The Faith Movement of Arakan, also popularly known as Harakah al-Yaqin, is an insurgent group in Myanmar’s Rakhine state which claims to be fighting for Rohingya rights. They were responsible for the series of attacks on Myanmar border posts on October 9, 2016, which killed nine policemen and triggered Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya people. Aiming to spread word about their “true motives”, some of the top al-Yaqin leaders spoke to the Dhaka Tribune’s Adil Sakhawat in a highly secretive meeting.

The now-in-hiding Harakah al-Yaqin fighters are practicing extreme caution these days when speaking with any outsider.

Getting in touch with them took a lot of effort and convincing – this correspondent spoke with four contact persons to gain their approval for a meeting.

On the day of the meeting, the last contact person met with this correspondent and set some ground rules.

This handout photograph taken on December 12, 2016 and released on December 13, 2016 by the Myanmar State Counsellor Office shows a military official, centre, briefing Myanmar Vice President Myint Swe (2nd man on the right, in blue jacket), head of the Rakhine State Investigation Commission, during his visit to Gwazon, a Muslim majority village in Maungdaw located in Rakhine State near the Bangladesh border, where a military officer was killed by a group of attackers on November 12. Image Credits: AFP
This handout photograph taken on December 12, 2016 and released on December 13, 2016 by the Myanmar State Counsellor Office shows a military official, centre, briefing Myanmar Vice President Myint Swe (2nd man on the right, in blue jacket), head of the Rakhine State Investigation Commission, during his visit to Gwazon, a Muslim majority village in Maungdaw located in Rakhine State near the Bangladesh border, where a military officer was killed by a group of attackers on November 12. Image Credits: AFP

“You cannot reveal our names, locations and the time of the meeting,” he warned.

He took this correspondent to an unknown place on a motorcycle, where another man was waiting.

After a meticulous body search, the first man asked this correspondent to turn the mobile phone off and put on a blindfold.

The next part of the journey was on foot for two hours.

The final meeting place turned out to be amid a forest in the no man’s land between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

‘Not terrorists’

Taking the blindfold off, this correspondent came to meet three other Harakah al-Yaqin members, one of whom claimed to be the second-in-command of Ata Ullah, the Harakah al-Yaqin spokesperson as seen in videos released by the group.

The second-in-command began the conversation by claiming that Harakah al-Yaqin was not a terrorist group.

“We agreed to speak with you only to make our motives clear,” he said. “We are not terrorists. We formed this group for revolutions, to save our existence in Arakan [Rakhine]… We are waging a movement against the oppression of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government.”

When asked whether they had any connection with other insurgent groups – local or international – the second-in-command denied vehemently.

“We never conducted any attack on people of other religious groups. Our fight is only against the Myanmar government.”

Speaking in Arkanese and broken Bangla, the second-in-command had to communicate with this correspondent through an interpreter, another Harakah al-Yaqin fighter.

He admitted that Harakah al-Yaqin was, in fact, responsible for the series of attacks on Myanmar Border Guard Police outposts along Bangladesh-Myanmar border on October 9.

“Our aim was to loot their arms and ammunition for our guerrilla training,” he said. “We were all a part of the attack.”

He said they were trained by Ata Ullah and some other senior leaders of Harakah al-Yaqin who are trained in modern guerrilla war tactics. They visited Rakhine several times in 2015 to provide the training, he added. “We have 25-30 members who were trained in modern guerrilla tactics.”

Building support

In the four months before the attacks, Ata Ullah and his men also tried to convince local villagers to support their movement, the second-in-command claimed.

“You cannot imagine how some of the Rohingya villagers cooperated with us. Some even joined us in the attacks with bamboo,” he claimed.

All the arms and ammunition gave them a stronger footing in Rakhine, but in two weeks – according to the HaY leader – the took a hit when the Myanmar Army launched the crackdown on Rohingyas.

“The army also attacked HaY [Harakah al-Yaqin] hideouts at Hargoizzapara, Zammoinnapara and SotoGozobil areas in Maungdaw with helicopters,” the leader said. “We were not equipped to fight the aerial attack and were forced to retreat.”

He claimed the army knew they would not be able to face the rebels on the ground, so they used helicopters.

Now weakened, Harakah al-Yaqin members went into hiding in the villages and the border areas, frequently changing locations.

“Some of us managed to flee to Bangladesh,” he added.

The second-in-command took a pause and offered this correspondent some wild potatoes and bananas. “This is all we have to survive,” he said.

All five Harakah al-Yaqin fighters were jittery and scanning the area for any suspicious movement during the entire conversation.

Losing ground

The military crackdown also turned local Rohingyas against Harakah al-Yaqin, the second-in-command continued. “When the army raided and tortured innocent Rohingyas, they became scared and lost faith in us,” he said. “They began to flee Arakan.”

Asked whether any Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh had joined their group, the leader said: “We have Rohingya brothers from everywhere.”

Sources in the refugee camps and some Harakah al-Yaqin members said some refugees left Bangladesh to join the group, and no one knows where they are now.

Some Harakah al-Yaqin followers in Cox’s Bazar said they were instructed to remain in hiding and wait for further instruction. “But the instruction never came,” said one of the followers. “After a while, we gave up and came back.” They also said they had no intention of re-joining the insurgent group, now hated by most Rohingyas.

Myanmar Rohingya refugees bury the body of six-month-old Alam in a refugee camp in Teknaf, in Cox’s Bazar district, on November 26, 2016. Image Credits: AFP
Myanmar Rohingya refugees bury the body of six-month-old Alam in a refugee camp in Teknaf, in Cox’s Bazar district, on November 26, 2016. Image Credits: AFP

Back in no man’s land, the leader claimed losing the grounds and followers had not broken their spirit.

“Our Rohingya brothers around the world are trying to negotiate with world leaders to put pressure on the Myanmar government, but it is not working,” he said. “So that makes us bound to do armed revolution against the government for our rights.”

He said there was no question of surrendering. “We will fight until the last drop of our blood is spilled.”

This is where the leader ended the conversation.

Issuing another warning to not reveal their names and locations, the fourth contact person brought this correspondent back to the first rendezvous point the same way.

This article first appeared on the Dhaka Tribune website.