The Global New Light of Myanmar, a Myanmar government newspaper, reported that on 9 October between 1:00 am – 5:45 am, an estimated 90 insurgents killed nine border guard police officers during coordinated raids on three sites* in Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State):
*Media sources have given several versions of the exact strike points; these come from The Global New Light of Myanmar
1) the Border Guard Police headquarters Kyiganbyin (also written as Kyikan Pyin) village, Maungdaw Township
2) a police post in Kyeedangauk (also written as Kotankauk) village, Rathidaung (also written as Buthidaung) Township
3) and another police post in Ngakhuya (also written as Nagpura,) Maungdaw Township
Eight assailants were killed, and two were captured. The attackers left behind one homemade pistol, two rounds of ammunition, and one magazine. They stole 48 weapons of various types, 6,624 rounds of ammunition, 47 bayonets, and 164 magazines. Rohingya caretakers working at the Border Guard Police headquarters who knew where the weapons were stored have since disappeared.
The culprits were initially reported as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO,) an insurgent group presumed defunct and/or dormant in recent years. The government later referred to them as the Aqa Mul Mujahidin organization (Faith Movement of Arakan, FMA,) a never before heard of group currently being linked to the RSO.
Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, is an impoverished region. It is also where sectarian conflicts between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingyas have simmered since clashes in 2012 led to 100 deaths and thousands of internally displaced persons now in refugee camps. Rohingyas are the predominant ethnic group in the townships of Rakhine where the attacks took place, but they are considered non-citizens by the government. The United Nations says they are one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups.
According to the AFP, after the attacks, the Myanmar government closed the border with Bangladesh. It also deployed naval forces to shut down adjacent waterways, and it ferried infantry forces to the affected area by helicopter. Around 180 civilians, mostly Buddhist Arakanese and NGO workers, were evacuated for their safety. Businesses were closed, and an existing curfew was extended.
Following these initial stability operations, on 10 October, Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army,) and local police forces began a counteroffensive to clear the area of insurgents, estimated to number 240. Security forces encountered resistance from villagers armed with guns, knives, and sticks. Between four and seven locals were killed during security sweeps, although it is unclear how many were insurgents or innocent bystanders.
On 11 October, in Pyaungpit village in Maungdaw Township, a purported 300-strong Rohingya force ambushed a Tatmadaw patrol, killing five.
Additional Tatmadaw operations resulted in scores of suspects apprehended and many more dead. Anadolu Agency reported that Muslim organizations in Myanmar have condemned the violence.
Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counselor of Myanmar (the country’s national leader,) has urged caution and patience as the military conducted its investigations and security sweeps, and she requested the cooperation of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in sharing intelligence on the threat.
In total, at least 40 people have died in these clashes, including nine police, five Tatmadaw soldiers, and 26 suspected insurgents.
The Myawady Daily reported that, in the course of their sweeps, government forces discovered 24 RSO flags, 40 RSO badges, a burnt MA-11 assault rifle (a Myanmar-produced copy of an HK-33,) and 1,510 rounds of ammunition.
The RSO emerged in 1982 to fight for Rohingya interests after Tatmadaw offensives in Rakhine State led to a refugee crisis. It fought into the 1990s but declined in 2001 after the Bangladesh military targeted its training camps on the Bangladesh side of the border. Despite many believing the RSO to be largely defunct since then, the RSO was suspected of being behind an attack on Bangladeshi police forces guarding a Rohingya refugee camp in Teknaf Upazila of Cox’s Bazar on 13 May 2016. RSO responsibility was never confirmed, however.
It should be noted that mujahidin violence in Arakan state erupted in 1948 and led to a rebellion that did not surrender until 1961. Accordingly, friction between Muslim communities and the Myanmar government are not new. (Friction with other ethnic groups and the government are not new, either. As many as 20 rebel groups in Myanmar have been active since the end of WW II.)
The Myanmar President’s office issued a report on the October attacks shortly after interrogating four captured insurgents. The report claims the FMA planned the attacks. Their leader is a 45-year-old Rohingya man simply named “Havistoohar” of Kyaukpyinseik village in Maungdaw Township. He is said to have attended a six-month military training course run by the Pakistani Taliban.
To launch his movement, Havistoohar posed as a refugee in Teknaf, Bangladesh, where he began seeking sources of funding from the Middle East. He worked with a Pakistani citizen named Kalis and 15 others to organize a group of fighters and collect supplies and food. Kalis, who also attended a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, came to Maungdaw to train local youths recruited by Havistoohar in weapons tactics.
Their mission, planned by Havistoohar, was simple: assault three security posts, kill the defenders, and steal their firearms. (Their original plan was for 400 fighters to attack six locations manned by Tatmadaw and local police.) Their end goal was to take over two Muslim-majority townships, Buthitaung and Maungdaw, and then spread radical Islamist propaganda through video and social networks to expand the movement.
Several videos were found online after the attacks showing men speaking the Rohingya’s Chittagong dialect of Bengali and carrying weapons similar to those stolen during the raids. One video shows a stocky, mustached, middle-aged man dressed in a black t-shirt and surrounded by young armed men in ordinary clothes. Police have identified the man as Havistoohar. Using the single-finger salute often used by other jihadists, ISIS in particular, he calls on the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine to join the mujahidin in a holy war against the government – this according to a translation by Reuters. In a second video, he references the military’s helicopters searching for the insurgents and encourages the men surrounding him to accept martyrdom. A third video shows Havistoohar marching along a muddy path leading a long column of what appears to be hundreds of mostly young men and boys, virtually all barefoot, with swords, sticks, firearms.
Throughout Myanmar, there is a deep-seated disregard for the Rohingya, who are still considered Bengalis and denied Myanmar citizenship, despite most having lived in Myanmar for generations. They suffered the worst of the anti-Muslim riots stoked by radical Buddhist nationalists after Myanmar began democratic reforms in 2011. Their plight was widely condemned by international human rights groups and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The violence also prompted a call for action by international jihadist groups, including ISIS and the Pakistani Taliban.
In an October 2014 report, the International Crisis Group suggested that the 2012 Buddhist-Rohingya communal conflict may have led to an attempt to revive the defunct RSO, and it warned that continued discrimination of the Rohingyas risked pushing some of them into violent extremism. It appears this has happened.
There are seven takeaways here. First, it is clear that an ISIS-inspired, radical Islamist insurgency has taken root in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. This was pointedly demonstrated by the attackers’ high level of organization, their military training, the effectiveness of their attacks, their PR videos, and their stated goals. The FMA’s methods of funding, recruitment, and training with foreign fighters are consistent with Islamists and ISIS affiliates elsewhere around the world. Additionally, the stockpiling of food and supplies, and the coordinated raids for weapons is consistent with insurgencies in their start-up phases.
Second, the size of the insurgency is unclear, but it appears large enough to pose a credible threat. Early reports stated only 90 fighters participated in the 9 October raids, but subsequent military sweeps aimed to round up 240 suspects. The 11 October ambush of Tatmadaw forces reportedly involved 300 fighters, and the original goal of the uprising aimed to mobilize 400 insurgents. An elderly resident told AFP that 500-600 were involved in the October attacks. In military terms, these larger numbers represent a battalion-sized force of fighters. Insurgent support forces (auxiliary forces) might number at least three times that as is consistent with insurgent methods of development.
Third, while an undisclosed number of foreigners have been identified in training and assisting the FMA, the group appears to mostly consist of Rohingyas. The movement then might appeal to locals since it does not appear to be a mostly Pakistani-driven one.
Fourth, looking forward, the presence of an ISIS-affiliated insurgency risks stoking already heightened anti-Muslim fears among Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population. This could lead to more Buddhist-Muslim communal violence.
Fifth, Rohingya advocacy groups are concerned that the government might use the cover of battling Islamist insurgents to further persecute the Rohingyas and perpetuate the same vicious cycle of retaliatory violence that has plagued the region in the past.
Sixth, the October violence is likely to derail a nine-member advisory commission designed to tackle the Rohingya issue. Established in August 2016 by State Counselor Suu Kyi and headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, the commission has been heavily criticized by Buddhist nationalists.
Seventh, while Tatmadaw appears to be exercising some restraint in its operations against other rebellious groups elsewhere in the country, it is unlikely to do so with the FMA, especially given the country’s current anti-Muslim/Rohingya sentiment. And while government heavy suppression may be successful in reducing further attacks in the near term, if it leads to excessive civilian casualties, this new Rohingya rebellion will likely grow in the intermediate term. If negative conditions persist for a longer period of time, global Islamist jihadist support for the FMA will likely increase.
Sources and further reading:
“Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State,” International Crisis Group, 22 October 2014.
“All Unquiet on the Western Front,” The Irrawaddy, 20 October 2016.
“Myanmar Muslims condemn fatal attacks in Rakhine,” Anadolu Agency, 15 October 2016.
“Myanmar gov’t still to name group behind Rakhine attack,” The Myawady Daily/Anadolu Agency, 14 October 2016.
“Taliban-trained militants carried out Myanmar border raids: presidency,” AFP, 14 October 2016.
“Nine policemen killed, five injured, one missing in border attacks,” The New Light of Myanmar, 10 October 2016.
“Myanmar sends troops into Muslim-majority region after deadly attacks,” Reuters, 10 October 2016.
“Rakhine border raids kill nine police officers,” AFP, 10 October 2016.
“Govt justifies international involvement in Arakan issue,” The Irrawaddy, 29 August 2016.
“The Rohingya and Islamic extremism: a convenient myth,” The Diplomat, 29 June 2015.
“Attack on border fuels growing concern,” Myanmar Times, 26 May 2014.
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