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Story highlights

The group claims it is secular and is not affiliated with terror groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda

Myanmar's military says it has killed over 400 Rohingya insurgents in the recent fighting

(CNN) —  

A violent crackdown by Myanmar’s military on insurgents from the Muslim Rohingya population has sparked a mass exodus of more than 300,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh.

At least 1,000 people have died in what the UN human rights chief has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Fighting erupted in Rakhine state on August 25, when Rohingya militants killed 12 security officers in coordinated attacks on border posts, according to Myanmar’s state media.

The Rohingya militant group known as ARSA has since proposed a ceasefire to allow aid groups to respond to the humanitarian crisis, which the government has rejected, saying it doesn’t “negotiate with terrorists.”

Who are the ARSA Rohingya militants and what do they want?

Who is ARSA?

ARSA stands for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, and is also known by the name Harakat al-Yaqeen, or “Faith Movement.” A December 2016 report by the International Crisis Group said the group is led by a “committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics.” In interviews with CNN the militants deny this. While they represent the Rohingya Muslims, the group has told CNN that it is secular and is not connected with Islamist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda.

Rohingya Muslim refugees make their way into Bangladesh after crossing the Myanmar Bangladesh border on September 07, 2017
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Rohingya Muslim refugees make their way into Bangladesh after crossing the Myanmar Bangladesh border on September 07, 2017

Who is their leader?

The frontperson for the militant group is a man called Ata Ullah. The International Crisis Group report claims he was born in Karachi and moved to Saudi Arabia, details of his personal life that Ullah denies. In comments to CNN, he says not only is the group independent of influence from supporters in Saudi Arabia it also has no connection to groups in Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan. He insists they are not terrorists and would never attack civilians. Their only targets, he says, are the repressive government forces.

What do they want?

ARSA says it is fighting on behalf of the million Rohingya living in virtual detention in the western coastal state of Rakhine, who have few if any rights according to Myanmar’s government. They are fighting for freedom of movement, a right to basic education and healthcare, and citizenship, Ullah told CNN in an interview in February. In 1982 a citizenship law allowed Rohingya to apply for citizenship if they could speak an officially recognized language and had proof their family had lived in the country before independence. But most have never received the correct paperwork and are effectively stateless.

02:30 - Source: CNN
Who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing?

How many are they?

Myanmar’s military says it has killed nearly 400 militants in the violence, but their current numbers are not known. The group is said to recruit from the ranks of fleeing villagers. Young men and boys are also being persuaded or coerced to stay behind and fight while women and children evacuate to escape the violence, according to the New York Times. The group has been fighting Myanmar government forces since last October, when it attacked a border post and killed a number of police. Even as more fighters rally to its ranks, ARSA is unlikely to ever match the power of the Myanmar military.

Firefighters attempt to extinguish fires in the the Maungdaw township in Rakhine State, August 27, 2017.
STR/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Firefighters attempt to extinguish fires in the the Maungdaw township in Rakhine State, August 27, 2017.

Where does their support come from?

Ata Ullah rejects claims that ARSA receives outside support or funding. One indication of whether they may have recently received assistance comes from the fighters themselves. When the group carried out last year’s October attack, Ullah said his fighters didn’t have “any sophisticated weapons.” “We attacked them using our machetes, swords, and knives, and we seized their weapons to use against them,” he said. In videos posted on social media recently, however, the knives are gone. Masked men tote assault rifles and address the camera, calling on supporters to join them in their fight.