Fri, Sep 01, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Rohingya men answer call to arms against Myanmar’s forces

While many Rohingya women and children are fleeing to Bangladesh, their men are joining the ranks of ‘freedom fighters’ against government violence

By Sam JAHAN  /  AFP, COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh

Heavily pregnant and confined to a squalid Bangladeshi refugee camp, Ayesha Begum does not regret that her husband will miss the imminent birth of their sixth child as he fights alongside Rohingya militants in Myanmar.

Begum, 25, joined the exodus of Rohingya fleeing troubled Rakhine state as fresh violence erupted between Myanmar’s security forces and militants fighting for the stateless Muslim minority.

However, like many, her husband stayed behind in Myanmar to join the growing ranks of Rohingya men answering the call to arms against security forces, relatives and community leaders said.

“He took us to the river and sent us across,” Begum told reporters in Kutupalong Camp, describing crossing the Naf River by boat with her children into Bangladesh.

“He bid us farewell, saying if I live he’d see us soon in a free Arakan [Rakhine state] or else we’ll meet in heaven,” she added, breaking down in tears.

The Rohingya largely eschewed violence, despite years of suffocating restrictions and persecution.

That dramatically changed in October last year when a nascent Rohingya militant group launched surprise attacks on border posts.

The Burmese military reacted with a violent “clearance operation” to sweep out the militants.

The UN said that the crackdown could have amounted to ethnic cleansing.

Despite the sweeps, violence continued as remote villages were hit by near-daily killings of perceived state collaborators attributed to operatives of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA).

The militants struck again on a large scale on Friday last week, with scores attacking about 30 police posts in pre-dawn raids, killing at least a dozen security force members using knives, homemade explosives and some guns.

This time the security response has seen more than 100 people, including about 80 militants, confirmed killed and prodded thousands of Rohingya civilians to dash for Bangladesh.

STAYING TO FIGHT

However, the country, which already hosts tens of thousands of refugees from the Muslim minority in the Cox’s Bazar area, has refused entry to any more.

Those unable to sneak in are stranded along the “zero line” border zone, where Bangladeshi officials have noticed a conspicuous absence of men among the civilians crowding the checkposts.

“We asked them what happened to their men. They said they all stayed back to fight,” a Border Guard Bangladesh commander told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

At the border, Rohingya elder Shah Alam, a community leader from Rakhine state, said 30 young men from three villages in his district joined ARSA “for our freedom.”

“Do they have any other choice? They chose to fight and die rather than be slaughtered like sheep,” he told reporters.

The previously unknown militant group has claimed responsibility for the attacks in October last year and more recent strikes against Myanmar’s security forces, urging fellow Rohingya to join the fight.

Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has accused the group of atrocities, including using child soldiers, allegations the militants deny.

The government department directly run by Aung San Suu Kyi — the State Counsellor’s Office — has classified ARSA as “terrorists” and released a flurry of statements and grim pictures of civilians allegedly shot dead by militants.

However, ARSA’s rallying cry is being answered in Rohingya camps across Bangladesh, despite some doubts over whether their rag-tag units — seemingly mainly armed with knives and homemade weapons — can defeat Burmese troops.

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