Myanmar Bangladesh joint offensive cracks down on Rohingya

Leaked documents from a senior meeting of Myanmar junta officials reveal an unexpected collaboration between the Myanmar military and Bangladesh forces on operations against the ARSA Rohingya insurgent group

Shafiur Rahman
February 16, 2023
Myanmar Bangladesh joint offensive cracks down on Rohingya
This handout photograph taken on October 28, 2022, and released by Bangladesh Armed Police Battalion (APBN) shows detained Rohingya refugees sit next to security personal after crackdown in Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhia 28, 2022. Photo: Bangladesh Armed Police Battalion (APBN)/AFP

Some call it “No Man’s Land”. Others refer to it as the “zero point” or “zero line.”

By whatever name, the strip of land at the Tombru border post between Myanmar and Bangladesh was, until last month, the temporary home of about 4,687 Rohingya refugees who had fled persecution by the Myanmar military.

The makeshift refuge straddles the borders of the two countries, but is fenced off from Myanmar. On both sides of the border, guards have a strong presence. The small camp is neater than the packed chaos of its counterparts in Cox’s Bazar, and access is tightly controlled – because of the disputed nature of the land, by agreement with Myanmar only the International Committee of the Red Cross is allowed to enter to provide aid, and only the Bangladesh border guards may enforce law.

But just about a month ago, members of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) insurgent group – a long-dormant, ethnic Rohingya organisation ostensibly fighting for the minority’s rights – abruptly descended on this little settlement. In a clash that lasted hours, RSO fighters expelled thousands of their fellow Rohingya, killing some of them, and burnt their homes to the ground, all while border guards from both Bangladesh and Myanmar stood by. 

The attack came on the heels of an earlier, November raid by Bangladesh special forces who claimed to be carrying out a narcotics bust. Myanmar didn’t object to this, despite the technical prohibition of such forces in the area. Though the violence shook the refugee community, the residents stayed within their homes.

The January attack made that impossible. If the violent displacement of thousands of Rohingya refugees wasn’t shocking enough, the apparent perpetrators in that second action – fellow Rohingya – added a layer of intrigue.

What lies beneath is a tangled series of alliances, accused proxy actors and betrayals. At the centre appears to be a coordinated effort between Myanmar and Bangladesh to crush yet another Rohingya insurgent group – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). 

Myanmar originally used ARSA attacks on its forces as justification for launching the brutal 2016-17 offensive against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State, leading to the flight of roughly 800,000 refugees to Bangladesh. 

Besides fighting the Myanmar military, ARSA has been increasingly accused of various criminal activities in Bangladesh. This includes allegations of targeted assassinations of fellow Rohingya in the sprawling, squalid refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, in an attempt to exert control over the population there.

ARSA had also established a foothold in No Man’s Land. The RSO insurgents are sworn enemies of ARSA due to political differences, and though they had their own reasons to want to fight their rival, their aims appeared to be aligned with those of both Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The covert nature of cooperation between those governments in fighting ARSA is previously unreported, but is now described in a 45-page document leaked from a 23 December high-level meeting of Myanmar’s junta. International law experts say it raises questions about Bangladesh’s commitment to finding a humanitarian solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Meanwhile, conditions for the refugees continue to deteriorate amidst a worsening security situation.

The leaked memo document, originating from the Central Committee for Counter-Terrorism of the Home Affairs Ministry, was first released by the Yangon-based outlet Khit Thit Media on 15 January.  While prior press reports about the document centered on the challenges faced by the Myanmar regime from internal opposition, these minutes also suggest for the first time a previously unknown joint operation last year between the Myanmar military and Bangladesh forces in an attempt to neutralise ARSA.

No Man’s Land community spokesman Dil Mohammed, stands by the wire fence of the settlement. Photo: Shafiur Rahman for Southeast Asia Globe

Last year, the Myanmar junta reported in the memo, there were only four skirmishes between its own forces and that of the Rohingya insurgency. 

“We were able to meet, discuss and coordinate with the Bangladesh Border Guard Force over ARSA,” the leaked memo also states in Burmese. “The result was that Bangladesh special forces launched a military operation in the refugee camp where ARSA took shelter, killing the ARSA’s second in command and two terrorists. From one intelligence exchange with Bangladesh we learned that the ARSA leader Ataullah and 60 of his followers are facing legal actions in Bangladesh.”

The “military operation” mentioned in the memo refers to the 14 November raid on the camp by the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, and other Bangladesh special forces. An anti-crime and anti-terrorism paramilitary unit of the Bangladesh police, RAB was recently sanctioned by the US for human rights violations.

The RAB and other Bangladesh government offices did not respond to requests for comment. 

The memo undermines the official narrative of the raid from the Bangladesh government, which presented the clash as an anti-narcotics operation that broke into a gunfight. The crossfire killed a young Rohingya mother and a Bangladeshi intelligence officer. 

This handout photograph released by Bangladesh Armed Police Battalion (APBN) shows detained Rohingya refugees next to security personal after crackdown in Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhia 28, 2022. Photo: Bangladesh Armed Police Battalion (APBN)/AFP

Ten days later, Bangladesh courts charged ARSA chief Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi and 66 other individuals with murder, assault and obstructing the duties of a public servant. Ataullah is currently believed to be hiding in Myanmar.

The leaked document also casts new doubts on the nature of the January attack that razed the camp. Though the memo comes before that event, witnesses to last month’s raid alleged to the Globe that Bangladesh officials appeared to be working in concert with the RSO as they cleared the settlement. 

The official account presented by the Bangladesh government aims to disavow any involvement and instead solely points to the clash between rebel groups as the cause of the camp’s destruction and reported deaths.

ARSA released an official statement after the first raid in November claiming the armed forces of both Myanmar and Bangladesh had been directly involved. In an email to the Globe, ARSA made a similar assertion for the January attack that destroyed the camp.

“We observed that RSO ran the operation in conjunction with some Bangladeshi [departments],” the group stated. “The [Burmese border guards] stood on the border with preparation, leading us to believe that both [Bangladesh and Myanmar] forces somehow collaborated with each other.” 

The allegation of Bangladesh involvement in the January attack was echoed by No Man’s Land community spokesman Dil Mohammed, who had lived for five years in the Rohingya camp and was one of the 66 co-accused in the November case.

“I am lost for words,” he said on the day of the fighting. “This morning at 6 a.m., the notorious RAB and RSO attacked our Rohingya camp at Zero Point. By 3 p.m., the entire camp had been set on fire.”

A view of the camp in No Man’s Land in flames after the attack, alleged to have been actioned by RAB and RSO forces. Photo: Shafiur Rahman for Southeast Asia Globe

Shortly after messaging this reporter, Mohammed himself was abducted by RSO members. When two of his teenaged sons attempted to secure his release from RSO, they were also kidnapped by the insurgents.

The RSO denies working with any Bangladesh authorities.

Ko Ko Linn, the head of the group’s political wing, sent a statement to the Globe referring to the NML camp’s destruction as an “unavoidable duty” with no outside influence.

“The crackdown on ARSA’s outpost on No Man’s Land is merely an internal issue within our community,” he wrote. “No outsiders took part in it with our soldiers in that incident.”

Rohingya leaders elsewhere were disturbed at the idea that the recent attacks on the NML camp – especially the one in January that led to its destruction – could be the product of a concerted, joint campaign between Myanmar and Bangladesh. 

“It is very hard to believe this. I always say that Bangladesh is our longtime loyal friend,” said Dr Ambia Parveen, chairwoman of the European Rohingya Council advocacy group. “I am very much sure they have been brainwashed by Myanmar to take this action but I must say that Bangladesh should then also be held accountable.” 

Bangladesh has advocated for the international community to pressure Myanmar to allow the refugees to return to their homes in Rakhine. To that effect, Bangladesh has backed initiatives against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Mike Becker, a former ICJ lawyer and current assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, said the attacks in No Man’s Land could also pull in the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) under the UN Human Rights Council. 

“It seems likely that alleged crimes taking place along the border that may involve the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] in some way, even in disputed territory, would also fall within the IIMM’s mandate,” Becker said. 

Becker also added that such cooperation between the two militaries may perpetuate the military regime’s hold on power and makes it “hard to see net positives for the Rohingya.”

Aung Kyaw Moe, advisor at the Ministry of Human Rights of the parallel National Unity Government of Myanmar, stressed that any operations against groups such as ARSA should not “compromise international norms”.

At the same time, he said armed organisations should stay out of refugee camps, lest they put the residents in danger. 

“If anyone is fighting against the Myanmar military or whoever they need to be in a place where they can fight,” Aung Kyaw Moe said. “By being in No Man’s Land, they can’t fight. It’s not a place to be fighting. It’s a place for people to survive.”

Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary maker. 

Read more articles