Myanmar's civil war and our ‘neutrality’

Rebel groups control large parts of MyanmarReuters

Ever since the Three Brotherhood alliance began its coordinated attacks on 27 October 2023 in Myanmar’s Shan state along the border with China, the Myanmar army or Tatmadaw has known no peace. At one point there was news of a ceasefire between the two sides mediated by China, but there was no reflection of that in reality. The conflict continued and one after the other the Myanmar army camps and posts fell to the rebels.

The Arakan Army is known to be the strongest group of the alliance. Its area of interest basically lies from this point of conflict all the way west to the Rakhine or Arakan state, along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, bordering Bangladesh.

After the success of the alliance along the China border, the Arakan Army gradually advanced west and last year on 13 November it gained control of the important town Paletwa in the Chin state adjacent to Rakhine. Incidentally, Paletwa is an important location linked to India’s ambitious Kaladan multimodal transport project.

By allowing the Myanmar army troops to retreat into Bangladesh and then sending them back where they will resume their fight against the Arakan Army, doesn’t that amount to taking the side of the junta?

In January, the fight between the Myanmar troops and the Arakan Army came up to the Rakhine border with Bangladesh. These clashes are creating unrest along the border. Mortar shells are falling into Bangladesh territory and at least two were killed. Many have left their homes and moved away from the border.

On 4 February, 68 members (some put the number at 100) of the Myanmar BGP (Border Guard Police) crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh for shelter. BGB disarmed them and took them into custody. This trend continued for quite a few days and the number of fleeing BGP men reached 330. Talks were held with the Myanmar authorities about taking them back. Bangladesh wanted to send them back by air, but for some unknown reason the Myanmar authorities insisted on taking them back by sea route. Bangladesh acquiesced. On 15 February, under BGB supervision, they were handed over to the Myanmar authorities at the navy’s Inani jetty.

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The fight between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army continues. It is apparent that the military is slowly but steadily losing ground to the Arakan Army. Small groups of the defeated troops are fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. This number of BGP and army members sheltered in Bangladesh stood at 288. On 25 April they were sent back to Myanmar after talks with the Myanmar government. A day earlier, 173 Bangladeshis in various jails in Myanmar were brought back.

There is need to look a little deeper into the matter of Myanmar troops fleeing from the Arakan Army and taking shelter in Bangladesh, and then sending them back to the junta. Retreat is a common practice in any war in adverse circumstances. Then once again the retreated group can fight back. The Myanmar army has a shortage of soldiers. It can be assumed that the soldiers being sent back will join the battle again. What does that mean? Doesn’t that mean that the Myanmar army troops are using Bangladesh as a safe place for temporary retreat?

It is taken that Bangladesh has a neutral stand in the ongoing civil war in Myanmar. But by allowing the Myanmar army troops to retreat into Bangladesh and then sending them back where they will resume their fight against the Arakan Army, doesn’t that amount to taking the side of the junta?

It can be seen from another angle too. For instance, if a group of the Arakan Army is thwarted in a fight along the border, they can retreat into Bangladesh. We can provide them with shelter. Then what will Bangladesh do? Will we contact the Arakan Army and tell them to take their troops back? If we want to be neutral, wouldn’t that be the thing to do?

Interests are at the root of international relations. Neutrality is acceptable when it goes in favour of national interests. Not directly taking any sides in the Myanmar civil war is probably in our national interests. But it must be seen whether the fleeing of Myanmar troops into Bangladesh and facilitating their return, is putting this neutrality into question.

It also must be seen whether this consideration being displayed towards the military of Myanmar is at all in our interests. The junta may be on the back foot, but it continues in its inflexible stand towards Bangladesh. It is Myanmar that decides how their troops will be taken back and Bangladesh simply acquiesces. Just recently two Bangladeshi fishermen were shot and injured by the Myanmar navy on the river Naf.

The junta may be losing ground to the Arakan Army in the civil war, but no one knows the ultimate outcome. I feel that war at one stage will come to a standstill and all parties will sit at the table and bring the war to an end. Analysts believe that the warring ethnic groups will more or less be able to gain regional autonomy.

China is playing the most startling role in the ongoing civil war. On one hand, China is the mainstay and strength of the Myanmar military junta. On the other hand, they are also backing the Arakan Army and other warring ethnic groups in their own interests so that in future changed circumstances, China will still be in control. There is a consensus among almost everyone that it is the Arakan Army and its political front United League of Arakan that will be the main force in Rakhine in the days to come.

The main issue for Bangladesh is the repatriation of over 1.2 million (12 lakh) Rohingyas in the refugee camps. Adopting a soft stance towards the junta yielded no results in the past six years. The stance of the Arakan Army regarding the Rohingya repatriation issue will surely be important in the post-war Rakhine. Under such circumstances, Bangladesh should do nothing that may be construed by the Arakan Army as adversity towards them.

Finally I reiterate my firm belief that in its own interests Bangladesh must immediately establish effective relations behind the scenes with the Arakan Army.

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* Md. Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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