Rohingya refugees sitting in a queue to receive relief supplies in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, recently. REUTERS PIC

NAZIR Hossain, the imam of a village in far western Myanmar, gathered the faithful around him after evening prayers last month. In a few hours, more than a dozen Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army fighters from his village would strike a nearby police post with an assortment of handmade weapons.

The men needed their cleric’s blessing.

“As imam, I encouraged them never to step back from their mission,” Hossein recalled of his final words to the ethnic Rohingya fighters.

“I told them that if they did not fight to the death, the military would come and kill their families, their women and their children.”

They fought — joining an Aug 25 assault by thousands of the group’s fighters against Myanmar’s security forces — and the retaliation came down anyway. Since then, Myanmar’s troops and vigilante mobs have unleashed a scorched-earth operation on Rohingya populations in northern Rakhine State, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes in a campaign that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.

From its start four years ago as a small-scale effort to organise a Rohingya resistance, ARSA, or the Faith Movement — has staged two attacks on Myanmar’s security forces: one in October and the other last month.

But, in lashing out against the government, they have also made their own people a target. And, they have handed Myanmar’s military an attempt at public justification by saying that it is fighting terrorism, even as it has burned down dozens of villages and killed fleeing women and children.

This radicalisation of a new generation of Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority country, adds fuel to an already combustible situation in Rakhine, Myanmar’s poorest state.

Increasingly, there is also concern that both the relatively few Rohingya, who have taken up arms and the broader population — hundreds of thousands of whom are crowded in camps in neighbouring Bangladesh — will be exploited by international terrorism networks, bringing a localised struggle into the slipstream of global politics.

ARSA’s attempt at insurgency politics has been disastrous — a ceasefire they declared this month was rejected by the military, and they are reported to have suffered lopsided casualties compared with the government’s. But, the men insist that resistance is worth the steep cost, even to their families.

“This fight is not just about my fate or my family’s fate,” said Noor Alam, a 25-year-old, whose family was sheltering in a forest in Myanmar after their village in Maungdaw Township was burned. “It’s a matter of the existence of all Rohingya. If we have to sacrifice ourselves for our children to live peacefully, then it is worth it.”

Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country for nearly half a century, has systematically persecuted the Rohingya, subjecting them to apartheid-like existences and stripping most of their citizenship.

The nation’s civilian government, led since last year by Aung San Suu Kyi, has justified the recent violent crackdown in Rakhine as a counterstrike against “extremist Bengali terrorists”. Although the Rohingya claim long-held roots in Rakhine, the official narrative in Myanmar holds that they are recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

“We’ve talked about the risks of radicalisation for years, and the writing was on the wall for some sort of militant activity,” said Matthew Smith, a co-founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights watchdog based in Bangkok.

“In our view, the best way to deal with risks of extremism and radicalisation is to promote and respect the rights of the Rohingya, which is not what the Myanmar military is doing.”

Since Aug 25, these operations have caused more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.

Rohingya who have tried to escape the latest violence have also had to contend with ARSA insurgents, who want young men to stay back and fight. Rohingya informers, who may have leaked details of the Aug 25 strikes to the Myanmar military, have been executed, according to rights groups.

But, not everyone wants to be sacrificed. When vigilante mobs and Myanmar’s soldiers burned down his village, Noor Kamal, 18, tried to flee with his 6-year-old brother, Noor Faruq. Both were hacked in the head by ethnic Rakhine armed with machetes and scythes.

At a bleak government hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Noor Kamal shivered with outrage at the ARSA insurgents from his village in northern Maungdaw Township, who attacked a local police post last month.

“We are the ones who are suffering because of Al Yaqin,” he said. “They disappeared after the attack. We were the ones left behind for the military to kill.”

The besieged villages in Rakhine and squalid refugee settlements in Bangladesh, where at least 800,000 Rohingya now live in desperate conditions, make for fertile ground for transnational militant groups looking for recruits — even if ARSA said this past week that it had no links to such groups.

“We have seen how democratic and nationalist movements can be taken over by transnational terrorist groups,” said Ali Riaz, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, who studies Islamic militancy in Bangladesh and surrounding areas.

“The presence of legitimate discontent, despair and desperation among hundreds and thousands of people, growing radicalisation of a movement, asymmetry of forces engaged in the conflict and a religious dimension to the crisis all provide a conducive environment.”

The military has only intensified its retribution in Rakhine. As international outrage mounted, Suu Kyi blamed the Rohingya and their supporters for creating an “an iceberg of misinformation”. Myanmar’s military has accused Rohingya of burning down their own homes to garner international sympathy. NYT