Myanmar civil war: Bangladesh must be firm about territorial integrity

"I think since the issue is affecting our national security, we should be firm and then demonstrate that firmness to Myanmar. At the same time, we should convey that message to the Arakan Army too," says M Humayun Kabir, president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and a former ambassador.

M Humayun Kabir

M Humayun Kabir

The Daily Star


June 25, 2024

DHAKA – Myanmar’s internal conflict has been affecting our southeastern border, especially St Martin’s Island. How do you analyse this situation?

It is a very complex and difficult situation because we have a problem with the Rohingya population that have taken shelter in Bangladesh. We have been bearing their responsibility for the last seven years. On top of that, a new problem has cropped up: the internal conflict in Myanmar that has now come to our border. In recent times, some bullets and shells from across the Myanmar border landed on Bangladesh. In the last two or three weeks, we have been having some difficulty also in the southeastern border areas, particularly around Cox’s Bazar. We have seen St Martin’s Island coming under fire from the Myanmar side as well.

We have taken a somewhat benign approach to this issue because we consider whatever is happening in Rakhine to be an internal matter of Myanmar. That’s why we have refrained from taking any initiative other than the diplomatic one. We have lodged protests through the diplomatic channel against cross-border firing and also protested whenever there has been a report on border violations. We have also tried to maintain calm and arranged return of groups that entered Bangladesh. In the process, we sent a clear signal to the Myanmar side and to the international community that Bangladesh considers the ongoing conflict as an internal affair of Myanmar, and we have no intention and no interest to get involved in this process. Our key interest is to facilitate the quick return of the Rohingya population that have taken shelter in Bangladesh back to Myanmar as soon as possible. That remains our priority.

What implications does this conflict have for Bangladesh?

It looks like the military conflict is intensifying and there is a growing prospect of the Arakan Army dominating the Rakhine landscape and taking control of the region from the Myanmar military. If that happens, it will create a situation that we have never faced before. For example, we want to maintain our relationship with Myanmar as a neighbouring country. If the Rakhine state, which is the connecting point between Myanmar and Bangladesh, goes under the Arakan Army’s control, the question then will be: what kind of relationship should we maintain with the Myanmar government? Under that hypothetical scenario, what will happen to the repatriation possibility of the Rohingya? The Bangladesh government does not recognise the Arakan Army as a political entity. If they physically control Rakhine, what kind of relationship will we have with them? So, this internal armed conflict in Myanmar is opening up a scenario which is a potential diplomatic challenge for Bangladesh. Additionally, it will further complicate the Rohingya repatriation issue.

As for the firing on Bangladeshi boats from the Myanmar side, it makes our population living near the Myanmar border vulnerable. This also hampers communication between the mainland and St Martin’s Island. In the last two to three weeks, there has been no regular traffic between the mainland and the island. Of late, we have heard remarks from different quarters about St Martin’s. If the island comes under any kind of threat from the Myanmar side, it will raise questions about our territorial integrity. For Bangladesh, it means we are facing a three-dimensional threat: diplomatic, military, and strategic. That’s why it is extremely important now for Bangladesh to not only diplomatically engage with Myanmar and let them know that we are not involved in their internal affairs, but also take appropriate action to defend our territorial integrity, should the situation aggravate further along the border.

Is there anything else that we should do?

I think that some kind of demonstration of our determination is also required. If needed, we can go back to our old playbook that could guide us to tackle any kind of challenge around St Martin’s Island. I think since the issue is affecting our national security, we should be firm and then demonstrate that firmness to Myanmar. At the same time, we should convey that message to the Arakan Army too. At this point, I don’t believe that they are intentionally violating our territorial integrity or shooting at St Martin’s. Even in that kind of situation, it is important for us to convey a message to them that this is not acceptable. And if this continues, Bangladesh will have to protect its territorial integrity.

Previously, you talked about Bangladesh facilitating a ceasefire. Is that still an option?

At that time, that could have been a possible move. But the situation has taken a different turn now. So, I do not believe that we are at that stage to talk about a ceasefire. Now, it looks like the conflict may take two shapes. Under the first scenario, the conflict in Rakhine may intensify with the Myanmar military deploying their land and air assets to overpower the Arakan Army, which seems remote. The second scenario could be that the Arakan Army takes full military control of the Rakhine state and then possibly negotiates a ceasefire. Whichever situation arises, new options have to be explored.

Do you think more Rohingya refugees might try to enter Bangladesh as the conflict escalates?

Well, there have been reports in the international media and humanitarian organisations in recent weeks that the Rohingya are being used or abused by both sides. There are reports that the Myanmar government is using the Rohingya. Some reports mentioned that some of the Rohingya are working for the Arakan Army as well. As a result, the Rohingya population is facing great difficulty within Myanmar and particularly in Rakhine now. There are reports that in the Buthidaung town, the Arakan Army burned thousands of houses of the Rohingya, but they issued statements denying their role in the arson and accusing the other side. The Rohingya are caught in the crossfire. There are about 600,000 Rohingya still living in Rakhine. If they are in difficulty, there is a possibility of them trying to cross over to Bangladesh, despite Bangladesh clearly stating that no more Rohingya will be accepted. So, multiple challenges are brewing up on the Myanmar front: diplomatic, humanitarian, military, and strategic. As a way forward, it is extremely important that we discuss this issue with our friends in India, China, Japan and Thailand—those who can somehow influence Myanmar and other groups, including the Arakan Army. One could also think of raising this issue with the United Nations. On our part, we should also take appropriate steps to protect our territorial integrity and safety of our own people, continue our work to ensure earliest possible repatriation of the Rohingya population back to Myanmar, and reach out to all actors to achieve our objectives.

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