Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials held a meeting after a sudden military buildup on the border that started on March 1, 2018. Photo: Courtesy Faisal Mahmud

Myanmar’s increased troop deployment on a strip of land on its border with Bangladesh has once again raised questions about its commitment to repatriating Rohingya refugees.

The so-called no-man’s land near the Tambru border point where Myanmar started a military buildup last Thursday is home to makeshift camps housing some 6,000 Rohingya refugees.

This strip of land is officially designated as Myanmar territory but is widely referred to as “no man’s land.” After the sudden increase in Myanmar’s military presence in the zone, Bangladesh responded by quickly moving more of its own troops to the area. The Border Guard of Bangladesh (BGB) said it had mobilized an extra contingent to increase its presence along the border to “face any circumstances.”

On the diplomatic front, the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry summoned Myanmar’s ambassador in Dhaka, Lwin Oo, and protested the troop deployment.

Meanwhile, panic quickly spread among the Rohingya refugees camped in the no man’s land. They were among the first to flee Myanmar when the violence erupted last year and set up shelters in that strip of land in the weeks before Bangladesh agreed to let Rohingya into the country.

Didarul Alam, a Rohingya refugee who has taken shelter there, said the Myanmar military had fired a few blank shots and used loudspeakers to order the refugees to leave the area. “Fearing for our lives, we left the place and entered Bangladesh,” Alam said, adding that many of the refugees had fled the scene.

Abdul Khalek, another refugee residing in the no-man’s land, told Asia Times that the Rohingya were frightened to see the increased presence of troops at the border. “We don’t want to go back into Myanmar because we don’t trust the Myanmar army. They don’t keep their word,” he said.

Border meeting

After the sudden deployment of troops and with tensions escalating, the BGB called for a meeting with its counterpart at the border. Myanmar’s Border Guard Police agreed, and met with the BGB at Ghumdhum Border Observation Post in Naikhyangchhari Upazila, in Bangladesh’s Bandarban district, on Friday.

After a two-hour meeting, Lieutenant-Colonel Manjurul Ahsan Khan, commanding officer of BGB Battalion 34 in the district, told Bangladeshi media that Myanmar had deployed the troops for its “its own internal security reasons.” Khan termed the meeting “fruitful” and said Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials had agreed to cooperate in resolving any crisis at the border.

Even though the meeting between the two countries’ border-security forces ended on a good note, Myanmar is yet to remove its troops from the border.

Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse reported that Myanmar had defended its troop deployment by calling it an “anti-terrorism operation.”

“We acted this way based on the information we got regarding terrorism, especially the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army movement,” Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the Myanmar government, told AFP. “It was not aimed at antagonizing Bangladesh.”

Repatriation process in jeopardy?

Speaking with Asia Times, international-relations expert Dr Delwar Hossain said, “If Myanmar has any honest intentions of taking back the Rohingya refugees, it wouldn’t have done anything like this.”

Hossain, who is the director of the East Asia Study Center at Dhaka University, said: “These refugees have seen the Myanmar army killing their families and burning their homes. An increased presence and display of military might surely wouldn’t help the cause of repatriation.

“I believe Myanmar [did] that to push back these refugees into mainland Bangladesh, and by doing that they are dishonoring the repatriation deal.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar finalized a two-year Rohingya-repatriation deal on January 15, agreeing to return 1,500 refugees per week. The deal was set up to complete the repatriation within two years from the commencement of the repatriation. However, on February 21, hundreds of Rohingya refugees in the no-man’s land protested against their repatriation to Rakhine state, saying they would not return without guarantees for their safety.

The demonstration took place a day after Bangladesh and Myanmar officials met in a Rakhine village and agreed in principle to resettle the refugees stranded along the border.

Dil Mohammed, a leader among the people who have been staying in the no-man’s land, told Reuters that a meeting with community leaders promised by Myanmar officials had not materialized, and confirmed that several hundred families had moved into Bangladesh since February 20.

“We are in constant fear. We are not going to the camps,” he said, referring to temporary camps Myanmar has established to house possible returnees.

“There’s no guarantee for life. We need security and all basic rights including citizenship like other communities are granted by the Myanmar government,” Dil Mohammed told Reuters.

In a written communication to Asia Times, Vivian Tan, senior regional communications officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that to ensure the right of refugees to return voluntarily, and in safety and in dignity, the UNHCR had called on Myanmar “to allow the necessary unhindered humanitarian access in Rakhine state and to create conditions for a genuine and lasting solution.”

Tan said: “Refugees need to be properly informed and consulted about such conditions in order for returns to be safe, voluntary and sustainable. UNHCR currently considers that the necessary safeguards for potential returnees are absent.”

She said there were continued restrictions on access in Myanmar for aid agencies, the media and other independent observers. At the same time, refugees from Rakhine state continue to arrive in Bangladesh.

While some observers say that Bangladesh may have given refuge to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militants in the camps, any escalation by the Myanmar military will only lead to more tensions with Bangladesh, which has given refuge to the bulk of the Rohingya refugees. If the repatriation process fails, this is likely to put enormous pressure on Bangladesh in an election year.

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