Making A Difference

Beyond Bandarban

Bandarban in Bangladesh is emerging as a tactical melting pot for the Rohingyas and the local as well as international radical Islamist jehadi network.

Beyond Bandarban
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In mid-October 2005, the Bangladesh home ministry issued anorder to prepare a list of Rohingyas illegally living in the inaccessible hillyareas of Bandarban and to arrest those involved in criminal activities. Theorder said that a section of Rohingyas living in Bangladesh was involved indrugs and arms dealings as well as other criminal operations. In its order, theHome Ministry, issued instructions for the arrest of Rohingya suspects in orderto suppress drug, human and arms trafficking and other form of crime.

The order comes in the wake intermittent recoveries of armsand explosives from the hilly parts of the district, close to the border withMyanmar. Bandarban has been the scene of the maximum number of recovery ofillegal arms and explosives in the country. After several raids by the securityforces under ‘Operation Uttaran’, an anti-crime combing operation, out ofthe 55 major arms recoveries recorded by the South Asia Terrorism Portal acrossBangladesh between January 1 and November 10, 2005, 19 have taken place inBandarban district alone. According to Bangladesh Army sources, in the 11 monthspreceding September 2005, forces recovered a total of 295 sophisticated weaponsthat included AK 47, M 16 and G 3 rifles with 58,000 rounds of ammunitions justin the Naikhongchhari sub-district of Bandarban.

The achievements, as far as quantities of the recovered armsand ammunition are concerned, have been significant. However, these measuresneed to be analysed in the context of Bangladeshi attempts to refurbish itsmuch-maligned image as a country fast degenerating into a hotbed of Islamistradicalism, particularly in the aftermath of recent incidents such as thecountry-wide bomb blasts of August 17, 2005. Ashas been argued before, these measures are inherently arbitrary, ad hoc andfall drastically short of putting any halt to the country’s slide into aquagmire of extremism and terror.

More than 150,000 Rohingya refugees came to Bangladesh fromMyanmar in the 1980s and 1990s. The United Nations High Commissioner forRefugees (UNHCR) later gave them refugee status and allowed them to live in theshelter homes built in Teknaf, Ukhiya, and Naikhongchhari. The Myanmargovernment took back a good number of Rohingya refugees in several phases.Bangladeshi official records maintain that 13,000 Rohingyas are still living inthe country, but secret agencies of the police claim that more than 27,000illegal Rohingyas still live in the Bandarban hilly areas alone, posing aninherent threat to the country due to their involvement in various criminalactivities.

The arrest on September 22, 2005, of a Myanmar national,Mohammad Selim alias Haddi Selim, a suspected cadre of the Arakan SolidarityOrganisation, by the police at Kutupolang Rohingya camp in Ukhia sub-district ofCox’s Bazaar in connection with the arms recoveries in Naikhongchhariillustrates the modus operandi of these groups, and its continuity with pastactivities. Another report in the Daily Star spoke of the arrest ofanother Arakan rebel, Selim, in mid-2000, who in his confessional statement saidthat he smuggled arms using the Thailand and Myanmar insurgent network throughthe Chittagong Hills Tracts (CHT), and sold them in the underground market.

Interrogations in both these cases indicated that the sourcesof arms and their mode of transport into Bandarban have demonstrated littlechange over the years. Selim disclosed that he often crossed the border and hidarms and ammunition in the deep forest areas of the hill district, such asBaisari, Dochari, Chakdhala, Techari and Lembuchari. Subsequently, these weresmuggled deeper into the country and sold to the criminals. 37 arms smugglinggangs and syndicates are reported to be active in the Chittagong region (ofwhich Bandarban is a part) and have obvious links with the 124 arms syndicatesactive in Bangladesh, making the task of transportation a relativelytrouble-free affair. Some 50 thousand illegal firearms and a huge stock ofammunition are reported to be in the possession of the criminal underworld inthe Chittagong region.

It has been convenient for law enforcement agencies to indictthe illegal Rohingya refugees in arms smuggling. The centrality of the Rohingyasin these criminal operations, though is a reality, needs to assessed in thecontext of the enveloping scenario of radicalisation in the district, which isfast becoming a favourite hunting ground for local Islamist militants withinternational connections.

Why is this south-eastern district, spread over 4,479 squarekilometres, so important? Bandarban has a 129 kilometre international boundarywith Myanmar. Four mountain ranges, Merania, Wailatong, Tambang and Politai cutacross the district. Bandarban’s hostile geography – fifty percent of thetotal area is under forest and, located 187 kilometres away from capital Dhaka,it remains significantly insulated from the heavy hand of the Government –enormously favours the militants. Located within the district are multiplemilitant groupings of the Arakans and the Rohingyas from Myanmar, with adeepening nexus with Bangladeshi radical Islamist forces. Proximity to Myanmarand easy access to the sea, across the neighbouring Cox’s Bazaar district,provide an alternate access and exit routes, making Bandarban the mostadvantageous destination for extremist elements.

Both the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) andthe Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) have been active in the district.Two JMB operatives arrested in August 2005 in the remote Faitong area ofBandarban revealed details about the existence of their militant bases in thearea, during interrogation. Intelligence agencies indicated that the JMB mighthave acquired a huge cache of firearms and explosives from the Myanmaresegun-runners, as the explosives and ammunition seized from Naikhongchhari ondifferent occasions were similar to the explosives used in the August 17 andOctober 3 serial blasts.

In addition to the traffic in illegal arms and explosives,the district is also known for poppy cultivation, presenting dangerous prospectsfor narco-terrorism. In areas, along the international border and in the upperreaches of the Singu River, such as Mraung Gound, War New Chaung, Late CrayChaung, Yin Bound, Late Chaung, Site Chaung and Thit Poke, local tribals havebeen cultivating poppy for many years. To begin with, the cultivation wasprimarily for the production of raw opium. However, there have been reports thatthe Islamist militants are getting very closely involved in the trade.Intelligence reports indicate that the JMB, the JMJB, the Harkatul Jihad and theAhle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh have entered into the lucrative trade ofcultivating poppy locally under the supervision of top militant leaders. Thishas been further confirmed by arrested JMB cadres in the aftermath of the August17 country-wide bombings. Bangladesh’s Army conducts yearly operations todestroy poppy cultivations, but the effectiveness and reach of such routineoperations remains a matter of debate.

Bandarban is emerging as a tactical melting pot for theRohingyas and the local as well as international radical Islamist jehadinetwork. A February 2004 intelligence report indicated that four Al-Qaedatraining camps had come up in the district. Interrogations of the arrested JMBcadres involved in the August 17 bombings indicated that the JMB had set upseveral training centres in Lama sub-district of Bandarban and other areas,including Jalpaitali, Tetultali, Maheshkhali and Garzania. Unconfirmed reportssuggest that a group of 15 Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA)cadres (MULFA operates in Assam), had visited the Lamuchari Rohingya trainingcamp in Naikhongchhari in January 2002, under an agreement entered into in 1999.

The strategic vulnerability of the district has been furthercompounded by myopic official policies and confusing security arrangements.Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) has just a single border outpost (Rijupara inNaikhongchhari) in the entire stretch of the international border in Bandarban.There are other strategic complexities. Although the Naikhongchhari sub-districtis in Bandarban, the Naikhongchhari BDR zone is under the BDR Chittagong sector.The CHT, as per the national security policy, is under the Bandarban Armyregion. Bandarban is managed by the Chittagong division of the Rapid ActionBattalion (RAB) a ‘special para-military force’ under the Home Ministry. Asa result, joint operations by the BDR, the Army and the RAB, which are centralto the restoration of law and order in the strategically located district, havenot been able to proceed beyond the periodic recovery of abandoned and hiddenarms and explosives

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Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute forConflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review ofthe South Asia Terrorism Portal.

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