Residents of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state say they are concerned over possible armed clashes in Maungdaw township along the country’s border with Bangladesh amid a recent uptick in activity in the area by the outlawed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
ARSA, which has joined Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) and other armed ethnic groups in fighting the junta following its Feb. 1 coup, has been moving aggressively to establish control over sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh, where three-quarters of a million Rohingya fled during a crackdown by Myanmar’s military in 2017. The crackdown came in response to ARSA’s attack on Rakhine police posts.
A rival group, the Buddhist Arakan Army (AA), agreed to a ceasefire with Myanmar’s military in late 2020, and ARSA now appears to be taking advantage of the relative calm, residents of Maungdaw told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
In November, clashes broke out between ARSA and the military in Maungdaw. Last month a man from the township’s Khonedaing village was injured when ARSA gunmen opened fire on a group of 20 people who had gone to collect bamboo in the jungle.
Earlier this month, several photos and videos appeared on social media purporting to show an armed exercise by more than 50 ARSA troops and their leaders. Maungdaw residents said they are now afraid of renewed violence in the area.
“The ARSA fighters look like a revolutionary group in guerrilla uniforms, and sometimes we see four or five of them in civilian clothes,” said Maung Hla, the administrative officer of Khonedaing village.
“We are afraid to go to the western part of the hills. If we need to go, we must go in groups of about 20 people, not in small groups. And we dare not go into the deep jungle.”
According to Maung Hla, ARSA’s Myanmar branch is based in the Wela Hills, about 20 miles north of the seat of Maungdaw and only around two miles from his village. Its presence has greatly disrupted the lives of local community members, who rely on natural resources for their livelihoods, he said
A resident who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA that ARSA’s position in Maungdaw lies directly between a group of military and AA units.
“ARSA cannot move around as freely as it did before [the 2017 crackdown] with two adversaries on either side,” he said. “People living near the border areas will have to be careful about their movements.”
Other sources told RFA that a planned repatriation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh had stalled in part due to reports of ARSA militants within their ranks.
While Bangladesh denies that ARSA operates in the refugee camps, last month, Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told reporters that he had “credible” information about the group being involved in kidnapping, abusing, and even killing fellow Rohingya at the facilities.
Mohammad Shari, a Muslim resident of Maungdaw, told RFA that while ARSA remains active, the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will refuse to return home.
“As long as these ARSA elements are present, it is impossible for us to bring back our refugees from Bangladesh and there will be no peace and security for us who are now living in northern Rakhine state,” he said.
“Last time, we had to flee to Bangladesh because of these people [ARSA]. And now, with all these pictures and video files appearing on Facebook, we are worried we might have to flee again.”
In addition to ARSA, residents told RFA that other militant groups, including the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and the Rohingya Army, have infiltrated the Maungdaw side of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in Rakhine state.
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun was not immediately available for comment when contacted by RFA.
Dil Mohammad, a Rohingya leader in Bangladesh, told the RFA-affiliated BenarNews agency that fighting had already broken out between ARSA and the AA in the no-man’s land along the shared border.
“The fighting between ARSA and the Arakan Army occurred after a reported incident about the abduction of a Rohingya person,” Mohammad said.
But he said that while fighting has broken out in the area, the real reason Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have not returned home is “owing to the reluctance of the Myanmar government.”
“Myanmar is still reluctant to accept us, so the repatriation is not taking place,” he said.
Shah Rezwan Hayat, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation commissioner, downplayed the presence of ARSA in the Rohingya refugee camps to BenarNews.
“We hear from the media and other sources about the presence of ARSA at the camps. But the armed groups inside and around the camps only use the ARSA name to enhance their importance. We will not allow any armed groups to create anarchy at the camps,” Hayat said.
“If Bangladesh and Myanmar could reach a diplomatic agreement, either with the facilitation of any other country or without, the violence at the border would not hinder the repatriation process.”
Brother of ARSA leader arrested
The increased presence of ARSA in the border area comes amid reports on Tuesday that the brother of ARSA leader Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi was arrested in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
Mohammad Shah Ali, 50, was taken into custody on Jan. 16 by police who discovered him carrying a Bangladeshi national ID card, weapons and drugs, Inspector (Investigation) Gazi Salah Uddin, who oversees the Ukhia Police Station, told BenarNews.
Chittagong District Election Officer Jahangir Hossain told local journalists that if the identity card is genuine, it will be investigated, and action will be taken against those involved.
Naimul Haque, a captain of the Armed Police Battalion Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews that Shah Ali was staying in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on the instructions of his brother Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service, with additional reporting by BenarNews. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.