Understanding Security Situation in Southeast of Bangladesh and Options
Lt Gen Mohammad Mahfuzur Rahman, rcds, ndc, afwc, psc, PhD, Retd
South East part of Bangladesh is bordering Mizoram state of India and Rakhaine state of Myanmar. The topography is an extension of Arakan Yoma. This part is covered with extensive hills ranging from 300 to 1000 meters or more, in accessible, hardly there are modern communication facilities in tribordering areas (Bangladesh-Myanmar-India). The summer is very hot and humid, area is covered with dense mixed forest mainly bamboos, observation from ground and air are restricted. Monsoon comes with continuous rain at times it lasts for days together (the streams and charas turn into deep fast moving water body carrying woods and waste materials of hills making them non negotiable). This is perfect a geophysical condition for insurgency. The insurgents can melt away quickly however, it is nightmare for regular forces.
In this part, there are common political border of Bangladesh–India and Myanmar, that are recognized by government organizations of these countries but insurgents and separatist/terrorist groups have hardly any impact of political borders in their activities. This is also interesting that these countries have different political platforms. One is democracy, another is struggling democracy where the other is a military autocracy. So, reaching to a political consensus is also challenging. However, the separatist groups or exotic groups operating here do collaborate each other or peacefully coexist and take the advantage of porous borders in case of pressure from security forces within home or host countries.
This part of these countries are sparsely populated with various tribes primarily survive on shifting cultivation, generally antagonistic or indifferent to the administration. They have different religious beliefs but missionaries have been able to penetrate and many tribal people have accepted Christianity as religion even some of the tribes have almost turned into Christianity leaving their ancestral religion (I intend to cover this evangelization issue separately someday). There are mysterious politics in this religion issue in this part of the world and future will unfold its ramifications.
In his book ‘Troubled Periphery’ Subir Bhowmik writes the young boys in this part are absorbed with 3Gs (Girls, Guns, Guitars). This has become part of culture. Through India claims to have peace deal with separatist groups in Mizoram, Tripura (having borders with CHT of Bangladesh) but it’s not all that peaceful. There are movements of separatist groups. Same holds good in case of Bangladesh. Though peace deal has been in place in CHT since December’ 97 with PCJSS but now there are PCJSS, PCJSS Reformist, UPDF Armed Groups. In Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar boarding BD, there are exotic groups like Chin National Army and Arakan Army (AA). Peace deal was signed in Myanmar too but now AA is enormously powerful causing serious headache to Junta. Then, there are complex issues for example there are differences between centre and states on a particular issue in case of India. Then on issues there are different outlook of ‘Intelligence Organization’ that may not fully tally with center or states. In case of Myanmar, situation is little different now. AA runs a parallel administration is most part of Rakhaine where Junta mostly control the cities. Having relation with one may antagonize the other. In this conundrum Rohingyas and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) a Rohingya Islamist Armed Group as claimed by Myanmar Junta destabilizing Rakhine. About Rohingya repatriation, Myanmar Chief of Defence General Min Aung Hla and Arakan Army Chief at Rakhine Major General Tun Myat Naing have opposing viewpoints. Above all there are geopolitics of regional powers and global powers. So how Bangladesh should navigate in this murky water is a complex question.
What could be the traditional threats (overt military challenges) to Bangladesh in her South East? Of the two neighbors’ traditional threat from India is not expected for various reasons (This could be a separate discussion). However, traditional threat from Myanmar Junta cannot be ruled out. To improve their popularity rating at home, divert public attention Junta may undertake limited military adventure against Bangladesh in the South East in the plea of chasing their separatist groups or just involve in border skirmish (in the past they have done this with Bangladesh and Thailand). Junta is accusing Bangladesh for harboring her separatist groups for long already. Her others neighbors’ either members of ASEAN or have psycho-geographic connection less Bangladesh. Also compared to Bangladesh, some of the neighbors’ have credible deterrence force where Junta will not indulge in misadventure. The purpose of any military engagement is to achieve a political aim. Myanmar has exhibited her political aim quite clearly. So, its very important to identify what is the ‘political end state’ of Myanmar in case of her military adventure against Bangladesh.
What could be non-traditional threat in South East? What we are seeing now is a complicated combination of risks. Bandarban is the only district of Bangladesh that has border with two countries. This is also possibly only districts where drugs (Poppy and Marijuana) are cultivated with the patronage of exotic groups operating there. Teknaff is the transiting hub of drugs. Drug is the mother of evils like arms smuggling and human trafficking (Rohingya refuges are readily available target group). In addition, there is scope of violent extremism and terrorism. However, these kind of non-traditional security issues do not take place in vacuum. Interestingly they have potential to destabilize bilateral relations with neighbors and turn into traditional security threat. Separatist and exotic groups themselves are source of non-traditional security threats.
What is lurking round the corner? The traditional and non traditional threats to Bangladesh emanating from the security environment in the South East are fairly easy to comprehend as such various agencies responsible more or less are preparing to avoid surprise. It can be said they are preparing based on what is happening now, possibly not what is lurking round the corner. When ISIL surfaced in Middle East, the foreign fighters became headache not only to the West but almost to the whole world. The question is how many of them were there? May be 10,000, 20,000 or 30, 000, they created havoc but they mostly came from pretty decent back ground. Themselves or their families did not suffer only feeling of injustice, adventurism drew them there and the world has experienced what monsters they became. Now, we need to fathom that there are four lacs children growing up in Rohingya Camps inside Bangladesh without proper education, hope and dream. They have seen the horrors of their lives. In 2017, many of them seen their mothers being violated, for them there is no bottom line. By 2030, most them will be adults. Homeless, with the trauma in their minds and hatred in their hearts and without education, hope and dream it is unthinkable, what monsters they are likely to turn into if exploited and if this issue is not addressed. There are two options; we can address it now or wait for it to be addressed later when it turns into a full blown security situation. The choice is with us and the world community. As a student of security studies, I understand its coming and it is not going to the problem of Bangladesh alone. It will have regional and global ramifications. It’s going to be too big a burden for Bangladesh to handle where she is just a victim of geopolitical circumstance.
So, what are the choices for Bangladesh? To address all traditional and nontraditional security issues in the South East Bangladesh should predict and foresee what is coming next and prepare accordingly rather than ‘fire fight’ various events when they occur/appear. Situation in South East specially Rohingya issue should not be taken as business usual or a routine matter. A dedicated meritocratic specialist team to be designated to handle issues with Myanmar because TATMADAM (Myanmar Armed Forces) is a cunning, smart and meritocratic organization. We have to understand the military and political end state of Myanmar and devise appropriate course of action. India in South East has her National Interests that may not be in phase with our National Interest. So band wogoning with India may be counterproductive. Then there are geopolitical dimension involving China and Quad. The balancing is equally important as synergy of lines of operations i.e.; diplomatic, economic, political, cultural and military. In military line, military diplomacy and developing a credible deterrence could be stabilizing factors against TATMADAW’s misadventure if any.
Lt Gen Mohammad Mahfuzur Rahman, rcds, ndc, afwc, psc, PhD, (Retd).