In mid-October 2005, the Bangladesh home ministry issued an order to prepare a list of Rohingyas illegally living in the inaccessible hilly areas of Bandarban and to arrest those involved in criminal activities. The order said that a section of Rohingyas living in Bangladesh was involved in drugs and arms dealings as well as other criminal operations. In its order, the Home Ministry, issued instructions for the arrest of Rohingya suspects in order to suppress drug, human and arms trafficking and other form of crime.
The order comes in the wake intermittent recoveries of arms and explosives from the hilly parts of the district, close to the border with Myanmar. Bandarban has been the scene of the maximum number of recovery of illegal arms and explosives in the country. After several raids by the security forces under ‘Operation Uttaran’, an anti-crime combing operation, out of the 55 major arms recoveries recorded by the South Asia Terrorism Portal across Bangladesh between January 1 and November 10, 2005, 19 have taken place in Bandarban district alone. According to Bangladesh Army sources, in the 11 months preceding September 2005, forces recovered a total of 295 sophisticated weapons that included AK 47, M 16 and G 3 rifles with 58,000 rounds of ammunitions just in the Naikhongchhari sub-district of Bandarban.
The achievements, as far as quantities of the recovered arms and ammunition are concerned, have been significant. However, these measures need to be analysed in the context of Bangladeshi attempts to refurbish its much-maligned image as a country fast degenerating into a hotbed of Islamist radicalism, particularly in the aftermath of recent incidents such as the country-wide bomb blasts of August 17, 2005. As has been argued before, these measures are inherently arbitrary, ad hoc and fall drastically short of putting any halt to the country’s slide into a quagmire of extremism and terror.
More than 150,000 Rohingya refugees came to Bangladesh from Myanmar in the 1980s and 1990s. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) later gave them refugee status and allowed them to live in the shelter homes built in Teknaf, Ukhiya, and Naikhongchhari. The Myanmar government took back a good number of Rohingya refugees in several phases. Bangladeshi official records maintain that 13,000 Rohingyas are still living in the country, but secret agencies of the police claim that more than 27,000 illegal Rohingyas still live in the Bandarban hilly areas alone, posing an inherent threat to the country due to their involvement in various criminal activities.
The arrest on September 22, 2005, of a Myanmar national, Mohammad Selim alias Haddi Selim, a suspected cadre of the Arakan Solidarity Organisation, by the police at Kutupolang Rohingya camp in Ukhia sub-district of Cox’s Bazaar in connection with the arms recoveries in Naikhongchhari illustrates the modus operandi of these groups, and its continuity with past activities. Another report in the Daily Star spoke of the arrest of another Arakan rebel, Selim, in mid-2000, who in his confessional statement said that he smuggled arms using the Thailand and Myanmar insurgent network through the Chittagong Hills Tracts (CHT), and sold them in the underground market.
Interrogations in both these cases indicated that the sources of arms and their mode of transport into Bandarban have demonstrated little change over the years. Selim disclosed that he often crossed the border and hid arms and ammunition in the deep forest areas of the hill district, such as Baisari, Dochari, Chakdhala, Techari and Lembuchari. Subsequently, these were smuggled deeper into the country and sold to the criminals. 37 arms smuggling gangs and syndicates are reported to be active in the Chittagong region (of which Bandarban is a part) and have obvious links with the 124 arms syndicates active in Bangladesh, making the task of transportation a relatively trouble-free affair. Some 50 thousand illegal firearms and a huge stock of ammunition are reported to be in the possession of the criminal underworld in the Chittagong region.
It has been convenient for law enforcement agencies to indict the illegal Rohingya refugees in arms smuggling. The centrality of the Rohingyas in these criminal operations, though is a reality, needs to assessed in the context of the enveloping scenario of radicalisation in the district, which is fast becoming a favourite hunting ground for local Islamist militants with international connections.
Why is this south-eastern district, spread over 4,479 square kilometres, so important? Bandarban has a 129 kilometre international boundary with Myanmar. Four mountain ranges, Merania, Wailatong, Tambang and Politai cut across the district. Bandarban’s hostile geography – fifty percent of the total 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 multiple militant groupings of the Arakans and the Rohingyas from Myanmar, with a deepening nexus with Bangladeshi radical Islamist forces. Proximity to Myanmar and easy access to the sea, across the neighbouring Cox’s Bazaar district, provide an alternate access and exit routes, making Bandarban the most advantageous destination for extremist elements.
Both the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) have been active in the district. Two JMB operatives arrested in August 2005 in the remote Faitong area of Bandarban revealed details about the existence of their militant bases in the area, during interrogation. Intelligence agencies indicated that the JMB might have acquired a huge cache of firearms and explosives from the Myanmarese gun-runners, as the explosives and ammunition seized from Naikhongchhari on different occasions were similar to the explosives used in the August 17 and October 3 serial blasts.
In addition to the traffic in illegal arms and explosives, the district is also known for poppy cultivation, presenting dangerous prospects for narco-terrorism. In areas, along the international border and in the upper reaches of the Singu River, such as Mraung Gound, War New Chaung, Late Cray Chaung, Yin Bound, Late Chaung, Site Chaung and Thit Poke, local tribals have been cultivating poppy for many years. To begin with, the cultivation was primarily for the production of raw opium. However, there have been reports that the Islamist militants are getting very closely involved in the trade. Intelligence reports indicate that the JMB, the JMJB, the Harkatul Jihad and the Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh have entered into the lucrative trade of cultivating poppy locally under the supervision of top militant leaders. This has been further confirmed by arrested JMB cadres in the aftermath of the August 17 country-wide bombings. Bangladesh’s Army conducts yearly operations to destroy poppy cultivations, but the effectiveness and reach of such routine operations remains a matter of debate.
Bandarban is emerging as a tactical melting pot for the Rohingyas and the local as well as international radical Islamist jehadi network. A February 2004 intelligence report indicated that four Al-Qaeda training camps had come up in the district. Interrogations of the arrested JMB cadres involved in the August 17 bombings indicated that the JMB had set up several training centres in Lama sub-district of Bandarban and other areas, including Jalpaitali, Tetultali, Maheshkhali and Garzania. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a group of 15 Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA) cadres (MULFA operates in Assam), had visited the Lamuchari Rohingya training camp in Naikhongchhari in January 2002, under an agreement entered into in 1999.
The strategic vulnerability of the district has been further compounded by myopic official policies and confusing security arrangements. Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) has just a single border outpost (Rijupara in Naikhongchhari) in the entire stretch of the international border in Bandarban. There are other strategic complexities. Although the Naikhongchhari sub-district is in Bandarban, the Naikhongchhari BDR zone is under the BDR Chittagong sector. The CHT, as per the national security policy, is under the Bandarban Army region. Bandarban is managed by the Chittagong division of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) a ‘special para-military force’ under the Home Ministry. As a result, joint operations by the BDR, the Army and the RAB, which are central to the restoration of law and order in the strategically located district, have not been able to proceed beyond the periodic recovery of abandoned and hidden arms and explosives
Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.