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Security nightmare in the making? How the Rohingya crisis has caught the fancy of terror groups

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 31 October 2017, 19:11 IST
(File photo)

Since August, the headlines emerging from Rakhine State in Myanmar have been beyond alarming as hundreds and thousands of Rohingyas have fled alleging state-sponsored violence.

The minority community has drawn global attention.

But the outpouring of sympathy could be temporary, says Major General (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, who heads the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Institute for Peace and Security Studies.

“It is a big challenge for Bangladesh,” he says. According to him, more than six lakh Rohingyas have entered the country since August and around 3,00,000 more are still in Rakhine. “They will also probably be pushed out, so it will be completely ethnically cleansed this time,” says Muniruzzaman.

According to him, Myanmar's offer of repatriation might be simply to ward off international attention. “Once the cameras disappear, nothing much will happen on the ground,” he says.

Bangladesh itself was forced to change its stance after initially saying it would drive all Rohingyas back. The retired armyman has his take on that: “One, the humanitarian angle for the level of suffering was extremely high. Second, there was a wave of domestic sympathy and the domestic constituency wanted the government to do something about this.”
In the absence of a rapid solution, he adds, the issue could have far-reaching security implications not just for Bangladesh, but for the wider region.

Excerpts from a conversation with Catch:

Myanmar says repatriation will happen along the lines of how it did in the 1990s.

Even then, a very small token number of Rohingyas were taken back. The problem has not been resolved in principle. This time also if they agree to take back some it will be still a cosmetic exercise just to keep the international pressure off for sometime. But in absence of any real solutions, any promise of legal recognition as citizens, what will they go back to? This is what needs to be talked about.

Why are the Rohingyas being driven out in the first place?

There is a general perception that these are not their people. Second, the tremendous rise of Buddhist militants in Myanmar in general and Rakhine in particular who do not accept this population. Third, Rakhine is becoming economically and strategically attractive and lucrative. So many interested quarters wants the lingering problem of ethnic tensions to be solved once and for all.

Who are these interested quarters?

There are strategically vital energy interests which are coming to play. There are new refineries coming up in Rakhine, which will be built by the Saudis and the Qataris. The Chinese too have tremendous interest, including the dedicated pipeline to Kunming, the deep sea port, the Saudis are building a refinery which will refine the crude which will be transported to Kunming. The Qataris are building a methane port. It will also have an LNG (liquefied natural gas) port. So it is a multimodal energy hub for the Chinese who have always been insecure about the Malacca Strait route. This enables them to bypass the vulnerability of dependence just on the Malacca Strait.

What kind of challenges does it pose for Bangladesh?

The five lakh people already there are of a different category for they have some organisational mechanisms to be housed, other social arrangements. The new population has nothing in terms of organised support. Their conditions are dire. They are food-insecure, leading to malnutrition among children. Many of the women who are coming in are sick and pregnant. They have no adequate access to safe drinking water, which increases the possibility of an outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera as happened in Haiti and Yemen.

There is also a grave danger of human trafficking for many of the families who have crossed over, especially women and children. International and local trafficking rings are already active in the area.

Then there is a tremendous amount of environmental damage which has happened because of their arrival because they have cut trees in the hills for shelter. More so, Rohingyas are getting involved with local criminals and are being used as couriers for drugs and small arms.

The warm hospitality which the locals had extended is wearing thin. The Rohingyas are prepared to work for cheap, which is leading to a resentment among the local workforce.

Is radicalisation a worry?

That is a bigger worry. Any marginalised community is vulnerable to radicalisation and terrorism-recruitment. That possibility exists in an active and large manner.

Was this worry existent for the last Rohingya population too? Is there evidence of terror recruitment among the last lot of refugees?

There is no empirical evidence of active members and groups but there has been some recruitment. This population is very different from the last inflow.

When we talk about recruitment by terror groups, which groups do we look at?

In our analysis, we found that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has placed their support; Daesh in Syria and Iraq as well as Chechen groups have come out in support. Indonesian groups have also put out a video of training camps and claim that they are building a 1,200-men strong battalion to send to Rakhine to fight. Many Islamist groups around the world have called it the new Palestine.

Is Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) also a result of similar recruitment by transnational jihadists?

No, ARSA is a local group that enjoys a fair amount of sympathy among the local population. But we know that ARSA's leader was based in Saudi Arabia and it is also found that probably the seed money came from Saudi Arabia. ARSA's tactical leaders are know to have contacts and received training in the region in Malaysia, Pakistan and other places. ARSA has a fair amount of international links. But it is a local group.

But the fact that there is such great outpouring of sympathy from the Islamist world it is quite possible that some of them may pick up the cause and join the Rohingya struggle. It is also happening at a time when Daesh has lost ground in Syria and Iraq and many of the foreign fighters don't want to go back to their own homes and are looking for a new battle ground to fight a new battle. To them, this cause can be sold easily.

If we have foreign fighters coming in, then this will become an international terror hub and that will have security implications for the whole region.

When the Government of India says the Rohingya population constitutes a security threat, would you agree that it is a correct assessment?

I don't know about the empirical evidence of Rohingyas in India if there is any proof of any involvement. I am talking about Rohingyas who have just come to Bangladesh who are rootless and extremely vulnerable.

In Bangladesh, we always expect that India will use its good offices to make the Myanmar side understand the problem needs a rapid solution.

What do you make of assertions that rapid development of Rakhine, infrastructure development et al could be a solution?

It is not a question of infrastructure development. It is about understanding issues of ethnic identity. The ground has shifted when it comes to Rohingyas. And we have seen the Myanmar leadership not taking a stand. Military which controls key ministries has given out its stand clearly. Despite pressure they have maintained that these are not our people, calling them bengalis or bengali terrorists. Given this reality a solution looks rather complex and farfetched.

Do you think international sanctions could force a solution?

There have been some embargo by the Americans and the European Union. Pressure from United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is impractical for the Chinese and the Russians have articulated their policy. I am not very sure if the sanctions will bite because they have been under sanctions for years and it seems they did not bite. But I have been wondering if what is happening in Rakhine a classical case for invoking R2P (responsibility to protect) for all the conditions are available. But I don't think it is a possibility in light of a divided UNSC.

First published: 31 October 2017, 19:11 IST