Thursday May 23, 2024 06:12 pm

MYANMAR CURRENT SITUATION AND FUTURE OF ROHINGYAS- IS OPPORTUNITY SLIPPING AWAY?

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🕐 2024-03-19 10:21:43

MYANMAR CURRENT SITUATION AND FUTURE OF ROHINGYAS- IS OPPORTUNITY SLIPPING AWAY?

Lt Gen (Retd) Mohammad Mahfuzur Rahman, PhD 

Former Principal Staff Officer, Armed Forces Division, Prime Minister’s Office


In the recent history of Myanmar Military Rule, the Junta never faced such a critical situation militarily and politically. The mainstay of the Junta is their military power with which they crushed all kinds of oppositions and their legitimacy is without the military at the core of power the Union of Myanmar shall break apart. Recent attacks of the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) on the Junta’s camps and outposts have challenged mainstay, the robustness of TATMADAW (Myanmar Armed Forces). What is more puzzling is that earlier such attacks were around the bordering areas on Security Forces’ outposts, now besides bordering areas capturing of townships and attacking in the centre of the country like establishments around Mandalay have surprised many. The other issue is the Myanmar Military in power that has brought the Union to the brink of fragility instead of solid integrity.

Current Development
The three brotherhood alliance (Arakan Army; AA, Myanmar Democratic Alliance Army; MNDAA and Ta’ang National Liberation Army; TNLA) started attacking security forces’ posts on 27 October 2023 under code name ‘Operations 1027’in northern Shan State bordering China as well as in Rakhine, a western state bordering Bangladesh. It seems several EAOs have joined this operation simultaneously in Kachin, Kayah, Sagaing, Chin and other places. These coordinated attacks have overwhelmed the decision-making cycle of TATMADAW at least the paralysis in response exhibits so. Over 200 posts have been overrun, and a dozen townships have fallen in the hands of EAOs including important segments of border trade routes and trade/crossing posts with China, Thailand and India. Aside from politics, this will have economic consequences for the Junta. Almost 52 per cent of Myanmar is under the effective control of EAOs. Of course, this does not mean the days of TATMADAW are over, they are still in control and materially numerous times stronger than EAOs but looks like its ‘morale component’ has weakened since the forces at even military outposts are surrendering without putting up much resistance.
What TATMDAW/Junta is expected to do?
The Junta is likely to observe the situation and would not panic/hurry. It will possibly go for the ‘Carrot and Stick Policy’ and ‘Amity and Enmity Policy’ with EAOs meaning will negotiate with some and fight some, contain some and dislodge some as it cannot be strong everywhere and would not also dissipate its forces. It will rely on artillery and airpower to compensate for ground weakness. It is already failing to reinforce ground fighting units due to a shortage of manpower. We might observe, TATMADAW giving up less important territory and strengthening vital grounds, offering concessions to chosen EAOs earlier never anticipated. We are likely to see they are taking China’s concerns seriously. It is already evident that the Junta is not reacting much in Shan State against MNDAA and TNLA (as their area of operations is in borders with China) but has taken up the ‘Four Cut Strategy’ (food, medicine, movement restriction between townships and between states) against AA in Rakhine putting them in back foot logistically creating suffering for the population that is likely to bring AA to maintain status quo. The other reasonable assumption is taking action against other EAOs would mean creating likely uncertainty in Chinese, India and Thailand’s borders with Myanmar. This is the moment the Junta would try and avoid those borders by not causing instability and remaining in a containment role. AA is on the Bangladesh border and the Junta would not hesitate to show their military arrogance in Rakhine having experienced the limitations of Dhaka.  

China Factor
There is a China factor in the coordinated operations of EAOs. In Shan State ethnic Chinese populated Kokang Region (bordering China) casinos, illicit business of many facets, cyber scam centres developed exponentially and mostly Chinese citizens in great numbers were getting trapped and even held against their will. It’s a billion-dollar business there and Myanmar Junta ignored repeated requests of China to take measures. Reportedly, the Junta in general and Senior Gen Ming Aung Hla in particular have interests in the area and Junta was reluctant to take any visible actions. China was facing criticism from within for failing to address the issue. It was turning into a nontraditional security crisis in Yunnan Province. Apart from this, in recent times Junta seemed remarkably diversifying its defence procurement and the tilt is heavy towards the Russian side. More so, military and political cooperation with Russia has increased in manifolds. Naturally, China would not like to be an alternative after so much investment in Junta and Myanmar, after all, it is an ‘economic and energy corridor’ for China. However, China would only go that far in twisting of Junta arms ‘through EAOs where it can be tamed at the same time limiting EAOs’ operational flexibility up to a line where a balance of power is drawn between the Junta and EAOs that ensures China’s strategic interest in Myanmar. China would not like capitulations of TATMADAW and power shifting to Western Leaning, National Unity Government (NUG) without being sure that NUG would protect the Chinese interests in Myanmar. However, we might see in such a scenario, China maintaining relations with both EAOs and NUG after the fall of the Junta (if happens). As the Chinese stake in Myanmar is so heavy relying on one side would be strategically risky particularly, for Belt and Road Initiatives and access to the Indian Ocean.

India Factor
India has not shown much reaction except the traditional diplomatic vocabulary of concerns. However, she would be cautious to take a side at this point since India would not like the Junta falling into the fold of China. She understands bringing down TATMADAW by EAOs by capturing some posts and townships around borders is not good enough, the move to support EAOs including NUG could be premature for New Delhi. However, we have seen India handing over TATMADAW soldiers to Junta who fled the recent fighting and took shelter in India. She has also housed a good number of refugees as a consequence of recent armed conflict in Chin and Sagaing States. India has to maintain a balanced approach. She could effectively control her dissident groups along the Myanmar border with the active support of the Junta. Having relation with the Junta officially because of her strategic interest (Kaladan Project, India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway Project) at the same time annoying EAOs not only would affect these projects but also may upset the people of Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland who would be uncomfortable seeing their ethnic people suffering in the hands of Junta inside Myanmar border. Nonetheless, India will not take long to tilt towards NUG (that would be a natural fit) in case, she understands Junta is unlikely to recover.

Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.

What about Bangladesh?
Interestingly, we have not seen a visible reaction in Bangladesh to the recent development in Myanmar. Seems Dhaka is inward-looking about the ongoing issues in Myanmar in general and Rakhine in particular, whereas, we are housing about a million plus Myanmar nationals on our soil from Rakhine State. Let us be very clear about the military mind that the Junta under Senior General Min Aung Hla is not going to take back the Rohingyas, if they accept a token repatriation under the prevailing precarious situation that would be to their advantage. It may be remembered if someday Aung Sun Su Kyi-led NUG comes to power accepting Rohingyas back to Rakhine would depend on the political will of AA and its political wing United League of Arakan (ULA). While AA and the people of Rakhine are suffering from the ‘Four Cut Strategy’ of the Junta and ULA is desperately looking for humanitarian help (food and medicine) for civilians, the indifference of Dhaka will have ramifications in Rohingya repatriation in future. Understandably, this is a difficult decision to make and there are risks involved. However, there is a necessity to study about pros and cons of taking a calculated risk. 

Recommendations
It is recommended to debate whether humanitarian support can be extended to civilians in Rakhine at the request of NUG (regarded as the legitimate representative of the people) at the National Committee for Security Affairs (NCSA) or the parliament when it is formed again after the election in Bangladesh.
Alternatively, it may be also debated if international community’s/NGO’s initiated humanitarian support for Rakhine civilians can be permitted using Bangladesh territory (EAOs have captured several crossing points and townships along the Indian, Chinese and Thailand border where support for civilians do not need Junta’s approval now). There is an opportunity that US Burma Act of non-lethal and technical assistance could equally benefit Rohingyas and Rakhines in Rakhine State and bolster cooperation between communities.
Arakan Rohingya National Alliance (ARNA) and other Rohingya Organizations may maintain close liaison with AA and NUG at this critical time to remain relevant. 
In every challenging situation, there are opportunities. But the irony is the window of opportunity does not remain open for infinity. Is the opportunity for Rohingyas slipping away?