Myanmar’s reckless shelling inside Bangladesh’s territory in recent weeks has raised eyebrows. Whatever the motives and/or reasons, Bangladesh remains an independent and sovereign state. Hence, a man in a sovereign country like Bangladesh has died because of Myanmar’s internal conflict is utterly unacceptable. It is a serious violation of all kinds of international legal frameworks, writes NASHIR UDDIN
In recent weeks, Bangladesh’s ‘already porous’ border with neighbouring Myanmar has turned further restive. Bangladesh filed complaints with Myanmar’s military regime for conducting fighter jet and drone flights over its territory, and for using mortars and machine guns to fire across the border since August. At least 12 mortar shells have been fired reportedly in the meantime from Myanmar into Bangladesh territory. In the latest attack on September 16, three mortar shells were fired into Bangladesh from Myanmar between 8:15pm and 9pm – thereby killing a Rohingya man and wounding six others, who were later hospitalised. The intrusion of reconnaissance drones from Myanmar at night has created fresh tensions among the locals as Myanmar continued firing and shelling along the international border near Naikhyangchhari under Bangladesh’s hill district of Bandarban.
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In recent weeks, Myanmar has time and again blamed the Arakan Army and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army for recent unrest along the border with Bangladesh as Dhaka calls upon the international community to exert their influence to stop Naypyidaw’s unlawful border actions. As firing and mortar shelling continued to be heard from Ukhiya border under Cox’s Bazar that hosts over 1.1 million persecuted Rohingyas who fled a brutal military clampdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State back in 2017, the Bangladesh authorities warned the local boat owners of not carrying Rohingyas amid fear of their fresh entry. In view of the overall situation, Bangladesh completely sealed its border with Myanmar in order to foil any possible influx of Rohingya and kept both the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Coast Guard on alert along its land and water boundaries with Myanmar.
On September 23, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her speech at the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York aptly pointed to the recent infighting and unrest on the other side of Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar. She said the ongoing political turmoil and armed conflicts in Myanmar has made the repatriation of the
displaced Rohingyas more difficult. “I hope the UN will play an effective role in this regard,” she said, adding, “Uncertainty over repatriation has led to widespread frustration. Cross border organised crimes including human and drug trafficking are on the rise. This situation can potentially fuel radicalisation. If the problem persists further, it may affect the security and
stability of the entire region, and beyond other side of Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar. She said the ongoing political turmoil and armed conflicts in Myanmar has made the repatriation of the displaced Rohingyas more difficult. “I hope the UN will play an effective role in this regard,” she said, adding, “Uncertainty over repatriation has led to widespread frustration. Cross border organised crimes including human and drug trafficking are on the rise. This situation can potentially fuel radicalisation. If the problem persists further, it may affect the security and stability of the entire region, and beyond.”
HIGH ALERT ALONG THE RESTIVE BORDER
Bangladesh’s border guards said they always remain extra cautious about the Myanmar border. BGB Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Fayzur Rahman said one drone from Myanmar intruded into Bangladesh territory at night in the past week. “We have strongly objected to these activities with our counterpart in Myanmar,” he said, adding that border troops kept patrolling while the intelligence operatives were collecting information.
“We have set up some new checkposts of our BGB to beef up security along the border to halt any untoward incident and illegal exodus,” informed Bandarban Deputy Commissioner (DC) Yasmin Parvin Tibriji. Authorities also warned local people to stay alert and avoid unnecessary movement near the border areas in the wake of prevailing unrest.
Bandarban Superintendent of Police (SP) Tarikul Islam, too, said, “We have alerted our forces on the ground.” The Bandarban DC said the BGB is fully alert on the frontlines around the clock to avert any untoward incident. “We have discussed the issue with the local admin, law enforcement, BGB, and other relevant authorities. We have also informed the relevant government authorities,” she affirmed.
As per the government’s directives, she added, her administration has enlisted all borderline people so that they could be relocated in the case of an emergency. After sporadic firings and shelling along border and the killing of a Rohingya national on September 16, Bandarban district officials met with the local elected representatives and visited a number of local primary schools so that the locals could be moved to safety if the situation deteriorated further.
The Bandarban DC, donning a bulletproof vest and a helmet, together with the district’s SP and other government official have already visited the Rohingya camp along Konarpara’s border in which a recent attack left one youth killed and six others injured. Earlier on August 24, BGB Director General Major General Shakil Ahmed visited Bangladesh-Myanmar border areas and inspected operations, training and administrative activities of the personnel in Teknaf and Hnila of bordering Cox’s Bazar district.
ACTS OF PROVOCATION OR UNINTENTIONAL MISTAKES?
Although Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen on September 21 termed the incident of Myanmar’s recent mortar shelling inside Bangladesh as an ‘unintentional mistake’, speculations are rife as a section of the people across the country are of the belief that Myanmar is provoking its neighbouring Bangladesh. They are also of the view that Bangladesh should give a befitting reply to Myanmar.
While briefing journalists in New York on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s tour proceedings on the side-lines of the 77th United Nations General Assembly session, he said, “Myanmar authorities have said that they are not firing at the Bangladesh territory. The border of that area is crisscrossed. Sometimes it is difficult to understand the border, they are not firing intentionally inside our border, the one or two shells that have landed inside our border was accidental.”
Attending an event on September 19 evening in Dhaka, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said Bangladesh was yet to get a clear picture of the ground reality in Myanmar but he believed that the tensions along the border were a result of an internal crisis of Myanmar. “We are yet to know who Myanmar is fighting with or who it is firing at. We have heard that they [Myanmar] have hostility with their local ethnic armed group named Arakan Army (AA).”
But Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader said the government was assessing whether the shelling incidents were ‘acts of provocation.’ He said the Myanmar ambassador had earlier described the incidents as stray mortal shells landing in Bangladesh and promised steps against the recurrence of shelling. “As the same thing has happened again, the foreign ministry is reviewing the matter in the light of international laws and protocols,” he noted.
Asked whether there’s any act of provocation on Myanmar frontier, Chittagong University Professor Dr Nasir Uddin said, “Many people are saying that Myanmar is provoking us. We should give a strong response. But I do not think so.” He explains that there is no uncomfortable space in our diplomatic relations with Myanmar, except on the Rohingya issue. Even on the Rohingya issue, Bangladesh has an active relationship with Myanmar. Whenever the two countries hold meetings, Myanmar says that they will take the Rohingya back. Bangladesh entered the Rohingya repatriation agreement with Myanmar. Bangladesh is even now buying rice from Myanmar. “I don’t think it will be a wise decision to take an aggressive stand against Myanmar now. But we will have to keep our people safe.”
Meanwhile, Harvard University’s Asia Center fellow Anu Anwar said, “Examining the sequence of provocations — the firing of mortar shells and airspace violation and then the fresh firing of shells, these are Myanmar’s calculated provocations to test Bangladesh’s military capabilities in the event of a potential conflict. The risk of such a conflict has increased sharply in recent months.”
PANIC CREATED TO DETER REPATRIATION EFFORTS?
Many including the policymakers, diplomats and security analysts think that the recent unrest along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border has been created deliberately by the feuding forces in Myanmar in a frantic bid to hinder the much-awaited Rohingya repatriation process. Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina in her UN speech at the 77th General Assembly Session on September 23 in New York said the ongoing armed conflicts in Myanmar has made the repatriation of the displaced Rohingyas more difficult. Bangladesh’s Acting Foreign Secretary Rear Admiral (retd) Md Khorshed Alam, too, on September 20 said Myanmar is deliberately disrupting regional harmony to hinder and delay the Rohingya repatriation process.
Expressing his view on this, Chittagong University Anthropology Professor Dr Nasir Uddin, who has been closely following developments in Myanmar for years and has a publication titled ‘The Rohingya: An Ethnography of Subhuman Life,’ said, “I think these incidents will have a serious impact on the Rohingya repartion process. You know that the Rohingya launched a movement ‘We Want To Go Back Home.’ They wanted to go back to Myanmar. These incidents have increased the crisis of guaranteeing a safe life in Myanmar for the Rohingya. Now the situation in Rakhine is a war-like one. Why will the Rohingya want to go back?”
As a result, he thinks, this series of incidents will put the entire Rohingya repatriation process at risk. The Rohingya refugees generally do not want to go back home in Myanmar as they do not know where they will go, where they will live and who will give them security. The Rohingyas are feeling a grave sense of insecurity now – especially following the recent tension in the restive region along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
BANGLADESH’S DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS
Bangladesh has repeatedly said it wants diplomatic solutions to emerging problems arising along the porous Myanmar border. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dr AK Momen, when asked about the repeated cross-border shelling by the Myanmar army, said his country has no plan to involve in any war with its neighbour and that the prevailing crisis will be solved through diplomatic channels.
To this effect, Dhaka has already lodged strong protest with Naypyidaw by summoning Myanmar’s Ambassador to Bangladesh Aung Kyaw Moe four times in a month over ‘the intrusion of mortar shells, aerial firings and airspace violations from Myanmar causing death and injuries to the people inside Bangladesh territory’.
Bangladesh’s acting Foreign Secretary Rear Admiral (retd) Md Khorshed Alam briefed the ASEAN heads of missions on September 19 and apprised them of the current restive situation in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border areas. On September 20, he held a meeting with diplomats excluding the ASEAN envoys in Dhaka to express concern and protest the repeated violation of international law on Myanmar border.
The acting foreign secretary later said to journalists,
“We told the diplomats that Myanmar should not be allowed to destabilise the region and create obstacles to Rohingya repatriation. We do not want to give them any scope to make any excuse for not repatriating Rohingya people from Bangladesh.”
He urged the diplomats to take actions so that Myanmar’s internal conflicts do not create any pressure on Bangladeshis and do not cause instability in the region as well. He also informed the diplomats of the maximum restraints that Bangladesh was observing in the face of repeated provocations from Myanmar. The envoys sought clarifications on different aspects of the evolving situation in bordering areas over the past few days. The diplomats appreciated the Bangladesh initiative for keeping them informed of the developments in the restive border. The envoys took note of Bangladesh’s worries and assured of conveying Bangladesh’s concerns to their respective capitals, said a release issued by the foreign ministry.
Experts are of the view that whatever Bangladesh is doing currently is maintaining diplomatic norms, like summoning the Myanmar ambassador and expressing concerns and protesting the incident. Myanmar expert Professor Dr Nasir Uddin said, “Bangladesh’s foreign minister and foreign secretary have already said, and I also believe, that Bangladesh should take it to the United Nations officially.”
However, one thing is pretty clear that the Myanmar ambassador does only a clerical job. There is no meaningful or effective response. What Bangladesh as an affected country should do has been done already, and at the same time, the country will have to complain formally to the UN. “I believe it is a very important task for Bangladesh to take it to the international community,” he noted.
On the part of Myanmar, its Foreign Ministry on September 19 said that it informed the Bangladesh ambassador that the shells that landed on the Bangladeshi side were fired during attacks on border security posts by the AA and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group. It also reiterated its call for Bangladesh to investigate the AA and ARSA bases inside Bangladesh.
ROLE OF GLOBAL POWER PLAYERS, MULTILATERAL FORUMS
International power players like the USA along with its allies and multilateral forums like the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have certain roles to play before tension escalates further along the edgy Bangladesh-Myanmar border. On the part of Bangladesh, its Foreign Ministry on September 19 briefed the heads of missions from the ASEAN and apprised them of the current volatile situation along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Again on September 23, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina informed the global leaders at a high-profile UN meeting in New York that intensifying fighting inside Myanmar would jeopardise the process of sustainable Rohingya repatriation.
The UN and its functionaries on different occasions were seen condemning Myanmar actions in the past, although the global forum is yet to clearly denounce Myanmar excesses on border this time as of September 26. Meanwhile, ASEAN as a regional Association, of which Myanmar is a member, voiced its discontent with Myanmar’s junta as early as April 2021 during a summit in Jakarta. During the summit, the nine ASEAN leaders and Myanmar junta chief agreed to a ‘five-point consensus’: an immediate end to violence in the country; dialogue among all parties; the appointment of a special envoy; humanitarian assistance by ASEAN; and the special envoy’s visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties.
But the junta continues to defy each point. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah on September 19 said, “By the time we meet in November, we must ask that hard question [if the consensus is relevant] and we must have the answer during that time.” In yet another development, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has met with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on the side-lines of UN General Assembly, during which the High Commissioner said that he would visit Myanmar soon to assess the situation there when she raised the Rohingya repatriation issue as a sustainable solution to the crisis. The global power players and different multilateral associations should act more before it’s too late.
CHINA-RUSSIA FACTOR IN RESOLVING MYANMAR ISSUES
As trusted friends, both China and Russia have significant roles to play in helping Bangladesh resolve issues with Myanmar that cares its bordering big brother China more than any other world power. Bangladesh, no doubt, has very good bilateral relations with China and Russia too. Still, China seems to have an unmatched relation with and influence on Myanmar that no other country in the world has. As China’s biggest ally in the newest world order, Russia, too, looks to be growly leaning towards Myanmar as a regional partner in recent times.
As for example, one can note that no embassy representative from China took part when Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry held a meeting on September 20 with diplomats excluding the ASEAN envoys in Dhaka to express concern and protest the repeated violation of international law on Myanmar border. Russian ambassador, too, abstained from joining the important discussion. Analysts and experts, therefore, are of the view that even if Bangladesh takes the latest Myanmar case to the UN Security Council (UNSC), Russia and China out of the five permanent members will lean toward Myanmar by way of applying their veto power and resultantly UNSC won’t be in a position to take any decision whatsoever.
Despite this, analysts are of the view that Bangladesh should still raise the issue in the UN forum and go on to seek support from world powers like China and Russia along with others including the neighbouring India, over the developing situation as Myanmar’s military actions continue along border, causing damage to life and properties and putting thousands of Bangladeshi border people at risk. People on global front right now don’t know that someone inside Bangladesh border was killed. Hence, international community couldn’t react. But when it’ll be taken to the UN, the member states will be informed, a discussion will be held about it, and the UNSC may hold a meeting on this, which may pave the way for wider discussion with even greater international focus.
IS MILITARY DEPLOYMENT FEASIBLE?
As Bangladesh government held a high-level meeting on border security on September 18, acting Foreign Secretary Rear Admiral (retired) Md Khurshed Alam afterwards said the government put the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and the Coast Guard on alert, but no immediate plan was chalked out to deploy the Army.
“The BGB and the Coast Guard have been ordered to stay vigilant and to send necessary reinforcements if required,” he told the journalists. “As of now, we have prioritised blocking any fresh refugee seeking to enter Bangladesh territory through sea or land borders.” About military deployment, he said, “We have no immediate plan to deploy troops there.”
Experts, too, are of the opinion that military deployment can provoke a new clash. When asked about it, one analyst viewed, “We’ll have to reinforce the BGB and Coast Guards so that whatever happens in Myanmar, it does not spill over. When you deploy Army on the border, it will indicate a different meaning. If you deploy military on border, you will have nothing more to say before the international community.”
‘READY TO RESPOND’
Following the recent border upheaval, Bangladesh’s Home Affairs Minister on September 21 held a high-level meeting with security and law enforcement agencies at his secretariat office to discuss the situation on the Myanmar border. Following the closed-door meeting, he said the Army and other forces were ready to defend the country.
Chief of Army Staff General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed said his personnel are ready to respond if the Myanmar military does not stop firing across the border. He said he had sent his Myanmar counterpart a strong message complaining of junta forces’ shelling, shooting, and jet and drone flights after a Rohingya person was killed and a number of others were injured by shelling in the hilly Bandarban area.
According to him, he had established communication with his Myanmar military counterpart with the consent of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the country’s Defence Ministry, and sent a strong message to the corresponding side complaining of the feuding forces’ shelling, shooting and jet and drone flights. While attending a civil-military gathering, General Shafiuddin said the Myanmar army chief replied to him in writing, through the Defence Attaché, that the Myanmar military was not responsible for the incidents, and that a rebel group was to blame.
The Myanmar army chief, according to him, said a separatist group was trying to create tension in the border area. “They said it’s not being done by them…We are in close touch and we do not expect further deterioration of the situation. It will be peacefully solved,” he told the gathering, adding, “Should it be aggravating further, no worry, we are ready to respond to the situation.” At present, the Bangladesh forces are observing the situation along the Myanmar border and working to ensure peace between the two countries.
“We’re in contact with them (Myanmar). We’re taking necessary care,” said the Army chief in Dhaka on September 21. “We’re ready to respond when it’s needed. That’s for sure. I am in contact with all my stakeholders…”
As for closing remarks, it can be noted that Myanmar’s reckless shelling inside Bangladesh’s territory in recent weeks has raised eyebrows. Whatever the motives and/or reasons, Bangladesh remains an independent and sovereign state. Hence, a man in a sovereign country like Bangladesh has died because of Myanmar’s internal conflict is utterly unacceptable. Furthermore, Myanmar fighter jets flew and military choppers hovered along the Bangladesh territory on multiple occasions in recent times. Also, the Myanmar Border Police sporadically fired bullets and mortar shells inside Myanmar along the border. Using surveillance drones in recent days has only caused further concern. All these constitute a serious violation of all kinds of international legal frameworks. Such a restive reality has legitimately become a cause of serious concern for Bangladesh that sees the incident, be it intentional or accidental, as a threat to its sovereignty that can deteriorate the bilateral relations between the two neighbours. Ties between the two have already remained strained due predominantly to the irresolution on the Rohingyas’ safe and dignified repatriation.
Hence, the recent border violations are only the latest examples of Myanmar’s apparent disregard for the Bangladesh’s sovereignty, the bilateral relations between the two countries and peace in the region as a whole. Such disregard was also noted when Myanmar helicopters violated Bangladesh’s airspace a number of times in August-September 2017, which the Bangladesh authorities strongly protested. However, the repetition of such incidents suggests Myanmar’s continuous breach of international laws. It is also contrary to a good neighbourly relationship and can lead to unwarranted situations, which are not in the interests of any of these two and remaining regional countries.
While a stable and peaceful neighbour is always preferred and, in fact, necessary for any country, an unstable Arakan/Rakhine is a threat to a safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingyas with an unstable border posing as a threat to the people living there. It is, therefore, imperative that the Bangladesh authorities protest to its Myanmar counterparts and seek explanations on the mortar shells incident and see to it that such violation never happens again, for the interests of both countries and the region. Additionally, the Bangladesh author – ities must also officially inform the international and regional forums about the recent and earlier in – cidents of violation of international laws along the porous Myanmar
border. Finally, the government has to step up security measures along the BangladeshMyanmar border so that people living there feel safe and reassured.
Experts thinks as soon as the international commu – nity gets informed about the situation through fo – rums like UN and ASEAN, they will exert pressure on Myanmar. This has far more strategic implications other than diplomatic manoeuvring. Security ana – lysts termed Myanmar’s border advances a sort of desperation to destabilize the seeming stability in a bid to, what many believe, materialize hidden agen – da of Naypyidaw to linger the imminent Rohingya repatriation.
They have identified an apparent lack of responsible behaviour on part of a neighbouring nation like Myanmar, which has caused recent bor – der unrest. Harvard University’s Asia Center fellow Anu Anwar has some practicable ideas to defend Bangladesh’s cause, “In addition to diplomatic pro – tests, Bangladesh should render proportionate mili – tary response, reinforce its forces in the key strate – gic locations and strengthen its air defence system to secure its airspace.
Otherwise, the repeated en – croachments would create questions of territorial in – tegrity.” As for drones, surveillance gadget analysts said Myanmar used non-military-graded commercial drones, which could not be detected by Bangladesh’s radar system. “We are sure that Myanmar did not use tactical drones,” one such expert said and sug – gested that Bangladesh security forces should use drone-catcher nets to protect its skies.