• Wednesday, Feb 08, 2023
  • Last Update : 10:24 am

OP-ED: Is ARSA a threat to Bangladesh?

  • Published at 11:41 pm August 16th, 2021
The conditions of the Rohingya settlements in Cox’s Bazar’s Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas have improved significantly from what it was during the arrival of the refugees 19 months ago.  However, the camps are still far from ideal.  Overcrowdedness is the main problem, which has been creating many health and social problems in the makeshift camps.  Government officials said the situation is likely to deteriorate in the future, as the population of the settlements have been increasing every day.  Nevertheless, officials stressed the importance of ensuring food and basic needs for the displaced Rohingyas.  Nearly 700,000 Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh and taken refuge in the camps since the military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state began on August 25, 2017. They joined the 400,000 Rohingyas who had already come to Cox’s Bazar earlier.  This correspondent visited the camps and spoke to the Rohingyas who have been living there since their 2017 exodus.   Despite several problems, many Rohingyas told this correspondent that they still prefer living in the camps over going back to Rakhine because their safety is being ensured here by the host government.  “I cannot ask for more. Here in Bangladesh, at least I can sleep without fearing of losing my life or being tortured. I will only return to my home in Rakhine if my security is ensured,” Mohammad Yusuf, who lives at Camp 9 in Balukhali, told the Dhaka Tribune.     When asked about the congestion in the camps, Mizanur Rahman, an official from the Public Administration Ministry and also in-charge of Camp 9 and 10, said they are putting in all efforts to ensure a less congested environment.  “Keeping the congestion in mind, the government is trying to relocate them to Bhashan Char. Let us see what happens,” he said.  Replying to a query, he said: “Earlier, we had some problems regarding law and order, but now things are under control.”  Saving lives was the priority   According to government officials, international and local non-governmental organizations, everyone’s focus was to save lives of the Rohingyas, who started arriving in Cox’s Bazar in late August 2017.  They said now that arrivals have stopped and the situation in the settlements have become stable, “midterm” measures are being taken to improve the conditions, including the construction of houses that are better than the existing ones that are made of bamboo and plastic.  Over time, many other facilities like health clinics, learning centres and support for adolescents and women have been ensured, they added.  Officials said there were still many things that need to be done, but also that nothing much can be done when over a million people are housed on less than 10,000 acres of land.  “This suffocating situation is making the residents rude and quarrelsome. And we have to spend quite a lot of our time solving their issues that arises because of sharing homes and toilets,” a police official said.  “How long can you be confined to a small place without any work or activities? This kind of situation makes a person mentally unhealthy, which leads him or her to do things that should not be done,” he said.  An official of an international NGO said: “In some cases, some 20 people have to live in a space of less than 200sqft. Can you imagine? But this is the reality. More land is needed for the betterment of the situation. But we do not have land.”  The Rohingyas, who appear to have accepted these living conditions, said no one wants to live in this kind of situation, but they have no choice.  “The best thing for us is to return our homes in Rakhine. But that seems very unlikely,” a young Rohingya, who identified himself as Masum, told the Dhaka Tribune.
Dhaka Tribune

Does the militant group’s presence spell trouble for Bangladesh?

Early this month, on information that members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) were holding a secret meeting in a mosque in a Rohingya camp, the Armed Police Battalion raided the site. When the raid occurred at Chakmarkul Rohingya Block-3 camp, Amtala mosque, the members escaped the dragnet. The police seized 72 pairs of sandals as evidence of the botched meeting.

The ARSA members are mostly recruits from among the Rohingya refugees. They mostly raise funds from the Rohingya living in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

ARSA is the fledgling Rohingya militant group whose attacks on police posts across northern Rakhine State on August 25, 2017, provided an excuse for the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya that prompted the region’s most severe refugee crisis. The exodus of more than one million Rohingya from the restive Rakhine State has also brought ARSA supporters into Bangladesh, and have taken shelter in squalid refugee camps.

Explaining in a rare interview to the international media, Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi, commonly known simply as Ataullah, the supremo of ARSA said that their objective would be “open war” and “continued [armed] resistance” until “citizenship rights were reinstated” of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Ataullah denied any links to the Islamic State or ISIS in his August 2017 video and claimed he turned his back on support from Pakistani-based militants.

A security expert in Bangladesh explains that ARSA has ideological differences with other terror outfits and has reason to distance itself from the transnational jihadist network, which would compel Bangladeshi security forces to move against them.

For obvious reasons, the global terror network’s footprint is absent in the region. The territory is too hot to handle, as some experts explained, especially when India remains a threat to their physical presence. With dried ordinance, the militants were unable to launch any large-scale skirmishes with Myanmar troops after August 2017.

On the other hand, their hit-and-run tactics were significantly neutralized after the Myanmar troops’ crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. The Myanmar government labelled ARSA as “extremist Bangali terrorists,” warning that its goal is to establish an Islamic state in the region.

Myanmar also blames Pakistan’s spy agency ISI, claiming it has provided funds and logistics to ARSA. The security agencies have trained their eyes and ears on their activities. The officials said ARSA is also known as “Al Yakin” in the refugee camps, and the militants prey on people. 

They are responsible for a series of kidnaps, extortions, tortures, and executions of suspects. The recruiters from sleeping-cells disseminate a message that joining ARSA or “Al Yakin” is a Farj (a religious obligation).

However, ARSA remains focused on recruitment and indoctrination, followed by establishing small units and engaging in rudimentary military training. One such session of recruits was in progress in the Amtala mosque earlier this month.

The International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution nonprofit organization, claims that the network of members and supporters in Bangladesh are fairly large. The cash-starved Al Yakin, the volunteer group of ARSA, is mostly responsible for gang war to establish dominance over other non-militant groups in the camps. 

Often, there is breaking news from Rohingya refugee camps -- of robbers, dacoits, and armed gangs killed in encounters with anti-crime forces. The slain victims are radicalized Rohingya militants.

Despite that, ARSA’s name still commands a mix of cautious respect and fear among some in the Rohingya camps. The members maintain a low profile to avoid confrontation with Bangladesh security forces. 

For survival, the foot soldiers are engaged in providing armed escorts to cross-border smugglers and drug traders. ARSA’s militancy capabilities remain poor due to strict surveillance by security agencies -- reducing ARSA into a toothless tiger.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender. Recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at [email protected]; Twitter: @saleemsamad.

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