By Sanchita Bhattacharya
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
On June 27, 2013, two displaced persons (DPs) were killed and another six were wounded when Security Forces (SFs) fired to disperse a crowd that had gathered at a military base in Kyein Ni Pyin, a camp for DPs in the Pauktaw area of Myanmar's Rakhine State.
Again, on June 30, 2013, three persons were injured as rioters torched two houses in the coastal town of Thandwe in Rakhine State, during clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
Through 2012, Myanmar had witnessed clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State, resulting in about 200 deaths and displacement of some 22,000 people.
These clashes and the resultant sectarian divide in Myanmar seems to have provided an opportunity to Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI, Pakistan’s external intelligence agency)-backed Islamist formations to consolidate their hold in Bangladesh making the Bangladesh-Myanmar Border their operational base.
Indeed, according to a July 21, 2013, report, India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), has confirmed that the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and its front, Jama'at-ud-Dawa (JuD) are working in tandem to extend their footprints along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. While the JuD leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is personally leading the Myanmar campaign, espousing the cause of Rohingyas from various public platforms in Pakistan, his subordinates have been planning and undertaking visits to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border region. Intelligence sources indicate that the Pakistan-sourced support to the Rohingya’s is conditional on radicalized Rohingyas undertaking operations against India as well.
In mid-2012, the JuD established a new forum, Difa-e-Musalman Arakan-Burma (Defence of Muslims in Arakan – Myanmar) in order to mobilise supporters for a campaign against the ruling military junta of Myanmar. The JuD deputed a two-member team comprising JuD ‘spokesperson’ Nadeem Awari and a member of the Jama'at’s ‘publication wing’, Shahid Mehmood Rehmatullah, on August 10, 2012, for the task of forging links with senior representatives of Islamic institutions in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
In addition, Bangladesh agencies tracking one Shafiul Alam, a dual Pakistani-Nepalese passport holder, who travels frequently from Pakistan to Bangladesh, recently found that he and one Abdul Karim alias Mohammed Nur Alam, a Nepal-based Rohingya operative linked to hawala (illegal money transactions) and fake currency trafficking networks, had been trying to set up training camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border for Rohingya extremists, in consultation with the LeT ‘commander’ Ustad Abdul Hamid.
Assessing the Lashkar initiative, on February 27, 2013, Home Minister of Bangladesh Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir noted, “Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) is active in Bangladesh and law enforcement agencies tracked down their network and kept them under sharp security vigil. It is the moral and legal obligation of the Government to uproot them totally."
Moreover, it has also been reported that other terror outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the latter with known links to Pakistan-based terrorist formations, are also trying to exploit the issue of the Rohingyas' ‘plight’ in Myanmar. In this effort, they are allying with NGOs led by Rohingyas, including the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, to establish new bases in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi security agencies are examining whether Jammat-ul-Arakan, a new outfit comprising elements of JMB and extremist-minded Rohingya activists, is running militant camps in the Bandarban District along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
Meanwhile, links between Pakistani extremist formations and Rohingyas have also been uncovered by Bangladeshi security agencies. Bangladesh Police traced the funds in the bank account of one Maulana Mohammad Yunus, arrested in August 2012 from a madrasa (Islamic Seminary) in the Rau sub-district of Cox's Bazaar District, to Maulana Shabir Ali Ahmed, a Karachi-based, JeM-linked Bangladeshi national of Rohingya origin. Another madrasa operator, Abdur Rehman alias Imran alias Mustafa of Teknaf in Cox's Bazaar is suspected to have coordinated the arrival of Pakistan-trained Myanmarese mujahideen (holy warriors) at various locations of Cox's Bazaar at the end of 2012.
The expanding ISI footprint in the Rohingya belt of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) was also exposed following the arrest of one Noor-ul-Amin from the Idgah madarasa in Cox’s Bazaar, on September 11, 2012. Amin had reportedly served as a militant ‘talent spotter’ and a recruiter of Rohingya cadres in the past. Confirming his association with the ISI during his interrogation, Amin disclosed that the ISI was involved in gun-running activity in the Rohingya refugee belt in CHT. According to estimates, there are about 26,000 documented refugees living in two camps in Cox’s Bazar District in CHT, close to the Myanmar border. Bangladesh Minister for Foreign Affairs Dipu Moni stated that 300,000 to 500,000 Myanmar refugees had entered Bangladesh illegally. ISI agents are also known to have close connections with the drug cartels in South-east Asia.
Evidently, the sectarian clashes in Myanmar have significant potential to impact adversely on the security situation in Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar. An unnamed senior Indian official observed, “Economic and social hardships faced by Rohingya refugees apart, the involvement of the minority group in arms smuggling, narcotics, safe sanctuaries for terror elements, including setting up of training camps, is going to be a major counter-terrorism challenge in the regional context.” Available intelligence inputs indicate that extremist activities of Rohingya Muslims were being funded mainly by sources in Saudi Arabia. The militant cadres among the Rohingyas were being trained by Pakistan-based terror groups and the weapons were being procured from Thailand.
At the official level, India and Myanmar have agreed to cooperate to prevent cross border movement of armed groups, share information on seizure of arms and check arms smuggling/drug trafficking. The agreement was reached during the (Joint Working Group) Meeting between Myanmar and India held at Bagan in Myanmar on June 19-20, 2013.
The cycle of violence in the border areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar has increased security vulnerabilities in the region. Accordingly, on May 18-19, 2013, a new sector and two battalions (Number 50 and 51) of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) were set up to ensure better border management along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, especially in Cox’s Bazar and Khagrachhari Districts. Another BGB sector has also been established in Bandarban District.
As the ISI and its terrorist proxies step in to fish in troubled waters, it is now imperative that Bangladesh, India and Myanmar act, at once and in concert, to ensure that a greater sagacity attends Myanmar’s policies towards the Rohingyas, and to destroy the emerging criminal and terrorist networks that seek to exploit the opportunities of the present disorders to create greater violence and instability in the region.