Bangladesh, Myanmar exchange prisoners amidst Rakhine strife

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Bangladesh, Myanmar exchange prisoners amidst Rakhine strife

Bangladesh and Myanmar exchanged hundreds of their citizens from custody over two days this week, following a deal reached between the two countries. Bangladesh repatriated 288 members of Myanmar’s Border Guard Police and other security agencies on Thursday, after Myanmar on Wednesday released 173 Bangladeshi nationals, mostly fishermen.

Officials of the Bangladesh border security agency Border Guard Bangladesh said a Myanmar navy ship, the Chin Dwin, left Cox’s Bazar port early Thursday morning with the Myanmar police and immigration officials on board. The same ship brought the freed 173 Bangladeshi fishermen the previous day.

The Myanmar security personnel fled the fighting last month in the province of Rakhine between Myanmar’s military and rebel Arakan Army and took shelter in Bangladesh. This was the second such incident of Myanmar border police and officials escaping to Bangladesh in as many months.

The Myanmar province of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh, has been the site of heavy fighting between the rebels and Yangon’s forces since October. While the Arakan Army is mostly ethnic Rakhine, the Muslim Rohingyas have borne the brunt of the Myanmar military’s actions over the past few decades. Over a million Rohingyas who fled atrocities by the military in 2017 are currently living in makeshift shelters in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.

In February, 330 Myanmar police and officials were repatriated but nothing was sought in return. This time, officials said the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry took the initiative to take back their nationals who had either served their prison terms or were still in jail.

FILE – Members of Myanmar Border Guard Police, in civilian clothing, sit under the shade of trees after abandoning their posts following fighting between Myanmar security forces and Arakan Army as Bangladesh border guards stand guard in Bangladesh, Feb. 5, 2024.

Despite the apparent success of the negotiations, analysts in Dhaka see this as a lost opportunity rather than a triumph. Long-term Myanmar watcher and defense analyst Mohammad Emdadul Islam called it an “empty gesture” and said the fishermen would have been released at some point anyway.

“If Myanmar had taken back 20,000 Rohingyas in return for the repatriation of their officials, then I would’ve seen it as a positive outcome,” said Islam, who served as the head of mission at the Bangladesh Consulate in Sittwe, Rakhine, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Islam, a retired Army major, negotiated the release of 1,100 Bangladeshi fishermen from Myanmar prisons while serving at the consulate in 2001. He said the fishermen stray into Myanmar waters either because their boats have poor navigation equipment or they take a chance to illegally fish there.

Myanmar naval forces often intercept them and hand them to the courts, which sentence them to up to 12 years in jail — five for illegal fishing and seven for illegal entry.

Bangladesh’s decision to promptly repatriate the Myanmar officials has also been the subject of debate among international human rights groups that campaign for the rights of the Rohingya people.

One such group, Fortify Rights, urged Bangladesh in February to investigate the Myanmar security personnel seeking refuge for potential involvement in atrocities against the Rohingyas. The group’s CEO, Matthew Smith, told Dhaka’s New Age newspaper that while it was important for Bangladesh to provide aid and protection to the fleeing officials, their past actions needed to be questioned.

“These border guards might have information that could help hold perpetrators accountable for the Rohingya genocide and other crimes unfolding in Myanmar, and they should be properly investigated,” Smith said.

Bangladeshi officials emphasize their desire to keep the border calm and not confront Myanmar. “[The border police] have been given shelter on humanitarian grounds and we are working to ensure their safe return,” Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud told reporters in the southern city of Chattogram on Wednesday.

Analysts agree that Bangladesh does not want to get into a direct conflict with Myanmar, but other factors make an investigation of sheltered officials difficult.

“The atrocities against the Rohingyas in 2017 were committed by special brigades of the Myanmar army,” Islam told VOA. “These brigades are no longer deployed in the area. Besides, the officials and police who are coming across the border are not part of the regular army. They are mostly border police, intelligence, customs and immigration officials.”

Hasan Mahmud told reporters that what was happening in Rakhine was “Myanmar’s internal affairs,” even though it often spilled across the border in the form of stray artillery shells or fleeing officials. He said the Bangladeshi government, working closely with various countries, especially the United States, China and India, is putting pressure on Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas living in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, Islam is concerned about the impact recent developments in Rakhine may have among the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. He said the Myanmar military has, in recent months, started recruiting Rohingyas to fight against the Arakan Army.

“How will the Rohingyas living in Bangladesh react when they see their relatives and friends back home joining the Myanmar army, and how will authorities in Bangladesh tackle the reaction? This could be a big challenge,” Islam said.

In March 2022, the U.S. recognized the atrocities committed against the Rohingya population as a genocide.

This story originated in VOA’s Bangla Service.

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