Transnational Threat: Bangladesh Perspective
General Aziz Ahmed
The transnational threat is one of the major concerns of Bangladesh in the context of effective border management and overall national security. Bangladesh is facing the challenge of a host of transnational threats or crimes. Because of its geostrategic, geographic, demographic, socio-economic, and cultural realities, trends of various transnational threats grew in and around Bangladesh. Smuggling, drug trafficking, trafficking of arms and ammunition, human trafficking, illegal migration, financial and Cyber Crimes are a few of the most important trends of transnational crime prevailing in Bangladesh. These crimes pervasively threaten the politico-socio-economic infrastructure of Bangladesh.
The geo-strategic importance of Bangladesh accentuates around many factors. It is located in the power-struggle region of China and India. Having a population of approximately 167.6 million, it ranks as the world’s 8th largest populous and 4th largest Muslim nation. Hence, if growing threats of transnational threats are not addressed effectively, Bangladesh and the entire region may face serious consequences.
Transnational threats or crimes are not entirely domestic phenomena. Rather it spreads and prevails over many countries. The growth and proliferation of transnational threats, therefore, remain contingent on global and regional dynamics along with a host of domestic political, socio-economic, and cultural factors. Thus, a clear view of the above factors and dynamics and how they are interwoven with each other are necessary for the understanding of the nature, trends, and impact of transnational threats to Bangladesh.
“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters, said US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan almost a century ago” (Patnaik 2015). China, India, and the USA are the key actors in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India thinks that the Indian Ocean should be Indian. China, on the other hand, wants that the Indian Ocean should not be the Indian backyard. Moreover, China needs to contain its dominance over IOR as it is said to be China’s lifeline, for 80% of its energy needs are transshipped through IOR. Thus, China can no way forget the Indian Ocean, and to maintain its dominance, it will remain in a state of tension with India or will play the Pakistan card against India. On the contrary, being a global player, both China and the USA will strive for their strategic objectives in IOR. “The emerging competition for influence and resources between the US and China is manifested in the concepts like US New Silk Route Initiative and the Asia Pacific Pivot against China’s String of Pearl or OBOR strategy. Many confirm if China pursues its global objective through the extension of its influence towards Africa, Asia-pacific, and Australia it will confront the USA as the interest of both countries will then override and intersect. However, in the context of Sino-US power play, the USA may adopt the strategy of playing India card against China” (Ivan 2018).
Trends of rapid economic and military development of China forecast the possibility of challenging the present global state of USA centric unipolarity shortly. Thus, China is of more concern to the USA than other factors. In IOR, India appears to be the strongest card for the USA to draw down China’s rapid rise. In the coming era, the US-India partnership will grow stronger that will push Pakistan further to take shelter from China. Thus, the Post-Cold War power equation in IOR will be reframed as China-Pakistan on one side against USA-India on the other. As a whole geostrategic power play in IOR and Asia will have the following regional and global stature:
a. At Regional Level
(1) “Indo-Pak power play and resulting tension with increased frequency of non-traditional threats”.
(2) “Sino-India power play and resulting tension with increased frequency of both traditional and non-traditional threats”.
b. At Global Level
(1) “Sino-India power play and resulting tension with India sponsored by the USA mainly at a strategic level”.
(2) “Sino-US power play and resulting tension at a strategic level”.
Being countries of IOR, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and other small states of South Asia will be subjected to both regional and global power struggles, as stated above. Struggling power blocks will try to keep these states under their strategic occupation. If they find any of these countries are inclining towards the opponent block, they are likely to exploit the geo-strategic situation to bring them to their terms. Such geo-strategic exploitation and resulting turmoil will pave the way for transnational threats to grow and proliferate faster than before.
Regional Geopolitical Dynamics
“Geo-political location of Bangladesh, as shown in figure 3.5 below, forms a wedge between South Asian (SA) and South-East Asian (SEA) countries” (Shakhawat 2006). On the north, east, and south-east part, it borders with hilly and forest areas of South India and Myanmar that offer enormous opportunities for Transnational Organized Crime groups to conduct the crimes covertly.
Figure 2.5: Map of South and South East Asia
“Bangladesh is located at the heart of three drug-producing regions: in the east the Golden Triangle, in the north the Golden Wedge and in the west, across India, the Golden Crescent” (Razidur 2014). A description of these zones is given in figure 3.6 below. Being surrounded by these drug-producing zones, Bangladesh remains vulnerable not only to drug trafficking but also to all other associated transnational threats.
Source: https://www.slideserve.com/Gabriel/ transnational-security-threats-facing-bangladesh and https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/164374/Issue%208.pdf
Figure 2.6: Route of the Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent
Bangladesh is also bordered by Indian insurgency-prone ‘Seven Sisters’ from the north and north-east. The Arakanese insurgency also prevails in the south-east of Bangladesh. Insurgency at Chattogram Hill tracts is also co-located with these areas. Insurgency weakens the government and administration in these areas, thus, offers conducive grounds for breeding all kinds of transnational threats.
Bangladesh border comprises a total 4,427 km including land and river boundary. It is bordered with India from north, west and east, and with Myanmar from the south-east. The state of the bordering area is as follows:
a. Total length of the boundary - 4,427 km.
b. Boundary with India - 4,156 km (3976 KM land + 180 KM river).
c. Boundary with Myanmar - 271 km (208 KM land+63 KM river).
The land border of Bangladesh runs through plain lands, jungles, hills, and in some places along the river. Most of the border area is again interposed with villages and habitation. Both terrain and habitation along the border area offer a suitable environment to organize and conduct transnational crimes.
Bangladesh also possesses a coastline boundary of a total 720 km. Chattogram and Mongla are the two seaports of entry along the coastline. Both these seaports lack modern scanning and surveillance facilities. Thus, both the seaport entry points can easily be exploited by smugglers, drug, and arms dealers. Of more concern is that there are approximately 5000 uncontrolled fishing trawlers, vessels, and boats plying around the coast every day. These fishing vessels enter and exit from any point of the coastal belt. This offers a unique opportunity for organized crime groups to carry out their criminal activities undetected.
Hazrat Shah Jalal International Airport, Dhaka, Hazrat Shah Amanat International Airport, Chattogram and Osmani International Airport, Sylhet are the three international airports in Bangladesh. These are the air entry and exit points to and from the country. “Bangladesh has direct air, sea and road communications with almost all the major drug-producing countries in the region. Easy access to international air and sea links, and modest detection and interdiction capability are responsible for large-scale drug trafficking activities in the country” (Nath 2006). Figure 2.7 here shows the internal river, air, and road network of drug smuggling in Bangladesh.
Demographic and Socio-cultural Dynamics
Although Bangladesh has entered into the category of a developing country, yet the legacy and trends of a least developed country still prevail in various parts of the country. “Approximately 24% of the population in Bangladesh is estimated to continue to live below the national poverty line” (CIA 2020). A poor segment of the population having less scope of work, employment, and opportunities always remain vulnerable to be exploited by the organized criminal groups. The exploitation comes from two dimensions. In one hand, they become a victim of the organized crime such as human trafficking, illegal migration, forced labor, etc. On the other hand, the jobless poorer segment of the society can easily be manipulated to be involved in the organized crime chain.
Source: Author’s illustration with Google Map
Figure 2.7: Drug Trafficking Route in Bangladesh
Half of the total population of this country is women whose socio-economic condition is very poor. “Despite improvements in education for girls and the creation of economic opportunities for women, Bangladesh continues to score poorly on gender indices. It was ranked 86th in the Global Gender Gap Index 2012 from among 135 countries surveyed, and 111th in the Gender Inequality Index 2012. Women in Bangladesh suffer from multiple deprivations in social and economic spheres of their life due to the prevalent socio-economic phenomena” (Ricardo et al. 2012). Gender discrimination makes a substantial part of the female segment of the population vulnerable to fall victim to organized crime mainly for prostitution and the sex industry.
Socio-economically border areas of Bangladesh are underdeveloped and poorer than other parts of the country. Government development projects and their impacts are comparatively slow to reach in bordering areas. Education, employment, and opportunities are meager in bordering areas. Lack of facilities, unemployment, and economic opportunities automatically pushes the border people to be involved in transnational crimes.
The expatriate community of Bangladesh living in the Middle East, Europe, and ASEAN countries are substantial in number. They are mostly workers and lives in low standard living areas of those foreign countries. Transnational Organized Crime groups exploit the poor living and socio-economic condition of the people. Thus, these segments of overseas Bangladeshi nationals remain vulnerable to be easily pursued by organized criminals for involving in crimes. For example, money laundering in Bangladesh has spread from these communities. They are also the soft target of different transnational and global ideological organizations for integrating into criminal networks.
“Bangladesh’s economy has grown roughly 6% per year since 2005 despite prolonged periods of political instability, poor infrastructure, endemic corruption, insufficient power supplies, and slow implementation of economic reforms” (Bangladesh Economy 2019). The service sector is the major contributor to GDP, generating more than half of GDP. More than half of the population is involved in agriculture. “Garments accounted for more than 80% of total exports in FY 2016-17 to stand as the backbone of the industrial sector. Steady export growth in the garment sector, combined with $13 billion in remittances from overseas Bangladeshis, contributed to Bangladesh’s rising foreign exchange reserves in FY 2016-17”.
With all those positive indexes, Bangladesh has entered the group of developing countries. However, still, there is poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, gender discrimination, unequal distribution of wealth and resources, lack of education, and opportunities in many parts of the country. These realities resulted in a substantial segment of unemployed youths who can easily be exploited by the financial offer of the transnational groups to work for them.
Bangladesh has a mammoth-sized population of 167.6 million. This large population exerts huge pressure on its government, administration, facilities, and overall infrastructure. Thus, the administration finds it extremely difficult to ensure good governance for this big population. Consequently, system malfunctioning is a regular phenomenon. Enforcement of strict law and order is critically challenged by many factors. Corruption is widespread amongst all segments of the population, particularly amongst government officials. Taking advantage of poor governance and weak administration, transnational crime groups easily establish their criminal network within and across the country.
Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Coast Guards are the primary government agencies to safeguard our border. Like other government agencies, both these organizations have limitations and weaknesses in manpower, equipment, and technology. Weak organizational strength and capacity of both the border guarding forces contribute to the growth and proliferation of transnational threats in and around Bangladesh.
Major Transnational Threats in Bangladesh
Smuggling of Goods and Cattles
Smuggling of goods is widespread around the Bangladesh border. Bangladesh shares its border with both Myanmar and India, but smuggling along the India-Bangladesh border is intense. Smuggling around India-Bangladesh typically involves either through small bootlegging by local people or large scale smuggling by organized criminals. Smuggled items normally include livestock, textile mainly Sharees, fertilizer, medicine, small machinery, food, consumer goods, and etc. Of them, cattle smuggling is significant. “A study by Devjyoti Ghoshal which surveyed on 200 formal and informal trades on both side of the border reported that foods, consumer goods, and textiles were the most popular items” (Ghoshal 2014). Table 6.2 below shows the year wise seizure value of smuggled goods across the India-Bangladesh border seized by BGB from 2015-2019. A point worth mentioning here is that the value shown in the table is for only seized items excluding the items successfully smuggled by the organized criminals. Table 2.2 shows that there was a rise in the value of the smuggled item, both incoming and outgoing in the year 2017.
There are several reasons why smuggling is intense on the Bangladesh-India border. The 4,156 km long border straddling over approximately 57 shifting river banks, hills, and jungles in parts makes the India-Bangladesh border too porous to flourish smuggling almost equal to the formal trade between them.
Tax rates for different goods and products differ in Bangladesh and India. Consequently, few items are cheaper in one country than in the other. This is usually counteracted by import duties; thus, smuggling becomes the easiest way to get around.
People on both sides in the proximity of the border are socio-culturally and historically interlinked. Trade and commerce between them were in vogue before the countries became separated. Further socio-economic conditions of the bordering people on both sides are not developed. Lack of infrastructure, employment, opportunities, and resources led to take smuggling as available means of livelihood.
Official machinery and procedure involved on both sides of the border are slow, outdated, and complicated most of the time. This adds to both cost and time for export-import across the border. Bribes and other demands by the corrupt segments of the various border security agencies further inflate the cost and expenditure. To offset these difficulties, smuggling assumes to be a profitable option.
The religious factor is the primary reason for cattle smuggling around the India-Bangladesh border. Being prohibited in Hindu rituals cattle are surplus in the Hindu majority in India, and it imposes a ban on cattle export too. On the other hand, beef or cattle have a huge demand in a Muslim majority, Bangladesh. “As a result, 20,000 to 25,000 cattle, worth around $ 81,000 are thought to be smuggled across the border every day” (Ghoshal 2014). More than 100 cattle corridors are reported to exist all along the border. “The cattle are transported undetected from Punjab, Rajasthan, UP, MP, and Bihar. As many as 1.7 million pieces of cattle are illegally imported into Bangladesh every year” (Hazarika 2000). A small percentage of cattle are seized, and most of them are smuggled successfully. Table 3.3 below shows the yearly seized cattle by BGB from 2015 to 2019. The seizure had a sharp rise from 2016, indicating a corresponding rise in cattle smuggling too.
Law enforcement on India’s part to curb cattle smuggling could not be effective too. A committee set up to study cattle smuggling in India says, “Committee is particularly anguished to note that West Bengal state government has failed to implement its order dated 01.09.2003 that outlaws existence of any cattle haats within 8 km of border area” (Bhardwaj 2017).
In his research Ghoshal (2014) also showed “there are three main reasons behind the robustness of informal trade (smuggling) on the India-Bangladesh border”.
“Official machinery is slow and outdated, thereby creating delays and escalating costs”.
“Bribes and other demands via government officials add to the transaction expenses”.
“An inadequate transport infrastructure leading to high transit expenditure creates an incentive for informal trade.”
General Aziz Ahmed, BSP, BGBM, PBGM, BGBMS, psc, G, Ph.D, former Chief of Army Staff, Bangladesh Army.