22 Sep 2017/Friday
To his detractors, Ata Ullah is a reckless amateur who has brought untold misery to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya after launching an insurgency in Myanmar.
But to supporters of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, their leader is an intrepid fighter who left a life of luxury in Saudi Arabia to defend the stateless group against overwhelming odds.
Ata Ullah is believed to have ordered the deadly attacks by ARSA in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last month, provoking a ferocious offensive by security forces that has sent around 420,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.
“He’s very charismatic,” Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Myanmar, told AFP.
“He inspires people. He speaks in a way that resonates with the grievances felt by that community.”
He first came to public attention last October when he announced his group’s arrival in videos posted online after launching deadly ambushes on Myanmar border posts in Rakhine state, long a hotbed of religious tensions between Muslims and Buddhists. Ullah in his early 30s oversees a rag-tag network of cells comprising lightly trained men armed with sticks and machetes along with a small number of guns.
In the videos, flanked by masked gunmen and dressed in casual attire, Ullah lists the crimes committed against the Rohingya by the Myanmar government, and promises to liberate the community from “dehumanized oppression”.
The vast majority of the world’s Rohingya community have been stateless for decades, eking out hardscrabble lives in ghettos in Myanmar or overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
But Ullah was raised in a middle class home in the sprawling port city of Karachi.
His father studied at the esteemed Darul-Uloom madrassas before moving the family to Saudi Arabia to teach in Riyadh then later Ta´if, according to a relative interviewed by AFP.
There Ullah recited the Quran at a mosque where he caught the attention of wealthy Saudis who asked him to tutor their children. He was soon brought into the group’s inner circle, enjoying late-night parties and lavish hunting trips.
“The Saudis liked him a lot and treated him like one of their own,” a relative of the Ullah family with knowledge of their time in Saudi Arabia told AFP.
But after the 2012 communal rioting in Rakhine that displaced over 140,000 mostly Rohingya, Ullah abandoned his comfortable life in Saudi Arabia to go back to Myanmar and fight.
First, he returned to Pakistan with millions of dollars seeking guns, fighters and training from top jihadist groups, according to militants in Karachi who met him during the trip.
He contacted figures tied to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Kashmiri separatist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, offering them large sums of cash in exchange for help, to no avail.
“Publicly, these organisations had expressed their solidarity with the Muslims of Burma and called for jihad but they gave (him) the cold shoulder,” said one source who collaborated with Ullah in 2012, using Myanmar’s former name.
Most of the Pakistani militants snubbed or outright ignored the requests, while others stole the money he paid for weapons that were never delivered.
“The calls for jihad in Burma by various militant groups are nothing but a publicity stunt and a means to gain sympathy from Muslims,” said retired Pakistani general Talat Masood.