Bangladesh-Myanmar Relations within the Spectrum of Geopolitics and Future of Rohingya Issue
Lieutenant General Md Mahfuzur Rahman (LPR)
The relationship of Bangladesh and Myanmar is not like any relations between two neighboring countries. The matrix of this relationship is very complex wrapped by geopolitical spice.
The complex matrix of relationship is based on their political outlook. One is struggling democracy, the other is military autocracy. There are differences between religion pursued by majority, beside anthropological differences, there are also differences in psyche of the people of these two neighbors. For example, military ousting an elected potential government and holding on to power is unthinkable in case of Bangladesh. Even military backed civilian government is unacceptable to the citizens of Bangladesh, a case example of 2007-8.
However, there is another dimension where the relationship is fundamentally influenced by TATMADAW (Myanmar Armed Forces) that is on the driving seat in Myanmar. This is a smart and meritocratic organization that could not be swayed by individual interest against organizational interest. Despite internal troubles TATMADAW has been able to portray a threat of Islamisation from the west of its border. In that on Rohingya issue the country is more or less united. Now in the space of geopolitical setting in Indo-Pacific outlook Bangladesh is important to the Quad (US, Japan, Australia and India) but not as important as Myanmar to China. Myanmar is a strategic partner of China and a vassal state but Bangladesh is neither a strategic partner to Quad nor a vassal state. Of the Quad in terms of geographical influence only India has gravitational pull on Bangladesh. However, the gravitational pull of China on Myanmar is much higher where centripetal force of a world power outshines the gravitation pull of a regional power. In terms of energy security China does not have alternative to Myanmar in this part of the world. Does the Quad have appetite to support Bangladesh the way China is standing by Myanmar? This is a million-dollar question and the answer is clear.
On the other hand, both India and China are development partners of Bangladesh where anti Indian sentiment seems to be greater than anti-China sentiment among the masses. In the foreseeable future Bangladesh cannot do away with one. Bangladesh as a nation does not have hunger to turn into a vassal state either. This has its ramifications too.
So what is the future of Myanmar and Bangladesh bilateral relationship in general and Rohingya issue in particular? Let us discuss these issues; Myanmar has no motivation to develop responsible bilateral relations with Bangladesh. Already Myanmar is in a commanding position in case of Rohingya issue. Beside China, Myanmar economic and business relationship is quite strong with South Korea, Singapore and Japan. After the Rohingya issue in 2017 it appeared that Myanmar economic growth rose considerably despite Western unhappiness on Rohingya issue. Only the military coup in February 2021 created some kind of pressure on Military Junta but that has been well compensated by China, Russia and so some extent India. This situation is not a gift to Myanmar for its geostrategic location but the smartness with which Myanmar and its Junta manipulated geopolitical settings, fine-tuned diplomacy and controlled internal disobedience.
The sanction imposed on Myanmar by the West especially after the recent coup was no surprise to Junta and they factored this in their planning. In fact, Myanmar and Junta were under sanctions for decades. They have developed mechanism to live with these sanctions for many years. As long as China, Russia are with them no amount of Western pressure could rein in present Myanmar. In their horizon scanning, Junta exactly understands that India would not risk Myanmar totally falling into the fold of China by shutting down.
Now let us discuss the military line. Being a military led country only thing that could influence Myanmar Junta for negotiation, if there was credible military threat from Bangladesh. However, it is clear to them neither Bangladesh political government has desire to settle Rohingya issue through armed conflict nor Bangladesh Military has enough credible deterrence to exact both physical and psychological response from them.
Being at a dictating terms Myanmar possibly would not be longing for an improved bilateral relation with Bangladesh. If that be the case, then solution to Rohingya issue, the way Bangladesh wants would be a far cry. Under these circumstances if Bangladesh wants to resolve Rohingya issue it has to be in Myanmar’s terms. Possibly Bangladesh is also not in a hurry to settle this at her neighbor’s will. Therefore, we have to live with this Rohingya population for an indefinite period. Not only is this, in an opportune moment Junta is likely to expel rest of the Rohingyas from Rakhaine state. To avoid being surprised, Bangladesh along with her allies need to undertake proactive measures to stop such misadventure of Myanmar in future.
Md Mahfuzur Rahman is Lieutenant General (LPR).