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For the sake of national interest, Bangladesh must get rid of Rohingya cancer

Rohingya refugees and humanitarians have faced unprecedented challenges in 2023, including fires, cyclones, and ongoing threats of monsoon-related disasters, putting their resilience to the test. Photo: IOM
Rohingya refugees and humanitarians have faced unprecedented challenges in 2023, including fires, cyclones, and ongoing threats of monsoon-related disasters, putting their resilience to the test. Photo: IOM

The recent provocations by Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal have significantly escalated tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh, threatening regional stability and security.

Reports indicate that Myanmar has been engaging in aggressive actions against Bangladeshi vessels operating in the Teknaf and St Martin’s sea lanes. This article examines the current situation, its historical context, and the broader implications for regional security, while also addressing the critical issue of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

For several days, Myanmar has reportedly been shooting at trawlers and other vessels in the maritime areas of Teknaf and St Martin’s Island. These hostile actions, believed to be carried out by Myanmar trawlers and gunboats, have illegally crossed into Bangladeshi waters. This situation has caused significant fear and disruption for the local population and vessel operators.

Md Mainul Kabir, the director general of the Myanmar wing of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has stated that Bangladesh has protested these incidents through diplomatic channels. However, the ongoing instability in Myanmar’s Rakhine state complicates efforts to address these provocations. Kabir highlighted the uncertainty over who controls the area, making diplomatic resolutions more challenging.

The aggressive actions have had a profound impact on the local communities, particularly those dependent on maritime activities. Speedboat owner Syed Alam described a harrowing incident where his vessel, carrying a sick patient, was fired upon near the Myanmar border. Despite the attack, the speedboat managed to reach Saint Martin’s safely. Alam noted the presence of Myanmar army ships nearby, suggesting that junta soldiers might be behind the attacks.

Residents of Saint Martin’s Island, like Alam, are living in extreme fear. The lack of patrolling by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) or Coast Guard in the area exacerbates their insecurity. The potential for a sudden invasion by junta soldiers looms large, further destabilizing the region.

Compounding the crisis is the issue of the Rohingya refugees. Since August 2017, over 1.20 million mostly Muslim Rohingyas have taken refuge in Bangladesh, fleeing the violence between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The ARSA, a militant group involved in transnational drugs, weapons, and human trafficking, poses a significant security threat.

Myanmar’s secret services have reportedly been recruiting and training a section of the Rohingyas, providing them with military training, including commando and suicide attack training. The objective appears to be to leverage these trained individuals in any potential conflict with Bangladesh. This tactic adds a dangerous new dimension to the already complex and volatile situation.

The presence of Rohingyas in Bangladesh has also raised alarms over international terrorism. Numerous sources indicate that terrorist outfits such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others are infiltrating the Rohingya camps. These groups are recruiting individuals for terrorist and jihadist activities, posing a serious threat to regional and global security.

The Rohingya camps have become hotspots for drug peddling, arms trafficking, and human trafficking. The infiltration of international terrorist organizations into these camps has exacerbated the security situation, making it more challenging for Bangladesh to maintain stability and safety.

According to recent reports, around 45,000 Rohingyas are currently waiting on the Naf River, hoping to infiltrate Bangladesh. Additionally, many are attempting to enter India through sea routes and human trafficking networks. This movement is not just a humanitarian issue but also a significant security concern.

Indian intelligence agencies have warned of Pakistani spy agency ISI’s involvement in training Rohingyas, using groups like Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) to facilitate this training. The fear is that these trained militants will be used to create instability in India, adding another layer of complexity to the regional security dynamics.

The tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh over maritime boundaries are not new. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) delivered a judgment in March 2012, confirming that Saint Martin’s Island is entitled to a territorial sea, continental shelf, and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as part of Bangladesh. Despite this clear legal status, Myanmar’s recent actions suggest a disregard for international law and norms.

Domestically, political factions in Bangladesh are also leveraging the situation. Members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami are propagating narratives that question the government’s handling of the maritime boundary issues. They argue that the current government’s focus on maritime claims has left Saint Martin’s Island vulnerable to Myanmar’s advances.

These political narratives, combined with the active involvement of pro-Caliphate and anti-democracy groups like Hefazat-e-Islam, further complicate the internal security situation. These groups are reportedly funding and supporting Rohingya militants to create instability in Bangladesh and India.

In response to these escalating threats, Bangladesh must enhance its diplomatic and security strategies. Diplomatic efforts need to be intensified to hold Myanmar accountable for its aggressive actions and violations of international law. Engaging with international bodies and allies can help pressure Myanmar to cease its provocations.

On the security front, increasing patrols by the BGB and Coast Guard in vulnerable areas like Saint Martin’s Island is crucial. Enhanced surveillance and intelligence-sharing with neighboring countries, especially India, can help in tracking and countering the movement of militants and traffickers.

While addressing the immediate security threats posed by Myanmar’s aggression, Bangladesh must also tackle the long-term issue of the Rohingya refugees. The presence of over 1.20 million Rohingyas in Bangladesh has created significant economic, social, and security challenges. The international community has largely failed to provide a sustainable solution to this crisis, leaving Bangladesh to bear the burden.

For the sake of national interest, Bangladesh must take decisive action to resolve the Rohingya issue. The continued presence of such a large refugee population poses a “cancer” to national security, social cohesion, and economic stability. While Bangladesh has shown tremendous kindness and hospitality to the Rohingyas, it is now imperative to prioritize national interests.

Bangladesh should intensify diplomatic efforts to push back the 1.20 million Rohingyas to Myanmar. This move is not just about securing borders but also about maintaining internal stability and protecting the nation from the threats posed by the infiltration of terrorist elements and criminal activities within the camps.

The initial decision to shelter the Rohingyas was driven by humanitarian considerations. However, the situation has evolved, and the prolonged presence of the Rohingyas is now a significant burden. The humanitarian approach, while noble, must be balanced with pragmatic national interests. Bangladesh cannot afford to let the Rohingya issue undermine its security and development.

Implementing a strategic push-back policy requires coordinated efforts at multiple levels. First, diplomatic channels must be fully utilized to engage with Myanmar and international stakeholders, pressing for the safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingyas. Second, strengthening border security and surveillance will help prevent further illegal infiltration. Third, international organizations must be held accountable for their role in resolving the crisis and providing necessary support to Bangladesh.

The current situation in the Bay of Bengal, marked by Myanmar’s aggression and the complex security challenges posed by the Rohingya crisis, requires a multi-faceted response. Bangladesh must navigate these challenges with a combination of diplomatic finesse and robust security measures. The international community also has a role to play in supporting Bangladesh’s efforts to maintain regional stability and security.

As tensions continue, it is crucial for Bangladesh to prioritize its national interests. The kindness shown to the Rohingyas must now be balanced with the need to ensure national security and stability. By pushing back the Rohingyas and holding Myanmar accountable for its actions, Bangladesh can protect its sovereignty and secure a safer future for its citizens.

Author’s bio: Tajul Islam, a senior journalist and Special Correspondent of Weekly Blitz writes on a broad-range of issues in local and international media. Follow him on X @tajulraj1

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