Friday, August 18, 2017

Attack on border fuels growing concern

A state media report that armed gunmen attacked a police camp along the Bangladesh border last week killing four officers has highlighted the growing violence in the already restive region.

Few details of the May 18 incident, which occurred near Maungdaw, are available due to severely restricted access to the region. Those that have surfaced have come from the government.

“We can’t confirm [many details] … We can only say it was an armed group,” said U Win Myaing, a spokesman for the Rakhine State government in Sittwe.

He added that a variety of smugglers and other armed groups are active in the area.

Both Eleven Media and The Bangkok Post reported that as many as 40 members of the Muslim armed group known as the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) were behind the attack.

While many security experts believe the RSO has been largely defunct since the 1990s, some Rakhine nationalist groups claim the army is still active in the border area.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times, U Khin Thu Kha, secretary of the Arakan Liberation Party, claimed the armed wing of his party regularly see RSO members stationed in combat positions along the Kaladan River.

Regardless of the gunmen’s group affiliation, observers of the area say the incident and other recent attacks on security forces are indicative of a border that is growing more lawless and violent by the day.

According to Saiful Huq Omi, a Bangladeshi journalist who has reported extensively from the border areas, since Rohingya Muslims began fleeing across the border en masse after the anti-Muslim riots of 2012 the border has become a hotbed of criminal activity, as human traffickers and other smugglers see an opportunity for profit.

“Now you see more and more people getting involved in robbery, smuggling and hijacking. It’s getting to be huge,” he told The Myanmar Times over the phone from Bangladesh.

Jason Eligh, the Myanmar country manager for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), agreed.

“Illicit economies thrive in such environments of conflict and strife, particularly where rule of law institutions are weakened or non-existent,” said Mr Eligh.

“As a result, the trafficking of drugs, arms and people across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border is a serious and growing concern, as is the movement of illicit armed groups.”

Neither the Ministry of Border Affairs nor Bangladesh’s Embassy in Yangon could be reached for comment.

However, both sides have increased the number of troops along the shared border in the last few months.

In addition, the Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Muhammad Shahidul Haque told Bangladeshi media on May 21 that he had sent a letter to Nay Pyi Taw proposing a bilateral security dialogue to discuss “the problems in the bordering area”.

“An increased militarisation of this border, by both countries, seems to be a likely consequence of this existing insecurity,” said Mr Eligh from UNDOC.

Securing the border has long been a controversial topic between Myanmar and Bangladesh, usually characterised by little to no cooperation between the two governments.

Relations have been particularly strained since efforts to repatriate Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar stalled in 2005. Large numbers of Rohingya fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in 1978 and again in 1991-92. Mr Haque said that the two countries had reached an in-principle agreement to restart the program 2013, but it has not materialised.

Both Mr Omi and Mr Eligh said the ongoing and increasing persecution of Rohingya Muslims is now making these longstanding problems even worse.

“This instability and violence is contributing to a sustained deterioration in human security in [Northern] Rakhine,” Mr Eligh said.