When Myanmar security forces launched its now notorious “clearance operations” in western Rakhine state in August 2017, it was not the first time the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority had fled en masse into neighboring Bangladesh.
But a failed attempt to repatriate a first group to Myanmar in November and the construction of solid, concrete buildings on an island off the Bangladeshi coast signal an entirely new situation is emerging: a Palestine-like scenario with a permanent, stateless and impoverished refugee population ripe for exploitation by extremist groups in South and Southeast Asia.
More than 720,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar’s brutal security force crackdown, adding to another few hundred thousand that were already in Bangladesh. The United Nations has indicated the forced expulsion represented crimes against humanity and may have been driven by “genocidal intent.”
A first batch of 2,200 refugees was supposed to have been repatriated on November 15, but none agreed to return if their demands for citizenship and justice for the atrocities they had been subjected to were met.
That, of course, was a non-starter as the government in Naypyitaw is highly unlikely to grant the Rohingya, who they consider illegal migrants from Bangladesh, citizenship or accept responsibility for an offensive security officials say was a legitimate response to Rohingya insurgent attacks on border guard posts.
Myanmar’s military leaders, now struggling to stay out of the reach of The Hague’s International Criminal Court, where they could potentially face genocide charges for their 2017 crackdown, have not faced any moves domestically to seek justice for the widespread death and destruction.
Plans to relocate as many as 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh’s Bhasan Char Island would ease pressure on the overcrowded camps on the Myanmar border, but it is unclear how refugees with few skills and no resources would survive on a small, isolated and barren island located in one of the world’s most cyclone-prone areas.
Construction on the island is reportedly proceeding apace, although no relocation is expected to take place before Bangladesh’s general election on December 30. Rohingya refugees are already reportedly reluctant to move to the island.
The election will also decide whether the more secular Awami League remains in power, or if the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which includes among its top allies Islamic groups such as the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, will take over.
The situation today is in sharp contrast to 1978 and 1991-1992, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas similarly fled persecution to Bangladesh. In 1978, the Myanmar government launched an operation code-named Naga Min, or King of Dragons, which aimed at identifying illegal immigrants across the country.
The campaign began in Kachin and Shan states, where many Chinese were believed to have taken shelter, but it quickly turned into a massive violent crackdown on the Rohingyas when the military reached Rakhine state.
Despite reports of rape, arson and murder, the then ruling military got support from even its most vocal domestic critics, who shared the view that the Rohingyas are not indigenous but rather “Bengali settlers” from Bangladesh.
An estimated 200,000 Rohingyas fled across the border, but were allowed to return when Myanmar and Bangladesh, after a stream of protests mainly from Islamic countries leading to intervention by the United Nations, reached an agreement in July 1978.
Many, however, filtered back into Bangladesh when they found that their old homes in Myanmar had been razed and their land had been taken over by new ethnic Burman or Rakhine settlers. In early 1991, thousands of Rohingyas once again began streaming across the border, bringing with them tales of forcible eviction from their homes, and the destruction of mosques and Islamic schools.
By 1992, more than 200,000 refugees were living in makeshift camps across the border in Bangladesh until a repatriation agreement was reached under the auspices of the United Nations. During the 1992 crisis, Prince Khaled Sultan Abdul Aziz, commander of the Saudi contingent in the 1991 Gulf War, visited Dhaka and lashed out against the Myanmar government for its persecution of the Rohingyas.
Then, he publicly recommended a “Desert Storm-like” action against Myanmar, similar to the US military intervention that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. No such action was taken against Myanmar, but it was a clear sign of the wider Muslim world’s interest in the Rohingyas plight.
The first was in 1978, when the immensely wealthy Saudi Arabian charity Rabitat-al-Alam-al-Islami sent aid to the refugees and built a hospital, mosque and madrasa for them at Ukhia, south of Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh.
Saudi religious teachers were sent to Ukhia, and the radicalization of some Rohingya leaders and activists began. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), the main militant group among them, forged links with the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and, especially, its even more radical youth wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir.
With those new connections, the RSO also contacted Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan and likeminded organizations in Pakistan, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Afghan instructors were even sent to RSO’s camp near Ukhia, while about a hundred RSO militants went to Afghanistan to undergo military training with Hizb-e-Islami in the province of Khost.
Today’s main political and military organization among the Rohingyas, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) or, as it is better known locally, Harakah al-Yaqin — the Faith Movement — has its roots in radical milieus in Karachi, Pakistan.
There, several hundred thousand first, second and third generation Rohingyas, many descendants of Muslims who left Myanmar after World War II, live in impoverished suburbs. Nearly all of them are stateless, although they have lived in Pakistan for generations, with most of them born in the country.
The areas where the Rohingya live in Karachi have long served as hotbeds for extremist activities; many were among those recruited to fight in the wars in Afghanistan. ARSA’s leader, Ataullah abu Ammar Junjuni, also known as Hafiz Tohar, was born in Karachi and received madrasa education in Saudi Arabia.
According to recent reports from the camps in Bangladesh, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JMB), an Islamic organization operating in Bangladesh which is listed as a terror group in the United Kingdom, is bidding to cultivate links with the Rohingyas.
JMB is believed to have been involved in several bomb attacks in Bangladesh and its stated aim is to replace the country’s democracy with an Islamic state based on Sharia law.
It is uncertain to what extent the group has been able to link up with militants among the Rohingyas, but the Bangladesh Daily Star reported on December 13 that the country’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit had arrested three JMB members who were “providing training to Rohingya refugees.”
A CTTC official was quoted as saying that the JMB has “been working in the Rohingya camps” with its military chief “providing training to refugees since 2016.” Those accusations could augur a militant response when Myanmar’s civil and military authorities refuse to yield to the demands of the refugees, including their calls for citizenship and justice.
The radicalization of Rohingyas, which began in the late 1970s, is bound to continue in the current Palestine-like situation. Analysts say that could lead to more ARSA cross-border raids, similar to the ones in August last year that prompted the Myanmar military to unleash its campaign of terror in Rohingya-inhabited areas of northern Rakhine state.
A permanent refugee population in Bangladesh, and possible alliances between various groups of militants, could also have grave implications for the domestic security situation in that country, similar to the volatility seen in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries where Palestinian refugees have been languishing for more than half a century.