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Rohingya militants in Burma: Terrorists or freedom fighters?

How Burma's Rohingya militants are involved in the crisis (Video: Jason Aldag, Max Bearak / The Washington Post)

Over the past 2½ weeks, the coastal borderland between Burma and Bangladesh has become the site of almost incomprehensible misery and suffering.

The United Nations says 313,000 people, most belonging to Burma's Rohingya ethnic group, have fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs to fetid roadside encampments in Bangladesh. They are escaping what many international observers say is a scorched-earth campaign led by the Burmese military to drive an unwanted, mostly Muslim minority from the country, complete with indiscriminate killing, systematic rape and the burning of entire towns.

The situation calls to mind the adage: One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

The Rohingya (pronounced ROH-hihn-juh) have been referred to as the world's “most friendless people” and are undoubtedly in need of protection. For decades, they have faced persecution and been denied citizenship in Buddhist-majority Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. With the country's democratic reforms in 2011, ending half a century of military rule, many in the international community hoped the Burmese government would provide that protection, especially since the nation is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and self-proclaimed pacifist.

Who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing Burma?

But Suu Kyi has no direct control over Burma's military under the new constitution. And she also subscribes to the belief held by many in Burma that the Rohingya are essentially illegal Bangladeshi interlopers, despite evidence of their presence in the region for generations, if not centuries. The Burmese government officially refers to the group as “Bengali.”

Burma’s government refused a ceasefire offer from Rohingya Muslim insurgents for the sake of the thousands of refugees fleeing the violence. (Video: Reuters)

Until recently, Bangladeshis felt similarly about the Rohingya. “Bangladeshis once had hatred for us,” a Rohingya man named Mohammed Yunus told the New York Times earlier this year. “They would call us names. They used to say we were Burmese, with a bad tone, and swear at us in different ways. But now they have the idea that we are persecuted.”

That idea has spread far and wide, especially among Muslims around the world. Images and testimony shared by Rohingya have galvanized people from Chechnya to Jakarta to come out in mass protest against Burma's treatment of the Rohingya. Bangladesh now hosts 750,000 Rohingya refugees, and the government in Dhaka recently described Burma's actions as “genocide.” Only international pressure could persuade Burma to accept most of the refugees back, given that almost none would hold Burmese citizenship.

More than a quarter-million Rohingya have fled Burma in the past two weeks, U.N. says

According to an investigation by the International Crisis Group published in December, the plight of the Rohingya has also inspired wealthy individuals in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to fund a ragtag insurgency. When the report came out, the fledgling Rohingya militancy was known as Harakah al-Yaqin, Arabic for “faith movement." The group now calls itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or Arsa.

Money and weapons are channeled through groups of Rohingya expatriates living in the Persian Gulf and Bangladesh and eventually reach Burma, where local fighters receive training. The ICG report says Arsa has growing popular support among Rohingya in Burma, but the recent crackdown was sparked by a coordinated Arsa attack on multiple Burmese border police posts that killed at least 12 officers last month. On the other hand, the crackdown may inspire many Rohingya to join the militants.

Still, calling the conflict between the military and Arsa lopsided would be an understatement. Arsa probably has a only a few hundred fighters. There is little evidence foreigners have joined the fight. On Sunday, Arsa declared a unilateral cease-fire, hoping to assuage the humanitarian crisis. The Burmese government refused to enter into talks with them.

The Rohingya remain deeply unpopular in Burma, but Arsa's attacks, even if they pale in comparison with Burma's retaliation, only widen the divisions and serve the government's narrative. With the Burmese military essentially treating all Rohingya men as possible terrorists and effectively blocking humanitarian aid, the vicious spiral of persecution and militarization is in full spin.

Weeks after Arsa's coordinated attack on police posts, villages are still ablaze across Rakhine, and more Rohingya now live as refugees in Bangladesh than remain in Burma. One has to ask: Is Arsa helping or hurting the Rohingya?

Read more:

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The battle over the word ‘Rohingya’

The shameful silence of Aung San Suu Kyi