Interview: Maj. Gen. Emdadul Islam (retd)

Rakhine situation may lead to risks of geopolitical conflict

Bangladesh is facing a fallout from the Myanmar civil war. Bullets and mortar shells are crossing over the border into Bangladesh creating danger and alarm. Members of the Myanmar army, its Border Guard Police (BGP) and government officials, a few hundred in number, have fled into Bangladesh for shelter. In an interview with Prothom Alo's Partha Shankar Saha, security analyst Major General Emdadul Islam (retd) talks about the prevailing situation in Myanmar, its impact on Bangladesh, Rohingya repatriation and the role of China, India, the US and others. Maj. Gen. Emdadul Islam is the author of the book 'Rohingya: Nishango Nipirito Jatigoshti'.

Prothom Alo :

Towards the end of October last year, three organisations in Myanmar launched the 'Operation 1027', stepping up the anti-junta movement there. What made the rebels unite and take this action?

Emdadul Islam: On 1 February 2021, the armed forces in Myanmar toppled Aung San Suu Kyi from power and took over. Protest and public anger spread all over Myanmar and a violent movement ensued. Supporters of Suu Kyi's party NLD formed a government in exile, NUG (National Unity Government). This government-in-exile formed the MNDA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance) to bring all anti-junta parties and groups under one umbrella. It was seen that NUG and MNDA were supported by the West, that is, the US, to a great extent and has leant towards the West.

The Myanmar military has always had China's support. Under the circumstances, as part of its strategy to hold on to its geopolitical and geostrategic stronghold, China may have decided to activate the various rebel groups as a 'second line force' in confrontation with the army. China may be aiding and abetting this new aggression of the rebel groups so that NUG does not gain from the people's adverse mindset towards the army and that these rebel groups can take that place.

Prothom Alo :

It is said that China had sparked off Operation 1027. China had been disgruntled with the Myanmar government for the escalating crime along the China-Myanmar border, drug trafficking, ransom and such. Has China changed its stand regarding Myanmar?

Emdadul Islam: It makes no difference whether or not China initiated 'Operation1027'. But this has delivered the Myanmar military a strong message again. It has pointed out that China has a strong sphere of influence even outside of the armed forces. China's stand regarding Myanmar has not changed one bit. To the contrary, China has delivered the message in no uncertain terms that they remain the sole deciding factor in Myanmar.

Prothom Alo :

Strategically speaking, Myanmar is very important to China. China has easier control on the Indian Ocean through Myanmar. They also have interests in mineral resources and other sectors there. What role will China play now for stability in Myanmar?

Emdadul Islam: The well-known Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, in one of its reports had said that the Kyaukphyu deep sea port located in Rakhine, Myanmar, was the most important installation to China now. It is part of China's Belt and Road Initiative. China has long been uneasy with importing fuel through the Strait of Malacca due to the various obstacles created by the US in the South China Sea. It must be kept in mind that Malacca is China's fourth largest fuel supply route.

Then there is China's industrial zone centering Kyaukphyu. China will conduct its export trade from this industrial zone away from the mainland at reduced costs.

Gas is being supplied to three provinces in China's south region from the Shwe gas field in Rakhine. China has built one of the largest hydro-electric power plants along the river Irrawaddy. So China will never want Myanmar to sink into a permanent instability. On the contrary, it will try to maintain a controlled instability in Myanmar to achieve its strategic interests.

Prothom Alo :

From 1962 it has been the military that has ruled Myanmar, directly or indirectly. It has seen rebellion in the past too and had quelled it. What is different about the armed struggle now?

Emdadul Islam: Myanmar has been dealing with various armed groups since its inception. The Shan State National Army in the Shan State, the Karen Independent Army in the Karen state, the Chin National Army in the Chin state, the Mon Army in the Mon state, the Kachin Independent Army in the Kachin state, the Wa Army, the Arakan Army in the Arakan state have long been fighting. The Myanmar army has always suppressed these armed struggles. It has done so through armed power at times, and at times through negotiations. But there has never been any bloody rebellion within the Myanmar armed forces itself. From General Ne Win to General Saw Maung, from General Saw Maung to General Than Shwe, from General Than Shwe to General Min Hlaing – it has been like a royal lineage.

The most notable factor of the struggle this time has been that never before has anyone of the Myanmar army or their second line force ever fled for shelter into Bangladesh from the battle field. They are fleeing this time and coming to us for shelter.

Prothom Alo :

After the coup led by Min Aung Hlaing in 2021 , the junta government has being losing one area after the other to the rebels. Is there a rift within the Myanmar armed forces?

Emdadul Islam: The reason behind the loss of control in various regions will not be any crack in the existing unity of the Myanmar army. The Myanmar military leadership may see this, at the most, as a weakness in the leadership of the senior General Min Aung Hlaing. This was so in 1992. At that time, General Shaw Maung slipped behind the scenes after handing over power to General Than Shwe.

One must keep in mind that outside of the Myanmar military, no civilian leadership has emerged, or hasn’t been allowed to emerge, in that country. And the people have been given the idea that there is no power outside the military that can hold together the multi-ethnic Myanmar.

Prothom Alo :

The impact of internal conflict of Myanmar is spilling over into the border-lying areas of Bangladesh. The Arakan Army is setting up its control in Rakhine. How much of a threat is this to Bangladesh’s internal security?

Emdadul Islam: The conflict in Rakhine the other side of the border is Myanmar’s internal matter. Even so, it is a matter of concern for us. This conflict is creating a security threat for Bangladesh. Many Rohingya people have taken shelter in Bangladesh due to the torture and brutality of the Myanmar government in Rakhine. The issue of their repatriation has been hanging for long and now it seems to have become even more uncertain.

Our two neighbours China and India have geostrategic interests in Myanmar. Bangladesh must strike a balance with whatever measures they take regarding Rakhine. This is a complex equation for Bangladesh. In his report regarding Myanmar, the former United National secretary general Kofi Annan had clearly said that unless the problems in Rakhine were speedily resolved, this would put not only Myanmar and Bangladesh into a crisis, but the entire Southeast Asia in a dire crisis. He even expressed apprehension of a rise of fundamentalism in the region.

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It is imperative for Bangladesh to use strategic and diplomatic farsighted acumen in an effort to restore stability in Rakhine. This effort may even open the doors for the repatriation of the Rohingyas

Prothom Alo :

What impact will the current situation in Myanmar have on the Rohingya crisis that Bangladesh faces?

Emdadul Islam: In future, the US many not want to see China so easily availing gas from the Shwe gas field in Rakhine. It also may not want to see China using the Kyaukpyu deep sea port to gain easy access to the Indian Ocean. These bones of contention between the two superpowers may create conflict around Rakhine. Given the geopolitical circumstances, the threat of conflict may increase further. If anything like that happens, the Rohingya crisis will deteriorate rapidly.

Under such circumstances if India sides with the US, this will make the situation in the region even more complex and difficult. It will create a regional security crisis. The situation in Rakhine is pushing Bangladesh towards such complex circumstances. The Rohingya repatriation issue is totally uncertain. The unrest in Rakhine may be drawn out further. Restoring stability to Rakhine should be Bangladesh’s top diplomatic priority now.

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Prothom Alo :

In its Burma Act, the US has termed the present military government in Myanmar as illegal. What impact does the Burma Act have on Myanmar?

Emdadul Islam: The Burma Act has given the US president quite a few powers. Under this act, the US government can freeze the assets of those aiding the Myanmar junta and impeding the democratic process. It can restrict visas and place sanctions on senior military officials. It can also place restrictions on the import of oil and gas in order to curb the military junta’s financial strength. Another important aspect of the Burma Act is the US State Department will be able to spend funds to assist supporters of democracy in Myanmar and other nearby countries of the region.

It cannot be said that the Burma Act, enacted in 2021, is being implemented in any significant way. NUG hasn’t really benefitted much from it. On the contrary, because of NUG’s apparent leaning towards western ideologies, particularly of the US, China has activated rebels groups like Wa, Ta’ang, Kachin and the Arakan Army. India may have also somewhat restrained its cooperation with the military junta. China has taken full advantage of this. The Burma Act hasn’t really brought about anything good for the supporters of democracy in Myanmar.

Prothom Alo :

After his meeting with the Indian security advisor Ajit Doval, Bangladesh’s foreign minister Hasan Mahmud said that the two countries had reached a consensus about how to overcome the Myanmar crisis. How far will a Bangladesh-India joint initiative be effective regarding the prevailing state of affairs in Myanmar?

Emdadul Islam: Those who are updated about geopolitics, will be aware that the Arakan Army is backed by China. And so the present rise of the Arakan Army does not bode well for India. India’s geostrategic project, the Kaladan Multimodal Multi Transit Project is at risk. This project is aim at connecting northeast India to the Indian mainland via Kolkata, Sittwe and Paletwa. Arakan Amy has already taken main destination Paletwa under its control. This situation has pitched Bangladesh into a complex geopolitical and diplomatic challenge.

Prothom Alo :

What threats do the prevailing crisis in Myanmar pose for Bangladesh? What could Bangladesh strategic stance be in this situation?

Emdadul Islam: The major threat for Bangladesh in this situation is the conflict in Rakhine and the ensuing instability. The main challenge will be for Bangladesh to uphold its own interests amid the geopolitical tensions between the two large neighbours.

In the future, anyone can use the Rohingyas who are sheltered in Bangladesh to create a security threat here. Under such circumstances, it is imperative for Bangladesh to use strategic and diplomatic farsighted acumen in an effort to restore stability in Rakhine. This effort may even open the doors for the repatriation of the Rohingyas.

Prothom Alo :

Many are of the opinion that the Bangladesh government should try to open channels of communication with the Arakan Army and other fighting groups. This is important for the future of Rohingya repatriation. How justified are such arguments?

Emdadul Islam: There are innumerable struggling groups in Myanmar. Significant among these are Aung San Suu Kyi’s NUG, the Shan National Army, the Karen Liberation Army and the Arakan Army. The Arakan Army is engaged in fighting with the Myanmar military in Arakan or Rakhine, adjacent to Bangladesh. Bangladesh has still not involved itself with Myanmar’s internal matters or geopolitics.

Bangladesh’s contact is with the Myanmar government. Bangladesh keeps up communications with the Myanmar government for state relations, diplomatic communications, trade and commerce and for resolving the Rohingya crisis. However, given the present changed circumstances in Myanmar, Bangladesh can establish communication with the Arakan Army indirectly for practical purposes. However, when taking such a step, China’s involvement with the Arakan Army, and India’s adverse relations with it, must also be taken into consideration.

Also to be taken into consideration is geostrategic relations, through the Arakan Army’s Northern Alliance or the present Friendship Alliance, with the Kachin Independent Army, Wa and the Ta’ang Army. But considering the overall situation, the time has not arrived as yet to display any coolness in communications with Myanmar’s present military junta or to overtly set up communications with the rebelling groups. The Intelligence can be used to communicate with the Arakan Army, but not through diplomatic channels.

* This interview 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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