Fishing has been good this year, said Muhammad Illyas, letting his oar rest as the small wooden boat caught the tidal current of the Naaf estuary, drawing it gently towards Bangladesh. “I caught some great ilish here just the other day”. Light had begun to break and the far shore had receded enough to make it possible to imagine the soft grey cloud rising from the forests around the remote village of Nakphura was mist, not smoke from burning homes.
The thing is,” the boatman went on, “I just can’t eat fish anymore.” “Every day, you see bodies floating down the river, and I know what they’ve been feeding on.” Fisherman, small-time smuggler, and – though he won’t discuss it – sometime trafficker of metamphetamine pills, Illyas is also an unlikely hero. For between Taka 2,000 and Taka 5,000 a ride (100 Bangladeshi Taka is Rs 78), men like him have made the dangerous journey across the Naaf in their small craft, risking arrest by border forces on either side to bring refugees to safety.
Illyas has a worm’s eye view of what is emerging as a security nightmare for Bangladesh, India and the wider region: the emergence of an Islamist insurgency in Myanmar’s jungles that could turn the country’s Rakhine region into a magnet for the global jihadist movement. The only sound in the darkness was the squelch of Illyas’s feet against sodden clay, as he dragged the boat on to the shore at a landing an hour’s walk from Nakphura. The broker who had hired him had brought three women, two infants and an elderly man. There were some whispers, an exchange of cash, and the boat slid back into the Naaf again.
“The Myanmar border guards don’t come near the shore at night”, Illyas said. “Perhaps they’re scared or they’re drunk, who knows?”. Salma, one of the women, said she hadn’t eaten for three days, as she had trekked through the forest where she had hidden with her baby Hasina after the August 25 attacks by Harakah al-Yakin (aka Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) jihadists on a bridge near Sikonchhori, 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion’s base.
“The soldiers came and started burning houses down, saying we had fed al-Yakin”, she says. “When people started fleeing, the soldiers opened fire. I saw my father-in-law and mother-in-law, who could not run fast, die”. Nur Hashim, Salma’s husband, is fighting in the hills with al-Yakin, she says, pride in her voice. “The Burmese treated us worse than animals so we have no choice but to fight. All the young men in our village are fighting now, except the ones who are too weak”.
Azizullah, Sanjida’s spouse, went with al-Yakin, also: “They arrived to our village asking the younger men to affix them after the Myanmar army attacked it. He could remain and die, he believed, or he could battle and die”. Driving the sheer brutality of Myanmar’s crackdown lies geopolitics.
Faultlines of Geopolitics China has setup a gasoline and oil pipeline working in the Rakhine port of Sittwe to Kunming. Beijing has backed Myanmar’s savage crackdown hoping it’s going to deliver stability to the region vital for China’s electricity safety.India, for its part, is working on the Kaladan transport project, linking Sittwe to Kolkata. New Delhi has also turned a blind eye to Myanmar’s crackdown, fearing the country might otherwise again grant safe havens to North-East insurgents.
Even Bangladesh was building a four-lane highway running from Chittagong to Sittwe. “Friendship road”, reads the signboard marking the path of the road – now covered over by refugees’ ramshackle tents.
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