Myanmar's conflict and implications for Bangladesh and the region

The Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) hosted the Policy Circle discussion, 'Is Myanmar Unraveling? Implications for Bangladesh and the Region' at The Westin Dhaka on 22 February. This event brought together experts to discuss the complex socio-political fabric of Myanmar and assess the potential repercussions across South Asia, said a press release.

In his opening remarks, Shafqat Munir, BIPSS Senior Research Fellow, highlighted the urgency of understanding the dynamics in Myanmar beyond the pressing Rohingya crisis. Moderator of the event, Major General ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), President, BIPSS, provided an introduction contextualising Myanmar's pivotal role within the region and its ongoing internal strife marked by the emergence of the Brotherhood Alliance last October.

"We need to understand the overall developing situation or conflict situation in Myanmar with particular focus on Rakhine and Chin," said Major General ANM Muniruzzaman. Rakhine is not only important for Bangladesh, but it is also important for China, India and other major powers of the world. The reason it is important to China is because they have a deep sea port in Kyaukphyu which is vitally important for China for its energy security. For India, it has got the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project for which the bordering state of Chin and Rakhine is vitally important. Bangladesh needs to understand the dynamics of the ongoing conflict within Chin and Rakhine state.

Panelists Md Touhid Hossain, former foreign secretary ; Major General Md Shahidul Haque (retd), former defence attaché to Myanmar and former ambassador to Libya, and Sudeep Chakravarti, Director of the Center for South Asian Studies (C-SAS) at ULAB and author of 'The Eastern Gate', brought their perspectives to the fore.

Md. Touhid Hossain characterised the situation as a nascent civil war, with the Tatmadaw facing both armed insurgencies and civilian opposition. "This is the first time the Bamans have taken arms against the military," he said. He delved into the geopolitical implications, noting the strategic manoeuvrings of China and the US in the region, and stressed the crucial nature of resource control in the conflict. He also emphasised the strategic importance of resource control and the Rohingya issue for Bangladesh.

In his opening remarks, Major General Md Shahidul Haque provided a comprehensive analysis of the current situation in Myanmar, addressing the distinct dynamics at play along its borders and the contrasting nature of conflicts in the eastern and western regions. He firmly asserted that Myanmar would not disintegrate, contrary to some speculations. Instead, he envisioned a scenario where the Tatmadaw would eventually renegotiate with the EAOs, emphasizing the importance of understanding the unique dimensions of conflict across Myanmar's diverse regions. According to Major General Haque, the dynamics of fighting in the eastern border differ significantly from those on the western border, with each region presenting its own set of challenges and implications for stability. He highlighted that a setback in one region does not necessarily spell doom for Myanmar as a whole.

Major General Haque stressed the urgency of opening communication channels with the Arakan Army. He suggested that engaging with the Arakan Army could be a strategic move for India, especially in the context of the Kaladan project -- a project which Major General Haque has declared effectively dead, illustrating the impact of regional dynamics on international investments and the importance of strategic communication and alliances.

Sudeep Chakravarti highlighted the deepening geopolitical crisis in Myanmar, focusing on China's strategic investments in the country's energy sector through pipelines delivering oil and gas to southwestern China. He emphasized China's long-standing practice of nurturing relationships with ethnic groups in Myanmar to safeguard these energy routes. In contrast, India's engagement, heavily reliant on the Tatmadaw, has been criticized for its delayed response to the changing dynamics, despite efforts to bolster border security. Chakravarti also pointed out the broader implications of Myanmar's instability, including the risk of conflict and weaponry spilling over into neighbouring countries, particularly Bangladesh. He underscored the importance of vigilance in Bangladesh, considering the potential for violence and the spread of weapons across its borders. Chakravarti's analysis calls for a strategic reassessment by neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, in the face of Myanmar's unfolding turmoil and its regional implications.

The open floor question-answer session facilitated a vibrant discussion on several fronts, including energy security, ASEAN's diplomatic potential, and the contours of Bangladesh's foreign policy towards Myanmar. The interactive session also underscored the imperative for Bangladesh to adopt a proactive, inventive diplomatic stance in navigating the complexities of regional politics. By identifying and aligning with connective interests, Bangladesh can enhance its strategic position and foster a more secure and prosperous future.

As the discussion concluded, Major General Muniruzzaman called for imaginative diplomatic efforts and expressed gratitude towards the panelists for their deep dive into the intricate dynamics at play. The event provided a platform for rigorous analysis and also underscored BIPSS's commitment to enriching the discourse on peace and security in South Asia.

This Policy Circle has successfully fostered an enlightened discussion, drawing participation from a broad spectrum of diplomats, scholars, and media professionals.