External Affairs

How Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar Contributed to ARSA’s Movement in Myanmar’s Rakhine

Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh has proved to be a fertile ground for ARSA, providing the group with sources of funding, weapons and recruits.

ARSA chief Atullah Abu Ammar Junjuni, alias Hafiz Tohar, with cadres at a hideout in Myanmar's Rakhine State. Credit: By special arrangement

ARSA chief Atullah Abu Ammar Junjuni, alias Hafiz Tohar, with cadres at a hideout in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Credit: By special arrangement

Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh): It was in late 2010 that a group of Rohingya settlers in Saudi Arabia convened a meeting to take stock of the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and the contiguous Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where a large part of the community had settled. They were aghast at the swindling of funds from the Middle East and Malaysia by expatriates and voluntary organisations.

The outcome of that meeting was the formation of a 40-member committee drawn from among the Rohingya who hailed from Rakhine and Karachi in Pakistan. The leader chosen to head the panel was a Saudi Arabia-based cleric named Ataullah Abu Ammar Junjuni alias Hafiz Tohar. Tohar was born in Karachi after his parents migrated from Rakhine in the 1960s.

According to a reliable source in the Bangladesh government, Tohar went off the radar around late 2011 but not before facilitating the training of the 40-member squad in Pakistan. He was reportedly assisted by Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), and the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Arakan, founded by Maulana Abdul Quddus, a Rohingya Muslim who fled to Pakistan in the 1980s at the behest of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and the ISI. The Harakah al-Yakin, better known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), emerged soon after the training ended, and roped in members of the Rohingya diaspora from Malaysia and Thailand as well.

Sources said Tohar realised very early the need for a constant flow of funds and weapons to sustain the movement in Rakhine. Two regions inhabited by the Rohingya and contiguous to Myanmar – Mae Sot in Thailand and Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar – provided some options. But Cox’s Bazar clearly had some advantages over Mae Sot – the culture and language of the large number of Rohingya were similar to that of the locals and there were many disgruntled members of militant groups waiting to join hands with a committed organisation. Local political parties like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami had reportedly also begun drawing closer to and cultivating the support of the Rohingya community.

The Naf river between Teknaf in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, and Rakhine State, Myanmar. Credit: Rajeev Bhattacharyya

The Naf river between Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and Rakhine State, Myanmar. Credit: Rajeev Bhattacharyya

Fertile ground for ARSA

In Cox’s Bazar, the spadework for ARSA had already been done by the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), founded in 1982, and other organisations like the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front and the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation. Bangaldesh’s intelligence sources said the RSO set up training camps at Ukhia in the early 1990s in collusion with groups like the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. A string of Qaumi madarsas had also emerged in the region and were in the vanguard of the movement.

These activities were “funded by Rohingya expatriates and a transnational network, including Islamic NGOs from the Middle East and South East Asia.” The Saudi Arabia-based Al-Harmain Al-Khairia, the UAE’s Al Fujairia Welfare Association and several others had reportedly been focusing their attention on this region with liberal funding to the madarsas.

A former RSO activist in Chittagong told this correspondent that the group had also forged ties with militant outfits in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “We received assistance in terms of training and weapons but we could not develop the capability to go beyond that and this is where Tohar made a difference. He appeared more committed than the earlier batches and this endeared him to many hardliners in the region,” he said, adding, “The major chunk of ARSA’s recruits was from the batches of refugees who landed in Cox’s Bazaar in 1994 and 2012.”

Maulavi Shafiqur Rahman, senior ARSA functionary in Cox's Bazar, who has now gone underground. Credit: By special arrangement

Maulavi Shafiqur Rahman, senior ARSA functionary in Cox’s Bazar, who has now gone underground. Credit: By special arrangement

Some inmates in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar Balukhali claimed hearing about Tohar’s presence at Teknaf in 2013. He is reported to have roped in “promising leaders” in Cox’s Bazar who could lay the base of the new organisation and assist in the expansion of the movement in Rakhine. Included in the group were Maulavi Shafiqur Rahman and Abu Saleh who were later tasked with a range of activities, including recruitment, coordination with the cells in Rakhine and ensuring uninterrupted supply of weapons and ingredients for the manufacture of bombs. Rahman is currently underground but is, as per intelligence sources, “believed to be remote-triggering all activities from the place he is currently residing.”

Dearth of weapons

Sources said in December last year two people, Ramiz and Maulavi Karimullah, were apprehended with two trucks containing ingredients for bombs in Cox’s Bazar. On interrogation, they confessed the trucks were heading to a unit in Rakhine owned by a senior Rohingya leader. The duo was arrested but soon jumped bail after paying a hefty sum of money to the police and magistrate.

The need for bombs was due to an acute shortage of weapons among the cadres in Rakhine. Illegal hubs at Maheshkhali in Cox’s Bazar produced and supplied several consignments of country-made pistols across the border to Rakhine. But they were too few in number and inferior in quality to take on the Myanmar security forces. There was a scarcity of ammunition as well and so the hunt for sophisticated weapons became more intense. The safest option was to land small consignments somewhere in Cox’s Bazar and then take them through overland routes to Rakhine.

According to security analyst Anthony Davis, “In view of the tight security lockdown imposed by the Myanmar security forces across Rakhine state since last October, it is far more likely that the weapons reached ARSA through southern Bangladesh than from inside Myanmar.”

There are unconfirmed inputs of two deliveries of weapons in small quantities somewhere along the long beach in Cox’s Bazar some months ago. Gun merchants are extremely cautious after the seizure in 2004 of the weapons in Chittagong that were meant for the United Liberation Front of Asom and other rebel groups in India’s Northeast. Fourteen people, including the chief of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami , the then industries minister Motiur Rahman Nizami and former minister for state for home Lutfozzaman Babar were given the death penalty for smuggling the consignment.

Gone were the days of trawlers transporting weapons to favorable locations on the beach after offloading them from ships at a far-off distance in the sea. It was not unusual to see Bangladesh navy ships patrolling certain stretches of the sea along the route from Ukhia and Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar. In the absence of weapons, the ARSA equipped most combatants in Rakhine with three bombs transported from Cox’s Bazar and a machete ahead of the August 25 attack.

Ideal ground for retreat

The crackdown in Rakhine by the Myanmar security forces has forced ARSA cadres to withdraw to zones beyond the reach of the army and to some refugee camps at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar, and in particular, the 40-km stretch between Ukhia and Teknaf, which goes further to Shar Porir Dip, a territory supposedly preferred by militants. Because there “were less police and paramilitary at Teknaf on the highways than in Ukhia.”

Abu Saleh, senior ARSA functionary in Cox's Bazar. Credit: By special arrangement

Abu Saleh, senior ARSA functionary in Cox’s Bazar. Credit: By special arrangement

Another migrant at Nayapara, who hesitatingly admitted to attending a training camp organised by “Alekin” (Harakah al-Yakin, or ARSA) near Maungdaw ahead of the attacks on police posts on October 9 last year, told The Wire that a few trainers were from Teknaf and who would hop from place to place across the border. He said there were occasions when middle-rung functionaries of the outfit frequently went to Cox’s Bazar for bombs and weapons.

Informed sources suggest that the Myanmar army has been avoiding launching operations in some regions in Rakhine, such as the Mayu mountains, where ARSA cadres have entrenched themselves. But this is not the first time that the army has launched such a campaign in Myanmar. The Sagaing Division and Kachin State in that country are replete with instances of entire villages being burnt and the inhabitants forced to flee to the jungles. It is unlikely that the army will withdraw and give a free hand to ARSA in the northern Rakhine State. The army has continued with its operations against rebel outfits in other regions of the country for the past several decades, and so the possibility of more rebels sneaking into Teknaf and further beyond cannot be ruled out if the conflict drags on for a long time.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior Guwahati-based journalist and the author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men.