Bangladesh’s decision to seal its southeastern border to refugees fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar could create a domestic backlash fueling militancy and sympathy for a new group of Rohingya Muslim insurgents, observers told BenarNews.
More than 30,000 Rohingya have crossed into Cox’s Bazar district from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state since early October, according to international relief agencies, but Dhaka’s policy of pushing back refugees at the border has led to at least one conservative Bangladeshi Muslim group exploiting the situation and potentially fomenting radicalism in a country already threatened by militancy, according to one expert.
His comments came in light of a research paper published last week by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which reported about a new anti-Myanmar rebel group made up of Rohingya emigres with links to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan as well as Bangladesh.
An attack in Maungdaw township that killed nine Burmese border policemen on Oct. 9 and sparked a crackdown by Myanmar’s army that has left scores of people dead, amid reports of widespread rape of Rohingya women and the burning of Rohingya homes, has marked the emergence of the new rebel group that itself Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), according to the ICG report.
Titled “Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State,” the 30-page report warned that the attack on the border post and subsequent violence could threaten prospects for stability and development in Rakhine.
“Since Oct. 9, several hundred young Rohingya men from Bangladesh have joined the fight. However, the main fighting force is made up of Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State who have been given basic training and organized into village-level cells to limit risks of compromise,” the report said.
HaY is overseen by a committee of 20 senior leaders headquartered in Mecca and who are all Rohingya émigrés or have Rohingya heritage. They have connections in Bangladesh, Pakistan and possibly India, and some or all of the leaders have visited Bangladesh and northern Rakhine state in the last two years, ICG said.
“Institutional ties do not appear to exist, though there are some efforts to recruit around 200 Rohingya in Bangladesh trained since 2012 by an ex-RSO military commander, but never deployed due to lack of an organizational structure that HaY may potentially now offer,” the report said, referring to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, a now defunct armed group founded in 1982.
Bangladesh policy questioned
Asif Munier, a Bangladeshi analyst on migration, said the conservative Muslim group Hefazat-e-Islam has taken advantage of the situation in Rohingya refugee camps near the border with Myanmar.
“The government’s ‘no access for Rohingyas’ policy cannot stop their entry. The hardline Islamic groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam have been exploiting the situation by providing relief to the despondent Rohingyas who make their way to Bangladesh by whatever means,” Munier told BenarNews.
“The hardline Islamic groups can radicalize easily, calling for revenge on the Myanmar army and the Buddhists. What is more alarming is these youths have been spreading across the country. They can fuel militancy in Bangladesh, too,” he said.
Despite the government’s policy to bar entry, about 34,000 Rohingya have crossed over from Myanmar since early October, according to figures from U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Police Assistant Inspector Gen. M. Maniruzzaman told BenarNews that authorities were monitoring the movements of Rohingya inside Bangladesh, where more than 300,000 are concentrated in and around Cox’s Bazar.
“We are keeping a watch on the Rohingyas so that they cannot be the tool of militancy,” he said. “In this age, this is very easy for militants of a country to join hands with similar outfits across the border and beyond.”
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews that intelligence agencies have been active in in the southeastern district to keep militants from recruiting the refugees.
Group provides aid to refugees
Meanwhile, Mohiuddin Ruhi, joint secretary-general of the Hefazat-e-Islam, an association of conservative Muslim teachers and students, told BenarNews that his group had been providing aid to Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar.
“Our Muslims brothers in Myanmar, Rohingyas, are being killed, raped and driven out for their faith. But the government is not giving them access and support. Hefazat-e-Islam is the first to come to help the Rohingyas,” Ruhi said, denying allegations that the group supports militants.
“They are our saviors. They gave me food and a blanket. Allah has sent them for us. Bangladesh is a land of Muslims,”Rohingya refugee Mohammad Hafiz told BenarNews by phone. “We do not want to fight; we want to live peacefully.”
HaY: New offshoot of old militant outfits?
Shahriar Kabir, a Bangladeshi columnist who made a documentary, “Portrait of Jihad,” said he had traveled to Myanmar in 2007 to interview Rohingya leaders who said they enjoyed support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic parties in Bangladesh.
Some Islamic parties in Bangladesh have been radicalizing Rohingyas since 1978 when they came to Bangladesh to escape another military crackdown in Rakhine state.
“In 2006-07, we knew of the existence of 17 militant organizations, mostly dominated by the Rohingyas, along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. And HaY may be a new offshoot of those militant outfits,” he told BenarNews.
“The government does not support militancy at all, but the government monitoring on the Rohingyas and the Islamic parties’ activities in the Rohingya-dominated areas is very poor. These Rohingyas will pose a new security threat in Bangladesh,” Kabir added.