- - Monday, January 8, 2018

COX‘S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Mohammad Haroon, a community leader at the Balukhali Refugee Camp here, is a worried man. The 27-year-old has heard complaints of men visiting refugees’ tents in the dead of the night in search of young people. He is certain they are Rohingya insurgents on the lookout for recruits for their fight in neighboring Myanmar.

The fierce clash between the government of overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar and the Muslim Rohingya minority has created the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes. But the refugee camps here in Bangladesh also represent a fertile breeding ground and a new cause for Islamist militants looking to re-energize their struggle.

“There are bad elements everywhere. Here, these bad elements are trying to take advantage of our current situation and exploit us into turning against each other,” said Mr. Haroon. “They want us to fight the military, the monks. What good can come out of more violence?”

Mr. Haroon was referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, an insurgency movement that has organized attacks against Myanmar security forces. Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks are among the most vocal critics of the Rohingya minority in the Southeast Asian country.

Since late August, an estimated 650,000 stateless Rohingyas have fled from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh to escape the military’s campaign of torching villages, rape and murder. The Trump administration the United Nations are among a wide range of groups condemning what they see as ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar’s military leaders claim their crackdown is in response to ARSA’s deadly attacks. Earlier this month, for example, ARSA rebels attacked an army truck in Myanmar, wounding five troops, according to state-controlled media.

ARSA fighters, in turn, have said they are simply trying to protect the approximately 1 million Muslim Rohingyas who have long lived in largely Buddhist Myanmar from discrimination.

Descended from laborers imported from Bangladesh during British colonial rule in the 19th century, the Rohingyas are technically not Myanmar citizens. Most live in Rakhine, an impoverished province on Myanmar’s west coast.

Across the sprawling, overcrowded refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, the district bordering Myanmar, rumors swirl of more ARSA attacks in the offing.

The Rohingya refugees appear divided over the radical militant group. While most reject its violent methods, many see it as a last-ditch option if the international community fails to broker an agreement allowing them to return to their Myanmar homes.

“We have suffered at the hands of the Myanmar military for a long time. They didn’t see us as humans or recognize us as citizens,” said Mohammad Ataullah at the Balukhali Camp. “Whenever a Buddhist entered a shop, us Rohingyas had to leave. We were not allowed to study or get a job. The military has big guns, snipers, bombs and rocket launchers to target us from a distance and we only have our sickles to defend ourselves. ARSA says it was fighting for our cause but they only have crude weapons. It is an unequal fight.”

Refugees scoffed at Myanmar’s military leaders saying their military campaign was meant to “protect” the local population in Rakhine.

“We know what we have left behind and how many people our community has lost. There are orphans everywhere,” said one 31-year-old camp resident, who asked not to be named for fear the military would target his relatives. “Who killed their parents? It wasn’t ARSA.”

Saying he has heard about ARSA training camps around the border, the man was concerned about more violence but didn’t know if it could be avoided. “I don’t trust ARSA because they used to threaten us back in Rakhine, terming those who didn’t join them as traitors,” he said. “But they are the only ones fighting against the barbarians.”

Radicalization fears

Independent observers have warned of ARSA’s efforts to target and recruit Rohingya youth, stoking fears of radicalization at the camps.

Angshuman Choudhury, a New Delhi-based researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, believes Rohingyan refugees are extremely susceptible to exploitation.

“The Rohingyas are a marginalized community that has been persecuted for decades,” Mr. Chaudhury said. “Their economically vulnerable state and their natural urge to vent out their anger to what happened makes them the perfect recruitment tool.”

With Islamic State’s territorial base in Syria and Iraq nearly eliminated, terrorism analysts fear Islamist militants fleeing the Middle East could fasten on crises such as those in Myanmar as their next base of operations. Foreign fighters were much in evidence in recent brutal fighting between the government of the Philippines and radical Islamic terror groups in the country’s south.

“The conditions in Rakhine are ripe for the influence of extremist stimuli, including the infiltration of Islamic State ideology, which may worsen the situation in Myanmar,” a study last fall by researchers at Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University concluded. It’s an ideal situation for the Islamic State and affiliates to collaborate with regional groups, they added.

In the Kutupalong Registered Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Mohammad Yusuf’s plight illustrates the depth of the problem.

The 21-year old was born in the camp after his family fled from a bout of ethnic violence in Myanmar in the 1970s. Five years ago, he attempted to travel across the border.

“See these marks?” said Mr. Yusuf, showing deep scars across his right arm. “This is where they hit me when we tried to go to Rakhine.”

But he might have little option but to return.

“What future do we have here?” he asked. “We don’t know what the Bangladesh government will do, what ARSA will do or what Myanmar will do. We don’t know to whom should we turn to. A person who doesn’t have a country has nothing.”

While Mr. Chaudhury thought ARSA was well organized, he was skeptical they had the resources to wage a full-fledged armed struggle. “It can happen but it would require a considerable amount of funding and logistical support,” he said.

Myanmar and Bangladesh are set to implement an agreement to send as many as 100,000 Rohingya back to Myanmar at the end of January.

But most refugees reject the prospect of returning under the current climate. They are in understandable fear for their lives, said Mr. Chaudhury.

“The current repatriation agreement is not at all viable logistically. Most refugees don’t have documentation since they lost the papers in the fires. What happens to them? The situation could turn disastrous again,” said Mr. Chaudhury. “The refugees prefer to remain in overcrowded, squalid camps than go back to Rakhine and face violence.”

Mohammad Hashim, an 18-year old who lives and runs a small shop in the camp, said he wouldn’t return unless his safety was guaranteed.

“My family and I will only go back if there is peace, if there are people from relief agencies living with us, guarding us,” he said. “If there is no one to guarantee us our safety, I don’t know whom should I turn to — the Bangladesh government, the relief people or ARSA.”

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