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Bangladesh should tread cautiously in resolving growing border tensions with Myanmar, step up diplomacy

In a broadcast on Wednesday, Bangladesh Army Chief General S M Shafiuddin Ahmed stated that his troops were prepared to respond against Myanmarese provocations if necessary.

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Bangladesh-Myanmar border(Photo: Twitter)

Tens of thousands of Rohingya people fled from Myanmar a few years ago in fear of their lives, but recently the Myanmar army has had to face strong resistance from other independence-seeking rebels. Along with the Arakan Army, the military is in serious conflict with the Kachin Army, and elements of the Shan, Karen, Mong, Shin and Kaya peoples.

As a result, the Tatmadaw (military) has adopted a slightly different strategy from its persecution of the Rohingya to avoid international surveillance of its suppression of the rebels. As a part of this, it has mounted a campaign on the border with Bangladesh.

Myanmar has been firing mortar shells into the area. By creating pressure, the Tatmadaw hopes the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar will go to Bangladesh or elsewhere. As well, it hopes to incite Bangladesh into joining its war on the rebels. This will further increase the persecution of Rohingya.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar army is placing landmines one after another in the border areas in violation of international norms. Earlier, Rohingya were killed by mines, but now Bangladeshis are also falling victim. The presence of the army in the border area without a declaration of war is against international norms, but Myanmar violates the norms with impunity.

The Tatmadaw has also repeatedly violated Bangladesh’s airspace. As the Myanmar junta has acted with impunity in the past, it is again showing the audacity to violate international norms.

Border tensions

However, the law and order forces of Bangladesh are on alert at the border and the situation is under observation. Bangladesh has a 271-km sea and land border with Myanmar. About 1.2 million Rohingya are in Teknaf and Ukhia, two subdistricts of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, bordering Myanmar.

Bangladesh must avoid getting involved in the conflict on the Myanmar border. Doing so would benefit both the Tatmadaw and the rebel Arakan Army. Bangladesh should therefore make all efforts for a peaceful solution to the problem.

Across the Naikshyongchari border in Bandarban, the Myanmar army is engaged in a fierce battle with the Arakan Army. At this time, mortar shells are falling in Bangladesh. Helicopters are also intruding the airspace of Bangladesh.

There is great concern in Bangladesh over escalating border tensions. However, the Myanmar army is not carrying out any attack targeting Bangladesh directly. The Arakan Army is attacking Tatmadaw military posts along the border. Because of this, the Myanmar army is conducting an operation mere metres from the border with Bangladesh.

The tension on the border has been going on for quite some time. Lately, there has been an increase in shelling and airspace violations. This is because the Arakan Army has increased its activity. As a result, the Tatmadaw has launched a major operation.

The violation of Bangladesh’s border by the Myanmar army is likely to increase in the coming days. As Bangladesh’s military and national strength are not visible to the Myanmar forces, they do not care about them.

Bangladesh should make every effort to solve the problem peacefully. Bangladesh has summoned Myanmar’s ambassador four times. But strength must be demonstrated behind the diplomatic persuasion.

The biggest concern is the fear of more Rohingya refugees entering Bangladesh. Moreover, the operation of the Myanmar army is not limited only to the Rohingya region. People from other ethnic groups in Rakhine may also enter Bangladesh under the pressure of the campaign. Thus some people from Myanmar entered Mizoram in India.

Bangladesh says it has increased Border Guard Police (BGP) and Coast Guard deployments. But it will not be right for Bangladesh to deploy the army along the border at this time.

Appeal to UN

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Friday. She is expected to raise the matter there. 

From what can be understood from the international media, rebel groups in Myanmar claim that the army does not have control over 52 per cent of the area in Rakhine State. The war with the Arakan Army has taken a prominent shape.

Myanmar has proved in the past that it does not abide by international law or diplomacy. But Myanmar’s internal problems should be solved within the country and not outside its borders. 

Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, of Dhaka University’s International Relations Department, said recently that internationalization of the issue needs to be increased. If Bangladesh adopts a mixed strategy of demonstration of military power and diplomacy simultaneously, the Myanmar military will feel the presssure. 

The Myanmar military has little control over most of the remote mountainous areas except for the plains. The way the conflict is increasing in these areas, the junta government has indicated that elections next year will be very difficult.

Sheikh Hasina said recently that Bangladesh is showing maximum restraint on the Myanmar border. Keir Starmer, the leader of the UK opposition and head of the Labour Party, met with Hasina, who was visiting London. At the time, she informed him about the growing burden on Bangladesh due to the prolonged presence of Rohingya from Myanmar.

She said that despite the effects of the conflict in Myanmar spreading within the territory of Bangladesh, her country is exercising maximum restraint.

To assess the situation on the Myanmar border, Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan on Wednesday convened a high-level meeting with the country’s security and law-enforcement organizations at his secretariat office.

The minister declared after the meeting that Bangladesh’s army and other forces were prepared to defend the nation if given the necessary instructions.

“We have seen several provocations,” he said. “We think Bangladesh has no role to play as long as there is an internal conflict where the Arakan Army is fighting with [Myanmar armed forces].”

In a broadcast on Wednesday, Bangladesh Army Chief General S M Shafiuddin Ahmed stated that his troops were prepared to respond against Myanmarese provocations if necessary.

Foreign interests

Bangladesh is on the right track so far without stepping into Myanmar’s trap. Solutions should be sought in ways other than engaging in conflict. At the same time, Dhaka should increase the pressure on Naypyidaw through more engagement with China, India and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

There is a need to work hard with the ASEAN countries in this regard because the victims of this conflict will be ASEAN in the future. War is not desirable for anyone. The Bangladeshi government’s diplomatic and military preparations need to be strengthened.

Diplomacy also has different phases. One stage in this is the role of regional powers. They can play an effective role in ending this conflict. But so far, they have shown little interest. So, Bangladesh has to expand its arc of diplomacy.

In the current situation, it is necessary to move with prudence. All aspects including the Rohingya issue, national security and economic stability of Bangladesh must be calculated and considered before taking any precipitate steps.

(The author is a Canada-based independent researcher on Bangladesh and Rohingya refugee affairs. Views are personal. She can be contacted at tilottomarani99@gmail.com)

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