February 7, 2024
DHAKA – Since the Three Brotherhood Alliance—comprising Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—launched Operation 1027 on October 27, 2023, and took the fight to the despotic ruling military junta, Myanmar is being torn apart by the two unstoppable forces.
While the military is leaving no stones unturned to suppress the resistance fighters—including indiscriminate shelling of occupied civilian townships, cities and villages, resulting in collective punishment and killings of unarmed civilians—the Three Brotherhood Alliance is making short work of routing the junta, capturing strategic regions and towns, including Chin State’s Paletwa, northern Shan State and Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh’s Chattogram division in the northwest and the Bay of Bengal to the west.
Bangladesh is already feeling the heat of escalating clashes in the bordering regions, with the sound of gunfights keeping the locals in bordering areas awake at nights. In the last five days, fighting between the Arakan Army and the military junta flared once again. As a result, mortal shells are falling inside the Bangladeshi territory and has caused at least two deaths and multiple injuries. Some 264 members of Myanmar’s border and security forces have entered the Bangladesh side illegally to escape fighting, according to Border Guard Bangladesh (as of 3:45 pm Tuesday). Some of them have bullet injuries.
Overall, with civil order rapidly deteriorating in Myanmar, things are not looking good for its three neighbours: China, India and Bangladesh.
The recent violent fighting in Rakhine has created panic among the Bangladeshi population living in the bordering areas in Bandarban’s Naikhongchhari upazila. Residents of Tumbru village in the upazila’s Ghumdum union are fleeing their homes to escape stray bullets. Academic activities in five primary schools and a madrasa had to be suspended amid the growing security concerns. Vehicular movement has been somewhat restricted and people are being advised to stay indoors.
Bangladesh has done the right thing by engaging with China and asking for its intervention to diffuse the tensions as a key party with influence with the ruling Myanmar junta. But it is high time the country beefed up surveillance and security in the bordering areas with Myanmar.
In response to the growing concerns after Myanmar’s border and security force members infiltrated Bangladeshi territory, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal has said that security has been strengthened in the bordering areas with Myanmar and local police and coast guard have also been put on alert. Perhaps the government should also consider keeping the armed forces ready and the navy on heightened alert, should things go beyond control on the other side of the border, while also making sure that they are being cautious in their actions. The parliament is in session; now could be a good time to discuss this national security concern to raise consensus about the potential course of actions in the coming months, if not weeks.
For Bangladesh, the spillover effect of this conflict will be multipronged: national security, socioeconomic, and geopolitical. The border areas with Myanmar, even before the recent wave of conflict, have been vulnerable. The two countries share a 271-kilometre porous border, which has been used by refugees, resistance fighters and smugglers for their own means. In the face of escalations, where Myanmar border guards themselves are fleeing to Bangladesh, others might leverage this vulnerability to smuggle in drugs, arms, people, and even their causes.
The Rohingya camps are already tense with sporadic turf war among gangs. ARSA is reported to have been operating inside the Bangladeshi territory for some years now, adding to the seething tensions in the camps. Yaba pills being smuggled into Bangladesh from Myanmar, for both local sales and cross-border transshipment, is no new information for our intelligence agencies either. These non-state, rogue actors will be on the lookout to make the most of the tensions along the borders to make gains.
At the same time, as Myanmar military shells civilian towns and villages, displacing thousands, there is a high risk of them turning towards Bangladesh for shelter.
Bangladesh is already feeling the pinch of halted trade and commerce with Myanmar—for instance, 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 alone—while also having to provide for more than a million Rohingya refugees with foreign aid dwindling fast. On top of these existing challenges, a new influx of refugees from Myanmar would add to Bangladesh’s economic burdens.
At the same time, the Bangladesh government should proceed with caution in sending back Myanmar’s border and security force members and warning the border guards to demonstrate highest restraint, as it should not look like we are taking a side in this conflict of others. So far, Bangladesh has made the right moves, disarming the fleeing security personal and opening communication channels to discuss their return to Myanmar. However, their infiltration is evidence that border surveillance is still not strong in Bangladesh, and should more border police, army personnel or refugees enter Bangladesh, it would become difficult for the country to negotiate the return of so many to Myanmar.
At this point, Bangladesh could consider forming a joint coordination cell with representatives from home, foreign affairs and defence ministries, and national security and foreign policy experts to closely monitor the fast-evolving situation in Rakhine and recommend coordinated measures to protect our national interests.
One the one hand, we need to secure our borders, and on the other, we need to create enough diplomatic pressure on Myanmar military junta to pave the way for inclusive democracy in the war-ravaged country. Only through restoration of democracy and the rights of its people would Myanmar be able to heal from the wounds of decades past. Given China and India are also facing similar challenges, Bangladesh should initiate tripartite discussions on how best to help diffuse the tensions in Myanmar. If this tension is allowed to fester and spill over into other countries unchecked, it will create regional instability and major national security threats for all of Myanmar’s neighbours.
While the government is acting calm—and it should be commended on how it has handled the delicate situation so far—it is time we also weighed all possibilities unfolding in the coming weeks and take concerted measures to tackle them.