Myanmar crisis needs diplomatic and peaceful resolution: Experts

(L-R) Parvez Karim Abbasi, Maj Gen. Shahidul Haque (retd), Zafar Sobhan, Maj. Gen. ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), Umme Salma TarinCollected

Myanmar today is geo-strategically, geo-economically and geo-politically important to the major powers of the world. Despite the fact that this growing importance of Myanmar was visible for quite some time, Bangladesh has never really made any tangible overtures to comprehend the mind of this neighbour or to build stronger ties. It is now facing the consequences. Given the implications of Myanmar's growing instability, it is high time for Bangladesh to restrategise its actions in connection to Myanmar.

These observations were made by speakers at a roundtable on 'Instability in Myanmar: Implications for Bangladesh and the Region'. The event, held at The Westin Dhaka on Tuesday, was jointly organised by Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) and Dhaka Tribune as part of their series of roundtable discussions on globally and regionally pertinent current affairs.

In his opening remarks as moderator of the discussion, the BIPSS president, Maj. Gen. ANM Muniruzzaman (retd) highlighted the numerous insurgencies within Myanmar. He said, “There are 13 on-going insurgencies in Myanmar with around 12 to 15 insurgent groups fighting at present. This has consequences beyond Myanmar.” He mentioned how the Arakan Army was operating in Rakhine state now and also that the Myanmar military Tatmadaw had launched a major operation there in response.

Elaborating on the significance of the Rakhine state, he pointed out the interest of China, Russia and India in Myanmar from geo-strategic, geo-economic and geo-political angles. Yet, he added, though Myanmar was Bangladesh’s only neighbor outside of India, it was least understood by Bangladesh. There was very little contact with Myanmar on either a Track I level or on a people-to-people Track II level.

Maj Gen Shahidul Haque (retd), Bangladesh’s former defence attaché to Myanmar and former ambassador to Libya, said that even in Myanmar they were aware of Bangladesh’s nonchalance. An ambassador of Myanmar had once commented that Bangladesh looks East, but beyond Myanmar.

“Myanmar is a very complex country,” said the panelist, pointing out how after the departure of the British in 1948, the many nationalities of the country were forced into one nation with the Bamar controlling everything. In actuality, they were never integrated into one nation. No one else can claim their own culture or history, he said, adding, “An uneasy peace prevailed.”

“Democratisation in Myanmar is a myth,” maintained Maj. Gen. Shahidul Haque, “Their constitution is not all inclusive. Even Aung San Suu Kyi being a de facto leader is a myth. She had no power and was also a Bamar out and out. Unfortunately, the West do not see beyond Suu Kyi”

Religion-wise, orthodox Buddhism prevailed in Myanmar and, he said, they followed an age-old axiom that to be a Burmese is to be a Buddhist. They were also very superstitious people and were prone to consult astrologists, even on vital matters of the state.

The former defence attaché said that the military was an all powerful institution in Myanmar, but it was designed to fight insurgency, not external threats. It does not perceive Bangladesh as a threat.

The next panelist Umme Salma Tarin, assistant professor of the international relations department at Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP), talked about the National Unity Government (NUG) that had grown to pose as an alternative to the junta in Myanmar and also how it was trying to include members of the civil society and other stakeholders to establish responsible governance. The most important goal for NUG was to gain international recognition. Its armed wing, the People’s Defence Force (PDF), was trying to establish a central command over all the groups fighting the junta, but that was a tough task and success remained to be seen. “Coordinating all the groups is a challenge for NUG,” she said, “though to some extent it had gained control over a number of territories in Myanmar.”

Even former Tatmadaw officials or their cronies are all leaving the country, taking with them their wealth to Dubai, Singapore and, not surprisingly, the British Virgin Islands
Parvez Karim Abbasi, assistant professor of economics, East West University

“No country has yet recognized NUG officially,” pointed out Umme Salma Tarin, “though the EU parliament and the US have hinted at support, with no explicit recognition. The international community is behaving very strategically.”

She termed Myanmar as one of the most destablising factors in the region. It has even violated Thailand’s air space and people had been killed there too as a result of Myanmar’s infighting, just as Bangladesh has been affected too. She also mentioned a profusion of drugs and small arms entering the country from Myanmar.

“Myanmar is facing severe economic stress,” said Parvez Karim Abbasi, assistant professor of economics at East West University," and its difficulties have been exacerbated by the Covid outbreak and the Russia-Ukraine war.”

He pointed out that Myanmar was rich in resources and had a USD 1400 per capita income in 2019. However, after the coup, along with infighting, the rise of NUG and PDF and other armed ethic organisations, 2021 saw the worst recession there. Poverty shot up to 40 per cent. It has the lowest Covid vaccination rate among the ASEAN countries. The low intensity armed conflicts were verging on civil war. Then there were the sanctions from the US, UK, EU and Australia. Inflation was 18 per cent last year and the kyat depreciated by 30 per cent. Both petrol and food prices shot up too.

There is no military solution to the crisis. We must find a diplomatic and peaceful resolution. No diplomacy is diplomacy without deterrence
Maj. Gen. ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), president, BIPSS

“With the economy in such a crisis, the elite have started to leave Myanmar. Even former Tatmadaw officials or their cronies are all leaving the country, taking with them their wealth to Dubai, Singapore and, not surprisingly, the British Virgin Islands,” he said. However, he also went on to say that the economy was being revived up by investments from the Chinese, Japanese and from Singapore. Also, Tatmadaw’s control on the country’s resources was chiseled into the constitution. Round 30 to 40 per cent of the GDP was spent on defence.

Myanmar was a formidable source of narcotics, the second largest producer of heroin and the largest producer of yaba.  The situation is economic and narcotic warfare for us, said Parvez Karim Abbasi, with the influx of refugees posing as an economic challenge and yaba and crystal meth as a narcotic threat.

He went on to explain that the US sanctions were not effective as the US also had concern about the welfare of the common people. But it was targeting banks and other institutions with sanctions. Yet China, India, ASEAN countries, Japan, South Korea and Singapore were enabling cash flow to Myanmar and so the sanctions were not effective. Myanmar was transacting in yuan with China, in baht with Thailand and in ruble with Russia.

Bangladesh must stop sleepwalking on the issue and may even consider a multi-ministerial initiative
Zafar Sobhan, Editor, Dhaka Tribune

In his concluding remarks, Maj Gen Muniruzzaman (retd) said that given support and investments from China, India, ASEAN and others, Myanmar was in no immediate threat of collapse. It has steely resistance to deal with sanctions. It was also amidst three major economic and strategic corridors –CMEC, BRI and BCIM. These corridors made Myanmar extremely important.

In context of the implications for Bangladesh, he said, "We need a comprehensive approach to the problem. It could not be dealt with by just one ministry. There was need for a consolidated task force and a coherent strategy."

“There is no military solution to the crisis. We must find a diplomatic and peaceful resolution” he said, also adding, “No diplomacy is diplomacy without deterrence.”

Foreign diplomats, former civil and military bureaucrats, former ambassadors, academics, journalists, students and other eminent persons present at the event raised questions and shared their views during the lively interactive session that followed.  

Concluding the roundtable discussion, Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune, said that the influx of the refugees was just a partial aspect of the crisis and the problem needed to be viewed in its entirety. “Bangladesh must stop sleepwalking on the issue and may even consider a multi-ministerial initiative to deal with it.”