MILITARY ANALYSIS ON PROSPECT FOR ROHINGYA REPATRIATION AND OPTIONS FOR BANGLADESH
Lt Gen (Retd) Mohammad Mahfuzur Rahman, PhD
Former Principal Staff Officer, Armed Forces Division, Prime Minister’s Office
It has been six years since the massive exodus of Rohingyas took place in August 2017. Initially it was perceived that Myanmar cannot get away for very long with atrocities and crime against humanity of such magnitude. Despite regional power’s support and some permanent members support in UN Security Council the condemnation of the act was overwhelming worldwide. Bangladesh’s diplomatic initiative bilaterally as well as taking some members of ASEAN on board there was a memorandum of understanding signed in November 2017 between Bangladesh and Myanmar on Rohingya repatriation. In fact, that created hope among many about resolving the refugee issue quickly. To my appreciation the expulsion of Rohingyas from Rakhine was a systematic, well-orchestrated military operation. With my background I understood the drama of taking back the Rohingyas was also a portrayal of military operation. In fact, it is part of a deception plan and psychological warfare. Any military operation without political objective is a nonsensical waste of resources. TATMADAW generals being a bunch of meritocratic cunning professionals would not waste resources.
Every military operation at strategic level has a political ‘End State’ and identification of `Centre of Gravity’. My understanding the political ‘End State’ of Myanmar was ‘Rakhine is free of Rohingyas’ and `Centre of Gravity’ likely could be ‘Political Will’ of Bangladesh whether to go into military conflict with Myanmar on Rohingya issue. This was substantiated that Bangladesh will not go into military options when TATMADAW conducted the ‘clearing operations’ in 2016 in Rakhine. In that, about 87,000 Rohingyas were expelled from Rakhine to Bangladesh. To achieve the end, the ways and means they employed were military operations and resources at the disposal of the military. So what is happening now may be an `Operational Pause` of Myanmar Military Operation, when dusts settle down Myanmar may push the rest of the Rohingyas from Rakhine over time. In the big picture, the activities now Junta is undertaking in regard to the Rohingya issue could be in a ‘Conflict Termination Phase’ of military strategic level operation. If Junta is in power and senior General Min Aung Hla is calling the shots or Myanmar elite in the polity is afflicted by Bamar (Dominant Ethnic Community) supremacy, taking back Rohingya could be a far cry.
However, we might see some China led initiative for repatriation or token repatriation, this could be considered as activities of conflict termination phase of military operation on the part of TATMADAW. As a student of ‘Structural Realism’ and geopolitics I see the Chinese repatriation initiative to portray as a world peace broker, responsible stabilizing power (as they have done between Iran and KSA and proposed peace between Ukraine and Russia). This is an aspiration signature to graduate from regional to world power. The other issue China would like to avoid is volatility in and around Myanmar because of her energy security interest (Security of Gas and Oil pipelines from Sittwe Port, Myanmar to Kunming, China).
The UN, the West, the Liberals and the Democracies will express their concerns, provide humanitarian support to Rohingyas, express solidarity with Bangladesh and sporadically impose limited sanctions on Myanmar Junta (which they are immune to). However, when the question of national interest shall arise the politics of reality could be different. Even in 2020 foreign direct investment in Myanmar grew by 10%. Today major investors in Myanmar are some of the leading democracies.
So what are the options open for Bangladesh?
Bangladesh must do everything possible to keep the Rohingya repatriation issue alive and on the table. Beside, traditional bilateral and multilateral approach, a track two approach may be helpful to maintain political engagement with United League of Arakan (ULA), political wing of Arakan Army (AA) and National Unity Government (NUG).
Empowering Rohingyas through education, leadership development and media campaigns which could be a good idea to frame their own narrative and share to shape world consciousness in the plight for human rights.
Myanmar security force personnel stand guard while a mob (background) look on following unrest at an Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp for Muslim Rohingyas on the outskirts of Sittwe town in Rakhine State. (AFP Photo)
Currently Junta is in back foot after the coup in 2021 that followed by atrocities against its own civilian population consequently, some of the dissident groups especially AA in Rakhine, People’s Defence Force of NUG, Chin National Army, Karen National Liberation Army and many have become headache for TATMADAW. This is the time Junta may consider greater concessions in the Rohingya repatriation issue if Bangladesh is willing to utilize and manipulate all tools available to get leverage in negotiation. Nonetheless, the legal aspect in International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC) against Myanmar and Junta leadership could create additional pressure, especially if Bangladesh could follow up with ICC for a quick arrest warrant against Gen Ming Aung Hla and top perpetrators of genocide, that would provide enough dividend. Yet, Dhaka needs to develop a credible military deterrence to caution Junta from taking any misadventure of pushing rest of Rohingyas from Rakhine to Bangladesh in future.
Above all the ‘Rohingya Repatriation Issue’ should not be taken and handled as business usual, a concerted effort is necessary where synchronization, orchestration and synergy among all organs working on the issue are of paramount importance. Hence having a ‘Rohingya Commission’ under the Prime Minister’s Office may need serious consideration.