As civil order crumbles in Myanmar, Bangladesh should be alert

Given Myanmar's internal strife, there is risk of criminal elements capitalising on the existing vulnerabilities of law and order in the country to accelerate and expand their network, especially beyond borders.

Tasneem Tayeb

Tasneem Tayeb

The Daily Star


January 22, 2024

DHAKA – News of the China-mediated ceasefire between the ruling Myanmar junta and the Three Brotherhood Alliance—comprising Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—came as a relief not only for the people of Myanmar but also for the country’s neighbours, including Bangladesh. Within days, however, things turned volatile once more, with the Arakan Army claiming to have captured Paletwa, in Chin State, bordering Bangladesh and India.

Although the AA has assured that, “Regarding border stability issues, we will cooperate at our best with neighbouring countries,” the lack of proper governance structure and civil order in the conflict-ravaged country remains a major concern for Bangladesh, especially with focus on humanitarian, security, economic, and political aspects.

First of all, due to the lack of a stable government, the repatriation of the more than one million Rohingya refugees currently living in Bangladesh has become even more uncertain. With fast dwindling international aid, it is increasingly difficult for the Bangladesh government to accommodate and provide for such a huge number of refugees.

Moreover, the continued refusal of the Myanmar military junta to provide the Rohingya with citizenship—which is their basic right as an ethnic group which has been living in Myanmar for centuries—has complicated matters further in terms of repatriation. This lack of citizenship, amidst the ongoing civil war with the ethnic groups, would only make the Rohingya more vulnerable to persecution once they return to Myanmar. The civil war might also amplify the risk of the Rohingya still in Myanmar being persecuted more by the vindictive ruling junta, and therefore fleeing into Bangladesh for safety.

However, apart from providing for the Rohingya amidst difficult economic challenges facing the country, there is another, more sinister concern that Bangladesh must watch out for: national security. Elements like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)—a Rohingya insurgent group—have reportedly already infiltrated Bangladesh and have been behind killings and unrest in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps, including the assassination of prominent Rohingya leader Mohammad Mohib Ullah in 2021. In July 2023, it was reported that, since 2017, 188 individuals were killed in the camps, many of them by ARSA.

While gang violence, fuelled by turf wars, has resulted in many casualties and a deterioration of law and order inside Rohingya camps, some of these nefarious actors are actively involved in arms and drug smuggling inside Bangladesh. ARSA itself has been accused of enabling arms smuggling inside the camps in Bangladesh. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report suggests that the production of methamphetamine and its use in the manufacturing of yaba has increased, especially in Myanmar, with Bangladesh being targeted as one of the key markets.

Given Myanmar’s internal strife, there is risk of criminal elements capitalising on the existing vulnerabilities of law and order in the country to accelerate and expand their network, especially beyond borders. In that case, caught at the heart of the Golden Triangle—one of the three major Asian drug trade routes—Bangladesh has to be more vigilant in its border pockets with Myanmar, especially around Teknaf (one of the prominent drug entry points).

Apart from these concerns, Bangladesh’s trade interests in Myanmar are also being affected by the civil war. Bangladesh has sizeable bilateral trade engagements with Myanmar, exporting a variety of goods such as pharmaceuticals, vegetables, fish, construction materials, and importing rice, pulses, wood, and more. In 2020, Bangladesh’s exports to Myanmar stood at $48.4 million, while Myanmar’s exports to Bangladesh stood at $64.1 million. However, trade volume between the two countries has already plummeted, with Bangladesh taking a hit. Due to a trade halt at Teknaf land port since November 14 last year, the Bangladesh government is losing about Tk 3 crore each day in revenue.

With the Arakan Army now taking over areas bordering Bangladesh, there is a possibility of violence escalating in those regions, leaving us with no option but to enhance vigilance in these areas. In the past, this led to diplomatic tensions between the two sides, especially in September 2022, with six mortar shells from Myanmar exploding in Bandarban’s Ghumdum border area resulting in one casualty. Myanmar said it had launched the strikes after the AA captured a police outpost in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State.

The civil war in Myanmar is also a pain point for neighbouring India and China. The Three Brotherhood Alliance already claims to have taken over the Shan State and several towns that contain critical trade routes with China. In fact, on January 4, a mortar shell from Myanmar fell inside China, causing several injuries there. Meanwhile, the ongoing unrest in India’s Manipur between the Meitei and Kuki communities (which resulted in the death of at least 175 people as of September 2023) has also partially been attributed to the the Kuki migrating to Manipur from Myanmar, with old fault lines reappearing.

If Myanmar’s civil war continues on its current course, there could be ripple effects on Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries.

It is commendable that China has taken a proactive approach to get the warring parties to a ceasefire—albeit temporarily. But the Myanmar military junta cannot be trusted, as they have been accused by rebel groups of breaching the ceasefire conditions, resulting in the resumption of conflict.

It is high time all parties with influence realise that the military junta in Myanmar is rogue and incapable of ruling the country. They must be influenced to step down and pave the way for the return of democracy in the country, which is what the majority in Myanmar desire and deserve.

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