The militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) must stop targeting fellow Rohingya who have fled violence in Myanmar and found haven in Bangladesh, a Southeast Asia-based human rights organization said on Thursday.
Fortify Rights urged ARSA, a shadowy insurgent group of ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims active in northern areas of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, to stop committing atrocities and called for bringing those who commit crimes to justice.
“When Rohingya militants abduct, torture, and threaten Rohingya civilians, they mirror the Myanmar Army,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. “Perpetrators of these crimes should be held accountable in fair and impartial trials.”
The statement comes on the heels of ARSA’s own message to both its members and refugees to refrain from “crimes, such as fighting, killing, etc.,” released Tuesday as a video on Twitter.
The militant group acknowledged that criminal activity was occurring in camps, but claimed no responsibility for them, saying the perpetrators “are not only going against the Bangladesh government, but are also making ARSA [look] responsible for their own crimes.”
A spate of attacks on Myanmar border guard posts by ARSA in August 2017, triggered a campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in Rakhine. The crackdown drove more than 740,000 members of the minority group to Bangladesh, where they remain in sprawling displacement camps.
United Nations officials have blamed Myanmar’s army for atrocities, with one report saying that military leaders should be prosecuted for genocide. But the U.N. report says ARSA “also committed serious human rights abuses.”
Fortify Rights’ statement described how militants believed to be associated with ARSA have in recent months abducted Rohingya refugees – targeting women, aid workers and their family members, religious leaders, and others for speaking out against ARSA, or for being suspected “informants” for authorities in either Bangladesh or Myanmar.
One woman identified as an aid worker told Fortify Rights last month she had witnessed the torture of her husband.
“I was taken to a mountaintop away from my [neighborhood] block to a makeshift mosque," she said. "I was taken by an unknown man. On the way, I was crying . . . Once we got to the mosque, I saw my husband and many other men being tortured . . . They were being kicked and punched . . . One of the men told me, ‘You see how we torture the men? If you work [outside the home], we will do the same to you.”
This woman resigned from her position out of fear, the statement said.
“Rohingya women have a right to work without fear of reprisals,” said Smith. “Women are indispensable to the community in terms of aid and advocacy, and their work and rights should be protected.”
Threatening refugees to sow fear
The statement also detailed how ARSA last month called a meeting in the camps and claimed to have abducted and killed a religious leader who had been missing since July. It threatened those in attendance with death if they refused to support ARSA.
Fortify Rights said that threatening refugees to sow fear as a means of garnering support was a common tactic of ARSA, listing several other incidents where the militant group had done this.
The NGO urged supporters of ARSA and other militant groups in Bangladesh to stop all illegal activity as stated in ARSA’s video message, and recommended that the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations provide protection to relatives of refugees that have been targeted by ARSA.
“Bangladeshi authorities should investigate crimes in the camps and work with the Rohingya community to prevent further crimes,” said Smith. “The authorities are well aware of their duty to protect refugees. The community needs to know that the Bangladesh authorities will protect them too.”
A Bangladeshi minister responded to ARSA’s video message by reiterating Dhaka’s rejection of the group.
“A section of Rohingya community has been involved in criminal activities. So, they resort to killing and other crimes. What we always say, ARSA has no foothold in Bangladesh,” Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews, an online news service affiliated with RFA.
A security analyst speculated that ARSA was trying to use the video messages to improve its image for any future political talks.
“There is no guarantee that ARSA posted the videos. But ARSA would be benefit if the Rohingya people can stay in Bangladesh for long,” said Major General Abdur Rashid.
“The call to refrain from committing any crime in Bangladesh is probably a strategy to earn sympathy of the local host community,” he said. “Possibly ARSA has been trying to cover up its terrorist image with the aim of making it a political force in future.”
Additional Reporting by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.