The declaration last Sunday by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), that it has no choice but to fight the Myanmar government, is precisely the sort of unhelpful stance that sparked the deadly response by the Myanmar authorities on the entire Rohingya population last year.
The statement was preceded two days earlier by an attack on a military vehicle ferrying a patient to hospital, presumably someone of significance. According to the Myanmar army, the vehicle was targeted by about 20 “Bengali extremists” using homemade mines and arms. A statement attributed to Arsa chieftain Ata Ullah said the group had “no other option but to combat ‘Burmese state-sponsored terrorism’ against the Rohingya population for the purpose of defending, salvaging and protecting the Rohingya community”.
Clearly, the motive here was to provoke. The latest attack took place weeks after Bangladesh and Myanmar announced a plan to repatriate some of the nearly 700,000 Rohingya who have found refuge mostly in Bangladesh, and a few thousand in some other Southeast Asian nations, as well as India. It is meant to radicalise whatever Rohingya, or non-Rohingya Muslims who continue to live in Myanmar. The aggression signalled in the Arsa statement could lead to only one conclusion: more attacks must be anticipated. This and reports that some known terror groups connected to the wider network of Islamist terrorism have sought to infiltrate Rohingya camps are a worrying signal for both South and Southeast Asia.
The Arsa attack on 30 military and police posts last August led to the carnage that caused the death of an estimated 6,700 Rohingya, and the subsequent exodus. Described as “ethnic cleansing” by a senior United Nations official, the violence blackened Myanmar’s name and dented the global image of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader. Suu Kyi recently praised the military for admitting that rogue officers were responsible for the mass grave containing 10 bodies of Muslims that was discovered in a coastal village on December 18. The army has promised to act against those responsible.
Myanmar’s military likes to portray Arsa as a potent militant force, able to muster up as many as 10,000 fighters. This is almost certainly a vast exaggeration. Still, it is to the military’s credit that it has reacted with restraint to the latest outrage. Some right-thinking Rohingya also have come out to castigate Arsa for inviting further misery on them, and blame it for targeting innocents thought to have informed on Arsa.
Such voices must gather strength. As witnessed in Sri Lanka, the methods employed by terrorists are such that quite often the worst sufferers are those the militants supposedly seek to protect. Only when reason prevails – on both sides – can a meaningful solution be found.