May 23, 2022
DHAKA – The history of Myanmar is the history of struggle with coups, military rule, religious persecution, and ethnic conflict. On this course, the intense ongoing violence between the country’s military and organised armed civilians is now leading the country to the verge of a full-blown civil war that is unlikely to end anytime soon. Power shift and the subsequent polarisation among major powers have made the country a new geopolitical flashpoint, which Bangladesh, its western neighbour, can no longer afford to ignore.
Myanmar always gets priority in Bangladesh’s economic and security strategy. As a democratic country, Bangladesh has a moral dilemma not to support a military government, but the irony is that it has been strangely silent about the coup till date and adopted a cautious stance.
Although Dhaka has called for the democratic process and constitutional arrangements to be upheld in Myanmar in its first and only statement, so far it has neither officially condemned the coup nor demanded the release of political detainees, including the former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Moreover, on Myanmar’s Independence Day, Bangladesh stated its commitment to work with the Myanmar government to further strengthen the relationship. These moves underscore Dhaka’s careful support for the junta’s “one-Myanmar government policy”.
Calculation of interest
Bangladesh’s stand could reflect some very specific considerations. First, it finds its major strategic and development allies, such as China, India, Russia, and Japan, are on the side of the Tatmadaw. Second, it might be calculated that sanctions and condemnation, a typical western practice, are counterproductive in Myanmar as long as China and Russia continue to extend their diplomatic and military shields. Third, Bangladesh has a traditional policy of non-interference and peaceful coexistence, avoiding interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. Fourth, the long-expected previous National League for Democracy (NLD) government failed to do much to act on Dhaka’s top priorities, such as connectivity, border security, or the Rohingya crisis. Fifth, the Bangladesh army has long been seeking to develop cosy relations with its Myanmar counterpart to tackle insurgency, arms smuggling, drug trafficking, and other non-traditional security threats. So, Dhaka doesn’t want to take part in a smear campaign that would not even address the country’s core concerns.
Given the rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics, it is not strange to predict that key powers that wield meaningful leverage over Myanmar, like China, India, Russia, and Japan will align with Myanmar’s military, underlining their own strategic narratives. They have already begun explicitly (or covertly) normalising relations with the Tatmadaw. It will undoubtedly give the military a chance to consolidate its grip on the country, as well as its diplomatic status and military position in the region. So, Bangladesh, based on a rational calculation of interests, may think that aligning with the National Unity Government (NUG) that holds no de jure recognition from any foreign government, would have negative ramifications for Burma-Bangladesh ties.
No doubt, finding an early and sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis is a “top priority” issue for Bangladesh right now. But this has become complicated given the escalating violence among the stakeholders in Myanmar. Though Naypyidaw has yet to make any genuine effort to secure conditions for Rohingya repatriation, Dhaka doesn’t want to close the door for negotiation with the Burmese generals, keeping in mind that any attempt to solve the crisis without the active cooperation of the military would be futile—because the 2008 Constitution places the military in a central position in the Burmese politics with complete authority over the ministries of defence, home, and border affairs. Furthermore, under the military regime, Bangladesh had the experience of repatriating Rohingyas twice, in 1978 and 1992, through dialogue and diplomacy.
Bangladesh is also wary of the Arakan Army’s growing control over Rakhine State, as well as the resurgence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which has been accused of murdering Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya human rights activist. ARSA is believed to have a political agenda to prevent the Rohingya from returning home, and prolonging the crisis. Bangladesh is also concerned about the Arakan Army’s increasing administrative and judicial role in Rakhine, which might turn the state into a new conflict zone, risking a fresh wave of refugee migration or, at the very least, delaying the repatriation process.
Furthermore, given the persistent security crisis and proximity to the Golden Triangle, it is clear the 270-km Bangladesh-Myanmar border will become a hotspot for cross-border insurgencies and crimes. As a result, Bangladesh may consider that collaborating with the military administration is the only tactical option for tackling rising drug and arms smuggling, as well as human trafficking.
Another main strategic objective of Bangladesh is its look-east policy, which seeks closer links with China and Asean countries via Myanmar. Bangladesh has also been eyeing joining the Asean-bloc and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway initiative. Therefore, it could try to convince Myanmar’s central government to draw up plans for accessing regional markets to face the post-LDC challenges.
Military diplomacy: ‘New line of communication’
Despite past strained ties, Bangladesh’s military chiefs have traditionally paid goodwill visits to Myanmar, seeking to develop a more meaningful relationship from a security standpoint. General Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan and General Aziz Ahmed, former Bangladesh Army Chiefs, visited Myanmar in 2014 and 2019, respectively, to promote friendship, deepen military ties, and find ways to cooperate in areas such as security dialogue, joint exercises and training, staff-to-staff meetings, and intelligence sharing.
What is important to note is that Bangladesh was among only eight countries that sent their defence attachés to attend the Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw in March 2021, a month after the coup. Some say that it prompted General Min Aung Hlaing to consider Dhaka as a potential ally.
The Tatmadaw’s recent participation in meetings of Asean Military Intelligence and defence chiefs, as well as the Indian navy’s largest multilateral exercise, MILAN 2022, along with those of the QUAD members, may pave the way for other countries to adopt military diplomacy to address political and diplomatic concerns. Bangladesh may believe that a high level of security engagement can help it address major challenges like the Rohingya crisis, insurgency, transnational crime, and other non-traditional security threats.
In a nutshell, Bangladesh is trying to reorient its Myanmar policy in light of the regional power setting and the army’s new rule in Naypyidaw. Bangladesh now sees “consultative and constructive engagement” with Myanmar’s military regime as a viable strategic choice to deal with the country’s topmost security concerns.