Bangladesh officials on Wednesday accused a Myanmar government minister of conducting a “disinformation campaign” to hamper Rohingya repatriation when he told the United Nations that militant groups including ARSA and the Arakan Army had found sanctuary in neighboring Bangladesh.
Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Myanmar Minister of the State Counselor’s Office Kyaw Tint Swe also said that Bangladesh should do more to stop the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) from interfering with the “bilateral repatriation process.”
“Both the terrorist group ARSA and the terrorist insurgent group AA have used Bangladeshi territory as a sanctuary,” Kyaw Tint Swe said, according to the speech text. “Efforts to prevent ARSA and its supporters in the camps of Cox’s Bazar from hampering the bilateral repatriation process, through threats, violence or other illegal conduct, also need to be strengthened as such activities pose a risk to both Bangladesh and Myanmar.”
A day later, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen and Faruk Khan, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs, rebuked Kyaw Tint Swe’s statement.
“The Myanmar allegation that ARSA and Arakan Army have used Bangladesh territory as a sanctuary is a disinformation campaign to hamper the process of repatriation of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh. We vehemently reject this allegation,” Momen told BenarNews.
He went on to say that Myanmar officials have balked at efforts to repatriate the Rohingya from camps in and around Cox’s Bazar back to Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
About 740,000 of the minority Muslims fled to Bangladesh during a brutal military crackdown launched in August 2017 in response to ARSA attacks on Myanmar police and army posts that killed nine.
“We are ready to send the Rohingya back to their place of origin, Rakhine state, but Myanmar is not taking them back. Myanmar must improve the conditions in Rakhine so that the Rohingya feel secure to return to their homeland,” Momen said.
Khan echoed Momen’s statement that Myanmar is trying to stall the repatriation efforts. While Bangladesh and Myanmar officials signed an agreement in November 2017 to begin the process of returning the Rohingya in early 2018, there had been no movement since.
“From the very beginning, Myanmar has been trying to portray the whole Rohingya community as terrorists. They have been continuing such campaigns at the bilateral level and multilateral forums,” Khan told BenarNews.
“We strongly condemn such an unfounded negative campaign.”
Kyaw Tint Swe said Myanmar remained committed to having the Rohingya return.
“Bilateral cooperation is the only way that can effectively resolve the repatriation issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh. May I say this – should Bangladesh commit itself to the bilateral process it will find Myanmar a willing partner,” he said in his U.N. speech.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal praised his country’s border guard force for maintaining security, and said the country had a zero tolerance policy for all forms of terrorism.
“We categorically assert that the terrorist groups such as ARSA and Arakan Army do not get any indulgence from Bangladesh. There is no presence of ARSA and Arakan Army in Bangladesh,” he told BenarNews.
Despite the home minister’s statement, government and police sources in February privately acknowledged that they had arrested “several” of the insurgents in the previous months.
BenarNews interviewed a self-proclaimed ARSA member in Kutupalong refugee camp in November 2017, who said that at least 150 insurgents were living in the camps at the time.
Southeast Asia security analyst Zachary Abuza, meanwhile, called the Myanmar allegations “preposterously overblown.” Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, is also a columnist for BenarNews.
“ARSA was never much beyond a small, ragtag, poorly armed militant group with a twitter account. There is no evidence that Bangladeshi forces or nationals are actively arming or training them,” he told BenarNews.
He drew a contrast between ARSA and the Arakan Army.
“The Arakanese are recognized citizens, in the ways that the Rohingya are not,” he said. “That will always open up avenues for a negotiated settlement, though the government’s track record in implementing peace accords with ethnic rebel groups is terrible.”
Abuza noted that Arakan Army members, who are found north of the former Rohingya stronghold in Rakhine state, are well armed and “militarily competent.” Meanwhile, there is no evidence that Bangladesh forces or nationals are training or arming ARSA members.
“To me, the Myanmar government’s statement is just another justification to not take back any refugees,” he said.
Imran Vittachi in Washington contributed to this report.