DYSTOPIAN MYANMAR: A THREAT FOR THE REGION AND A BARRIER TO ROHINGYA REPATRIATION
Major General Md Nayeem Ashfaque Chowdhury, SBP, OSP, SUP, psc, PhD (Retd)
has a colourful 32 years of service in the Bangladesh Army and the United Nations. He was assigned to the most coveted appointments of the Bangladesh Army at different tiers of policy-making, strategic planning, analysis, and decision-making. He is a common face in TV Talk shows and seminars on South Asia and the Indo-Pacific regional security issues.
The Rohingya issue is no longer a mono-string crisis. It is a multidimensional and complex affair with deep involvement of multi-stakeholders. The spectrum of security dimension is also multi-pronged having strings all along from the strategic level to the tactical level. Bangladesh is bearing the fullest impact of the Rohingya crisis in all conceivable sectors including security. The civil administration, law enforcement agencies, people representatives and other stakeholders are working day and night to contain the multi-pronged challenges emanating from Rohingya concentration at Cox’s Bazar. The existing administrative and security arrangement cannot be considered permanent nor can it be taken as infallible. We must keep in mind that it is a concentration of a despaired, traumatised population seeing no light of hope shortly; living in a dense and dire living condition. We cannot expect much from such a battered, uneducated and frustrated population having no effective leadership. So, the security challenges emanating from Rohingya are likely to be more diverse, volatile and complex. As we all know, the spectrum of security is dynamic and changes with the actors’ and stakeholders’ circumstances and actions. It becomes further complex if the stakeholders’ number is more and their involvement is deep.
The Rohingya crisis is again intensely connected to the geostrategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region and particularly the Global South. We all are aware of the geostrategic, geopolitical, geoeconomic, and security interests of China in Myanmar and its link to BRI, CMEC (mainly consists of railways, industrial and power projects, and trade agreements), and access to the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean besides access to the untapped resources of Myanmar. The CMEC will reduce China’s reliance on the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. At the same time, it will reduce the susceptibility of the adversaries during times of crisis. China is currently the second largest foreign investor in Myanmar after Singapore. The current volatile situation in areas close to the Chinese border is affecting the Chinese population from criminal activities that involve human trafficking, drug smuggling and cyber scams. On the other hand, the US-led Quad will continue its strategic, economic, and even military moves to contain China against its expansionist initiatives. This power rivalry between the global and regional powers is less likely to diminish let alone end. Rather with the economic enrichment of East and South Asian countries, this is expected to rise.
The security situation in Myanmar is deteriorating day by day. Myanmar’s periphery has been marked by decades of conflict between the military and a plethora of ethnic armies that continue to fuel violence. The oppressed ethnic minority, maximum ethnic groups except Bamar, took up arms intending to drive the military from power and establish a federal democracy. As per a BBC report, three ethnic insurgent armies (Three Brotherhood Alliance- 3BHA) in Shan State, namely the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Arakan Army launched a military operation (Operation 1027) on 27 October 2023 and have overrun military posts, and captured border crossings and the roads carrying most of the overland trade with China. By mid-December 2023, the 3BHA claimed to have captured more than 300 junta bases and 20 towns in northern Shan State. The Arakan Army (AA) claimed the capture of 142 positions of the Myanmar military junta across 15 out of 17 townships in Rakhine State including one close to the Bangladesh border and Paletwa Township in Chin State. The success of the offensive in northern Shan State has inspired the ethnic armies to conduct coordinated attacks in the Sagaing, Mandalay, Bago and Magwe regions, as well as Rakhine, Karen, Kayah, and Chin State. It is the most serious setback suffered by the junta since it seized power in February 2021.
The Tatmadaw has responded mercilessly against its citizens with airstrikes and artillery bombardments which emerged as a festering human catastrophe, food shortages, extreme instability and near economic collapse. As per Al Jazeera, from 26 October 2023 to 8 December 2023, more than 578,000 people were newly displaced on top of nearly 2 million who were already displaced before the surge in fighting according to the United Nations, which said 363 civilians had been killed and 461 injured since late October. The innocent civilians had to take refuge in neighbouring India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and also showed a likely upsurge towards China and Bangladesh. The entire region is feeling the immigration pressure from fleeing Myanmar’s migrants which the Myanmar junta is ensuring through extreme military measures and disrupting international humanitarian aid. An important aspect of the operation is that the government force was unable to bring in reinforcements or recover the ground it had lost. Hundreds of troops were killed including one of the senior commanders of government forces named Brigadier General Aung Kyaw Lwin in northern Shan State. What makes this attack even more significant is that for the first time, armed insurgents operating in Shan State have explicitly aligned themselves to overthrow the junta and restore democratic rule. And crucially China, which normally acts as a restraining influence on all the groups along its border with Myanmar, has not prevented this operation from going ahead. Cybercrime and human trafficking are rampant in Shan and Wa States with the involvement of Chinese nationals. The early successes of the alliance’s campaign have encouraged resistance forces elsewhere in the country. Even before Operation 1027, the junta’s State Administration Council admitted that at least 132 of 330 townships were beyond its control and imposed martial law on at least 44 townships across nine states and regions. Back in 2021, when the military and police violently crushed peaceful protests against the coup, opposition activists decided they had no choice but to call for a nationwide armed uprising against the junta. Wa State is controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), one of Burma’s largest ethnic armed groups. In the region of Sagaing, near the city of Mandalay, pro-democracy groups for the first time retook two townships that were under the control of the military. The Kachin Independence Army seized control of two military installations last month where they faced a barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire from Myanmar Tatmadaw. About 40,000 people have been displaced in Sagaing region and Kachin state. The situation in Rakhine state is volatile. More than 26000 people have been newly displaced adding to 63,884 IDPs in addition to approximately 1,50,000 Rohingya IDPs located at Sittwe and Pauktaw, as per the report of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). The military junta has imposed a sweeping travel ban which has further increased the suffering of the IDPs, aid workers, and other inhabitants. The oppression including killings, enforced disappearances, displacement, torture, arbitrary arrests, and sexual violence on innocent civilians by Myanmar tyrants went beyond any example in the world and pushed the country towards an inevitable dystopian state. Remember, an unstable Myanmar is certainly a security threat for Bangladesh in the form of a further influx of Rohingya, drug or arms trafficking, border security, opening to East Asia and economic activities. The unchecked and uncontested Myanmar’s military junta will continue to spur the further destabilisation of Myanmar leading to spillover throughout the region and contributing to the destabilisation of international order. Armed conflict and internal displacement of the population has also serious and far-reaching effect on resource extraction, climate change, climate action etc. Involuntary and unplanned movements of people resulted in the loss of jobs, livelihood disruption, education, health, and other poor social support.
There can be several scenarios of ongoing armed conflict between Tatmadaw vs EAOs and PDF. Most importantly, EAOs and PDFs have significant popular support of almost all ethnic minorities except Bamar. So, this is a conflict between the majority of citizens of Myanmar vs its Military, Tatmadaw. It is almost evident that Tatmadaw has lost control of maximum territory. Myanmar’s external support has been squeezed to the minimum. People’s support to the present military junta is at the lowest ebb. The conflict is now at its unprecedented scale and having no light of negotiation with each other results in a protracted conflict that could last years and trigger greater displacement. This is an existential question of Tatmadaw, especially some of their top brasses. In these circumstances of extreme security situation, and political, social, and economic crisis, fervent seeking of external support by the military junta is expected. The recent victory of 3BHA in northern Shan State gives an implied meaning of China’s non-interference of Operation 1027 if not tacit support to 3BHA. China’s immediate strategic interest would be maintaining a buffer along the border with Myanmar to insulate China from instability and democratic political tendencies in Myanmar through the simultaneous engagement of seven EAOs fighting in Shan and Kachin States and the military Junta. Again, China is less likely to lose Myanmar to the West unabated. China and India have been competing with each other to expand their influence and economic ties with Myanmar for a long time. India is less likely to support the disintegration of Myanmar and will not accept an exodus of refugees from Myanmar. India is likely to continue supporting its Act East policy and bring home other geostrategic and geo-economic interests. Japan considers its sizable investment in Myanmar as promoting its economic corridor to the global South and the Indian Ocean in consonance with its geostrategic competition with China. Thailand and Singapore are likely to expect the security and prospects of their investments. Russia, which enjoys close relations with both China and India, with its complex geostrategic and economic situation, is likely to continue supporting Myanmar due to its anti-West stance. Moscow acknowledged the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power on 1 February 2021 viewing the coup as a golden opportunity to advance Russia’s interests in Myanmar, and the junta endorsed the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. On the other hand, the exiled NUG government including PDF and the innocent and oppressed general mass of Myanmar have the support from the West and its allies. So, evidentially, Myanmar may fall into the battleground of the power play between the West and China-Russia and its allies. The use of extreme measures by Tatmadaw against the armed group and its supporters i.e. the general mass is expected to continue. As long as the military junta remains in power, Myanmar will be mired in violence and edging towards total collapse. This will inevitably result in Myanmar towards a failed or near-failed state and an exodus of refugees to the neighbouring countries. The ripple effect of Myanmar’s instability will result in human, arms and drug trafficking within Myanmar and to the neighbouring countries which is inevitable for the survival of the survivors of Myanmar’s present armed conflict.
The region should be concerned seriously about the Narco-terrorism emerging from Myanmar. The current lawlessness of Myanmar is creating a conducive environment for rapidly expanding criminal activities including drug production and trafficking which is a sinister threat for the region and the world. Myanmar is one of the territories within the infamous Golden Triangle where illicit opium production occurs. Opium production in Afghanistan has significantly declined in 2022 as the authority has imposed a ban on opium cultivation. Myanmar, which was the world’s second-biggest producer of heroin surpassed Afghanistan. The farmers of Myanmar devote more land to growing poppies amid economic turmoil and disruptions. The military, which is in power following the coup in February 2021, is neither willing nor capable of launching a war on opium cultivation and the rapidly growing production of synthetic drugs. In a plummeting economy coupled with a wide range of sanctions by the Western countries followed by investors’ exit, there are strong allegations of linking the military’s top brass with the drug syndicates to profit from the multibillion-dollar trade. Drug exports generate $1 to $2 billion annually. Some of the ethnic armed organisations are also allegedly involved in the production and smuggling of drugs as it is more profitable and can earn quick money. In Shan state, 49% of households in the villages cultivate opium poppy. The farmers are forced to grow poppy as the Tatmadaw issued heavy taxes on other traditional crops. The regional countries and the world need to worry about wide-scale poverty, poor governance, conflict-stricken territory and a plummeting economy of Myanmar creating a conducive environment for drug production and trafficking. Drugs are being trafficked to countries like China, Thailand, India, Laos, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, South Korea, Cambodia etc.
Though the immediate Rohingya repatriation appears to be dim and distant under the current volatile situation, but a ray of hope can be seen as the invincibility of Myanmar Tatmadaw is certainly waning. The Tatmadaw is losing ground to the democracy-lover ethnic armed organisations. The Bamar youths are less interested to join Tatmadaw resulting serious shortfall of recruitment. There were incidents of escape of soldiers from the military units in the battlefield. One of the main sources of strength of the military junta were the Buddhist monk who are now divided to support them. Many leaderships of Buddhist monk no longer support the MaBaTha doctrine (ultra-nationalist Buddhist organisation meant to establish supremacy of Buddhism and Bamar as an ethnic entity over others) which was one of the source of internal power for the military junta. The international community including Bangladesh should come forward and extend a hand towards these oppressed civilians and its political entity. A coordinated internal and external pressure might help to compel the Myanmar military junta to change their stubborn attitude and hand over power to the people for a prosperous democratic future. A democratic Myanmar will certainly be the prime actor to take back its citizens from Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the security issues created by Rohingya in Bangladesh are increasing exponentially, as anticipated. A more proactive initiative and actions are expected from Bangladesh given the current muddling geostrategic situation in the global south and the increasing security issues created by Rohingya in Bangladesh. A few of the recommendations are:
1. Based on the current unstable political, social, economic and security situation in Myanmar, provide all sorts of support to the initiative by the international community who are voicing Myanmar’s crime against humanity to bring back democracy in Myanmar. Extend support to the democracy aspirant citizens of Myanmar along with the international community.
2. Encourage Rohingya to be connected with other oppressed citizens of Myanmar including their political entity to ensure a healthy and peaceful living on return to Myanmar in future.
3. Contain Rohingyas within their camps and monitor them constantly with adequate security and intelligence arrangements.
4. Take adequate measures to address the spillover effect of Narco-terrorism from Myanmar.
5. Encourage Rohingya leadership to grow and use them effectively to contain illegal and unlawful activities by Rohingya including guidance for the future generation.
6. Continue supporting the repatriation initiative by China and the third country relocation of Rohingya by any country.
7. Continue iterating the Rohingya issue at every possible platform, especially in UN, ASEAN, OIC and other important state and non-state stakeholders. Continue effective diplomatic efforts to ensure continued support for the Rohingya in Bangladesh.
8. Provide all possible support to Gambia for trial in ICJ.
9. The Rohingya issue is one of the most critical and complex national issues in Bangladesh. The government may consider forming a national commission to deal with the affairs appropriately.