-managed by the military.

"ARSA didn’t attack military or Moghs (Rakhine Buddhists) but they have been victims of propaganda by the military," he told ucanews.com in a recent interview, despite evidence to the contrary.

He said while ARSA wanted to liberate Rohingya from oppression, he did not believe either that they were 'terrorists' or even that they possessed firearms.

He added that young Rohingya such as himself supported ARSA and were ready to die for their cause.


International concerns over radicalism

While some Rohingya back the violent methods of militants, others believe in peaceful resistance.

However, there are enough young Rohingya ready to attack members of Myanmar’s security forces to concern international security agencies and analysts.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group reported on Dec. 7 that Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis had entered a new and more dangerous phase.

The ICG, which first revealed the emergence of ARSA (then called Harakah Al-Yaqin or Fatih Movement) said in its latest report that the Bangladesh-Myanmar border is poised to become a regional terror hotspot.

As such, it was ripe for exploitation by global jihadi outfits such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, especially in the wake of the latter group losing its strongholds in Syria and the southern Philippines.

Despite abuses and violence in Myanmar for decades, elderly Rohingya managed to keep radicalism at bay.

But the situation changed drastically in June 2012 when bloody sectarian violence tore through Rakhine, causing scores of deaths and mass displacement.

The violence angered some Rohingya immigrants based in Saudi Arabia, who formed a committee to fight back against Myanmar’s military and extremist Buddhists. And so, ARSA was born.

Allegedly the group runs training camps in hilly, forested areas of northern Rakhine as well as across the border in Bangladesh.

The group vehemently denies having any Islamic extremist connections, but its commander Atah Ullah is reportedly the son of a Rohingya immigrant in Karachi, Pakistan.

Before moving to Saudi Arabia, the family resided in an area of Karachi known for Islamic militancy.

The ICG says after setbacks caused by the Myanmar military’s brutal "clearance operations" against militants, ARSA is now trying to recruit new members, mostly from Bangladeshi camps.

Bangladesh has already been hit hard in recent years by a bloody rise in domestic Islamic militancy.

In the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, support for ARSA abounds among young refugees who grew up watching their community in Myanmar suffer repression.

Retired Major General Abdur Rashid, head of Bangladesh’s Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies, says that without Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar and an end to military reprisals in Rakhine, nothing would deter young Rohingya from embracing radicalism.

"The world knows what Rohingya have been through," he said.

"Their backs are pressed against a wall and their grief is slowly turning into anger and an urge for revenge."

This dark shadow would continue to grow if Myanmar, Bangladesh and the international community failed to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

And there was potential for the conflict to pose a regional and international security threat, Rashid told ucanews.com.


A personal revenge

For Rezwan Hasan (not his real name), 26, the urge to fight back is even stronger for personal reasons.

Hasan arrived in Balukhali camp on Sept. 20. He said the Myanmar military snatched away his unmarried 18-year-old sister before his eyes and that she remains missing.

"I assume they have killed my sister after abusing her," he said.

"I won’t let her pain and blood be in vain."

Hasan endorsed ARSA’s bid for Rohingya independence and expressed a willingness to join the group.


Elderly Rohingya defiant on violence

Ahmed Hossen, 60 moved to Bangladesh from Myanmar in December last year with his 21-member extended family. They now live in Balukhali refugee camps in makeshift tents.

Hossen has never seen a Rohingya militant but strongly condemns ARSA attacks, which he cites as the main cause of the tragic recent plight of many Rohingya.

Hossen suggested that ARSA could not fight the highly trained and equipped Myanmar military without international financial support and a supply of weapons.

"I don’t know who patronizes ARSA and what is their source of funds, but they should realize they cannot make lives of Rohingya better by violent actions," Hossen said.

"They have already made the lives of Rohingya worse than before."

He called on the international community to help achieve justice for Rohingya, who he described as a peaceful people who did not deserve to die like animals.

Refugees in Bangladesh would return to Rakhine as fast as they could if their safety could be guaranteed, Hossen added.

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