As farmers turn fighters, Rohingya militant movement in Myanmar grows larger by the day

Rohingya refugees with their belongings as they are held by the Border Guard Bangladesh after illegally crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Aug 31, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh (AFP) - Mohammad Omar used to cross the border into Bangladesh to sell cigarettes, but these days he has a different agenda - restocking supplies for the fledgling Rohingya militia fighting Myanmar's security forces.

New recruits are being trained and armed in the hillsides across the border in Myanmar's Rakhine State, Omar told AFP, where a week of bloody conflict has left at least 110 confirmed dead and driven nearly 20,000 civilians into Bangladesh.

Omar, 20, said he was among more than 170 fighters from the Rohingya Muslim minority hiding at a jungle redoubt, from where they stage raids to seize guns from Myanmar security outposts.

"We did not have guns so we attacked them like a swarm of hornets shouting, 'Allahu Akbar,' wielding our sticks and machetes," Omar told AFP of one raid, using a pseudonym to protect his identity. "We outnumbered them 17 to one."

"Most of the soldiers got scared and ran for their lives. Then we grabbed their weapons and ammunition."

His account could not be independently verified by AFP, but offers an insight into the cat-and-mouse game between militants and security forces being played out in remote hamlets, fields and forest hideouts in Myanmar's western-most Rakhine state.

Omar says he is a foot soldier with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which claims it was behind Friday's surprise attacks that killed 11 Myanmar officers and sparked the worst fighting seen in Rakhine in months.

After years in which the Rohingya largely avoided violence, ARSA emerged from the shadows last October when it staged coordinated, deadly attacks on police posts.

That prompted a months-long security crackdown by Myanmar's army which left scores dead and forced 87,000 people to flee to Bangladesh.

The emergence of organised militancy proved a game-changer for Rakhine, a restive state beset by religious violence since 2012, analysts say.

Omar joined the group - known locally as Harakah al-Yaqin - in the aftermath of the October assault as Rohingya answered the rallying cry to take up arms and defend their villages.

He stopped selling goods in Bangladesh, but continued using his daily entry permit to stock up on dry food and other supplies to smuggle back to the militia.

The group is steered by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia, and commanded in the field by experienced guerilla fighters, a report by the International Crisis Group states.

But beyond basic training with some Kalashnikov assault rifles and other firearms, Omar said newcomers had to make do with a meagre cache of basic weapons.

"We have machetes, knives, sticks and some land mines in our possession," Omar said, adding they received a little food from villages sympathetic to their cause.

The group posts images online of its fighters wielding heavy weapons, but Myanmar accuses them of cruder warfare.

The government has in recent days published photos purporting to show seizures of Rohingya militant weapons, including pipe bombs, knives and sticks, some uncovered in backyard pits.

Myanmar classes the militants as "Bengali terrorists" and has accused them of indiscriminate murder and torching both Rohingya homes and those of other communities.

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and other tribal groups were also among the dead after allegedly being targeted by the militants, an AFP reporter was told on a government-led trip to the state's worst-hit areas.

ARSA says it is fighting to protect the Rohingya from abuses by Myanmar security forces and the majority-Buddhist Rakhine community, who they accuse of trying to push them out.

Rohingya are reviled in Myanmar as illegal immigrants and roughly one million have been denied citizenship.

The UN believes the army's response to the militant assaults in October may amount to ethnic cleansing, allegations denied by the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the army.

But some Rohingya accuse the rebels of provoking the army into revenge attacks and inviting nothing but misery upon the long-persecuted minority.

"These regular farmers-turned-fighters with few weapons will bring nothing but more woe to Rohingya Muslims," one prominent Rohingya leader, who requested anonymity, told AFP at a Bangladeshi camp.

The rag-tag unit has a real fight on its hands against Myanmar's well-equipped army, which has been offered military assistance from Bangladesh to root out rebels near the border.

But testimonies gathered by AFP from the displaced reaching Bangladesh suggest some Rohingya men are heeding a call-to-arms by the militants.

Families told AFP their sons and brothers had stayed back to fight or journeyed back across the border once their relatives were away from the violence.

Omar said 64 young Rohingya men had enlisted in his unit over a two-day period, walking from squalid camps in Bangladesh to join the fight.

"Now we are training them in our camp," said the young fighter clad in tracksuit bottoms, a polo shirt and sandals.

"Many men are arriving, and Al Yaqin is getting bigger day by day. Our independence is not very far."

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