There were rice, vegetables and utensils, some filled with recently cooked meals, when the abandoned camps were found in the summer of 2015. There were also graves, mounds of earth covered with leaves and marked with sticks in the hope, perhaps, that someone would some day find them. Inside the graves, sprawled for kilometres around the Malaysia-Thailand border at Wang Kelian, investigators found skeletons, some wrapped in white plastic sacks that once held rice. It was the final resting place for the weak and unwell among tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled persecution and poverty.
Earlier this year, a court in Thailand convicted 63 people for the murder of the Rohingyas, trafficked to work in the country’s fishing and construction industry. Among those convicted were General Manas Kongpan; politician Patchuban Angchotipan, known to his victims as “Big Brother Tong”; and Rohingya ganglord Soe Naing Anwar.
The victims still don’t have a name. Now, in their own homeland, Rohingyas are again being dumped in unmarked graves — this time by an army apparently determined to evict them from it forever.
There is growing concern across the region that the crackdown by the Myanmarese military, which has sent almost half a million refugees into overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, could ignite a conflict that could have dangerous consequences for the entire region.
Frustration among the Rohingyas explains the man who leads the Harkah al-Yakin, the group which sparked off the latest fighting in Rakhine. If he is almost unknown, his followers are just as little understood. His name, they say, is Ataullah, or Hafiz Tohar, or just Junooni, the passionate one: but everything about the man leading the Rohingya war in Rakhine is shrouded in mystery. In videotape, he appears in his late 30s. His politics is carefully modulated for its intended audience. His earlier videos emphasised Islam and jihad, evidently reaching out to local recruits and the Rohingya diaspora. Later messages, released after the Rakhine war broke out on August 25 — after a series of attacks on police posts by the al-Yakin — have dropped religious messaging, using the meme of self-defence instead.
Bangladeshi intelligence officials have a few more details to add: hailing from Kyauk Pyin Seik, a village near Maungdaw on the western tip of Rakhine, Ataullah’s family appears to have migrated to Pakistan when he was still a child. His father studied at the Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamia seminary in Karachi — alma mater to the who’s who of the jihadist movement, including al-Qaeda’s South Asia chief, Sanaul Haq. Then, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where his father taught religion at Ta’if and Riyadh.
Till the India-Pakistan border fence made transit near impossible, leaving tens of thousands stranded in Jammu on their way from Bangladesh, Karachi’s Burma Colony was the Rohingyas’ preferred haven. For some, it was a pit-stop on the road to Saudi Arabia; for others, a place where they could make a living, fishing or working on construction sites, at better wages than in Bangladesh.
Muhammad Miyan, a crab farmer from Rohingyadong, saw many from his village spend their life’s savings to make the journey to Pakistan and, in recent years, eastwards to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. “There are some Rohingya businessmen,” he says, “but most live in poverty. The identity cards the government gives us do not even let our youth attend college outside the province”.
Early in 2013, infuriated by the pogrom of the previous year that had sent desperate Rohingya refugees streaming out of Rakhine, Ataullah reached out to the network of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), a Rohingya organisation in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which had been set up in the wake of the 1978 communal violence that had sparked the first massive exodus from Rakhine. Abdul Karim, a worker at the Imam Muslim Markaz-e-Islami, a seminary in the border town of Nila, held a meeting to discuss plans. Dozens of young Rohingyas volunteered to fight, attending basic courses in handling explosives and arms.
In 2013, Ataullah began setting up the al-Yakin and found supporters in mobs of hundreds. A handful of these supporters had weapons, but those who attacked the Myanmarese armed military and police personnel mostly did so with ginkali — slingshots hurling iron bolts and machetes.
Then, in October 2016, a drug-runner and gangster who had arrived at the Nayapara Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh with his parents four years earlier, killed constable Mohammad Ali Hossain and made off with 11 assault rifles and ammunition. Nurul Avsar, who made his living as a methamphetamine smuggler and gun-for-hire before he became a jihadist, was to become Ataullah’s key aide.
Camps like Nayapara provide a grim glimpse into what Rohingya lives are like: though the Bangladesh government has done all it can, refugees continue to live in ramshackle shacks. Lacking access to education and opportunity — or even the hope that they might get these — young refugees find they have almost no prospects, except driving rickshaws or working as construction labourers for less than the usual local wages.
If Ataullah’s story illustrates the anger of the Rohingya diaspora at Myanmar’s 1982 decision to deny the community citizenship, even though most of them have lived in the country for generations, Avsar’s story illustrates another part of the story: the rage that bred in the refugee camps.
In Myanmar itself, a third side of the story, driven by the denial of citizenship and opportunity is playing out. Abdullah Malik, a ninth-grade student studying in the Rakhine town of Budhidaung, was one of the young men who responded to al-Yakin’s call. Now recovering from a bullet injury sustained during an attack on a police post, he doesn’t know much about his leader’s story — but understood his message. “He came to our village and told the young men that we had a choice between fighting for our rights and dying,” Malik says. “I chose to risk dying.”
In the hours before the August 25 attacks that began the Rakhine war, he issued this message to his supporters on social media: “If 200 or 300 people come out, 50 will die. God willing, the remaining 150 can kill them with knives.”
Long before the August 25 attacks, al-Yakin appears to have brought about a collapse of State authority. But even before the al-Yakin, there was the RSO.
Salahul Islam, who was the RSO’s first military chief, was arrested last year by the Bangladesh police for allegedly routing funds from Saudi and Pakistani donors to Rohingya jihadists. He is now out on bail and runs the Markaz-e-Islami centre, arguably the largest seminary and orphanage in the region. In spite of his alleged terror links, his functions have drawn leaders from both the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh National Party.
In 1982, a group of Rohingya had met at the Rabita-e-Islami hospital in Chittagong, Bangladesh, to discuss how to retaliate against the killings of Rohingyas in communal violence which had raged three years earlier. Mir Quasem Ali, a leader of Bangladesh’s Islamist party Jama’at-e-Islami who was executed by Bangladesh last year for his role in the 1971 war crimes, brought together Nurul Islam and Mohammad Yunus. They, in turn, recruited Salahul Islam as the RSO’s first military chief.
From its earliest days, the RSO had big ambitions, but little fighting ability. Though the funds it raised from the Rohingya diaspora in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan allowed it to buy assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives from Thai arms dealers, much of the organisation’s energies were spent in giving protection to human trafficking across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
The RSO soon splintered, but reemerged in 1998, calling itself the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO). ARNO ran a camp in Bangladesh, Naikhongchari, just across the Naff river. Helped along by Bangladesh’s government, the ARNO at its peak numbered some 200 fighters, some of whom, material recovered in Afghanistan shows, allegedly trained at al-Qaeda camps there before 9/11.
Following the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001, though, Bangladesh came under pressure to evict the ARNO from its territory and shut down the camps. The ARNO’s Nurul Islam tried to negotiate a deal with Karen insurgents and the Democratic Alliance of Burma, common enemies of Myanmar’s military dictatorship. They were refused on ethnic grounds — a sign of the depth of hatred against the Rohingya even then.
Helped by the Jama’at, though, Maulvi Deen Muhammad and Salahul Islam revived the RSO.
In 2009, Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s government took power in Bangladesh, and cracked down on the Islamist networks supporting the RSO. The organisation, though, won powerful international backers when a second wave of anti-Rohingya killings swept Rakhine in 2012. That year, RSO leader Abdul Qudoos ‘Burmi’ shared a platform with the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, while members of the group also attended a major Islamist gathering in Indonesia.
From the accounts of residents, it is clear faultlines hardened across Rakhine after the 2012 violence. The incendiary Buddhist chauvinist leader, Ashin Wirathu, gained traction in the region, and the opposition Arakan National Party began demanding military action against the Rohingyas.
Hindu villagers — given cards identifying them as being of “Indian” ethnicity, even though they shared the same features and language as the Rohingya — for the first time took to wearing bindis and other religious symbols, in an effort to stand out.
Following the 2012 attacks on the Rohingyas, the reborn RSO carried out its first strike, killing an officer of a Myanmar military engineering group and kidnapping two government officials, whom it eventually executed. In 2014, there was another attack, this time involving an estimated 50 cadre, of whom only a few possessed firearms. Like in the recent attacks, the mob simply swamped police, prepared to die in order to seize their arms and ammunition. However, frustrated by the RSO’s failure to escalate actions, Ataullah and his young radicals decided to form their own group, the al-Yakin.
Last year, the al-Yakin launched the first of its major operations, swarming police posts near Maungdaw with the weapons stolen by former drug-runner Nurul Avsar from the police in Bangladesh. The Myanmar army responded with exceptional savagery, in one case using a helicopter to fire on unarmed civilians.
From many local accounts, it’s clear that many Rohingyas opposed the al-Yakin’s violent agenda. “The Al-Yakin killed anyone who opposed them, including some village headmen,” says Noorul Ahmad, a refugee from Nalbaniapara. “They forced many young men to join them at gunpoint, and created this calamity.”
But the hardship in the camps — fuelled by global failure to compel Myanmar to end the killing — has legitimised its cause. Salma Begum’s husband, Nur Hashim, left to join the al-Yakin after homes in their village, Kumir Khali, were burned down by the army in collective reprisal for an attack on police. “I am proud of my husband,” she says. “Even if he dies, he will have done something for our people.”
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been quietly lobbying India to do more — not only by continuing to help refugees with aid, but in pushing Myanmar to take back the refugees into United Nations-monitored safe zones.
Experts fear that with its dense, near-impossible-to-police forests and jungles, the Arakan could emerge as a magnet for the global jihadist movement, just as Afghanistan once did. The longer the warfare in Rakhine continues, the more likely that prognosis will be.