Militants sheltering in the Chattogram Hill Tracts is nothing new, but their recently unearthed link to separatists has become a matter of concern, which observers think can spell bigger danger.
They think the government must act cautiously now because the militant-separatist link will put national and regional security at risk.
In an investigation into a group of youths going “missing”, the Rapid Action Battalion or RAB recently revealed the formation of new Islamist outfit Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya by former members of banned militant groups.
The RAB said some separatist groups in the hill tracts were harbouring the new militant outfit whose members were taking combat and bomb-making training in the hills.
One of the militant groups whose former members formed the new outfit is Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami or HuJI, according to the RAB.
Media had reported HuJI presence in the hill tracts a long time ago. One of the primary goals of HuJI in Bangladesh was to fight for the Rohingya Muslim people of Myanmar. In the 1990s, HuJI cooperated with two separatist groups of the Rohingya - Rohingya Solidarity Organisation or RSO and the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation or ARNO.
According to entries in the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a joint operation by police, the then Bangladesh Rifles or BDR and Bangladesh Army recovered a massive amount of weapons from Bandarban’s Naikkhyangchhari in 2003.
According to the 2005 assessment of the portal, the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh was also notably active in the region. It was suspected that they were trying to collect weapons from Rohingya rebels.
Writer and Journalist Shahriar Kabir, president of Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee, has studied extremism in Bangladesh for some time.
He says the Jamaat-e-Islami and its associate organisations have a very strong network in the hilly regions. They have been freely moving in the region since the Bengali people established settlements there.
“The Bengali people and those from hill tribes are in conflict in the region. The Bengali population in the hills contain religious extremists. The law enforcers are often accused of violating human rights there,” said Shahriar.
“All things considered, the situation there is very complicated. And the addition of religious extremists joining up with the separatists from the hills indicates something menacing. The government must keep the area under strict watch.”
“Also some Rohingya clans have been planning to create an independent country with the Chattogram Hill Tracts and a portion of Arakan for some time. I came to know about this through one of their publications in 2004,” he said.
“We can’t take this lightly. It is linked to Bangladesh’s national security and South Asia’s regional security.”
Shah Md Habibullah, the imam of a mosque in Cumilla who was arrested with some of the runaway youths, had been running a madrasa in Naikkhyangchhari for two years, the RAB said.
They also dug up information on several other separatist bases sheltering and training militants there.
The RAB did not reveal the names of the seperatist groups sheltering Islamist militants, but some believe the Kuki-Chin National Front or KNF, also known as the Bawm Party, is involved with the Islamist militants. The new seperatist group turned heads after claiming a murder in June on their Facebook page.
Md Nur Khan Liton, executive director of Ain O Salish Kendra, keeps tabs on the movement and activities of extremist groups in Bangladesh. “We’ve been hearing about an armed Bawm Party, several other local groups and some more armed separatists from India and Myanmar sheltering in the Chattogram Hill Tracts. If militants are linked with this, we have sufficient reasons to consider our security threatened.”
“I am yet to receive any intel from any neutral source supporting the idea that militants are in contact with separatists in the hills.”
“However, extremists historically roam those areas. Before this, HuJI members were arrested along with Rohingya terrorists in combined operations with a lot of weapons. The Rohingya and HuJI militants faced charges in the same case.”
Shafqat Munir, the head of the Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research at BIPSS, is also taking note of the course of events unfolding in the hill tracts and thinks the security of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border region is vulnerable right now. He said the union of the hill separatists and militants is “undoubtedly extremely worrying”.
“We need to review the situation with importance and uproot the new militant organisation before they become a greater threat to our security.
A combined task force of different security and law-enforcing agencies are conducting raids and operations to capture the militants and separatists, RAB spokesperson Commander Khandaker Al Moin said.
[Writing in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo; editing by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]