Arms Trafficking Through Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Rohingya Refugees
Rohingya refugees rest in a police station before being returned to the camps in Coxs Bazar on May 15, 2019. Photo by SUZAUDDIN RUBEL/AFP via Getty Images.

Trade in illicit arms in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, has been reported since the mid-1990s and continues today as regional instability is exacerbated by massive refugee displacement. Approximately 900,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have settled in Cox’s Bazar since 2017. They are barred from official employment, receiving public services, and obtaining citizenship in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. Horrific conditions in refugee camps have led to economic exploitation by criminal organizations; some displaced Rohingya participate in illicit trades for lack of alternative livelihood opportunities.

Increasing numbers of refugees are known to have participated in smuggling “yaba” pills (methamphetamine), but few reports indicate that refugees contribute to the small-arms trade. Law enforcement agencies in Cox’s Bazar have arrested some Rohingya arms traders since 2017, but evidence indicates that drug smuggling far outpaces trade in arms. The illegal arms trade in Cox’s Bazar and the neighboring region, Chittagong, however, has existed since long before Rohingya refugees arrived and continues today outside of the camps.

Cox’s Bazar provides a strategic route for arms smugglers to use to reach Indian and Nepali buyers. Rather than traversing difficult mountain ranges in northern Myanmar, smugglers can use the more direct route into eastern India and Nepal offered by Cox’s Bazar. India’s United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an insurgent group seeking independence from India buys arms from China and smuggles them through Bangladeshi ports and overland to India. Locally produced weapons also meet the demand for illicit arms.

Cox’s Bazar also serves as a market. Local buyers from Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong, and Moheshkhali include left- and right-wing extremists, Islamist terrorist organizations, criminal organizations, political cadres, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts insurgents. However, some reports and surveys indicate that non-violent students and locals purchase small arms for personal protection due to their distrust of local authorities. Small clandestine shops and factories on Moheshkhali Island produce cheap weapons for local buyers. Craftsmen from six local gangs use local wood and low-quality metals to build large quantities of long single and double-barreled rifles, handguns, pipe guns, and shutter guns. The low-quality materials greatly reduce the weapon’s lifespan and durability, and ensure constant demand for further production and sales.

Bangladeshi Government Committed to Eradicating This Practice

The Bangladeshi government has demonstrated a commitment to eradicating this practice. In 2005, Bangladesh signed the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. In May 1995, a joint India-Myanmar counterinsurgency operation, titled Operation Golden Bird, intercepted units of ULFA, People’s Liberation Army, and the All Tripura Tiger Force transporting illicit arms from Cox’s Bazar to India’s Nagaland region. The Bangladesh Navy has countered and seized arms-trade operations that enlist local fishing trawlers for concealed access to the ports. The Rapid Action Battalion of Bangladesh estimates that between 2009 and 2010, a total of 2,821 small arms and light weapons were confiscated. Despite increased security efforts from Bangladeshi and Indian maritime and ground enforcement agencies, arms trade through Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong persists and further threatens stability and security in the region.

With no clear end to Rohingya displacement in sight, illicit trafficking through Cox’s Bazar and critical maritime routes likely will continue. Drug and human trafficking through the area appear to be more prominent, but actors could easily adapt these routes and networks for arms trafficking. Many risk factors leave the region vulnerable to a potential increase in arms trafficking. Lack of employment opportunities for the displaced ensures continued economic disparity and participation in illicit trades that can expand to arms trading. The armed groups in adjacent areas of India, Nepal, and Myanmar serve as predictable customers that can increase demand for illicit arms and exploit maritime routes to receive them. Bangladesh and Myanmar both posses inadequate vessel capacity and maritime domain awareness that hinders authorities from tracking, countering, and stopping maritime illicit trade routes. Disrupting necessary ship-to-ship transfers outside of congested Bangladeshi ports would require increased enforcement capacity. These factors could facilitate the increase in maritime arms trafficking in the area and further complicate maritime security in the Bay of Bengal.