Although unbelievable, the fact remains that no ruler of Myanmar (formerly Burma) could ever rule the country establishing complete authority over nearly 700,000 square kilometres of land and 2,000 kilometres of coastal areas since its independence from Britain on January 4, 1948. In different regions of the country, especially in the remote, inaccessible and border regions, radical groups – even the independent revolutionary leaders established their authority and parallel rule challenging the central rule for last 75 years.
Due to excessive tribal dominance and illegal arms race, many areas in Myanmar had been isolated like enclaves. There are instances where the separatists have carried out activities like an established and formal government in terms of enacting own laws, regulating trade and commerce, collecting taxes and maintaining regional peace and order engaging own armed forces and undermining the hegemony of the central or government forces. At present, more than 20 small separatist groups are active in different mode and capacity throughout Myanmar, according to the Brussels-based non-political, non-profit and private organization International Crisis Group. Among these separatist groups, the ‘Karen National Union’ established in 1947 i.e. before independence, the ‘Cochin Independent Organization’ established in 1960 etc. were at the top of the discussion for various reasons. But lately, the names of the Arakan Army (AA) and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) have appeared at the foot of the news, overshadowing all previous discussions. Both are considered as fearsome armed groups in the whole world especially in the media of Bangladesh.
MYANMAR–BANGLADESH BORDER AND ROHINGYA ISSUE
Myanmar together with Bangladesh were both British colonies for a time. That being so, Muslims from both the countries migrated and made their journey to each other’s places. Majority of the Rohingyas of Rakhine State represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar. They claima long-standing connection to the Rakhine state and identify themselves as a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture. These claims were successively rejected by the Government of Myanmar, excluding the Rohingyas from the list of recognised 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar. The 1982 Citizenship law of Myanmar left the Rohingyas as stateless and rendered them illegal migrants in their own country. According to the new citizenship law, there were three categories of citizens: full, associated, and naturalized citizens. The Rohingyas don’t fulfil any of these three criteria. Thus, they became ethnic group in Myanmar and got restricted from marriage, traveling beyond their village or building as well as maintaining religious structures. In addition, they are subject to frequent forced labour, arbitrary taxation, and sexual violence and land confiscations by the earlier Border Security Force, known as NaSaKa, from the initials of its Burmese-language name, consists of officers from the police, military, customs and immigration.
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In 2000, Bangladesh RiflesBDR (the earlier name of Border Guards Bangladesh) had a major clash known as the Naf War with Burmese Border Security Forces (NaSaKa) and the Myanmar Army. Despite several letters between BDR and NaSaKa, Myanmar did not stop construction work of dam on Zero Line over the river Naf. According to various sources, Myanmar was forced to stop the construction work and few hundred Myanmar combatants were killed in the three-day conflict. Troops participated in this war were later awarded with “Naf Padak” by the Bangladesh Government.
In August 2006, NaSaKa ordered eight Rohingya Muslim communities in Rathedaung Township, Rakhine State, to close their religious centres, including 5 mosques, 4 madrassahs, 18 moqtobs (premadrassahs), and 3 hafez khanas (Qur’an reciting centres). Later, local authorities allowed two madrassahs to reopen. NaSaKa ordered the closures because it stated that the institutions were not officially registered.
Clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in June and October 2012 killed at least 192 people and displaced 140,000. Most victims were Rohingya and the majority of those remain in camps. There were huge international criticism and pressure against such brutality. In the mid of 2013, Myanmar’s then President Thein Sein disbanded NaSaKa, accused of rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in the west of the country, scene of deadly violence between Muslims and majority Buddhists in the past year.
On the other hand, in the process of stabilizing the situation, central government raised Border Guard Forces (BGF) as subdivisions of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) consisting of former insurgent groups in Myanmar under the instruction of Regional Military Commands. The government announced its plan to create Border Guard Forces in April 2009, in the hopes of ending hostilities between the government and insurgent groups leading up to the 2010 general election. In 2008, the new constitution made it mandatory for insurgent groups to transition into a BGF before the government would agree to engage in peace talks. Following the official announcement on BGFs, the government set a deadline for all insurgent groups to transition into BGFs, and that all ceasefire agreements prior to the deadline would become “null and void”. The deadline was originally set to be June 2009, but was delayed five times until September 2010.
In 2009, four of the insurgent groups, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Kachin Defence Army (4th Brigade of the KIA), the New Democratic Army – Kachin (NDA-K) and the Pa-O National Organisation/Army (PNO/A), accepted the transition plan’s terms and transformed into BGF groups. On 20 August 2009, Tatmadaw soldiers and recently transitioned BGF groups gathered outside the town of Laukkai, Kokang, in preparation for an attempt to recapture the town from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), after they refused to transform into a BGF. The Kayin State BGF was formed in August 2010 with 13 battalions—12 from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and one from the Karen Peace Front (KPF). The government changed its aggressive stance towards BGFs and ceasefires on 18 August 2011. The 8th President of Myanmar, Thein Sein (30 March 2011 – 30 March 2016) pledged to “make the ethnic issue a national priority” by offering open dialogue between the government and all insurgent groups, without the BGF requirement.
GEO-POLITICAL DIVISIONS AND MILITARIZATION
Myanmar is divided into seven states (pyine) and seven divisions (yin). The Divisions are Ayeyarwady, Bag, Magway, Mandalay, Sagaing, Tanintharyi and Yangon. The States are Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Karen, Kayah, Karenni, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. It is also one of the rare countries that shares international boundary trough rough terrain with 5 different countries. Most of its states and divisions are attached to one or more neighbouring countries. The total length of the Myanmar Bangladesh boundary is 271 kilometres (168.7 miles). It consists of two parts, namely the Naaf River boundary 64 kilometres (39.5 miles) and the land boundary 208 kilometers (129.2 miles). The total length of Myanmar-China boundary is 2204 kilometers (1370 miles); Myanmar-Thailand 2107 kilometers (1309.8 miles); Myanmar-India 1338 kilometers (831.8 miles); and Myanmar-Laos 238 kilometers (147.9 miles). BGFs is a dominating force in few of the bordering states but Border Guard Police (BGP) is the main Border Security Force deployed at Rakhine State that shares border with Bangladesh. BGP is widely discussed and criticised by media for its heinous activities along the Bangladesh–Myanmar border. In addition to border security, the BGP are also responsible for manning checkpoints and documenting the movement of Rohingyas within Rakhine State. This force is blamed for exodus of Rohingya people fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar.
The 2008 Constitution gives the military full control over Myanmar’s police and all other para military forces. As such, the border police is a subsidiary of the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs now. In November 2022, High-level border conference between Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Myanmar’s Border Guard Police (BGP) took place at Nay Pyi Taw, the third largest city of Myanmar. High-ranking military officers and other key officials live in a complex said to consist of tunnels and bunkers constructed 1 km (6.8 mi) away from regular government employees. This area is restricted to the public. The city also hosts a military base, which is inaccessible to citizens or other personnel without written permission. BGP established its Headquarters in this military base and carryout operations under military framework.
AN INSIGHT INTO MYANMAR BORDER GUARD POLICE (BGP)
Various study reveals that BGP is frequently considered as separate force of Myanmar’s police specialised in border security but operationally remains under regional military command. In the aftermath of attacks on border guard police outposts in Maungdaw during October 2017, in which 9 police officers were killed and large amount of ammunition was seized, BGP’s top most Commander Police Brig-Gen (PBG) Maung Maung Khin was replaced by new Police Brig-Gen (PBG) Thura San Lwin.
A military man said “They ordered me to torture, loot and kill innocent people…. we were ordered to round up all the men and shoot them dead,” he says. “The saddest thing was we had to kill el- derly people and a woman.”
Recent Myanmar Border Guard Police force chief, Police Brigadier General Htet Lwin, is a former military officer, and his predecessors, Brig-Gen Maung Maung Khaing and Brig-Gen Thura San Lwin, are also ex-military. Under the BGP force Headquarter, there are sectors which control the battalions on borders being commanded by police Lieutenant Colonels (LTC). Each BGP battalion’s strength is similar to any standard military battalion around the world, i.e. about 800. Considering threat perspective, additional manpower is frequently reinforced as and when required. Though mostly commanded by Police LTC and Police Brigadiers on ground, mid ranking officers and operational commanders usually hail from the military. 51 officers from the ranks of Captain to LTC were transferred to the border force from the army in October 2020. The cabinet approved the transfers. Those transferred would retain the same rank in the border police, said an announcement.
“Not just officers but also many corporal and sergeants have been transferred from the military to the police.”Maj-Gen Zaw Min
Military Spokesman of Burmese Army
Over 20 billion kyats (US$5.7 million) from the presidential emergency fund was allocated in 2019 alone to improve border security, including the procurement of security equipment, border fencing, fencing at police stations and police outposts in Rakhine State. Border Patrols of Myanmar are now seen moving with sophisticated Global Positioning System (GPS) for navigation. Most of there arms are China made while Russian weapons are also noticed. At border level, G-3 Rifles, Light Machine Guns, Machine Guns and 60mm Mortars are being carried by BGP troops.
BGP commanders are frequently blamed for losing of controls over the troops consisting of army, police, paramilitary forces like Ansars of Bangladesh and few other organizations. Officially BGP troops are trained at Region Headquarters and Force Headquarter Level. But the training, which is imparted for disciplined and regulated combat life was always missing among the BGP troops. Many a times they live on the ground and collect food items forcefully from the villagers. Extortion from the locals are common phenomenon among the low paid BGP members. Names of few Corporals were also included in the ban list of International Community for their involvement in crime against the humanity. BBC report published on 22 Nov 2022 highlighted that soldiers in the Myanmar have admitted to killing, torturing and raping civilians in exclusive interviews with the BBC. For the first time they have given detailed accounts of widespread human rights abuses they say they were ordered to conduct. A military man said “They ordered me to torture, loot and kill innocent people…. we were ordered to round up all the men and shoot them dead,” he says. “The saddest thing was we had to kill elderly people and a woman.”
ROHINGYA SEPARATIST MOVEMENT AND AFTEREFFECTS
In the 1970s, Rohingya separatist movements emerged from remnants of the previously active armed groups. In the 1990s, the well-armed Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) was the main perpetrator of attacks on Burmese authorities near the Bangladesh–Myanmar border. The Burmese government responded militarily with Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, but failed to disarm the RSO. In October 2016, Burmese border posts along the Bangladesh– Myanmar border were attacked by a new insurgent group, Harakah al-Yaqin, presently known as The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), resulting in the deaths of at least 40 combatants. It was the first major resurgence of the conflict since 2001. Violence erupted in November 2016, bringing the death toll to 134 and again on 25 August 2017, when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (formerly Harakah al-Yaqin) launched coordinated attacks on more than 24 police posts and an army base that left 71 dead. History reveals that, in 2009, a group of displaced youths, with the help of the Cochin Independent Army, quickly formed an armed force in northern Myanmar called the Arakan Army. After five years of preparation, in 2014, the armed fighters of the Arakan Army entered Rakhine State and steadily increased their dominance and control. Since then, the Arakan Army has been involved in continuous conflict with the central government and government forces. In the name of war against such armed groups like ARSA or AA, BGP carried out atrocities in Rohingya villages one after another.
At the end of 2016, the Rohingya Muslims began to seek refuge in Bangladesh because they could not survive the persecution of the Myanmar army and BGP. However, on August 25, 2017, this level peaked. There are proven records that the military junta has carried out systematic abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, burning of houses and sexual violence, that amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. In 2017, the 37-page report of Human Rights Watch titled “‘All of My Body Was Pain’: Sexual Violence Against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma,” documented the Burmese military’s gang rape of Rohingya women and girls and further acts of violence, cruelty, and humiliation. Even the latest (2023) report of Human Rights Watch, narrates that in Rakhine State, restrictions on movement and supply of humanitarian aids affected ethnic Rohingya camps and villages and multiplied water scarcity, food shortages, preventable diseases and malnutrition. Escalating hostilities between the Arakan Army and BGP backed by the Myanmar Military resulted in Rohingya and Rakhine civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests, and displacement.
Surprisingly Myanmar government claims that, Rohingya Muslims are the members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and other separatist organizations which are attacking and indiscriminately killing Myanmar army, border guards, police, administrative officials and Buddhists. This conflict escalated in 2018 too. Both sides suddenly implemented a ceasefire in 2020 which ultimately led to a loosening of central rule in Rakhine State and created a vacuum in several areas. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the Arakan Army further increased its influence in the entire Rakhine state. On April 11, 2020, on the 11th anniversary of the founding of the Arakan Army, Major General Towan Mrat Nying, the Chief of the Army, released a vision titled ‘Way of Rakhitah’. According to this scenario, the Arakan Army’s main objective was the establishment of an independent Arakan State, which existed until 1824 and ruled a large part of western Myanmar.
Meanwhile, on 01 February 2021, Myanmar’s military junta overthrew the ruling National League for Democracy and seized state power and imprisoned Nobel laureate State Counsellor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Voluntary movements and protests against this military regime took place across the country. The military junta removed the Arakan Army from the list of separatist organizations it created in March. It was an attempt to develop ties with the Arakan Army as a strategy to curtail the movement and reduce and divide all anti-junta forces. Interestingly, Rakhine State was kept out of the 2020 national elections on the pretext of deteriorating security and law and order. This further reduced the Centre’s influence in Rakhine State. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the Rakhine Army’s political wing, the United League of Arakans (ULA), established a judicial system in a large part of the state by appointing salaried judges and the necessary manpower to conduct judicial work. On the other hand, the Arakan Army’s activities in the Rakhine State’s health sector, especially health management during Covid-19, were noteworthy. As a result, the Arakan Army established control over the administration, finance, trade, in a word, everything in the state. Arakan Army also acknowledged the issue of 1 million Rohingya Muslims, who left their homes and took refuge in Bangladesh as refugees in the context of killing, murder, rape and arson in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Bangladesh was once again concerned with the firing and shelling at Bangladesh – Myanmar Border since mid of September 2022. Local news agencies reported that shots were fired along with mortar shells in Myanmar border area of Ghumdhum in Naikhongchhari upazila of Bandarban setting panic among the locals. People in the border area of Konarpara in Tumbru reported that several mortar shell explosions were heard inside Myanmar on Saturday (17 September 2022) morning. Against such reports, Government controlled media of Myanmar narrated that The State Administration Council is endeavouring to achieve eternal peace by inviting ethnic armed organizations to the talks for eternal peace. Meanwhile, the AA ignored the invitation to peace talks and attacked the border police outposts near MyanmarBangladesh border posts with excessive force. In this regard, on 16 September, the AA launched attacks with cooperation from the ARSA from a certain distance on the Taungpyo Latwal (left) police outpost near BP-31 between Myanmar and Bangladesh using small and heavy arms and three shells fell into the Bangladesh side and three exploded. On 17 September, they also attacked again the Taunggyi Latyar (right) police outpost near BP-34 using heavy weapons and six shells fell and exploded in the territory of Bangladesh. Myanmar Media also endorsed that some people near the Bangladesh border area were injured after the explosion of mortar shells and added that Myanmar Government is making all-round efforts to achieve eternal peace despite the attacks by the AA with ARSA on border guard polices, who are conducting security measures in order to maintain peace, stability and the rule of law along the the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Media specifically mentioned that the AA committed ambush attacks on the border police and blocked and cut communication channels. On 31 August, they attacked the border guard police outposts at BP-40 with excessive force at their surprise. Consequently, the outpost was lost, and some border guard members sacrificed their lives in the attack.
Various reports say many Rohingyas are trying to infiltrate afresh in addition to more than one million Rohingyas who already crossed into Bangladesh territory. News of token migration to the USA and opportunity of immigrating to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the Royal (Saudi) blessing might be attracting more Rohingyas to take shelter in Bangladesh. The present Government of Bangladesh in general and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in particular has set utmost example of humanity not only by sharing space for their shelters but also by offering other basic needs like food and medicine. But response from the international community and effective measures to resolve the crisis had been frustrating. Besides humanitarian assistance, The UN and other International Organizations were expected to exert more effective pressure and influence on Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas, the only way to solve the problem. It may be recalled that Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement in November 2017 to facilitate the return of Rohingya refugees but the accord did not deliver desired results. Countries like China, Turkey, and the USA are also augmenting its influence in Rakhine Province as well as in Bangladesh by assisting in different way. China, which wants to keep foreign powers away from the Rakhine state, is silently trying with Myanmar and Bangladesh to solve the refugee problem amicably may be with a hidden motive of enhancing its influence and keeping other big powers away from both the countries. There are blames against a large number of NGOs, working with the Rohingyas, for having Islamic extremist leanings and inculcate radicalism in them. Indian media reported that ARSA was formed by a Pakistani residing in Saudi Arabia and targeting Rohingyas living below the poverty line in Myanmar as well as in Bangladesh as their active armed member. As such Rohingyas are vulnerable and likely to be exploited by Islamic extremists. The Islamic State (IS), which has put a massive hate material on the Internet, was able to recruit a few Rohingya Muslims who went to Syria and Iraq to fight in conjunction with the IS. There are also reports that the IS and the lashkar-e-Tayyeba are trying to recruit Rohingyas while the Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent has also supported the Rohingyas. If international community fails to arrest the situation and existing stalemate in Rohingya repatriation continues further, there could be situation beyond the control of Military Juntas of Myanmar even.
Regardless of the counterfactual, there is no denying that humanity has ultimately been defeated in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The war that Myanmar’s Junta is waging today is unwinnable. Rather, both sides will have to hunt and bear massive war losses. And the biggest defeat will be incurred by the general Rohingya people, including innocent women, children and the elderly. Rohingya Crisis is also taking heavy toll on the environment. Rohingya`s are significantly affecting natural resources including soil, agricultural land, and surface and groundwater. According to a finding, 3918 acres natural and 1879 acres man-made forest coverage was damaged due to Rohingya refugees sheltering in the Bangladesh area. Study further finds that 42% of the refugees living in the Kutupalong sheltering area in the boarder are directly dependent on the forest for cooking wood of 1411 tons/day. There is no exaggeration in saying that Rohingyas are not only burning cooking woods but gradually burning the hopes for a peaceful world day by day.