Bangladesh pursues careful Myanmar policy

Bangladesh pursues careful Myanmar policy

The history of Myanmar is one of struggle with coups, military rule, religious persecution and ethnic conflict. The ongoing violence between the country's military and organised armed civilians is now leading the country to the verge of a full-blown civil war that is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Power shift and polarisation among major powers have made the country a new geopolitical flashpoint, which Bangladesh, its western neighbour, can no longer afford to ignore.

Myanmar has always been given priority in Bangladesh's economic and security strategy. As a democratic country, Bangladesh faces a moral dilemma in supporting a military government, but it has been strangely silent since Myanmar's generals overthrew the elected government in February last year. That cautious stance could be interpreted as siding with the military administration.

Although Dhaka called for upholding the democratic process and constitutional arrangements in Myanmar in its first and only statement, it has neither officially condemned the coup nor demanded the release of political detainees, including former state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Moreover, on the occasion of Myanmar's Independence Day, Bangladesh stated its commitment to work with its government to further strengthen their relationship. These moves underscore Dhaka's careful support for the junta's "one-Myanmar government" policy.

Dhaka's stand could reflect some very specific considerations. First, it finds its major strategic and development allies, such as China, India, Russia and Japan, are on the side of the Tatmadaw, as the army is known.

Second, it might be calculated that sanctions and condemnation, a typical western practice, are counterproductive in Myanmar as long as China and Russia continue to extend their diplomatic and military shields. Third, Bangladesh has a traditional policy of non-interference and peaceful coexistence, avoiding interfering in other countries' internal affairs.

Fourth, the previous National League for Democracy (NLD) government failed to do much to act on Dhaka's top priorities, such as connectivity, border security, or the Rohingya crisis. Fifth, the Bangladesh Army has long been seeking to develop closer relations with its Myanmar counterpart to tackle insurgency, arms smuggling, drug trafficking and other non-traditional security threats.

In short, Dhaka doesn't want to upset the Tatmadaw by taking part in a smear campaign that would not even address the country's core concerns.

Given the rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics, it is not strange to see key powers that wield meaningful leverage over Myanmar -- China, India, Russia and Japan -- aligning with the military in service of their own strategic narratives. They have already begun explicitly (or covertly) normalising relations with the Tatmadaw. This could give the military a chance to consolidate its grip on the country, as well as its diplomatic status and military position in the region.

So, Bangladesh, based on a rational calculation of interests, may think that aligning with the National Unity Government (NUG), a group of ousted politicians that holds no formal recognition from any foreign government, would have negative ramifications for bilateral ties.

STRATEGIC PRIORITIES

Of course, finding an early and sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis is a top priority issue for Bangladesh. But this has become complicated given the escalating violence involving various parties inside Myanmar.

Though Nay Pyi Taw has yet to make any genuine effort to secure conditions for Rohingya repatriation, Dhaka doesn't want to close the door to negotiations with the generals, keeping in mind that any attempt to solve the crisis without the active cooperation of the military would be futile.

Myanmar's 2008 constitution places the military in a central position in the political sphere with complete authority over the ministries of defence, home and border affairs. Furthermore, under the military regime, Bangladesh had the experience of repatriating Rohingya migrants twice, in 1978 and 1992, through discussion and diplomacy.

Bangladesh is also wary of the Arakan Army's growing control over Rakhine state as well as the resurgence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), which has been accused of murdering Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya human rights activist.

Arsa is believed to have a political agenda to prevent the Rohingya from returning home, prolonging the crisis. Bangladesh is also concerned about the Arakan Army's increasing administrative and judicial role in Rakhine, which might turn the state into a new conflict zone, risking a fresh wave of refugee migration or, at the very least, delaying the repatriation process.

Furthermore, given the persistent security crisis and proximity to the Golden Triangle, the 270-kilometre Bangladesh-Myanmar border is expected to become a hotspot for cross-border insurgencies and crimes. As a result, Bangladesh may consider that collaborating with the military administration is the only tactical option for tackling rising drug and arms smuggling as well as human trafficking.

Another main strategic objective of Bangladesh is its Look East policy, which seeks closer links with China and Asean countries via Myanmar. Bangladesh has also been eyeing joining the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway initiative.

MILITARY DIPLOMACY

Despite past strained ties, Bangladesh's military chiefs have traditionally paid goodwill visits to Myanmar, seeking to develop a more meaningful relationship from a security standpoint. Gen Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan and Gen Aziz Ahmed, former Bangladesh Army chiefs, visited Myanmar in 2014 and 2019, respectively, to find ways to cooperate in areas such as security dialogue, joint exercises and training, staff-to-staff meetings and intelligence sharing.

It is noteworthy that Bangladesh was among only eight countries that sent their defence attachés to attend the Myanmar Armed Forces Day parade in Nay Pyi Taw in March 2021, a month after the coup. It prompted Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader, to consider Dhaka as a potential ally.

The Tatmadaw's recent participation in meetings of Asean military intelligence and defence chiefs, as well as the Indian Navy's largest multilateral exercise, Milan 2022, along with those of the Quad members, may pave the way for other countries to adopt military diplomacy to address political and diplomatic concerns.

Bangladesh may believe that a high level of security engagement can help it address major challenges like the Rohingya crisis, insurgency, transnational crime and other non-traditional security threats.

In a nutshell, Bangladesh is trying to reorient its Myanmar policy in light of the regional power setting and the army's new rule in Nay Pyi Taw. Bangladesh now sees "consultative and constructive engagement" with Myanmar's military regime as a viable strategic choice to deal with its own topmost security concerns.

Parvej Siddique Bhuiyan is a security and strategic affairs analyst and has a Master's in International relations from Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka.

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