Pakistan is suspected by security analysts to be the first player to have initiated cultivating Rohingyas in a bid to abuse them for religious extremism
The entire world, last week, witnessed a flurry of activities when Myanmar State Counsellor (equivalent to a Prime Minister) and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was seen trying to defend charges of genocide and excesses on the Muslim Rohingyas triggering a flight of nearly 7,40,000 refugees to neighbouring Bangladesh in the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ). It was really an element of surprise when a relatively tiny west African country — Gambia — filed (November 11) genocide charges against Myanmar for targetting Muslim Rohingyas leading to the influx.
Seeing Nobel Peace prize winner, Suu Kyi in the courtroom, in the company of her military generals, gave a clear impression as perceived by the western countries that the generals in Myanmar are still calling the shots to ensure that Suu Kyi didn't waver. Although Suu Kyi denied any persecution against the Rohingyas arguing that the Rohingyas resorted to violence first, attacking the military but it seemed most of the world found her defence palpably faint and far from being convincing. In the meantime, 10 US Senators also criticised Su Kyi for supporting her Army, denying any excesses on their part.
This led to a series of developments in Bangladesh where the Rohingyas and the establishment expressed joy that Myanmar was now being grilled raising hopes that sooner rather than later, they will be held accountable. Incidentally, the 11-member Bangladesh delegation to the ICJ led by the Foreign Secretary also comprised a Lt Gen of the Bangladesh Army, Mohd Mahfuzur Rahman, currently working in the Armed Forces Division of the Bangladesh PMO. Bangladesh delegation provided inputs to the ICJ stressing complementarity between accountability and creation of an atmosphere conducive to sustainable repatriation.
Another fallout of the development was Canada, Gambia and the Netherlands forming a tripartite working group to oversee welfare and repatriation of the Rohingyas. Also, at a reception held in honour of the Gambian Minister for Justice, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and the UAE were seen interacting rather closely to ensure Myanmar's alienation. The fresh polarisation signals emergence of new equations and possibly due to the setting of the tone by a predominantly Sunni Muslim country like Gambia, Islamic countries' bonhomie on the Rohingyas seem to be on the rise.
In the backdrop of these developments, it perhaps becomes important to trace the immediate origin of the Rohingya crisis which eventually took humongous proportions, drawing international attention.
Pakistan is suspected by security analysts to be the first player to have initiated cultivating the Rohingyas for abusing them for religious extremism. In the wake of Tsunami catastrophe in 2004, Falah-e-Insanyiat Foundation (FIF) dispatched its Head of Foreign operations, Shahid Mahmood, who contacted the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) leadership and believed to have donated a huge sum of donations in various forms to look innocuous. The hidden agenda was possibly to start radicalising them. FIF also propagated rather massively about their donations to the Rohingyas, cleverly concealing the fact that the money was actually meant for purposes of religious publicity subsequently leading to zealots' indoctrination.
According to a senior retired Bangladeshi military intelligence official, the 2004 arms haul in Chittagong, which saw the seizure of 12 truckloads of sophisticated weapons, had a substantial share for a section of the Rohingya militants too. Several Rohingyas were occasionally seen sporting modern rifles part of the seizure. These show that arming of the Rohingyas who were vulnerable in connivance of the Pakistani operatives was already working. Many Rohingyas, according to this Bangladesh official, also participated in training programmes in Pakistan and saw action in Afghanistan against the US and NATO forces.
Later, grabbing the opportunity of the 2012-communal violence in Nayapara, Myanmar, Pakistan's ISI-commissioned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) stepped in, organising pro-Rohingya conferences in Pakistan and even facilitating a meeting with Hafiz Sayeed and his associates. Umar Farooq, a LeT operative from Karachi actively coordinated with Rohingya militants and assisted in organising attacks at number 1 Border Guard Police Post at Kotankauk and Ngakhuya in Myanmar. There is evidence of complicity of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) too in emboldening the Rohingyas to strike assaults at the Myanmarese army. Things were falling in place according to Pakistan sponsored ISI blueprint.
At the behest of LeT, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) became active and the turning point came in August 2017, when the Myanmarese army felt enough was enough and allegedly drove the Rohingyas to Bangladesh. It has been nearly two-and-a-half years since Bangladesh has been batting the 1.7 million refugee crisis. Humanitarian problems apart, the security concern remains paramount as there have been numerous reports of a large number of refugees getting radicalised on religious grounds, giving rise to extremism or injecting thoughts inspired by a jihadi mindset. Rohingyas have been indulging in countless cases of criminal offences harming national security interests.
Reverting to the recent proceedings in the ICJ, Bangladesh seems to have heaved some sigh of relief that the international community stands freshly sensitised after the Gambian initiative. In the same breath, Bangladesh should remember that notwithstanding the ICJ verdict, the process of radicalisation amongst the Rohingya refugees sheltered in different camps continues to remain vulnerable to be targeted for indoctrination. It also needs to be pointed out that countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan who have been shedding 'tears' for the Rohingyas and now showing support and solidarity with Gambia, never offered to take a single Rohingya to rehabilitate in their respective lands.
Hence, the Rohingyas will, in all probability, continue to be exploited for all the undesirable reasons. Pakistan, beleaguered by its own problems and with relations with Bangladesh at an all-time diplomatic low, would try its best to capitalise on the ICJ linked developments.
Word of caution for Bangladesh is, therefore, to remain alert and not go overboard with the Hague happenings and instead be on a sharp lookout for any sinister designs perpetrated by Pakistan to dampen the stability in the region.
Shantanu Mukharji is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are strictly personal