“The “No Man’s Land” Rohingya encampment was engulfed in flames on January 18th. Refugees witnessed the deadly chaos unfold starting at 6am and lasting beyond sunset. They captured footage on their smartphones. The videos depicted billowing smoke and raging flames, as well as refugees frantically running away with their possessions, accompanied by the constant sound of gunfire. Another video depicts five bodies wrapped in white kaffan sheets being placed in five graves that were being prepared in the dark. The refugees attributed the violence to Bangladesh’s security forces and to fighting between two bitter rivals, Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) and Rohingya Arakan Salvation Army (ARSA).
The last time so many rounds of bullets were fired in No Man’s Land was two months ago in mid-November. This raises several questions, such as whether the prior operations of Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies in this restricted area could have played a role in this recent episode of violence or if it could have been a rehearsal.
What occurred in November? From early morning of November 15th 2022, Bangladeshi media was publishing news of the death of a Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) man in the Tombru/Konapara border encampment. Indeed the report from every type of news outlet was uniform, and the narrative ran thus: a DGFI official was killed in a shootout with drug smugglers in the No Man’s Land encampment. A RAB official was also injured. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan was more circumspect and stated that the reason and circumstances behind the drug traffickers shooting at a DGFI officer at the Tombru border in Bandarban would be investigated and disclosed.
It has been two months since the November incident, and limited information has been revealed or disclosed. Ataullah Abu Amar Jununi of ARSA and 66 others, many of whom were inhabitants of the No Man’s Land encampment, were charged with murder, causing severe harm, and hindering a public servant from carrying out their duties, ten days after the event. Furthermore, it has been reportedthat Lieutenant Colonel Khairul Islam Sarkar, who served as the commanding officer of Cox’s Bazar RAB-15 and was the local field commander during the incident, has been transferred to the army.
At the time, the country’s media outlets neglected to raise any significant inquiries about the situation. They simply parroted the official narrative of a drive against “drug peddlers.” Yet the “No Man’s Land” zone has very specific border management regulations in place. Only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provides assistance to the refugees, and only Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) is able to access the area, not regular law enforcement forces. Bangladesh treats the Rohingya living in “No Man’s Land” differently, and does not provide them with “Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals” biometric cards, unlike those Rohingya living in Bangladesh proper.
Bangladesh is also well aware that Myanmar disputes this area as falling into No Man’s Land. Indeed, Myanmar claims the area to be legitimately part of Myanmar and that with erosion the border markers have become lost. In 2018, Myanmar formally requested that Bangladesh halt providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees via the ICRC and proposed to arrange for the supply of assistance from Myanmar’s side. A Myanmar minister had also previously warned Rohingya refugees that they would face consequences if they did not accept Myanmar’s offer to return to Myanmar or vacate the area.
The “No Man’s Land” encampment has always been a place fraught with political tension and sensitivity. Myanmar government has claimed in the past that the Taung Pyo (Tambru) community supports ARSA and poses a security threat. They have stated this at press conferences and meetings with Bangladesh’s border guard forces, and have even accused Bangladesh of training ARSA.
In 2018, the writer joined Lt. Colonel Monzurul Hasan Khan, the then Commanding Officer of the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in that area, in the No Man’s Land zone. The officer explained that the Bangladesh army is not permitted to enter this area, and that he himself must have a flag bearer with a raised flag to announce his visit to the Myanmar side.
Given all of the above, No Man’s Land is not a typical location by any stretch of the imagination. It is puzzling then how a full-scale battle involving armed RAB officers and drug smugglers could be considered acceptable under the “border management regulations” pertaining in the area. It appears highly improbable that the RAB had authorisation to conduct an operation in this location. Indeed, Security strategist retired Major General Md Nayeem Ashfaque Chowdhury said as much in a report by New Age. Chowdhury is quoted as saying “As long as it is along the border, it falls under the jurisdiction of the BGB.” The reason behind the November incident is unclear, but all the indications suggest that it was not a pre-planned anti-drugs drive.
So what was it? According to one narrative, RAB and DGFI entered the area to apprehend an individual named Babul, who had reportedly had a previous altercation with the forces. When Babul escaped over the barbed wire fence, the community attempted to rescue another individual named Jamal Hussein, which prompted the firing to start. Audio and video recordings show that thousands of gunshots were fired during the incident. No Man’s Land Rohingya community leader Dil Mohammed (one of the 66 accused) claims that the firing was started by the Bangladesh forces, and Myanmar’s BGP returned fire. This led to the death of Squadron Leader Rizwan Rushdee. The official and counter narrative is that the officer was killed by firing from ARSA.
Should the clearing of the No Man’s Land camp be investigated as a potential crime against humanity by the IIMM & ICC? If refugees were forced to move, it mirrors the actions of Myanmar’s security forces, warranting inquiry into crimes such as deportation. https://t.co/QNDLxpXPb9 pic.twitter.com/FnMLK4qKoo
— Shafiur Rahman (@shafiur) January 31, 2023
Whatever it was, it was a botched operation. International protocol had been breached. There was excessive use of force. An officer was killed and another injured. Rizwan Rushdee however was not the only person killed. The Bangladeshi media has not reported, in any detail, on the death of a Rohingya teenage girl, Sajeda Begum, who had given birth three days before. She was shot just above the hip by a stray bullet at around 7.30pm whilst she was inside her shelter. Within minutes, her husband, Farid Alam, and others had managed to get her on a CNG to transport her to a local hospital. They had not travelled any distance before they were stopped by RAB. Another two injured individuals had earlier been prevented from travelling to a clinic by RAB. Farid Alam recounted a dire situation in which he begged the RAB officers to allow them to proceed. The RAB officers refused, and even threatened them. Farid brought his wife back to their home, where she passed away 12 minutes later due to excessive blood loss. Last week, Sajeda’s baby of less than two months also passed away.
Two months on, the entire set up in No Man’s Land has been rethought. For the government, there is no point in denying ARSA’s presence in the area anymore. Bangladesh now seeks to change the dynamics for good. The Konapara settlement, which had served multiple purposes for Bangladesh, has outlived its usefulness. The name “ARSA” is now widespread in official language, particularly in connection with criminal activities, following the murder of Rohingya leader, Mohibullah. Ataullah, the leader of ARSA, is frequently named in charge sheets when once he and his outfit were all but ghosts.
Despite the government’s change in narrative, portraying ARSA as a dangerous and violent group, the question of how to effectively eliminate the group from the area remained. In this context, the events of November taught a questionable lesson: using one Rohingya militant group to fight against another in order to carry out Bangladesh’s plans. Bangladesh could not risk becoming implicated in the situation again. Therefore, it is not surprising that many residents of “No Man’s Land” believe that while the January 18th attack was carried out by RSO, it must have had the approval of those in power. It is unimaginable to them that an operation of such magnitude and duration could have been accomplished without the complete collaboration of Bangladesh’s forces.
Whatever the lessons that have been learned, one principle that has not been fully embraced is the importance of human rights in all border governance measures. This is a core recommendation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The tragic killing of an innocent teenage mother in November, the numerous deaths and injuries in January, and the apparent authorisation of one insurgent force to attack another, all suggest that human rights are not being given the priority they deserve.
Questions could also be asked about whether the clearing of the camp in No Man’s Land should fall within the criminal investigations being undertaken by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Any intentional action taken to force the refugees in that camp to move is concerningly reminiscent of the conduct by Myanmar’s security forces which caused them to flee there in the first place and could surely warrant investigations as possible crimes against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer.
Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He has been focussed on Rohingya since 2016 and has written extensively about them.