Against a backdrop of stepped up preparations for a Rohingya revolt across the majority-Muslim townships of Rakhine state, reports of external assistance including new weaponry reaching the militants have added ominously to the prospects for expanded violence with the onset of the dry season.
Given the large size of the Rohingya diaspora of several hundred thousand in the Gulf, Pakistan and Malaysia, and the wave of international publicity focused on the Myanmar’s brutal military crackdown late last year, the channeling of external assistance to the incipient insurgency is hardly surprising.
The Rohingya organization that has claimed responsibility for recent violence — the Harakat al Yaqin (HaY), now rebranded the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – is understood to have a leadership council based in Saudi Arabia and local leaders with backgrounds in Pakistan. It’s a support network that will almost certainly translate into donations from established businessmen in both countries.
One senior regional intelligence official noted to Asia Times that a group of senior Rohingya clerics based in Saudi Arabia has already played an important role in fundraising and facilitating money transfers. According to the same source, Malaysia has emerged as both a major clearing house for ARSA funding, and, given its Muslim-friendly visa regime, as a transit point for the movement of militants.
There are currently at least 100,000 – and possibly as many as 130,000 Rohingya refugees and migrant laborers – living in Malaysia. Of those only 58,000 are documented with the UNHCR, straining the capabilities of local security services to monitor their movements.
With relations between Myanmar and Malaysia in a deep freeze over the Rakhine crisis, and with ties with neighboring Bangladesh perennially fraught, the Myanmar military has looked primarily to Buddhist Thailand to assist in checking as far as possible the movement of money and militants into the emerging zone of conflict along its western border.
Early this year a senior delegation of Myanmar Armed Forces, or Tatmadaw, officials held talks with counterparts in the Thai intelligence community, assuring them that reports of military atrocities against Rohingya civilians during the October-November “clearance operations” were Western propaganda. They also aimed to ramp up intelligence exchanges on the issue of “Islamist terrorism” with the Thais.
Specific concerns have focused on the Thai border town of Mae Sot, which has predictably emerged as the main conduit for couriers and militants traveling overland north from Malaysia and into Myanmar.
A rapidly expanding trade and light industrial hub of some 200,000 people on Thailand’s western border with Myanmar, Mae Sot has long had a significant Muslim population and served as a hub for Myanmar migrant workers — many of them undocumented – to move back and forth across the border.
In the 2013-2014 period, Rohingya militants reportedly made short-lived attempts to establish training courses in or near the town, according to sources in northern Thailand. Whether at any point these involved arms training as distinct from political and organizational courses is not clear, but the activities were shuttered in short order by Thai authorities.
Against a backdrop of decades of strained relations with Bangladesh, Myanmar’s western border, where at least one consignment of small-arms has reportedly reached the militants, poses perhaps a graver threat.
Photographs taken on a mobile phone and seen recently by Asia Times showed a crate of new Kalashnikov-series assault rifles – apparently Chinese manufactured Type 56 7.62mm rifles — and a group of youths in sarongs and tee-shirts being trained in the use of the weapons by older instructors.
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.
It was not clear from the images whether the training was taking place inside Rakhine state or in a secure location across the border in Bangladesh.
Since the October-November crackdown, an estimated 70,000 refugees have fled across the Naf River border to join at least 300,000 displaced Rohingya already settled in the southern Bangladeshi districts of Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar and Bandarban.
However, if the training was taking place inside Rakhine state, then it seems likely that it would have been conducted close to the land-border rather than in more densely populated areas further south where even in the Mayu Hills security is far more difficult to ensure.
The source of the weapons consignment — or possibly consignments — is also open to conjecture. As funding is likely not a significant constraint, small-arms could be sourced either on Southeast Asia’s brisk black market in weapons, in Karachi, or from Gulf entrepots such as Sharjah and Abu Dubai.
They could then be easily moved ashore from freighters operating in the Bay of Bengal to points along the extended coastline of southern Bangladesh through fishing boats.
The northern reaches of the Bay of Bengal are already criss-crossed by well-established smuggling operations moving people — both Rohingya and Bangladeshi — from Bangladesh to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In the late 1990s and early 2000’s, several major illicit arms shipments to insurgent forces in the northeastern region of India were made via the same route.
In the most notorious such case in April 2004, a massive consignment of black market weaponry consisting of nearly 2,000 assault rifles, grenades and rocket-launchers was intercepted as it landed at a wharf on the Karnaphuli River in Chittagong, having been transshipped from a freighter ‘mothership’ to two fishing trawlers.
Relatively smaller shipments could be landed off smaller fishing boats with far less risk directly onto a beach and overland to Myanmar’s emerging Rakhine state civil war.