Bangladesh Moves to Control Outbreak of Gang Violence at Rohingya Camps

Sharif Khiam and Sunil Barua
Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
201007-BD-Rohingya-killed-police1000 Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion personnel patrol a road near a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar after violent clashes left eight people dead, Oct. 7, 2020.

At least eight people – mostly refugees – have died since violence broke out between rival Rohingya groups at a sprawling camp in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district late last week, officials said Wednesday, assuring the public that security forces had regained control of law and order.

Four people were killed in clashes on Tuesday, three bodies were found on Monday and one was found on Friday, after the clashes began in the Kutupalong camp on Thursday night, authorities said. Of those killed, six people, including a woman, were refugees, and two were Bangladeshi nationals, police said.

Additional Police Superintendent Rafiqul Islam said that more personnel from the army, the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) force, and police had now been deployed to Kutupalong and other camps in the district that host close to 1 million Rohingya refugees who fled from nearby Myanmar.

“A series of clashes have been taking place at the camps due to internal conflicts between the Rohingya,” Islam told BenarNews.

However, citing “security reasons,” officials declined to release specific information about the number of personnel who have been deployed to quell the violence in Cox’s Bazar.

Md. Anwar Hossain, deputy inspector general of police in Chittagong, the southeastern division where Cox’s Bazar is located, told journalists on Wednesday that the situation was under control.

“Now, only the law enforcement agencies will control the camps,” he said.

Rohingya refugees who didn’t wish to be named because they feared for their safety said the clashes took place between members of two Rohingya gangs, one led by a man named Munna and another led by a man called Anach.

Both these gangs want to take control of extortion and other criminal activities in the camps, refugees told BenarNews. A few refugees also said the gangs were involved in drug smuggling.

Mohammad Shamsu Douza, an additional commissioner for Refugee Relief and Repatriation, said some refugees were involved in crime before they crossed over from Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims are a stateless minority.

“Many of the Rohingya people have been involved in criminal activities before they arrived in Bangladesh. And some people have newly been involved in criminal activities. So, violent incidents have been taking place,” Douza told BenarNews.

Police on Tuesday arrested nine Rohingya refugees for their alleged involvement in the violence, Mehedi Hasan, the commander of RAB, told journalists. All those arrested were found to be carrying country-made weapons, bullets, large machetes and other small arms.

Families Flee

During the days of violence, hundreds of Rohingya families have fled the Kutupalong and adjacent camps since the clashes broke out Thursday night, Mahfuzar Rahman, an official in charge of five unregistered camps in Kutupalong, told BenarNews.

“A total of 2,388 families have left the [Kutupalong and nearby] camps and taken refuge at other camps to escape the violence,” he said.

Additional commissioner Douza also confirmed that many Rohingya had left their homes in the camps to escape the violence.

“We are counting the number of the families who left their houses for safety,” he said.

Meanwhile, the district’s police force has been in the spotlight, as it has seen some upheaval recently.

Late last month, Bangladesh police transferred the entire 1,400-strong force out of Cox’s Bazar to bring in new personnel.

Cox’s Bazar police have been strongly criticized for shooting dead a retired army major at a local checkpoint on July 31, as well as for more than a hundred alleged extrajudicial killings of Rohingya refugees and a deteriorating law and order situation. This has led to a dozen recent refugee abductions from what is a hotspot for cross-border drug smuggling.

After the mass transfer, Hossain told reporters that the personnel moves were part of a reorganization of the force.

Allegations of links to Rohingya rebels

One international media report on Wednesday quoted some refugees saying that one of the gangs involved in the turf war was allied with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent group.

However, ARSA had denied that claim in a tweet on Monday.

An ARSA spokesman said “innocent Rohingya are trapped by a gang of robbers and drug dealers” who are now “raping, killing, looting and kidnapping people to extort money.”

He added in the tweet that this gang’s intention was to “defame” ARSA.

Police in Bangladesh also denied ARSA’s involvement in the violence.

The militant group, which used to be called Harakah al-Yaqin, carried out coordinated attacks on police posts and an army base in Rakhine in August 2017.

In response to those attacks, Myanmar’s security forces launched a brutal crackdown that forced 740,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes and cross into neighboring Bangladesh.

In a December 2016 report, International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict prevention and resolution group, said that ARSA had recruited “several hundred young Rohingya men from Bangladesh” in October that year.

Bangladesh officially denies the presence of ARSA rebels in the refugee camps, but government and police sources in February privately acknowledged to BenarNews that they had arrested “several” of the insurgents in the previous months.

Last month, many Rohingya refugees told BenarNews that members of ARSA are the ones taking their compatriots captive for ransom.

Police last month acknowledged that at least two dozen Rohingya refugees have been abducted for ransom from the camps in August-September, but attributed the crime to Rohingya criminals, and denied that they have any connection with ARSA.

Abdur Rahman in Cox’s Bazar contributed to this report.


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