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Sri Lanka and Bangladesh’s role in combatting maritime threats

By Jubeda Chowdhury 

The Bay of Bengal, the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean, is of great political, economic, and cultural importance to its coastal countries of Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia. With maritime trade, fishing, and tourism being the region’s most significant economic activities, it faces a variety of maritime security issues, including illicit trade, piracy, armed robbery, and illegal fishing. 

Incidents of human trafficking after the influx of the Rohingya refugees’ influx to Bangladesh from Myanmar in 2017, piracy, and attacking seamen at the cargo and fishing trawlers and engine boats on the seaway are increasing day-by-day. Crews, boatmen, fishermen, and owners of cargo trawlers and engine boats are not safe in the Bay of Bengal as the pirates attack them at the offshore areas on the sea. Particularly, the fishermen cannot go to the sea due to rampant incidents of attacks of pirates on the fishermen. Fishermen of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar are now suffering a lot. In this situation, the role and involvement of law enforcement agencies are needed here to combat this maritime security threat. 

On the other hand, the US declared an “Indo-Pacific strategy” to combat traditional and non-traditional security threats in the strategic Bay of Bengal. Combating piracy and human trafficking is one of the main goals of the US IPS strategy. Regional countries such as the US, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, and members of BIMSTEC countries can work together to deal with the maritime problems. Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies such as the coast guard, navy, special elite force RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) can work together with other regional stakeholders in this regard. RAB has been playing a key role in this regard. 

For example, RAB-15 arrested six pirates in a raid on the Maheshkhali channel in the Bay of Bengal recently. Weapons and ammunition were recovered from them at that time. At a press briefing in the Khurushkul Ghat area around 1 p.m. on Friday (14), RAB Commander Khairul Islam Sarkar confirmed the operation. However, the identities of the captured pirates were not immediately known. The RAB Commander said that for a long time, the pirates had been carrying out various misdeeds including boat robbery, the beating of fishermen, looting, and kidnapping of fishermen at sea. On the basis of such allegations, they carry out intelligence activities in the sea on the Maheshkhali channel. Later on, Friday night from 9:30 p.m. to 12 a.m., the operation was able to arrest the pirates. At that time, they had three guns and 11 rounds of ammunition. “We have started operations against pirates in the coast as well as in the sea. We will continue this campaign,” he added. The RAB Commander also stated that the detainees were involved in piracy on the basis of interrogation and action would be taken against their godfathers. 

According to media reports, RAB has arrested 10 pirates following a drive in the Bay of Bengal in Cox’s Bazar, discovering six arms and 37 round ammunition, which were seized in 2018. Three women were kidnapped by pirates. They were arrested from the deep sea early yesterday (17) morning. The arrested pirates are said to be members of three forces. 

The pirates were robbing two fishing trawlers in the deep sea at around 12 p.m. on Sunday (16). After the robbery, the pirates kidnapped three middle-aged men in the trawler. After getting complaints from other fishermen, RAB launched operations in the sea. RAB was rescued at one stage and rescued three women. 10 pirates were arrested in the meantime. 

A RAB team seized huge Yaba tablets in the Bay of Bengal on 14 March 2016, while being smuggled to Bangladesh from Burma by the sea route. Members of RAB-15 have seized a large consignment of 1.3 million yachts smuggled from Myanmar to Cox’s Bazar in 2020. 

According to media reports, pirates have shifted their attention to the deep sea from the Sundarbans as the RAB continues its raids and vigilance in the mangrove forest. Pirates regularly rob fishermen, kidnap them for ransom and even kill them. 

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government is going to strengthen vigilance on its water territory especially on the coastal areas and outer anchorage of Chittagong Port with a view to check all sorts of piracy. The concerned authorities including RAB, BN, BCG and WTMC, and Bangladesh Cargo Trawlers Owners’ Association are taking special security measures to resist piracy on the Bay of Bengal. 

RAB can play a key role in this regard, as they have training from the US and have modern sophisticated technologies. Basically, they have been playing their role in combatting this maritime threat. Thus, they can work with other stakeholders in this regard. Those who are still involved in piracy, the RAB rehabilitates them if they surrender. But the RAB won’t spare them if the piracy doesn’t end. The RAB would do whatever necessary to suppress the pirates. 

Despite having many challenges, all regional actors should make immense progress on improving coastal welfare, developing the blue economy, building capable maritime enforcement entities, and strengthening mechanisms for international and regional maritime cooperation. 

Maritime security and countering terrorism and other crimes in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal have emerged as a focus area for India as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy and the doctrine of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). 

The main task of this alliance will be to maintain security in the sea area and stop human trafficking and smuggling. The members of the alliance will also work on providing mutual humanitarian assistance. To this end, they will provide mutual training to their navies and coast guards for the next year. Member states will conduct naval exercises that would be a milestone for the IOR. 

Sri Lanka has also faced an increase in heroin use within the country, as well as becoming a transit country for trafficking destined for other places. Much of the heroin entering Sri Lanka arrives on fishing boats or by air, often coming through India or Pakistan. The number of seizures that Sri Lankan authorities have conducted remains relatively small, meaning that the data collected is not always reliable. Smugglers in Sri Lanka have come from a variety of countries, including Pakistan, India, Iran, and the Maldives.

While India also suffers from petty theft and attempts at armed robbery on board ships at anchor near busy ports, the main threat arises out of the maritime dimension of terrorism, especially landing of terrorists as well as of arms and explosives. These are also linked with drug trafficking. The shallow waters and creeks of the Gujarat coast, especially of the Kutch region, now under immediate surveillance of the maritime wing of the Border Security Force (BSF), as well as the seacoasts of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are the sensitive areas and under constant surveillance of the navy and the coast guard.

Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India face piracy, illegal fishing, and human trafficking in the Bay of Bengal. Although the Bangladeshi navy and the coast guard are very active in the region, the perpetrators are very clever. The Rohingya crisis worsened the situation. Various gangs are involved in human trafficking. Bangladeshis are trafficked to Malaysia, Thailand, and North Africa to Greece and Italy (Europe) through the marine route via the Mediterranean Sea. The role of Bangladesh RAB is very positive here. It has been working to combat this maritime threat in the strategic Bay of Bengal. The US, India, Sri Lanka have the same policies in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. 

Thus, the authorities of the US, India, Sri Lanka can and should work with Bangladesh law enforcement agencies such as RAB in combatting this maritime threat. So, recent US sanctions on RAB are very inappropriate. The US and India should understand that RAB is on the security guarantee in the region including the Bay of Bengal. The US should lift its ban on RAB. The RAB’s role in combatting human trafficking, illegal drug trafficking is huge. Tom Kelly said Bangladesh has a special role to play in the security of the Bay of Bengal due to its location in an important region. The US is hopeful that Bangladesh will continue to support maritime security. He said uninterrupted navigation in the Bay of Bengal is essential not only for Bangladesh but also for the countries of the region.

In response to a question on the security of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh’s Minister of Finance Mustafa Kamal said that there is no piracy in the economic zone of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. However, there is a need to increase the capacity of the navy and coast guard to ensure security in large maritime areas.

“A better defense relationship is needed in the interests of both countries,” said Tom Kelly. “We will continue to work together for the common goal of stability, peace and prosperity in the region,” said David Cook, chief of The Christian Science Monitor’s Washington bureau. The US is interested in co-operating in counterterrorism, maritime security and peacekeeping operations. However, the US, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India can and should work together in combatting this maritime threat. The US has pledged continued support to Bangladesh to play an important role in ensuring security in the Bay of Bengal in 2014. 

Tom Kelly, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the US State Department’s Political and Military Affairs, told reporters after the third Bangladesh-US security dialogue in Dhaka, that not only Bangladesh, but countries such as India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and all states across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal face the same problems, and that regional co-operation is much needed. 

(The writer is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Dhaka. This article was first published by Eurasia Review on 2 January 2022)

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.