Bangladesh vowed it was prepared to use an “iron hand” as Dhaka accused Myanmar on Thursday of installing heavy weapons, including mortars and machine guns, and deploying additional soldiers near a no-man’s land where more than 5,000 Rohingya refugees have been stranded for months.
Dhaka had summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to deliver a diplomatic protest note over the troop build-up along Bangladesh’s southeastern border, the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
“The BGB is ready to deal with the troubles, if any, on the Myanmar border with an iron hand,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said as tension rose in the small strip of land dividing the two countries.
“There is no scope to create troubles inside Bangladesh territory,” Khan said during a meeting with members of the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in Chittagong.
Brig. Gen. Mujibur Rahman, BGB’s additional director general for operations, said Dhaka filed a protest after Myanmar suddenly increased its security presence by mobilizing military trucks and positioning machine guns and mortars at bunkers near the Tombru border crossing in Bangladesh’s Bandardan district.
“Against the backdrop of troop mobilization, we have lodged a protest and called for a flag meeting,” Rahman told reporters. “Monitoring the situation on the border. We have increased our troops.”
Rahman did not provide an estimate on the unilateral troop increase by Myanmar, but acknowledged that additional BGB forces had also been deployed in response to the troop movements from the other side.
Rohingya refugees living along the border claimed Thursday to have seen Myanmar security forces positioning heavy weaponry within 150 yards (450 feet) from the no-man’s land and pointing those weapons toward Bangladesh.
BenarNews could not immediately confirm reports from other refugees that Myanmar troops had fired shots into the air.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that about 1,300 families, or approximately 5,300 people, live near a canal in the so-called no man’s land. Bangladeshi officials estimated that 6,500 were sheltering there.
Officials could not provide exact numbers because the refugees haven’t gone through a verification process.
Those refugees are among nearly 700,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh amid a military offensive launched in response to attacks on police and army outposts in northern Rakhine State by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents in August 2017.
The U.N. and United States have labeled Myanmar’s counter-offensive as “ethnic cleansing.”
‘They have mobilized heavy weapons’
During the past month, Myanmar security forces have been using loudspeakers to order the Rohingya refugees to leave the no-man’s land, Rahman, the BGB official, told reporters Thursday.
“They have mobilized heavy weapons by using some military-style trucks. We have gathered the information through our surveillance,” he said. “Since then we have been on alert.”
He said Myanmar’s deployment of heavy weapons along the border was “beyond border norms.”
“We are ready for any situation,” he said.
Nur Mohammad, a Rohingya refugee living in the no-man’s land, told BenarNews that he saw Myanmar soldiers taking positions at a bunker along the Tambru border fence after disembarking from seven military trucks.
“The Burmese military has been carrying mortars and other heavy weapons,” he said, referring to the old name of the Myanmar military. “We, the Rohingya, have been passing days in great anxiety.”
Uniformed Myanmar security forces, led by an Army colonel, had positioned their 60-mm mortars and machine guns toward Bangladesh, a BGB official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told BenarNews.
The official’s allegations, which were based on Bangladeshi intelligence reports, corroborated similar claims from other refugees.
“The Burmese military has pointed guns at Bangladesh. They also aimed guns at the Rohingya living in the no-man’s land,” Ali Hossain, another Rohingya refugee living in the no-man’s land, told Benar.
Shots fired, refugees say
People living in the Tambru area told BenarNews that the Myanmar troops fired at least 10 rifle rounds toward the Rohingya shanties, which were made of bamboo and tarp, in the no-man’s land at around 8:40 p.m. Thursday. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Other Rohingya refugees said the shots were heard as members of the Myanmar military repeatedly asked them through loudspeakers to vacate the area.
On Thursday, the foreign ministry summoned Naypyidaw’s envoy to convey Bangladesh’s concerns about the military build-up around border pillar No. 34, near the Tambru crossing point.
Acting Foreign Secretary Md. Khurshed Alam conveyed the protest note to Ambassador Lwin Oo, expressing concerns that the unilateral military moves could “create confusion within Bangladesh and escalate tensions on the border,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Alam urged the Myanmar government to immediately pullback its security forces along with its military assets from the area, the statement said.
He warned that the development might hamper a bilateral agreement struck by both countries in November to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from camps in Bangladesh.