“As imam, I encouraged them never to step back from their mission,” Mr. Hossain recalled of his final words to the ethnic Rohingya militants. “I told them that if they did not fight to the death, the military would come and kill their families, their women and their children.”
They fought — joining an Aug. 25 assault by thousands of the group’s fighters against Myanmar’s security forces — and the retaliation came down anyway. Since then, Myanmar’s troops and vigilante mobs have unleashed a scorched-earth operation on Rohingya populations in northern Rakhine State in Myanmar, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes in a campaign that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.
From its start four years ago as a small-scale effort to organize a Rohingya resistance, ARSA — which is known locally as Harakah al-Yaqin, or the Faith Movement — has managed to stage two deadly attacks on Myanmar’s security forces: one last October and the other last month.
But in lashing out against the government, the militants have also made their own people a target. And they have handed Myanmar’s military an attempt at public justification by saying that it is fighting terrorism, even as it has burned down dozens of villages and killed fleeing women and children.
This radicalization of a new generation of Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority country, adds fuel to an already combustible situation in Rakhine, Myanmar’s poorest state.
Increasingly, there is also concern that both the relatively few Rohingya who have taken up arms and the broader population — hundreds of thousands of whom are crowded in camps in neighboring Bangladesh — will be exploited by international terrorism networks, bringing a localized struggle into the slipstream of global politics.
ARSA’s attempt at insurgency politics has been disastrous so far — a cease-fire that they declared this month was rejected by the military, and they are reported to have suffered lopsided casualties compared with the government’s. But the men caught up in the cause insist that resistance is worth the steep cost, even to their families.
“This fight is not just about my fate or my family’s fate,” said Noor Alam, a 25-year-old insurgent whose family was sheltering in a forest in Myanmar after their village in Maungdaw Township was burned. “It’s a matter of the existence of all Rohingya. If we have to sacrifice ourselves for our children to live peacefully, then it is worth it.”
Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country for nearly half a century, has systematically persecuted the Rohingya, subjecting them to apartheidlike existences and stripping most of their citizenship.
The nation’s civilian government, led since last year by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has justified the recent violent crackdown in Rakhine as a counterstrike against “extremist Bengali terrorists.” Although the Rohingya claim long-held roots in Rakhine, the official narrative in Myanmar holds that they are recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“We’ve talked about the risks of radicalization for years, and the writing was on the wall for some sort of militant activity,” said Matthew Smith, a co-founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights watchdog group based in Bangkok. “In our view, the best way to deal with risks of extremism and radicalization is to promote and respect the rights of the Rohingya, which is not what the Myanmar military is doing.”
Since Aug. 25, these so-called clearance operations have caused more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Rohingya who have tried to escape the latest violence have also had to contend with ARSA insurgents who want young men to stay back and fight. Rohingya informers, who may have leaked details of the Aug. 25 strikes to the Myanmar military, have been executed, according to rights groups.
ARSA has also been accused of killing other ethnic populations in Rakhine, such as Hindus and Buddhist Rakhine. At least a dozen non-Rohingya civilians have been killed since Aug. 25, according to Myanmar’s government, along with at least 370 Rohingya militants.
|One of the Hindu rape victims of ARSA terrorists.|
But not everyone wants to be sacrificed. When vigilante mobs and Myanmar’s soldiers burned down his village, Noor Kamal, 18, tried to flee with his 6-year-old brother, Noor Faruq. Both were hacked in the head by ethnic Rakhine armed with machetes and scythes.
At a bleak government hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Noor Kamal shivered with outrage at the ARSA insurgents from his village in northern Maungdaw Township, who attacked a local police post last month. “We are the ones who are suffering because of Al Yaqin,” he said. “They disappeared after the attack. We were the ones left behind for the military to kill.”
The Burmese military has only intensified its retribution in Rakhine. As international outrage mounted, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi blamed the Rohingya and their supporters for creating an “an iceberg of misinformation.” Myanmar’s military has accused Rohingya of burning down their own homes to garner international sympathy.
ARSA, which was founded by a Rohingya named Ataullah, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, does not yet have the kind of firepower that can pose a serious threat to one of Asia’s biggest armies. Its Aug. 25 strike involved thousands of men but killed only about a dozen security officers. Its first assault, in October, killed nine police officers.
By contrast, other ethnic rebel forces, which have battled the state for decades, have clashed far more violently with the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is known. The Arakan Army, an insurgency fighting for ethnic Rakhine rights, killed at least 300 soldiers in the first half of last year, according to a military document.
Unlike ARSA, neither the Arakan Army nor other ethnic militant groups have been designated as terrorists by Myanmar’s government. “Why does Burma call us terrorists?” asked Dil Mohammed, a university-educated Rohingya now living in Bangladesh, using the former name for Myanmar. “It’s one word: Islam.”
ARSA was formed four years ago, in the wake of sectarian clashes between the Rohingya and the Rakhine. Dozens were killed, mostly Muslims. Since then, many Rohingya have been barred from leaving their villages or sequestered in ghettos. Young men have no jobs. The military shuttered mosques and madrasas, leaving the faithful idle.
The military’s heavy-handed response to the ARSA strike last October served as a turning point. Nearly every Rohingya village in northern Rakhine now has an ARSA cell with at least 10 members, according to fighters who fled to Bangladesh.
“We realized that it’s only through Al Yaqin that we can get our message to the international community that we exist,” said the 70-year-old father of an ARSA fighter who arrived in Bangladesh with two bullet wounds. “Otherwise, we will all just die.”
During their strikes, ARSA insurgents often dress in black and rouse themselves with the chant “Speak loudly! God is the greatest!” In their initiation rites, the militants promise that their families will not object if they die as martyrs. A dearth of weapons, beyond homemade explosives and crude knives, has increased the chances of such deaths.
Mohammed Jalal, whose cousin is the village ARSA chief and is still fighting back in Rakhine, said he was willing to forfeit his son for the cause. “It is dangerous, but if he dies for his people and his land, then it is Allah’s will,” he said. Next to him, Mohammed Harun, 10, nodded his head. “I would go to fight,” he said. “I am not scared.”
|Buddhist policemen killed by ARSA terrorists.|
It was the fast-flowing river that doomed the inhabitants of Tula Toli. Snaking around the remote village on three sides, the treacherous waters allowed Burmese soldiers to corner and hold people on the river’s sandy banks. Some were shot on the spot. Others drowned in the current as they tried to escape.
Zahir Ahmed made a panicked dash for the opposite bank, where he hid in thick jungle and watched his family’s last moments. “I was right next to the water,” he recalled in an interview a week later at a refugee camp in neighbouring Bangladesh, his eyes bloodshot and his shirt stained with sweat and dirt.
Ahmed said teenagers and adults were shot with rifles, while babies and toddlers, including his youngest daughter, six-month old Hasina, were thrown into the water. He cried as he described seeing his wife and children die, meticulously naming and counting them on both hands until he ran out of fingers.
More than 160,000 of Myanmar’s 1.1 million ethnic Rohingya minority have fled to Bangladesh, bringing with them stories that they say describe ethnic cleansing. During interviews with more than a dozen Rohingya from Tula Toli, the Guardian was told of what appeared to be devastating carnage as Myanmar’s armed forces swept through the village on 30 August and allegedly murdered scores of people. Those who escaped fled to the hills in the west to make the three-day trek to Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. The rest were buried in a mass grave, villagers said.
Myanmar, where the majority of people are Buddhist, has blocked access to the area, meaning the Guardian cannot independently corroborate the villagers’ accounts. Many of the interviews were conducted separately over two days, however, and the villagers confirmed details of each other’s statements without prompting.
The story of Tula Toli, while horrific, is not unique. The army, in retribution for guerrilla-style ambushes on 25 August by an emergent Rohingya militant group, has led a huge counteroffensive across northern Rakhine state.
A United Nations report released this year detailed what happened to those that stayed. The report described mass killings and gang rapes by the armed forces in actions that “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity.
The current wave of violence is the worst so far, and rights groups have said it could constitute a final campaign to rid Myanmar of the Rohingya. Satellites have recorded images of whole villages burnt to the ground.
All UN aid work in the conflict area has been blocked. Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has said it is fighting “extremist terrorists” who are burning their own villages. Accounts of cruel sectarian attacks by Rohingya militants on Hindus and Buddhists in Rakhine have also surfaced. Around 26,000 non-Muslims have been displaced in the violence.
The subsistence farmers of Tula Toli, who spent their lives growing rice and chillies, said there were no militants in their village when the army attacked. Here are their stories:
Khaled Hossein, 29, labourer
“Their leader had two stars on his shoulder. He told us: ‘Rumours are being spread around by people in the village that soldiers have been killing people in Rakhine. But you should all keep farming and fishing. The one thing we ask is that if you see soldiers, you don’t run away. If you run, we will shoot.’
“After the speech, the soldiers went from house to house. They were with [local Rakhine Buddhists] and took everything they could find that was valuable: gold, cash, clothes, potatoes and rice. They smashed up houses of three or four people they said had been spreading rumours. They were looking for fighters. The Buddhists had told them about fighters, but there were none there.”
Petam Ali, 30, rice distributor
A day before the attack, people from a village across the river called Dual Toli swam over to escape the army. More than 10 died in the river, according to Petam Ali, who sheltered some of the displaced in his family home. They watched their village burn from across the river. At 3.30am the next day, Ali heard shooting but was not sure of the direction.
“I live on the north side of the village and the army had crossed the river further north and were marching down. I left my family to run out to the jungle to try and spot the soldiers. We waited until 8am and then they moved in, wearing dark green clothes. All of them were on foot.
“I ran back to get my family, but we were too rushed and my grandmother was too old to run. From the forest, we watched them burn our house. It was the first in Tula Toli to be burned.”
Ali’s home, an eight-bedroom wooden structure that he built with his three brothers for 16 members of their extended family, went up in flames fast. Its roof was covered in straw and leaves.
“The soldiers used rocket-propelled grenades, and they set fire to the houses with matches. Once they had gone past, I went back. All the houses were burned. In the road, I saw a dead man I recognised called Abu Shama. He had been shot in the chest. He was 85.”
In the ruins of his house, Ali saw the singed and decapitated corpse of his grandmother. “Her name was Rukeya Banu. She was 75. When I returned to the jungle, I described the whole incident to the rest. They burst into tears. We walked for three days.”
“When I heard the army attacking to the north, I jumped into the river,” said Kabir Ahmed. “My two sons came with me. They are 10 and 12.” Eight members of his family died, he said, and two of his other sons who are unaccounted for.
“They threw the children into the river. My three-year-old granddaughter, Makarra, and Abul Fayez, my one-year-old grandson. I was hiding on the south side of the river. They gathered everyone together and told them to walk away. Then they shot them.
“We were on hills, hiding behind trees. In the evening, they collected all the bodies on the river bank, dug into the sands and burned them. It happened 40 metres away from me, on the other side of the river. They are buried two to three metres from the riverside.”
Zahir Ahmed, 55, rice farmer (Kabir’s brother)
When the army arrived, Kabir Ahmed’s brother, Zahir, was also down by the river but in another spot. His son ran out of their home out in a panic. “‘Leave us!’ he shouted. I jumped into the river and swam to the other side. “I waited in the jungle, listening to the military firing. I was right next to the water. My son had gone to save other members of the family.” But he says all were killed.
He starts to count on his fingers those who died: “My wife, Rabia Begum, 50; my first son, Hamid Hassan, 35; his daughter, Nyema, two to three, and his son, Rashid, six to seven months; my second son, Nour Kamel, 12; my third son, Fayzul Kamel, 10; my fourth son, Ismail, seven; my eldest daughter, Safura 25; her husband, Azhir Hassan, 35; my second daughter, Sanzida, 14; my third daughter, Estafa, six; my fourth daughter, Shahina Begum, five; my sixth daughter, Nour Shomi, two to three; my seventh daughter, Hasina, six months old. “I waited for five hours and then left.”
Mohammed Idriss, 35
In Bangladesh, the refugees from Tula Toli have made camp on hills that were empty just a few days before. Several thousand Rohingya have felled the trees, levelled out the beige mud and erected tents using sliced bamboo frames and black tarpaulin bought in the market.
All are hungry, and hundreds mob the rickety open-back trucks that local mosques have deployed to hand out donated clothes and food. For fear of being overwhelmed, volunteers throw shirts and trousers into the heaving crowd as they slowly drive along. Children sleep on the mud in tents, their parents looking on anxiously, worried about flu or diarrhoea. At a clearing nearby, liquid excrement soaks the ground.
Mohammed Idriss lived on the western side of Tula Toli, which borders an area thick with trees and he was able to collect some things before leaving. He holds up a white sack that has two large holes in it. “I had a bag filled with oil, sugar, flour, 10,000 kyat, rice – things I had taken from the house when we left. When we got to the Naf river [the Bangladesh border], the Myanmar army started shooting.
“I jumped into the river and then hid behind a sandbank. The soldier came and shot at the bag, opened it and took everything. Once we got to the Bangladesh border, the guards told us to head here.” He says he carried the bag for three days during the 10-mile trek through the trees and hills from Tula Toli.
At camp, Idriss gets a phone call to a dusty mobile, being charged by a cheap solar panel someone found in the market. On the line was another Rohingya refugee near the border. They had found a woman with a gunshot wound to her arm who matched the description of his missing sister.
“They thought she might have been Rabia, but she wasn’t,” he said. “We’re not sure if she was killed or not. We are hoping.”
Peaceful Bengalis Of Pan-taw-pyin Anauk Village
Security personnel meet Bengalis of Pantawpyin Anauk Village in Maungtaw tsp who want to pursue peaceful life, provide aid. Security forces are conducting area control and security operations to restore regional peace and stability and end the worries of local ethnic people because of the violent and inhumane attacks of ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists in northern Rakhine State.
Members of the security force arrived at Pantawpyin Anauk Village in Maungtaw Township in September-1 this afternoon where Bengalis of village willingly agreed to undergo security check.
The security force members met with the village administrator, local elders, religious leaders and other Bengalis who told them that violent attacks of ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists in northern Rakhine State are totally unacceptable and expressed wish to cooperate with the government. They said they will provide information on the ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists’ movement to security personnel.
The security personnel provided food-stuff and personal goods to Bengalis of the Pantawpyin Anauk Village who want to pursue a peaceful life unlike many other Bengalis who support ARSA and choose a violent life.
On September-4 the loyal Bengali villagers from Maungdaw’s Phayzee village reported to the Maungdaw police that they had captured a suspicious Bengali Muslim inside their village. A police column visited the Phayzee village and discovered that the suspicious Begali man is Abdul Mawnet (the son of Sultan Namout) from nearby Myo-thu-gyi village.
Abdul Mawnet was interrogated and police found out he was one of the ARSA terrorists who ambushed the security forces column doing clearing operations inside Myo-thu-gyi village in the morning of August-26. He was arrested and taken to Maungdaw Myoma Police Station and charged with the terrorist offences.
On September-7 a Bengali informant from Maungdaw’s Sin-oh-byin Village reported to the Maungdaw police that some wounded ARSA terrorists from his village were back at their homes. Based on the information an army column with the support of loyal Bengali villagers raided the Sin-oh-byin Village at about 6:30 in the morning of September-8.