Armed forces of Myanmar are building bunkers and installing barbed wire on fences near the Tambru border, raising serious concerns from the locals and the Rohingya refugees
The Myanmar army is ignoring the international code of conduct for border regions by building bunkers in the Taung Pyo Letwe area under Maungdaw township of Rakhine state.
The Myanmar forces have also been reinforcing border fences with barbed wire, raising the concerns of the people living in the region who include over 5,000 Rohingyas holed up in the no man’s land along the Tambru-Konarpara border.
The Myanmar armed forces briefly ceased its activities at the shared border following a flag meeting between the officials of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Myanmar’s Border Guard Police (BGP) on March 2.
However, BGB sources and Rohingyas living in the area confirmed that forces from the neighbouring country had already resumed the military build-up.
Visiting a number of areas in Bangladesh near the Myanmar border, the Dhaka Tribune found evidence of such activities by Myanmar forces.
Troop’s movement increased in the border area
On Wednesday morning, armed soldiers of Myanmar were seen standing very close to the border fence and only 100 yards behind Bajipara Government Primary School under Ghumdum union of Bandarban’s Naikhongchhari upazila. The school children were playing in the playground at the time.
Mohammad Mahi, a class five student of the school, told the Dhaka Tribune that they often see several uniformed and armed soldiers in the area.
“We usually do not fear patrolling border guards of other countries but we are currently concerned over the regular presence of several types of armed soldiers on the other side of the border fence,” he said.
“We have also been hearing sound of gunshots for the past few nights.”
A teacher of the same school, seeking anonymity, said: “The Myanmar army is building bunkers on Myanmar’s hills, which are very close to the border fence. Besides, they are putting barbed-wires on the border fence, an act that we did not witness before.”
On the Myanmar side, workers flanked by its army and BGP were seen installing barbed wire on the border fences, while local farmers were seen working on their farmlands in the morning.
Villagers in Modhyompara said the Myanmar army presence was larger than that of the BGP deployment in the area, and that the army men were staying at the border all the time whereas the BGP men visited only on routine patrols.
At midday on Wednesday, a group of BGB men were seen walking and patrolling in the area near the border fences from Konarpara, over and above their routine patrol duty.
What do the Rohingya say?
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed into Bangladesh in fear of their lives since August 25, 2017, joining about 400,000 others who were already living at makeshift camps of Cox’s Bazar under squalid conditions.
Following the Myanmar Army crackdown in Rakhine state, more than 5,000 Rohingyas have been living at Tambru border, which is divided from Bangladesh by a thin canal adjacent to Tambru-Konarpara border area.
On Wednesday, Rohingyas living in this no man’s land were seen collecting aid packets from relief workers on Wednesday, despite reports of harassment by the nearby Myanmar army personnel.
“Members of the Myanmar army sit at their bunkers on the hills during the day and hurl bricks, sticks, bottles and other material at our camps to scare us so that we leave the zero point,” Jamal, a Rohingya youth, told this correspondent.
“The BGP and Myanmar Army also used to fire gunshots in the air at night, although they were not heard in last two days.”
Speaking to the correspondent, Rohingya leaders Mohammad Arif and Syed Nur said: “The Myanmar army personnel get busier at night time. Their activities make the Rohingyas living in no man’s land scared. We cannot even sleep properly at night.”
Another Rohingya man named Motaleb Mia said: “They [Myanmar forces] continue to put pressure on us. They point their guns at any person going near the border fence.”
Is there tension at the border?
By Wednesday afternoon, the Myanmar army men had left their bunkers. However, sensing the presence of Dhaka Tribune correspondent and photographer nearby, they tried to hide themselves.
A number of on-duty BGB soldiers said they had witnessed several types of uniformed Myanmar forces at the border region, where only uniformed BGP personnel are usually posted for patrolling.
A local CNG-auto rickshaw driver living in Tambru told the Dhaka Tribune: “Since the end of February, the neighbouring armed forces have been increasing their presence and building establishments near the border fence.”
Speaking to the correspondent, Rohingya leaders Mohammad Arif and Syed Nur said: “The Myanmar army personnel got busier at night time. Their activities make the Rohingyas living in no man’s land scared. We cannot even sleep properly at night.”
When asked, a number of on-duty BGB soldiers, stated: “We witnessed several types of uniformed Myanmar forces at the border region, where only uniformed BGP personnel are usually posted for patrolling.
The correspondent has also found a significant number of armed soldiers’ presence in other border areas in an alert position. Almost the same scenario as Tambru was noticed in Uttarpara, Purbopara, Ghumdum, Konarpara, Tambru, Baishpara and other bordering regions.
Too close to home
BGB sources revealed that the Myanmar forces are using the guise of maintaining border fences to increase their activities in the border region, building more bunkers and targeting the Tambru-Konarpara no man’s land where the 5,000 Rohingyas are staying.
“The Myanmar forces are engaging in such tactics to scare the displaced Myanmar nationals living in no man’s land just before the repatriation process, aiming to disrupt the move,” a BGB high up, requesting anonymity, said.
On November 23, 2017, Dhaka and Naypyidaw signed an agreement to begin the repatriation of the Rohingyas from January this year, but this process has stalled over technical and ground-level complexities.
The sources further pointed out that such provocative and threatening behaviour in the border region is not a new move for Myanmar.
Myanmar’s legislators have recently passed a military budget of nearly $15m to erect a fence along its border with Bangladesh in the Rakhine State.
This border was used by the country’s minority Rohingyas to flee the military’s state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign that is ongoing in that state.
In a statement given at the March 2 flag meeting between BGB and BGP, Myanmar claimed that their increased presence and activities in the border area are meant to protect their territory, and the move should not be viewed as an act of aggression against Bangladesh.
BGB 34 Battalion Commanding Officer Lt Col Monzurul Hassan Khan told the Dhaka Tribune the BGB was still on alert, even though the overall situation in the border areas had stabilized after the BGB-BGP meeting.