YANGON, MYANMAR - The Rohingya Muslim insurgency, whose sneak attacks in October killed nine border guard officers in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, issued a detailed list of demands this week that struck a far more pragmatic note while describing the use of violence in the past as self-defense.
Ata Ullah, the commander of the Faith Movement, now rebranded as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), signed the March 29 list, which has been verified and seems to have been timed to the anniversary of Aung San Suu Kyi’s first year in power. Arakan is another name for Rakhine.
A new presentation
In a preamble to the 20 demands, the ARSA said it does not associate with any terrorist organizations, eschews attacks against civilians and religious minorities, and wants to state “loud and clear” that its “defensive attacks” are only aimed at the “oppressive Burmese regime.” They said they would support international peacekeeping troops in the state.
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won elections in late 2015 and swore in its president, Htin Kyaw, one year ago today. Suu Kyi, barred from the presidency by the 2008 military-drafted constitution, assumed the roles of foreign minister and state counselor. But the military still controls 25 percent of parliament and three key ministries.
By far the most polished and level-headed presentation of the group’s goals, the list stands in stark contrast to grainy YouTube videos posted in the days after the attack, which showed men holding guns and reading off declarations in a forest hideout.
Among other things, the demands include calls for political representation, citizenship rights, access to relief aid, education opportunities, freedom of movement and religion, the return of property, the ability to participate in trade and commercial activities, and the return of Rohingya refugees.
“It’s significant they deny connections to terrorist organizations, deny targeting civilians, and speak mostly of rights-based objectives,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the NGO Fortify Rights, in an email. “We have no evidence that the group is well-trained, well-financed, or well-organized, but it’s clear they aren’t going anywhere.”
Muslim insurgencies began in 1940s
Since Myanmar became independent in 1948, Muslim insurgencies in Rakhine have emerged under different political contexts over the decades, a reflection of self-determination sought by members of other faiths and ethnic groups across the country. Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as one of its many ethnic groups, denies them citizenship and has pushed them out of the political sphere.
The International Crisis Group said in a report last year that the Faith Movement was formed around 2012 after inter-communal violence in Rakhine killed hundreds and sent more than 120,000 Rohingya into IDP camps in the state capital Sittwe, where they remain today. Its leaders are centered in the Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia, the report said.
Accusations of atrocities
As part of the hunt for militants in the wake of the October attacks, Myanmar’s armed forces have been accused of numerous atrocities, including rape and arson. An estimated 1,000 people have been killed.
The government has vehemently denied the more serious of the accusations, but mounting testimonies pushed the United Nations Human Rights Council to green light a fact-finding mission last week. It is not clear whether the U.N. will gain access.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, and the area of the state where the attacks occurred remains under lockdown except for rare visits and supervised tours.
A hard line by the Myanmar military
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the president’s office, did not immediately return requests for comment on the Rohingya demands. But Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing this week gave an indication of how the government will view the demands of the ARSA and the prospect of a U.N. probe.
At the annual Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, the general called the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“We have already let the world know that we don’t have Rohingya in our country,” he said, according to reports of his speech.
Two senior U.N. officials working among the Rohingya refugees said more than 1,000 Rohingya might have been killed during the four-month security operation. However, Myanmar presidential spokesman Zaw Htay has previously said fewer than 100 people had been killed during the operation.