Civil war across the border, what will Bangladesh do?
Quiet but strong diplomacy must be initiated immediately with all stakeholder in the Myanmar situation, including ASEAN countries, since they will probably also have a strong role in resolving the crisis. Bangladesh must remain unwavering in its objective for the Rohingyas to return with their rights and security to a possible new Myanmar.
The civil war in Myanmar has taken a fresh turn not only for the sides involved in the fighting, but for Bangladesh too. The fight between the Myanmar army and the Arakan Army is taking place just along the border-lying areas with Bangladesh. Many had already been injured by bullets and shells entering Bangladesh across the border, and then on 5 February two persons in Bangladesh were killed in a mortar shell blast. One of them was a Bangladeshi woman and the other a Rohingya man. The foreign ministry summoned the Myanmar ambassador and lodged a protest.
Three years ago the Myanmar military cancelled the election results there and took over complete power, removing the semi-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the helm. It was from then that the conflict scaled to another level. The military had thought that, as always, they would be able to use their repression and suppression to keep things in their control. But this time the resistance has taken on a new dimension. Leaders of Suu Kyi's party NLD formed the National Unity Government (NUG). They were joined by various struggling ethic rebel groups. For the first time the Bamar youth of the People's Defence Force, under the umbrella of the National Unity Government, took up arms against the military.
The struggle became intense since October. First of all, the Three Brotherhood Alliance comprising the Arakan Army and two other affiliated groups, took control of several military outposts in the Shan state along the border with China. The fighting came very close when they took over the Paletwa town near the Bangladesh border, long the border to the Indian state Mizoram. And most recently the fighting broke out near the borders of Bangladesh's Tumbru and Alikhong.
Naturally no one expects that Bangladesh's formal protest will have any effect on resolving or curbing the ongoing conflict. So what is Bangladesh to do?
Firstly, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, Bangladesh must be patient. No matter what instigations may come its way, in no way should Bangladesh take any action that implies it is taking any particular side. Our main interest with Myanmar is to send back the Rohingyas. We do not know what the ultimate outcome will be of the civil war in Myanmar. So given the prevailing circumstances, it is vital that we maintain a neutral stance in the ongoing conflict.
Secondly, the fight rages on in North Rakhine between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. The 200,000 or 250,000 Rohingya who still remain in Rakhine, are in that area. Even though the conflict is not against the Rohingyas, the war will certain pose as a security threat to them. They too may try to flee into Bangladesh for safety. Bangladesh, under no circumstance, can take in another influx of refugees. That is why any such effort must be resisted at all costs.
Thirdly, Bangladesh's border with Myanmar is relatively short. This border must be secured completely with an adequate deployment of troops. Such armed neutrality on the part of Bangladesh must be made visible.
Fourthly, Bangladesh has only been maintaining communications with the Myanmar government at an official level. It is not known if contact has been set up with the other stakeholders in the prevailing situation. Outside of Bangladesh, the two big neighbours that have interests in Myanmar are China and India. China is the main patron of the Myanmar army, but also has close proximity with the Arakan Army. The fight is between two sides both close to China.
On the other hand, India probably does not have good relations with the Arakan Army. But India does keep contact with the non-state actors within Myanmar. Many of us in Bangladesh have been saying, since the formation of NUG and the rise of the Arakan Army, we too should forge alternative non-formal communications with these organisations. If Bangladesh had good contact with such sources, it could keep updated about the developments along the border. This would help in policy and decision making.
It has been too delayed now and the situation has taken a turn for the worse. Even so, it is imperative to set up communications with NUG and the Arakan Army. Security analysts feel that both China and India will oppose any such initiative. That may be so, but then our interests in Myanmar and the interests of these two powerful friends are different, has is proven.
Fifthly, talks are on with the military government about sending back the members of the Myanmar army who fled into Bangladesh, chased by the Arakan Army. It has been learnt that the military authorities have imposed death sentence on those who fled from the battlefield. That has nothing to do with Bangladesh, but still, we need to check if we are sending these people to the firing squad.
Finally, even though the Myanmar military is losing much ground to the opposing side, I still do not think this civil war will conclude with their complete defeat. Even amidst all uncertainties, there is a greater possibility of the conflict being assuaged at a certain stage over the discussion table, willingly or at the intervention of the powerful countries. Two sides in this discussion will be vital in determining the future of the Rohingyas -- NUG and the Arakan Army. NUG has made some important commitments regarding the Rohingyas. The Arakan Army does not have any such commitments, but they may have softened their stance in recent times. They had hinted that the Rohingyas may be absorbed into the Arakan administration in the future. Bangladesh needs to move forward, taking these indications into cognizance.
There is one question that I feel needs to be given particular attention. Will those who establish their dominance having fought so valiantly and making so many sacrifices, be willing to share the fruits of the victory with those who sat silently on the sidelines?
Two countries, China and the United States, will be pulling the strings at the negotiation table during future discussions. China has apparently hinted that it will assist in repatriation of the Rohingyas to Rakhine at the end of the civil war. It is difficult to say how credible this commitment is. However, no possibility should be dismissed. India will probably have a role to play too at the negotiating table. Quiet but strong diplomacy must be initiated immediately with these countries, as well as ASEAN countries, since they will probably also have a strong role in resolving the crisis. Bangladesh must remain unwavering in its objective for the Rohingyas to return with their rights and security to a possible new Myanmar.
* Md Touhid Hossain is 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